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.
When I think of the passages from this book which have stayed with me, indelibly, over the two-plus decades since I first read its pages, one chapter in particular stands out: chapter 7, "The Angel of Tibet and the Angel of the Jews." This is the chapter in which Reb Zalman z"l came most to life for me, years before I ever met him in person (or even met any of his students -- many of whom I am now blessed to call my teachers, colleagues, and friends.) Of Reb Zalman, Rodger writes:
When I met him, I finally understood the whole tradition of oral masters, who are best appreciated in person, and who inspire others through their incredible flow of ideas, images, and illuminating tales. Though he holds a degree in the psychology of religion, has taught at major universities, and published both popular and scholarly works, he is much more in the line of a classic teacher of wisdom or a holy man. He is charismatic and spontaneous, with a highly developed theatrical sense, and a touch of the clown. But he is far too open about his own spiritual struggles and failings to be a cult leader. This same openness has made him attractive to many otherwise disaffected Jews -- by now a worldwide network of political activists, social workers, Buddhists meditators, writers, teachers, and rabbis who consider Zalman their rebbe.
Is it any wonder that I came away from this book thinking, "can this guy possibly be as cool as Rodger makes him sound?" It turns out, of course, that Reb Zalman was every bit as remarkable as this book depicted him to be -- and that his students have transmitted his Torah along with their own phenomenal contributions. But I don't think I could have imagined, when I first read these words, that I would someday be privileged to be one of the students of his students, ordained in his lineage.
Here's a snippet of Rodger's transcription of Reb Zalman's teaching. Reb Zalman is speaking here about the spiritual journey of Jewish prayer:
So the first part of prayer gets into the body and says to God, "Thank you for the body," and prepares the body. The second part of prayer takes you to the heart and it says, "I want to attune myself to gratefulness to God," to say, "Oh, this is a good world, oh, this is wonderful, the sun is rising. I want to give thanks." Up here in the realm of air you go to thinking, to wisdom, to trying to understand and to know. Then, going up to the highest place -- the fire -- there it isn't knowledge with the head, it is intuition.
I know that this chapter of this book was my first encounter with the four-worlds paradigm, the kabbalistic teaching which maps the four letters of the holiest Name to the four worlds of action, emotion, thought, and essence. Four worlds Judaism has become second nature to me. I use it as a frame of reference for everything I experience, not just the prayer service (though certainly that too.) Twenty years ago this was radical and new. Today it's a foundational part of my worldview.
And then, of course, there are the angels.
Reb Zalman z"l and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, 25 years ago.
"When we speak of angels," Zalman explained, "we mean by that beings of such large consciousness" -- he pointed to his forehead -- "that if an angel's consciousness were to flow into my head right now, it would be too much for me." He raised his eyebrows, and his streimel started to slide off his head. It was right out of Charlie Chaplin. An expansive angel was flipping Zalman's lid.
The rabbi straightened his streimel and continued, "There are all kinds of angels. So that higher and higher for instance, we think each nation has an angel. Right now there's an angel of Tibet and an angel of Jews that are also talking on another level. So I believe if we do it right, the Angel of Jews will put words in my mouth and the Angel of Tibet will hear them in you -- and vice versa. The dialogue is not only on this plane."
And with those words, it no longer was.
I remember this scene as though I had read it just yesterday. I remember, also, the complicated reactions from the other rabbis in the delegation. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who is Orthodox, noted that this is mystical tradition and that the more rationalist elements of Judaism would not affirm these beliefs. Rabbi Joy Levitt, who comes from the Reconstructionist movement, noted that some of the other rabbis in the room were hearing this material for the first time just as His Holiness was!
I was drawn to mysticism from the very first religion class I took as an undergraduate. (It was a course called "The Mysticism of the Self," taught by Thandeka. After that one class I resolved to major in religion.) But I suspect that this book, and specifically Reb Zalman's seamless integration of kabbalistic and Hasidic mystical ideas into a contemporary worldview, played a big part in shaping who I've become.
