25 years is a long time. Some of the things I loved 25 years ago -- the books, the ideas, the certainties -- don't necessarily speak to me now. Then again, some of the things which were formative for me two-plus decades ago are every bit as central in my life now as they were then -- maybe more so. Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus is in that latter category. It was my doorway to Jewish Renewal. It's how I first "met" Reb Zalman, and Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi.
I read the book when it was new, in March of 1994, when my dear friend David handed it to me saying "You really have to read this." (He was right.) This book was the door which led me to Jewish Renewal and ultimately to both my adult spiritual life and my rabbinate. (I wrote about that a while back: How I Found Jewish Renewal, And Why I Stayed.) I've dipped into the book countless times in the last twenty-plus years. But it's a long time since I've sat down to read the whole thing, cover to cover.
In a few weeks I will spend a weekend in West Chester, PA, at ALEPH's Getting It...Together, a Shabbaton (Shabbat retreat) and Sunday event which will celebrate the historic journey taken by those diverse rabbis to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama 25 years ago. (If you're free the weekend of July 4, join us -- you can register for the full weekend, for Friday night only, or for Sunday only, and the retreat schedule and registration information are on ALEPH's website.)
What better time to reread the book which set me on my life's spiritual journey?
Part of what's remarkable for me, rereading the book now, is how some of the things which seemed radical and almost unimaginable to me 20 years ago are simply parts of my life now -- not taken for granted, exactly, but no longer surprising. "Reb Zalman...told me he saw himself as 'doing Jewish renewal, not Jewish restoration,'" Rodger writes. I suspect that reading those words was the first time I ever encountered the phrase "Jewish renewal."
"Reb Zalman, the Matisse of religion, rearranged Jewish thought with decorative freedom...At sixty-seven, he was our loosest, freest spirit -- heir to the joy and zest of the legendary Hasidic masters." That's Rodger's prelude to the story I love so much, about how one evening-time Reb Zalman asked their driver to pull over so that he could daven ma'ariv (pray the Jewish evening service) alongside Sikhs saying their evening prayers. When I first read that story, I marveled at his openness. When I read it now, my heart beams with knowing fondness alongside the admiration.
One of the things which moves me most now, rereading this book after so many years, is recognizing that this book sparked in me yearnings for a kind of prayer I had never experienced... which is now a regular part of my life, especially any time I am together with my Jewish Renewal hevre (friends.)
Each morning before breakfast, the Jewish group assembled outside Kashmir College for shakharit davening -- morning prayers. The men strapped leather tefillin on the left arm and just above the third eye. In our brightly colored tallises and our headgear, which ranged from knit kippahs to sateen yarmulkes to Blu Greenberg's gray silk scarf to my own neo-Hasidic Indiana Jones fedora, we were quite a sight to the Tibetan kitchen workers, who always managed to break away for a glimpse. The davening was delightful: vigorous, lusty, witty and raucous, quiet and joyful.
This was all new to me.
I remember when this was all new to me, too. I remember when I couldn't quite imagine the kind of davening Rodger describes. I remember what it felt like the first week I experienced this kind of davening, and how my heart opened like a flower coming into full bloom. And I remember how it felt, when I did DLTI (the Davenen Leadership Training Institute), to discover that I too could participate in co-creating this kind of enlivening prayer. Holy wow, what an amazing journey this has been.