On-call prayer
A touch of silk

Jewish With Feeling

51XlOMRFYTL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Jewish With Feeling, the latest book by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (co-written with author Joel Segel) was the final text on the syllabus in my Deep Ecumenism class. My review in a nutshell: this book is solid and informative, an excellent introduction to Reb Zalman's work and a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to revitalize her/his Jewishness.

Here's a more detailed response to the book, which aims both to touch on the book's major points (connecting with Judaism, prayer and God-language, the nature of Shabbat, the meaning of mitzvot, why post-triumphalism matters) and on some of the passages which moved me most (among them, one about Shabbat clothing, one answering the question "Why be Jewish?" and a particularly timely one about how Jews can relate to Christmas.)

Reb Zalman begins Jewish With Feeling by identifying the religious drive I think is at the heart of Renewal: "We want to be Jewish with awareness, to 'do Jewish' in a way that satisfies our souls."  Yet many of us have experienced a Judaism that not only fails to satisfy our souls, but fails to take into account that we have souls which need satisfaction. What to do? He thinks we need a less dogmatic and more experiential approach to Judaism, one that  "doesn't have a low ceiling, capping the mind and frustrating its desire to unite in love and awe with a vital, living universe... [and] also recognizes that no static philosophy, no one-size-fits-all Judaism, can express the entire range of our inner growth."

We need to learn to listen to our hearts and our neshamot. "The problem is that our ancient faiths have become oververbalized and underexperienced. We talk too much and feel too little." Reb Zalman's solution is aimed at helping us to feel more, and to bring those feelings to our encounters with, and immersion in, religious life. That's the book's theoretical grounding; from here on out, he talks about the specifics of how to get there.

Early in the book he spends a while discussing God. He acknowledges first why the word has become problematic for many contemporary people, and then makes a persuasive argument for why the word is still worth using. "God"--along with Adonai, Shekhinah, Ha-Makom, and a million other holy names--is a metaphor.  "[R]eligions might be seen as elaborate, multilayered metaphors, with layers upon layers of submetaphors, constructions that point beyond themselves toward the primary experience of ultimate reality but do not capture it."

For Reb Zalman, God must simultaneously be understood as transcendent and as immanent, as the inconceivable Infinite who cannot be represented through idols of stone and the intimate Creator who is as close to us as the beating of our own hearts.

"Our notion of God, so revolutionary in the region at the time, could not possibly be comprehended through statues of stone. But to those who yearn for spiritual experiences, a formless, abstract idea is not enough, either. Yes, God is galaxies and gluons and the great void beyond, but then we have no one to talk to."

And having someone to talk to is critical in Reb Zalman's theology. God is our conversation partner, if we will only maintain the loving conversation. "So we dance, God the creator and God the created. We separate, come close, and separate again. The quest is, in a sense, about how we might more consciously join that dance--and how we as partners might start to lead rather than follow, to develop more sure-footed moves of our own."

From talking about God, he moves into talking about Shabbat. For many of us, the traditional take on observing Shabbat conjures up lists of prohibitions which feel inhibiting and stultifying. In contrast, he describes Shabbat as an all-expenses-paid vacation to a tropical island: one needn't drive, or work, or cook, or worry. All one has to do is be.

After the second Temple fell, he writes, "we replaced that temple in space with what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel imagined as a holy temple in time, a temple in which to build and sustain a connection with the Infinite, a temple that we consecrate by conscious acts of will. That temple is the Sabbath." The desire for a rebuilt Temple does not sit well with me; I am comforted by this notion that we have transmuted the physical temple into a spiritual and temporal one which we rebuild week by week with our mindfulness.

A traditionalist would say that work is categorically forbidden on Shabbat, period. In contrast, Reb Zalman asserts (quite movingly, I think) that if one is a potter, for whom working with clay is a way of reaching stillness, then it is permissible to work on the potter's wheel on Shabbat--that the prohibitions against doing work must be understood as prohibitions against onerous work, against the kind of work we would prefer to delegate, not against doing the life-work that feeds our hearts. Similarly, I like what he has to say about appropriate Shabbat dress:

The lawyer or broker who wears jeans on the Sabbath is making a statement about resting. He has taken off his professional role and donned clothes in which he can loaf at his ease. Others might put on special garb to enhance the delight of heart, mind, and soul. A combination of comfort and ease with a little bit of ritual or flair can help us move into a wonderful space. Under the right circumstances a 'Garden of Eden' Shabbos with no clothes at all could be an amazing way of 'Shabbosing.'

