Elat Chayyim, for me, is like Miriam's Well, which (midrash teaches) followed our ancestors in the wilderness. The well contained such mayimei chayyim (living waters) that drinking from it nurtured both body and soul; it conferred Torah wisdom and insights, quenching thirst in all four worlds at once. I've just returned from a week-long Elat Chayyim retreat, and as usual, I feel steeped in tradition and enlivened by my learning.
I had three purposes in going on retreat.
One was the pleasure of returning and dipping into that well. The
second was Reb
Shaya Isenberg's course
Spiritual Wisdom: A Course in Deep Ecumenism. Thirdly, last week
was a gathering-time for those involved with Aleph's various
ordination programs, and I wanted to meet the rabbinic students and the other prospective applicants who were there.
This post is quite long (over seven thousand words) so read at your leisure. Herein you'll find class notes, conversational anecdotes, descriptions of the various prayer services, and (come Friday afternoon) a story about jumping in a river, among other things...
Three classes ran last week: Lev Shomea ("the listening heart," a spiritual direction course which will meet four times over the course of two years), DLTI (the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute, a program designed to teach prayer-leading skills, which similarly meets repeatedly over two years; this was their third session out of four), and the Deep Ecumenism class. We were about ninety people altogether, including the dozen or so longterm residents in the Elat Chayyim intentional community.
The retreat began Monday evening, with dinner and then the first meetings of each of the classes and programs. Notes from my class are between sets of asterisks, and my clarifications and comments are [inside brackets.] As in my previous retreat reports, please understand that this is not a comprehensive write-up of the class -- these are bits culled from my notebook, not transcripts of our conversations.
Notes from the first class session, Monday night
We live in a time in which communication between religions is possible as never before. We're going to be talking about what it means to do paradigm shift on interreligious relations. War is an interreligious relation, though arguably not a very good one! It's an early paradigm, a paradigm of ethnocentrism motivated by fear of extinction. In contrast with that comes a kind of shallow ecumenism which involves civil interactions, in which we agree that we each have something to bring to the table (but secretly we each assume that our own path is best.) What we're interested in here is a third kind of interreligious relationship, one which goes deeper.
We need the best of what each religion has in order to make our human situation livable. So the question becomes, "what do we have to contribute to redeeming the world? What do we have to learn from others?" Think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama calling the Jews in for a consult.
We need to be thinking in hyphens, and confronting what's scary for us about that.
There's a world necessity for the Mother Teresas, the Rumis, the Rav Kooks to come together and collaborate. Religion is where humanity does its spiritual work, the good and the bad; religion is a treasure trove of 'upaya, the means for transformation.
Reb Zalman has said "I can't get all of my vitamins from one source." (Why else was I born into a world with so many spiritual goodies?) So one question becomes, how can we tell what is, and what isn't, good spiritual food for us? Even within one's own tradition there may be teachings which aren't good food for us at certain times. How do we make those determinations? Your homework for tonight: consider your response to the statement, "God isn't Jewish."
After the first class meeting, we dashed to ma'ariv, evening prayer. That was the first difference between this week and my previous retreats there; usually weekday evening prayer is not part of the program, and afternoon prayer tends to be organized by participants on an ad-hoc basis. But because DLTI was in session, prayer services happened thrice daily, and all services were led by the students in DLTI. (For the record, I like their work so much that I'm planning to enroll in DLTI when it opens up again next summer -- and so are at least three of the other prospective rabbinic students I befriended...)
After Monday evening ma'ariv I sat in the dining hall with two other rabbinic program applicants, Adriane and Jeremy. Both have been the sole spiritual leaders of their congregations for seven years (she's a JTS-trained cantor, he's an exceptionally competent layman) and both are now hoping to pursue smicha (ordination) via Aleph. We drank tea and talked about our respective journeys.
And there was evening, and there was morning.
The alarm went off at six-thirty; by seven I was in the living room of the great hall, ready for shacharit (morning services). As we prayed we were accompanied by a fiddle, and guitar, and several people spontaneously drumming. It was a special morning for me because it was my first chance to lay tefillin b'tzibbur (in community). Though I've been using them regularly since David gave them to me in March, my shul doesn't have a weekday minyan, and tefillin are not worn on Shabbat (because, the theory goes, Shabbat is already sacred time -- involves heightened consciousness, if you will -- so the tefillin aren't necessary then). So I got to say a shehecheyanu for my first time putting on tefillin with other people!