I still love the scene where Reb Zalman teaches His Holiness about gilgul, "being on the wheel," also known as "transmigration of souls" -- or what you might call reincarnation. (Are you surprised to hear that Judaism has a concept of reincarnation? When I first read this book, I know I was. And, I spoke about that in my Kol Nidre sermon from a few years ago, What Are We Here For?) I love also many moments with other rabbis on the journey. For instance, here's Rabbi Yitz Greenberg:
The Dalai Lama interrupted Yitz's history lesson to ask the inevitable question about the covenant, "The concept of the chosen people, is it right there from the beginning, or later developed?"
Rabbi Greenberg answered that it was relatively early -- and begins with the first Jew, Abraham. "Chosenness means a unique relationship of love. But God can choose others as well and give a unique calling to each group. Each has to understand its own destiny and can see its own tragedy not simply as a setback but as an opportunity."
The question of what "chosenness" means, and whether we are the only people who have a unique status of being "chosen" by God, is one with which many Jews struggle to this day. I'm humbled, now, to be reminded of these words from R' Yitz Greenberg. I know that he is one of the founders of Clal and that he has been a pioneer in ecumenical dialogue. But the fact that such a devout Orthodox Jew can assert that "chosenness" is not our gift alone moves me deeply. Rodger sees common ground:
[T]he Talmudic project as a whole represents a radical change in Judaism. As much as Yitz, as an Orthodox thinker might want to emphasize Jewish continuity, I saw in his parable of Yavneh an important lesson in Jewish discontinuity -- and Jewish renewal. I noted Yitz's words to the Dalai Lama, the rabbinic sages had to find the "courage to renew." This linked Y to Z, Yitz to Zalman, traditional to renewal, in my mental alphabet.
Rodger's naming something substantial here. This too was one of the pillars of Reb Zalman's thought: that Judaism has always grown and changed via paradigm shift. The destruction of the Temple was a paradigm shift, and out of that trauma came the birth of rabbinic Judaism as we know it. The Shoah was a paradigm shift; seeing Earth from space was a paradigm shift. (In the words of my teacher and friend Reb Victor, "Shift happens.") What new Judaisms might we now be participating in birthing?
I felt [Zalman] was representing a Judaism that once was, and that yet might be. For that reason, I didn't care that he interpreted the tradition as flowing into his own experience, his imagination, his dreams, his everyday life. He was agenting for change, for Jewish renewal. To me, renewal seemed exactly what was called for today in all traditions. What good was the rich storehouse of the esoteric in Judaism if it was only available in freeze-dried scholarly packages?
There's something amazing about rereading those words now, after following this book to Elat Chayyim, after experiencing Jewish Renewal and everything it has opened up in me, heart and soul. After five years of rabbinic school and now my own Jewish Renewal rabbinate. Of course I agree with Rodger that renewal is what's called for, across the board. It is humbling and awe-inspiring to have the opportunity to serve the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal community which seeks to make renewal real.
The story which Reb Zalman tells about the Lubavitcher rebbe teaching that his master was for him "the geologist of the soul" moves me deeply. "If you want to get to the gold, which is the awe before God, and the silver, which is the love, and the diamonds, which are the faith, then you have to find the geologist of the soul who tells you where to dig...but the digging you have to do yourself." That is a story I've heard more than once, but I know that this is where I first encountered it.
I also find myself (not surprisingly) incredibly moved by the scene where Rabbi Joy Levitt and Thubten Chodron (born and reared Jewish) are comparing life stories, talking about how each of them found her way to a spiritual path. And when Chodron says "It is so incredible for me to see female rabbis," I am reminded of how incredibly blessed I am to have been born into a moment in time when no one challenged my yearning to serve God and the Jewish people because of my uterus.
One of the meta-stories of The Jew in the Lotus is how coming to know a new spiritual tradition can enliven one's awareness of one's own as well. "Melchizedek and the Dalai Lama, shalom and tashe delek," Rodger writes. "Having opened myself to the beauty of the Buddhist spiritual tradition, I was reawakening to my own as well." I know a lot of Jews for whom that trajectory is true. My variation is: reading a book about rabbis and Buddhism awakened my yearning to move deeply into being a Jew.