Just as there is no one-size-fits-all Judaism, neither is there a one-size-fits-all way of observing Shabbat.

On the question of connection with God, specifically that radical connection or unity the mystics call devekut, Reb Zalman quotes the Slonimer Rebbe's assertion that "attaining devekut is not the problem: since we and all creation are constantly being re-created anew at every moment, as Hasidim believe, we are constantly in devekut....The problem is only to be more aware that we are in devekut, to do everything we can to enhance that awareness." Our aim is not to reach God; we have already done this, are always already doing it, every moment of our lives. Our aim is to be mindful that we are connected with God.

On sitting in meditation and engaging in prayer, Reb Zalman writes, "Better to do it intermittently than not at all, but if you want to domesticate your relationship with God so that you can count on it, as we can count on the harvest of a crop we plant and tend carefully, then that takes time." What a string of great metaphors! Meditating or praying sometimes is better than never doing it at all; but a regular practice will yield amazing fruit.

Sometimes we need to pray with the open silence of our hearts; other times we need to pray with words. Reb Zalman cautions us, though, not to believe that our liturgy is perfect or final--or that it will "work" all by itself. "Like a coloring book, the siddur gives us only the outlines. Coloring those outlines in with life, context, feeling, is up to us." He also makes a surprising (to me) call for prayer in the vernacular:

Even those of us who are comfortable with the liturgy can feel what we are saying more deeply if we take the time to put thoughts from the prayer book into our own words, in our native language. That's why I feel that using English is important....The Hebrew is powerful and important, of course, but it shouldn't come at the price of losing the consciousness of what we are saying.

I suspect that most people who know the Hebrew as intimately as he does wouldn't be able to see how and why using the vernacular is also important.

Reb Zalman teaches that the structure of Jewish prayer has a logic, a flow, meant to move the davvener. In this section of the book comes one of my favorite quotes: "Imagine a series of morning exercises whose purpose is not muscle tone but spiritual tone: a thought-rosary repeated every morning that readies us to meet the day as a person who lives in the presence of the divine." This is the metaphor my congregational rabbi often uses, too: the birchot ha-shachar are like stretching, and p'sukei d'zimrah is like our warm-up, so that our spiritual muscles will be warm and flexible by the time we begin the real work of prayer.

And though the real work of prayer may be guided by what's on the page, the page doesn't limit it. Real prayer happens outside the book, in the body and in the heart. So, Reb Zalman advises, "When you go synagogue-shopping, see how good the congregation is at bringing the freeze-dried liturgy alive."

In today's world, he points out, we are all Jews by choice: not only those who convert to Judaism, but all of us who profess Judaism as an identity and who make Judaism a part of our lives. "No one--no rabbi, no therapist, no guru--can take responsibility for our spiritual lives. We have to do that ourselves.... The leap that Judaism asks us to make is not a leap of faith, but a leap of action...This will only become a reality if you dare to get your feet wet." There's a reason we so often speak in terms of being a "practicing" Jew. Judaism is a practice, a discipline, more than it is a set of beliefs or doctrines.

One of the primary ways we understand that practice is the discipline of following halakhah and doing mitzvot. Many liberal Jews today misunderstand the term mitzvah solely as "good deed," and find the whole notion of "commandment" problematic at best. Reb Zalman knows that, and follows a critical question with his answer, a kind of paean to the joyfulness of doing mitzvot:

Can we feel commanded without feeling coerced?...In doing a mitzvah we act not only from whim, or because it is in our interest to do so, or because this act seems logical at the time, but with a higher sense of intentionality. We act out of a desire to communicate with that holy presence we have felt...As our practice deepens, our relationship grows more intimate. A mitzvah feels like a glance exchanged between lovers across a crowded room.

Doing a mitzvah once isn't enough; they work through repetition. "If you have ever devoted yourself to learning a musical instrument, or a craft like calligraphy or pottery, or a sport or martial art, you will get the sense here."