A little teaching from that service: the incense offered at the Temple in days of old was an admixture of sweet spices and sticky stuff (fats and whatnot, some sources say 19%). If we can release our own sticky stuff, we'll have 19% more room for the healing we need...
After breakfast that morning, and after we chanted a brief round (which served as our birkat ha-mazon, grace after meals), Mia sent us on our way with, "May all be fed, may all be nourished, may all be loved." I like that.
Notes from Tuesday morning's class
In so many religions there's the notion of dual kinds of consciousness: what Judaism calls mochin d'katnut, small mind, and mochin d'gadlut, big mind.
On this "God is not Jewish" idea -- God is pareve, is tofu! And God "gods" Jewishly, Christianly, Muslimly, and so on.
One mystical teaching goes: first there was only God. And then a ratzon arose, a will/desire, to create -- some say, to be known; others say, to tell stories. So God created the universe out of God. And what we see, what we know as reality, is God "godding" -- God gods as me, as you, as the table. Our task is to recognize that, to live in that recognition.
"Realizing that God isn't Jewish is like learning there's more to my father than I knew -- it frees me to relate to God in different ways."
To get to the "we" of relationship, we have to get beyond individual ego.
[We talked here about "Deep Ecumenism," the transcript of Reb Zalman's teaching on this subject from 1998. He begins by talking about angels, about the Jewish notion that there are angels which act to protect different peoples, about the angel of the Jews and the angel of the Tibetans meeting in Dharamsala, about the notion in Talmud and Zohar that every blade of grass has an angel urging it to grow, about angels as morphogenic fields.]
I know my subjectivity in part because I live in an intersubjectivity. That intersubjectivity, that collective consciousness, is an angel. Every "we" is an angel, a consciousness, a between.
We clothe God in partzufim (lit. "masks," archetypes or paradigms or metaphors). When we call to God as avinu malkeinu ("Our father, our king") God manifests as what we call for. We need to consciously create partzufim, to call new manifestations into being, which speak to us. Maybe we compost old partzufim to help us grow new ones.
Different parts of Judaism relate to different partzufim (and different religions, also, relate to different faces of God). And yet God is godding in all of these ways, all of these places.
Most of the time [in ecumenism]...we [Jews] operate like this. "Our ought is so holy, so beautiful, look at how low their is reality is. It doesn't measure up to our ought." They reciprocate, and some Protestant Christians say, "ours is a religion of grace, yours is a religion of works."...In order for the dialogue to go right, we have to talk is to is, ought to ought. -- Reb Zalman
Is to is, ought to ought -- these are levels of consciousness. In a sense, "is" is often katnut, small mind; "ought" is gadlut, expanded mind.
[We spent a while on Tuesday talking about the integral theory that Ken Wilber poses in A Theory of Everything, especially his rainbow tiers-of-consciousness paradigm. He suggests -- in a nutshell -- that consciousness exists on several levels, which he color-codes, and which manifest both on an individual level and a communal level. This was one of our frameworks for talking about the preconditions for religious dialogue.]
Think of the dialectic Jung poses: in relationships, the first stage is
fusion (falling in love obsessively, or early parent/child).
Then comes differentiation, separation, which can be painful but is necessary. Then, ideally, comes integration -- ready to relate
in a new way, creating a new 'we.' This holds for religions too;
we can be stuck in fusion states of religion, the need to identify fully
with one's own way of doing religion. Radical change usually follows.
If we're lucky, we wind up with integration.
A question to ask ourselves: are we approaching religious stories and teachings -- our own, and those of others -- from a [Wilberian] blue level [obsessed with the mythic order, absolute right and wrong, rigid social hierarchy] or from a higher level?
The higher one goes, on the Wilberian scale, the less narcissism and ethnocentrism one will manifest.
We closed class with a niggun, as usual, and then headed for lunch. (All that thinking makes a body hungry!) After lunch I sat for a while with several prospective rabbinic students, with Reb Marcia, and with a current student named Elisheva, who talked about the program and its strengths and weaknesses from her perspective. She talked about what it's like to have both a director of studies (chief advisor in an academic sense) and a mashpi'a (spiritual director, advisor in a spiritual sense), and about her work, and about how she's structured the program to make it work with her life.
