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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

When the Spiritual Journey Runs Smack Into Religious Ritual

Before I immersed myself in a more Jewish life, I was a practitioner and teacher of Raja Yoga meditation. The way I learned and practiced was a silent, open-eyed meditation. This is not a mindfulness practice, but one all about sublimating and elevating every human impulse into relationship with G*d, and I loved the space that the silence created for experiencing that relationship.

In that silence, I feel G*d's presence, love, and inspiration connect with me not in words or ideas, but between my own thoughts, between my own words and understanding. It is the silence itself that makes room for G*d.

I have just spent the last 25 hours or so immersed in the rituals of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. And I am struck by how many words we say. We use words in prayer and song and we recite them over and over in a variety of forms. There are literally hours worth of words to say, and hardly any silence in between. And along with words, lots of sitting down and standing up and bowing and bending and supplication, in remembrance of G*d and the Holy Temple where we used to offer sacrifices.

I want to feel meaning in those words, in those movements, in the tremendous spirit of  a community full of beautiful, warm, generous souls. I love this community, but I miss the silence, and all the words remind me of how much I miss it. I miss the feeling of sitting quietly with G*d, of opening my heart and mind to Divine presence, Divine love, Divine forgiveness. I miss feeling cherished in His presence, and feeling elevated in letting His love purify and empower me. Ironically, I think this is the same place Yom Kippur is designed to take us.

I just don't know how to get there through words. A dear friend told me that Judaism makes space for the silence too, and that my own way is also ok. But at the end of this very intense day, I am left wondering what to do with a spiritual practice of silent meditation in a religion that cherishes words.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Life as an Air Plant at the Kotel

I used to live like an air plant, like the ones growing on the massive stones at the Kotel, taking their sustenance only from sun and air, anchored to the face of the stones, but not actually rooted in anything, tethered onto a space where they absorb what they need quite literally only from the air.
I can feel my roots unfurling, lengthening, digging deep into soil they’ve been desperate for, but deprived of, and energy is seeping back into me, snaking its way up through these roots, filling me with new understanding, new insight, and new intention. And I can feel Holy Jerusalem re-imagining herself again and again through us and our connection to her.

This was me, living a spiritual life, attending to my physical and human needs only as much as required, giving myself over as much as I could to the Divine Dimension. I breathed in the air of solitude and silence. I drank in the nectar of quiet and peace and contentment. I stepped around and away from the ugliness and the complication that human existence brings, and cultivated detachment as my answer to every unpleasantness.   

Life as an air plant has its benefits especially in the sense of deep relationship with G*d. But there is also an arid quality to such a life, a sense of disconnect from everyone around me, which is, I guess, part of the intention. But more and more strongly, I felt pulled to plant myself, to root myself somewhere, in something, as if gravity itself was pulling me towards earth, towards humanity and towards life.  

And more than anything, I was pulled to Jerusalem, a place so intense, so compelling, so complicated, so conflicted, that detachment wasn’t an option. A place so bustling, and noisy, and in-your-face that silence and solitude and quiet lose their meaning. This Jerusalem, the one in whose streets I walk, the one on whose ruins I stand, the one from whose mythic narratives were birthed countless lives and countless more deaths, is a place both so human and so divine that I cannot turn away.

I cannot turn away from its humanity or my own. This Jerusalem brought me down from the wall of spirit and planted me deep into the ground. This Jerusalem rooted me into humanity, into community, into religion, into history. And this Jerusalem is feeding me from the roots up, filling me with power and intensity and intention as holy as the land itself.

I am rooted in the energetic field of some supernatural crystalline geological formation that I know is buried deep in the sacred ground here, channeling Divine energy into humanity, into those of us who feel it, filling us up with the potential to transform ourselves, our relationships, our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Writing My Own Midrash*

This time...this time, I’m writing my own midrash. I’m speaking in my own voice. I’m not reading all the words, listening to all the voices, learning all the opinions of those who have come before me before I can speak in my own voice, before I can share my own words and ideas, before I have the authority to speak with my own mind and from my own experience. I’m not wading through 2,000 years of everyone else’s ideas before I can have just one of my own.