"I personally appreciate any religion that honors poetry," Rodger writes when visiting the shrine of Sufi mystic and poet Hazrat Inayat Khan. (Reb Zalman was ordained in his Sufi lineage.) I couldn't agree more. (Sspeaking of honoring poetry -- I've written here over the years about two of Rodger's books of poems: here's my review of the lower-case jew and here's my review of To Die Next To You, which pairs Rodger's poems with drawings by Michael Hafftka. Both books are worth your time.)
During that visit, Rodger describes the experience of joining hands with Reb Zalman and with another trip participant named Nathan in chanting a familiar Hebrew prayer in the form of a Sufi zhikr, a devotional chant:
We repeated it in the style of Sufi dhikr and, following Zalman, tossed our heads in the four directions of time: left -- the past; right -- the present; down -- the future; and for eternity -- lifted high. The three of us became an elaborate human prayer machine -- an organic vehicle, a chariot, chanting until our necks were loose and our spirits light. It was about joy finally, the practice behind Zalman's theory of four worlds, uniting the motions of the body, the words of the mouth, and the meditations of the heart.
I am grateful to be able to say that I've had experiences like that. With my Jewish Renewal hevre I've davened Hebrew zhikr in exactly this way, and I've experienced the kind of joy and wonder which Rodger describes. Twenty years ago, this sounded to me like fantasy. Today I know that it can be real and true.
The book's penultimate chapter begins with the 1991 Kallah (the usually-biennial gathering of Jewish Renewal community -- this year the desire to hold Getting It...Together at the 25th anniversary of the Dharamsala trip displaced the Kallah, so the next Kallah will be in Colorado in 2016. Save the date!)
[At the Kallah] I saw what happens when the energy of women, of Jewish meditation, and an active four worlds approach to davening are combined. Dynamic prayer services were led by women rabbis, spiritual leaders, and singers, including among them Hannah Tiferet Siegel, Rabbi Marcia Prager, and Shefa Gold.
I wonder what I thought when I first read those words in 1994? Reading them now, all I can feel is joy. Rabbi Marcia Prager was dean of my rabbinic program. Rabbi Hanna Tiferet was an integral part of my hashpa'ah (Jewish spiritual direction) training, and I use her melodies almost every time I lead prayer. The same can be said of Rabbi Shefa Gold's melodies, which are integral to my prayer practice. These are indeed luminaries of our generation... and they have been my teachers. How great is that?
Here's one last long passage from Rodger's book, from the final chapter:
I came away with a deeper picture of Judaism and a message of Jewish renewal. As Rabbi Joy Levitt said, there's plenty of wisdom in the Jewish tradition, but what we need is a way to teach it. Doors need to be opened for the many Jews who do not have access to the richness of Jewish spiritual wisdom...
Jewish renewal will recognize the power of what is holy in our lives today... will be pluralistic, open to dialogue with other Jews and with other religions...will be more porous -- more willing to acknowledge that Judaism has borrowed from other cultures in the past, and more willing to borrow techniques and practices from other religions today, assimilating them into a Jewish context...
Jewish renewal will be more aware of its own mystical tradition... Deepening the prayer experience is essential to Jewish renewal... in effect, I'm calling for a kind of neo-Hasidism, because without an infusion of Jewish spiritual fervor in prayer and blessings and observances, the reason to stay Jewish, the juice, will be lost.
I remember reading these words as a college student and thinking: yeah, sure, this sounds amazing, but what would it really look like? Are people really doing it? (And if they are: then what would it take -- what would I have to do -- is it even imaginable for me to be able to become one of those people?) Reading them now is an entirely different experience. Yes, this is the promise of Jewish renewal, and I am blessed to know, and love, and learn with, people who are dedicating their lives to this holy work.
What comes next? I'm not sure anyone knows. But I am endlessly grateful to have the opportunity to work with, and to serve, some amazing people as we try to figure out how to continue to midwife this dream of a Judaism renewed... and I'm still grateful to Rodger for writing this book in the first place. Perhaps it was hashgacha pratit, divine providence, which led this book to David's hands and thence to mine. My life wouldn't have been the same without it.