Afterwards I read for a while in the sun, and then sat in the room with Judith and Zoe talking about our lives, our emotional landscapes, and all kinds of other good stuff.
Then came mincha,
afternoon services. This was the one service
of the day when the DLTI folks sequestered themselves, so Reb Shaya
decided to use it as the "lab" for our ecumenism class. Each
weekday afternoon we had a different kind of "ecu-mincha," an afternoon
service drawing on a different tradition's practices and worldview. That
day we did a Buddhist-style mincha.
Traditionally, mincha involves very little: the ashrei (a psalm of thanksgiving), sometimes the shema (declaration of God's oneness), the amidah (central standing prayer), the aleinu (closing prayer which ends with an expression of hope for the redemption of creation) and an optional mourner's kaddish. As that day's ashrei, we sat meditation for a while, focusing on something we each felt gratitude for. Before the shema Reb Shaya read us a quote from the Dhammapada, "Better than a meaningless story of a thousand words is a single word of deep meaning which, when heard, produces peace," which led into a shema meditation. As our silent amidah we did a silent metta (Buddhist lovingkindness practice) meditation: first we read the prayer
"May all beings be happy, content, and fulfilled.
May all beings be healed and whole.
May all have whatever they want and need.
May we all be protected from harm, and free from fear.
May all beings enjoy inner peace and ease."
and then we did a meditative practice seeking to confer the blessings of shalom (peace/wholeness), simcha (joy), refuah
(healing), ahava (love), and "whatever is best" on ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.
Reb Shaya closed the mincha by giving us a prayer-homework assignment: to do our best to begin the next morning with "modah ani," the gratitude prayer, and to be sure that when we say it we're really focusing on feeling thankful! Saying that blessing without feeling it, he said, is a "wasted bracha," like saying the hamotzi without actually eating bread. (I've actually been cultivating this practice since my first Elat Chayyim visit three years ago, so that was kind of neat...)
After mincha came dinner. The group at my table talked about singing, services, smicha, food, pickling, coursework -- all kinds of things. Singing another short grace-after-meals left me delighted at how often (and effortlessly) the Elat Chayyim community breaks into multipart harmony.
At evening services, the leaders wore white (as we do on Shabbat), and they began with a Shabbat niggun -- very odd indeed. Of course, there was method to their madness. They told a story about two Hasids who made Shabbat on a Tuesday -- set a Shabbat table, dressed in Shabbat clothes, sang Shabbat songs -- and who found themselves swept up in Shabbat consciousness. They became worried that maybe this meant their Shabbat observance wasn't meaningful, was created by external things. So they went to their rebbe, who assured them that they shouldn't fret: the fact that they could draw down Shabbat consciousness on any day of the week was a blessing, not a sign of shallow practice! Just so, we worked on creating a spot of Shabbat consciousness even though it was only Tuesday. Cool, huh?
And there was evening, and there was morning.
We began morning services by singing "modah ani" (the prayer for gratitude) to the tune of "Dodi Li," which was really neat. One of that morning's prayer leaders took us on a guided meditation into the creation of incense for Temple offerings. Also noteworthy that morning was a fabulous chant, rhythm and voice and drums, riffing on "Adonai elohechem emet" ("Your God is a true God") from the end of the shema.
Notes from Wednesday's class
[We began with the story of Nan-in and the overfilled teacup, which I learned at the very beginning of my study of karate all those years ago!]
The Kotzker rebbe asked, "Where is God?" And his answer: "Wherever I make space to let God in."
How does this relate to the Buddhist idea of shunyata/emptiness: when we empty ourselves we become like all things.
(Sufi poem: "Where I am, You cannot enter; Where You are, I cannot enter.")
Ego needs to be poured out to make room for the Beloved, for connection with our Source. On this Judaism and Sufism are aligned, and there's resonance with Buddhism also.
Wilber would say that religions truths lie in our areas of overlap.
Sufis and kabbalists share fascination with names of God.
[Some talk about the practice of zikr, which shares a root with the Hebrew word zecher, remembrance.] In Sufism, as in Hasidism, some teachers argue that movement is critical to prayer, while others argue that the movement should be all internal.
In Sufism, as in Hasidism, we access divine qualities via divine Names.