He talks about the three categories of mitzvot. Of the three, I'm most interested in what he has to say about chukim, since these are the commandments most likely to be difficult for the contemporary liberal Jew. The singular form, chok, he writes, "means law or decree and comes from the root meaning engraved. These are the laws that are carved in stone....More than the other types of mitzvot, the chukim ask for a higher level of surrender to a will that is not our own."  He acknowledges that many of these laws (for instance, circumcision) are problematic in the deepest ways...but also argues in favor of following them, because of the deep ways in which they can move us and change us if we allow ourselves to be open to them.

Toward the end of the book he broadens his scope to examine the way Judaism relates to other traditions.  He has plain and clear things to say about the dangers of triumphalist religious thinking: "If we think of the world as an organism, then triumphalism is a cancerous attitude."

He offers, too, a powerful set of reasons why one might choose to retain one's Jewishness, even alongside the universalistic theology or sense of planetary organismic unity that so many liberal people of faith espouse:

The answer we have offered to "Why be Jewish?" then, is that Judaism has many deep teachings to offer that we still need today.
Judaism reminds us to recalibrate ourselves by nature's clock.
Judaism teaches us conscious consumption.
Judaism urges us to maintain a living dialogue with the texts that are the beating heart of our culture.
Judaism demands here-on-earth spirituality.
Judaism helps us maintain faith and a connection to God despite powerlessness and uncertainty.
These treasures are the birthright of each and every one of us. For all these reasons, we can be proud of our heritage and feel that it is still something the world needs.

Having established that we want to be Jewish, and that we don't want to fall prey to triumphalism, he asks the question I think is most critical to my deep ecumenism class, and perhaps to the contemporary religious enterprise in general: "How do we engage with fellow seekers in a way that does not water down differences, but treasures them? How do we share our history, celebrations, and spiritual experiences with members of other faiths in a way that is real and deep, rather than just a 'You bring the Easter eggs; I'll bring the matzah' affair?"

His answers don't reduce well to aphorisms, but I understand them as something like this: we need to bring all of ourselves to the encounter, we need to be careful not to engage with people whose spirituality is toxic to ours, we need to act in a spirit of mutual respect, and we need to explore where our traditions overlap even as we remain conscious of the richness of every tradition's unique qualities.

Reb Zalman devotes particular time to exploring the Jewish-Christian relationship, because, as he points out, most of us live in a predominantly Christian culture.  I am intrigued and moved by what he has to say about finding a way to embrace the Christians who have married into our communities without demanding that they sever ties with their Christian heritage:

We have people today who are saying, 'I want to embrace Judaism, because my partner is a Jew and my children are part Jewish. I am married to this faith, and I want to have Jewish content in my life--but I also want to be able to go to church. I cannot turn my back on my Christian upbringing.' In the past, we would have said the two are incompatible. But I want to create a compatibility because I feel that compatibility in my heart.

He doesn't entirely say what that compatibility is or how to achieve it, but I feel charged by his words to continue to work at figuring that out through the relationships in my own life. As we work our way into December, a season when many Jews get frustrated and fed-up with the ubiquity of Christmas, I can't help marveling at Reb Zalman's ability to find beauty in the holiday and its core teaching:

Christmas, too, has something to teach us. Every Christmas I get a real yearning for the Christian ability to imagine God as a baby. Seeing God as a newborn babe, you begin to understand that even God needs to grow, just as we do! And that this really may be the purpose of the universe--that we ourselves are God growing Godself, and that the task of every person and faith community is to collaborate in that process.

Many Jews find the Jesus story threatening, and find this time of year oppressive as a result. How inspiring it is to me that Reb Zalman is able to come away from the story of the nativity marveling at the truth it contains and how that truth might relate to the larger religious world.

He closes the book with one of my favorite stories: about Rabbi Zushya, who feared on his deathbed that God would berate him for failing to be Moses or David or Solomon, but learned that what God really wanted to know was why he had failed to fully be Zushya. In this way we can understand our calling to be Jews. By fully being ourselves, polishing and honing the gifts we have to offer the world, we live up to the holy potential God has placed in us. Only we can become the Jewish community that we dream of being--and that God expects, and hopes, for us to be.


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