What our travels teach us

The Zen Rabbi, reviewed

"In all the major religions today, there are battles being fought between the dogmatists, who are old, tired, dull, encased in their forms, and those advocating renewal and seeking to enliven the tradition at all costs, even to the point of embracing the latest spiritualist fads and leaving tradition in the dust altogether. Both sides lack what the other has. Those who reject tradition suffer because they have no standard outside themselves, and those who see God's words as frozen end up worshipping a dead God."--Alan Lew, One God Clapping

Alan Lew's One God Clapping (Jewish Lights, 2001) is an engaging, personable spiritual memoir, which charts his journey from Jewish childhood through a long love affair with Zen Buddhism to Conservative Rabbinical school and, ultimately, a rabbinic vocation deeply colored by contemplative practice. At times it made me chuckle out loud; once I caught myself almost crying. Often, reading it, I nodded my head in recognition.

The above quote was the first to make me whip out my notebook and pen to copy. Several notebook pages later, I was merely making notes for myself, cryptic jottings of page number and phrase to remind myself of what I had found noteworthy. Lew tells wonderful anecdotes that capture the spirit of the times they chronicle: hitchhiking cross-country with his seven-year-old son, listening to some of the earliest (and arguably greatest) roshis and swamis to teach on American soil, and eventually navigating the complicated waters of rabbinical school, hospital chaplaincy, and finding his spiritual path in the world.

Towards the end of the book, Lew argues convincingly that Judaism's survival cannot be fostered by Renewal-type retreats alone. He cites Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi as saying "We have built a Holiday Inn, but what we need is a home." Lew's larger point is that spiritual retreats and celebrations can mark high points, but that religious life requires regular practice in order to be sustained and sustaining.

As it happens, I agree with him, although I do not have a daily spiritual practice of my own. Every taste I've had of regular davvening and meditation suggests that, as Lew argues, both my life and the ongoing tapestry of tradition would be enriched by my choosing a regular, practice-oriented path like the one he outlines.

But I think it's possible he knocks the Renewal phenomenon too quickly. Yes, daily practice is what sustains--but I would never have developed a yearning for that practice without the experience of the "high points," the retreats filled with accessible teaching and prayer.

I do like his point that, in the endless and inevitable tug-of-war between traditionalists and renewalists, each side lacks what the other has. From there I take a further leap, one that I think his book implies: the personal and communal ideal is a balance between these two sides, a careful yin-yang which is at once stable and dynamic.

In sum: interesting experiences and ideas chronicled in a well-written book. I recommend it.