The focus in Sufism is toward the One. Our experience of difference, of not being part of the One, is ultimately delusion. (How does this relate to the Jewish mystical notion of devekut, cleaving or unity?)
To be human is to have the possibility of union, Oneness, devekut -- but we're not always there, we can't be! We wouldn't want somebody immersed in devekut, for instance, driving a car.
God as Beloved. Other, also, as Beloved.
We Sufis are lovers of beauty. Because we have renounced the world it does not mean that we should look miserable. But neither do we want to stand out and attract undue attention... We behave like others, we dress like others. We are ordinary people, living ordinary lives. We will always obey the law of the land in which we live; but in reality we are beyond the laws of men, for we obey only the laws of God. We surrendered somewhere: we are completely free! -- Irina Tweedie, quoted in Essential Sufism, ed. Fadiman and Frager
[We paired off to discuss this quote for a while, and here's where I wound up: first, it's worth noting that Islam means surrender. True freedom in Islam comes through surrender to God -- which is strikingly similar to the Jewish notion that freedom reaches its fullest flower in covenant, in taking on obligation and connection.]
[The other interpretation I came up with is, the "law of the land" could refer to ordinary consciousness, to the physical world in which we appear to be bounded and separate; but in truth the Sufi lives under the law of God, in heightened consciousness, in the all-is-God unity of the world of essence.]
For many Buddhists, the mind is the first step -- we clear it, in order to reach compassion. For ecstatic Sufis, the mind is a hindrance; the heart is all.
For the deep ecumenist, God is more important than halakha, sharia, dharma.
After lunch, I spent the early part of the afternoon sitting under a tree, reading and writing and taking in the world around me. To my right, a group of DLTI students clustered together, planning an upcoming service, singing snatches of melody and talking about the imperative to cultivate joy through serving God. It struck me that there's something really cool about being able to spend a week with other people who find these ideas, and these conversations, important. What does it mean to serve the All with joy? What kind of practice does that entail, and what does it cultivate in us?
After some conversations and a brief swim, I headed to mincha -- this time, Sufi-style! We did three kinds of zikr, remembrance practice using Names of God. First, the "audience" part -- just listening -- in which we got ourselves in the right mood by listening to "Hallelu Avdey Adonai," an acrostic praise-song that lists an alphabet of God's names and attributes, sung to an Iraqi melody. Then, a seated zikr practice using the shema as our focus, breathing and chanting and moving with the words, which left me feeling tingly and jazzed. Finally, a standing zikr, holding hands and moving in a circle as we chanted.
That evening, a friend commented that many of us spend our spiritual
lives eating oatmeal -- filling, but not very exciting -- and that a
first visit to
Elat Chayyim is like being introduced to Ben and Jerry's!
The question, of course, is what to do when we return home to oatmeal.
(My response is, we spice up the oatmeal -- add some raisins, some nuts,
Just before evening prayer, we were gathering in the living room with the huge windows, and somebody noticed the tiniest edge of orange full moon rising over the distant ridge. Next thing I knew we were all standing before the window, arms around each other, singing "Erev Shel Shoshanim" ("Evening of Roses," a beautiful Israeli folksong) in multi-part harmony to the spectacular rising moon. To their credit, that evening's prayer leaders didn't try to drag us away to the place where our chairs were set up; instead, they segue'd right into ma'ariv there before the windows, praying as we watched the moon rise.
Elisheva began the service by talking about how ma'ariv is a time of liminality: mixing day and night, light and darkness. Wednesday evening ma'ariv mixes last Shabbat and next Shabbat, in a way -- the moment hovers in between. And we sang the ahavat olam prayer (focusing on God's love for us) to the same folksong melody.
I came away wishing I could drag my heels, brake the week, slow our coasting to Shabbat and the retreat's inevitable end -- but of course I can't. We can't. And that's part of the point, and part of what I hope I am learning from our friend Dick's passing only a few weeks ago -- that we get the time we get, and it's incumbent upon us to make as much as we can out of it.
In our room that evening I asked Judith about the nusach (melody system) we'd been using all week -- the services kept returning to the same melodic feel, the same scale or mode (more-or-less like this). Turns out it's the traditional weekday nusach! I knew there was such a thing, but I'd never actually davvened it before -- since, like many Jews these days, I learned the liturgy on Shabbat, the melodies I know are the Shabbat ones, not the ones for weekday use. I'm a big enough liturgy geek (and music geek) to think it's cool that we have different melodic systems for different parts of the week...
And there was evening, and there was morning.
Thursday was, I wrote in my journal, "once again the prettiest day there ever was, all gold and green and birdsong around the garden." The grounds really are beautiful -- you can see photos here -- though I think half of my love affair with the place stems from the attitude I wake up with, and the pleasure of spending days in study and prayer, conversation and song...
Thursday morning services were led by Lee (one of the staff members there) and Reb David Ingber (the rabbi-in-residence for the residential community). As a prelude to baruch she'amar (the prayer which praises God Who speaks the world into being), Reb David noted that we too create worlds with our speech, and invited us to speak aloud the words we want to define our day. (And then we chanted the prayer using a really nifty three-part melody -- one rhythmic chant, one melodic chant, and one descant. Next year I am definitely going to be technologically savvy enough to record these melodies -- does anyone know, do I need a mike for my laptop, or is there a way to do it using my iPod?)
When it came time for the shema, Reb David mentioned that these are traditionally the last words a Jew says. But the real question is, are we willing to live with them on our lips? To live with real awareness of unity, and put that into action in our lives? And for the bar'chu (the call to prayer which blesses God's name) we looked around the room, acknowledging that each face is a reflection of God, and blessed our names too as manifestations of the One...
Thursdays are supposed to involve a Torah service, but as Reb David said,
the davvening was too sweet (translation: we ran overtime), so instead we
just took the Torah from the ark, cradled it in everyone's arms, and learned a little
bit about the portion of the week. We heard a beautiful drash, a story about two boys' eyes meeting in the midst of wartime and the possibilities inherent in that connection, as a way of illustrating the understanding that killing people is never God's will. (It related to part of parashat Pinchas, which I'll talk more about when I get to Shabbat morning.)
Notes from Thursday's class
It's the silence after the zikr that does the work. Like the zikr is the download, and the silence is the installation.
Sufis see themselves primarily as seekers, not as finders. Love is seeking; union is finding.
The eyes of the dervish who is a true lover see nothing but God; his heart knows nothing but God. God is the eye by which he sees, the hand with which he holds, and the tongue with which he speaks. Were he not in love, he would pass away. If his heart should be empty of love for as much as a single moment, the dervish could not stay alive... -- Sheikh Muzaffer
Fana -- what Sufis aim for; union/enlightenment.
Baqa -- ordinary experience; what we return to after an experience of fana; the level at which we install or absorb the fana experience.
Sufis regard black light as visual silence, emptiness that's full of unmanifested potential. At the start of the [Jewish mystical text] the Zohar, too, the first manifestation of ein-sof [infinite God] is black light.
Perennial philosophy: just as our physical DNA is mostly the same around the world, so our spiritual DNA. Ascend to the mystical and you'll find similarities across the board. The exoteric parts of our traditions differ, but the esoteric parts can be surprisingly similar. This philosophy can be dangerous, can lead to homogenization -- we're not actually all the same -- but we have the same deep structures.
The ultimate truth of religion is inexpressible. Creation begins in nothingness, no/thing that can be named. [Discuss.]
Mystics say: the physical universe is a crystallization of consciousness. Consciousness came first, and the universe second.Scientists say: consciousness arose when the physical universe was complex enough. Physicality came first, and consciousness later.
Deep ecumenism always happens in an altered state. It requires focus, silence, to get to [Wilberian] second-tier consciousness. Shallow ecumenism is still very useful, but deep ecumenism does something different -- it can lead to an agreement that whatever our differences, our similarities come first. The planet comes first. God comes first.
As one's reality map changes, one's image of God changes. The partzufim change. The piece of God one can relate with, changes.
The reptilian brain fears infection, feels the need to keep distance from other ideas and other traditions. As deep ecumenists, we need to resist that impulse.
If you look in the system files of religions, Christianity places the most importance on mystery.
If I want to appreciate a stained glass window I don't look at it from outside into a dark space, then I can't see what's going on. A stained glass window is meant to be seen from the inside. If I want to understand what it's like for a person standing in front of a crucifix, to address God through that image, I have to at least temporarily set aside my own point of view so I can see it from inside that person: what does that person see? -- Reb Zalman
Instead of saying "I don't get this incarnation idea," we need to learn to say, "what is there within the system files of Judaism that can help us relate to Jesus?" The answer might be, the idea [from the Tanya] of the neshama klalit, general or expanded soul, a great soul who can get people plugged-in to God. Jesus can be understood as a neshama klalit, a very powerful consciousness who uplifted others. Already in the Talmud is the idea that great souls die to atone for their generation, so we have no excuse to say that Jesus is so foreign to us we can't grok him at all.
Still, Jesus is more than a neshama klalit; he is God, according to the Christian understanding. What to do with this? Arguably it's not our problem. What we need to ask as deep ecumenical Jews is, "what function does Jesus serve for Christians?" That's the question because that's how we can connect and relate -- it's why we ask "show me how you davven/pray/connect with God," not "what is your credo, what is your theology."
Looking at other religions, we need to learn to ask: what are your tools for transformation? What are your maps of transformation?
It's not that we should ignore doctine, theology, history. But if we begin with davvening, with practice, with mysticism, then we form a relationship within which we can converse about the difficult stuff. Think of Reb Zalman's planetary metaphor -- humanity forms a planetary consciousness, and within that planetary body each religion is a vital organ.
As Jews we learn that Christianity is the fundamental Other, that it can and will subsume us. We don't learn that about other traditions. So we need to overcome that conditioning in order to connect with Christian practice.
[We closed by looking at a stanza of a poem by medieval German mystic Silesius: "If in your heart you make/ a manger for his birth/ then God will once again/ become a child on earth." And we talked about how the p'shat, the surface-level, of the story has to do with the literal incarnation, but on the deeper levels the story is about figurative birth, about God incarnating in us.]
After class came lunch, and several of us continued the class discussion at the dining table, talking about how we as Jews relate to Christianity and why that connection is so much harder for many of us than connections with other traditions might be.
After that, I went for a swim with Zoe and Adriane, which was a delightful break and got me out of my head for a while. After the swim, I retired to the living room, where Adriane and I did some text study (we wanted to look more closely at some of the Buddhist texts which we hadn't had time to discuss fully in class), and then I met with Reb Shaya to talk about the Aleph program briefly.
Since we'd begun to discuss Christianity in class that morning, Thursday's "ecu-mincha" involved Christian elements. We sang a few Christian hymns ("Simple Gifts" and "Amazing Grace"). Reb Shaya pointed out that many Christian services, like many Jewish ones, focus on scripture, so Charlie (one of the summer interns; also one of our classmates; also a Roman Catholic) read from the gospel (the story of the prodigal son, which had never before seemed to me so clearly an allegory about our capacity to return to God).
When the Lord's Prayer was handed out, I could feel the atmosphere in the room get a little bit tense. "How many of you had to say this in school as a kid?" Reb Shaya asked, and most of our hands went up. So he reminded us that we have no obligation to join in if it isn't comfortable for us -- but then he went through the prayer line by line, translating it into language we could relate to (sometimes literal translation -- "avinu she'bashayamayim, kadosh sh'mecha" -- and sometimes a broader kind of restatement of what the prayer says in words we're more accustomed to) and in the end everyone in the room said it together, fervently, which was really cool.
And then Suzy -- another classmate; also a very sweet and brave Christian woman -- told a story about losing faith in God when her father died, and regaining it ten years later. We closed that portion of the service by joining her in a verse of "It Is Good With My Soul," and it wasn't until Reb Shaya thanked her for her witness that I realized what we had experienced.
That evening, after ma'ariv, we got a folk concert: two of the summer interns are Karen Brandow (who was in my mishpacha group last summer) and her partner Charlie King (the aforementioned Catholic gentleman in my ecumenism class), who turn out to be a fantastic folk duo. We hooted and hollered, and laughed (especially at their song about gay marriage), and cried (I have a real soft spot for folk harmony, and for songs about peace and justice). A definite highlight of the week.
And there was evening, and there was morning.
"I want," I wrote that morning before services, "to stand as straight as the zinnias, to sing as sweetly as the mourning doves, to accept the gifts of morning as graciously as the grass accepts dew..."
Over breakfast -- silent, as is usual there on weekdays -- I thought about the Buddhist refuge prayer, and about what it means to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Elat Chayyim feels like my sangha, my kehillat kodesh, my holy community, in some very real ways.
Notes from Friday's class
[We began by reading St. Francis of Assisi's " Canticle of the Sun"]
We need to know and relate to the reality map of our dialogue partners. I can find the part in me that relates to, connects with, where they are. Deep ecumenism cannot work without compassion.
We can meet seeker to seeker.
I'm human before I'm Jewish. We all are. That's a place of common ground.
[We spent a while discussing an excerpt from the anonymous 14th-century English mystical text " The Cloud of Unknowing." There's a nonduality/apophatic-discourse quality to it which echoes Maimonides, in a way.]
The wonder of relationship is duality. Be careful of too much emphasis on nonduality -- yes, at an ultimate level everything is One, but we also need to appreciate the upper levels of duality. Buber's I-Thou framework can't happen without duality.
The eye of the mind can't access God; the eye of the heart can. [Discuss.]
A moment of illumination, in which boundaries dissolve, can happen to anyone, in any tradition, at any level of development. But what matters is, what sticks? When one returns to ordinary consciousness, to baqa, what can one integrate of that union experience?
That afternoon, after lunch, Zoe and I went for a walk which led to one of the coolest experiences of my week. We headed down Mill Hook Road, in the direction opposite to the one I travel when I drive in, and found ourselves by the side of the road listening to the sound of rushing waters, so we followed the little path...and wound up sitting on rocks beside a tumultous little river, talking about life, the universe, and everything.
Then we saw a couple of adolescent girls, wearing swimsuits and Tevas, edging their way out to the brink of the waterfall that was above us, and jumping over the waterfall into the deeper waters below. "Let's do that," Zoe said.
I thought of a hundred reasons not to: we're fully dressed (I was wearing jeans), we don't have the right footwear for the slippery rocks, I'm scared of rocks and of falling, I don't do this kind of thing. "Okay," I said.
So we took off our shoes and glasses, and our nametags, and we climbed up the bank a ways, and then we inched to the edge of the waterfall, going incredibly slowly because the rocks were slippery with moss and the current was strong and I am a great big wimp about this kind of thing. And then we were standing at the edge of the waterfall. "Maybe we should say some kind of blessing," Zoe said.
So I said something about my intention that this be the first of many leaps that we take together -- about trusting that where I am leaping to will be sweet -- about fear giving way to blessing, and Zoe talked about her intentions, and then one-two-three we leapt over the edge!
"Mikvah!" Zoe yelled, as we plunged into the water. And we whooped, and yelled, and laughed, and swam as hard as we could to get back to shore and then we walked back to Elat Chayyim dripping and happy.
Barely half an hour after that, the women headed to the pool for the official Elat Chayyim pre-Shabbat mikvah! We gathered in a circle on the grass behind the billowing sheets that curtained the poolside, and sang some songs, and paired off and spoke to each other about what we wanted the mikvah to wash away. And then we circled up, holding hands, and Mia reminded us to be conscious of how beautifully we each manifest God in our bodies, and we looked around ruefully and with joy. And then we said the blessing, and entered the water, and witnessed each others' immersions, and then we surrounded the first-timers and blessed them and splashed them!
And as we climbed out of the pool to make way for the men, people were singing "How could anyone ever tell you/ you were anything less than beautiful," which fit just right.
(The next day, at lunchtime, I talked about mikvah with Scott, a fellow rabbinic applicant, who taught me a really neat little drash: the Hebrew root בגד spells both "clothes" and "betrayal." So there's a sense in which our clothing is a kind of mask wich betrays our essence; and when we strip away those masks in front of one another, we can see something fundamental about who we really are.)
And then came Shabbat! We all got dressed in our white finery (and those of us in my room were sparkling with the gold glitter that Zoe had brought), and services were riotous and wonderful. Actually, I think the service leaders were occasionally exasperated, because they wanted to quiet us down sometimes, and we all just wanted to sing and drum, clap and move.
Shabbat dinner was excellent. White tablecloths, startling after a week of color. Wine, startling after a week of abstaining. Salmon, startling after a week of pure vegetarianism. And afterwards, we cleared away the tables and danced -- one of this summer's eco-apprentices has some connection with northern Ghana, so Elat Chayyim has a collection of really solid Ghanaian drums. A few of the people who live there have been taking drumming lessons, and it shows. (Hey, I live with a Ghanaian-trained drummer -- I can't help a little elitism on that front!) So there were maybe eight people drumming, and for a while a fiddle, and different people took turns singing and leading us in psalms and songs, and we sang and danced and whirled around. (Kind of like the dancing that goes on here over New Year's, only with psalms instead of hip-hop.)
And then I dragged my tired body back to the room and slept, and then it was Shabbat morning.
Last week's Torah portion was Pinchas, in which several really interesting things happen -- among them, Pinchas spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who are basically having public sex at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, after which God gives him a brit shalom, a covenant of peace. Also, the daughters of Zelophehad demand their share of their father's inheritance, and it's granted to them. Before services, Reb David led a Torah study focusing on that first part of the portion -- the spearing part -- which expanded on the teaching he had offered on Thursday.
We looked at this covenant of peace. The big question was, is it a reward (for acting righteously), or a corrective (intended to steer Pinhas toward a more righteous path) -- and what are the implications of each answer, in terms of how we understand violence, peace, and God's will for humanity? First we looked at the passage itself, and then at two traditional commentators (Rashi and Ramban, a.k.a. Nachmanides) who see the covenant as a reward. In their view, the spearing was absolutely the right call.
But then we looked at a passage from Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitz (also known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe), who makes a pretty compelling case that Pinchas here shows a kind of childlike consciousness and that the covenant of peace was meant as a corrective for that action. And we closed by looking at a passage from Rav Kook's writings about conflict and peace, which suggests that we move forward through a kind of dialectical process in which ideals and principles contradict each other. But, Rav Kook says, at a higher dimension of thought, peace already resides. And when we see conflict from a higher perspective, we can bridge the tension with peace...
During services, when it came time to read from Torah, we read the part of the portion which focused on Zelophehad's daughters. I joined the group who said the blessings over the first chunk of the Torah portion; we received in return a blessing for claiming and pursuing our paths and moving forward into what is ours. And a DLTI student named Pinchas chanted the haftorah, since his bar mitzvah lo these many years ago was on Shabbat Pinchas, and when that was over we sang to him and pelted him joyfully with candy.
The afternoon somehow whizzed by: an hour of Talmud study with Reb David (we looked at some aggadah, short narrative stories, relating to astrology), then an hour-long pow-wow among smicha students and prospective smicha students and Reb Shaya and Reb Marcia, then mincha (I opted for the contemplative service in the red yurt, which was low-key and sweet), then se'udah shlishit (the third meal of the day) and singing of more songs, and then ma'ariv which led right into havdalah. And then we found ourselves singing and dancing around the living room, accompanied by clarinet and by guitar and by the ubiquitous drums!
There was ice cream, and a fundraising pitch (a pretty smart one, actually, and somebody donated a van to Elat Chayyim before our very eyes, which amazed me), and then I retired to the room to pack and schmooze, and there was evening and there was morning.
And then it was the truncated last day. The last morning of davvening shacharit with everyone; the last wrapping of my tefillin; the last harmonies. We closed shacharit by claiming our identity as a nation of priests, by raising our hands (making the priestly hand gesture, a.k.a. "live long and prosper," is tricky given the way I've learned to wrap my tefillin!) and blessing one another.
After the last breakfast came the last meeting of our class -- not everyone could be there, so we sat in a tighter circle, and talked about how to bring Elat Chayyim home, how to bring what we'd learned in class into our ecumenical encounters, about energy and visualizations and shielding. And we ended the class with blessings, too -- pairing off, softly asking one another what we needed to take home with us, and then responding with the blessings our partners had asked for. And we sang some more, and we hugged, and then we milled around for a while, carrying luggage to our cars, sitting on the grass and talking. And then I got into my car, and put on my baseball cap, and turned on Paul Simon's Graceland, and headed for home.
Wow -- somebody actually read this far! Well, if you made it to this point, maybe you're interested in my
Chayyim photoset? And if you just can't get enough descriptions of cool Jewish retreat stuff, here are my previous Elat
Chayyim retreat reports:
A Week at Elat Chayyim with Reb Zalman, June 2004.
Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim, October 2004.
Pesach at Elat Chayyim, April 2005.
It really is a remarkable place. Every time I go, the experience reverberates for me in subtle ways for a long time afterwards. I look forward to seeing how this week's retreat percolates into my life in months to come.