This time...this time, I’m writing my own midrash. I’m not checking with my rabbi, with my teacher, with an expert, with a book or a blog or an article, with the Mishna, the Gemara, the Siddur, the Shulchan Aruch, the Tanya, or the Zohar, or with Rashi or Rambam or Ramban or Ibn Ezra or Rav Moshe Feinstein, or every single other person who’s ever had anything to say before I have something to say myself.

This time...this time, I’m writing my own midrash. I’m wading into the text, getting my feet wet, and then diving into its depths, and swimming in its murky waters, letting it reveal its truths and contradictions and secrets and messages directly to me, without anyone else’s thoughts or words or needs interfering. I am splashing around and playing Marco-Polo with it, searching and finding by the sound of my own voice.

This time...this time, I'm writing my own midrash. I’m stepping into the mystical union with the meaning both hidden and revealed in sacred scripture, and I'm not asking for permission. Not this time. I’m not asking if it’s ok to explore the magical and the supernatural. I’m not asking if it’s ok to turn the text inside out and upside down. I’m not asking if it’s ok to see the energetic thread that spins out of the Divine and weaves itself through space and time and meaning, creating a tapestry of possibilities and potentialities. I’m not asking if it’s ok to see this tapestry not just through their eyes, but through my own.

This time...this time, I’m writing my own midrash. I’m stepping right into the text, into the narrative, and letting G*d speak directly to me.

This time...this time, I’m Abraham, trembling with the knife in my hand as I go to sacrifice Isaac. I’m Moses, watching G*d inscribe the tablets and listening as He instructs me at Sinai. I’m Rachel and Leah negotiating over who gets to sleep with Jacob. I’m the angels visiting Abraham and Sarah, seeing a new future unfold for them. I’m Joseph in the well. I’m the snake, convincing Eve to taste the fruit. I’m Pharaoh, hardening my heart. I’m Noah, silently building an ark. I’m Betzalel, crafting the Mishkan. I’m Aaron, spending all my days atoning for our sins. I’m David, consumed by lust. I’m Hannah, begging G*d to give me a child. I’m Mordechai, whispering in the ear of Esther, and I am Esther, finding my strength as a woman and a Jew.

This time...this time, I’m writing and reading and creating and living my own midrash, my own understanding, my own way in to the narrative that defines the existence of a people that I call my own, and who also claim me as one of theirs.

This time...this time, I’m not just reading the story. This time, I’m writing it.

* Midrash is a form of rabbinic literature exploring the meaning and depths of Jewish texts through stories, which are sometimes fanciful and folkloric and even outrageous.

Monday, June 8, 2015

When Did THAT Happen?!?

I'm serving as tour guide for family who are visiting me in Israel. I'm so delighted to have them here, and to share my world with them. Not just the touristy stuff, but the real heart and soul I've connected with in this Holy Land. And what I've noticed in sharing the Israeli narrative, is just how much I've internalized an Israeli story - how much the story of Israel has also become my story.

When did THAT happen? Was it last summer when I first got here and just felt a kind of at-homeness with myself that was very new? Or when I went to Europe to explore the story of the Holocaust and then returned back here, feeling and tasting and seeing the river of blood and tears that brought us to this land? Or when the war started, and I had no thought to leave? Or when I was supposed to begin rabbinical school in Los Angeles, but couldn't leave Jerusalem?

Or when I learned more and more about the complexity of the issues and life in Israel, and understood that there are no easy answers, but that the peace and prosperity of one peoples can never be at the expense of another? Or when I understood that I don't stand on one side or another here - I stand in the middle with all the struggles and joys that life here offers?

I don't really know when that happened, but I've seen it in myself with greater clarity as I share the Israel I love with the people I love. I want them to see and understand and experience it as I have. I want them to feel the same thing I do. That may not happen, but I didn't know how much I wanted it to until they arrived. I want them to know that life here, with all the politics and complexity, is rooted in a story thousands of years old, and it's THEIR story, OUR story, and we're still writing and telling that story, each of us.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

It's Been a Year in Israel

I came to Jerusalem almost exactly a year ago, intending to stay only for a couple of months over the summer to learn Hebrew and a bit more about the Judaism that was pulling me closer to itself. A year later, I've studied and learned and absorbed and engaged and worshiped and listened and questioned.

I stayed here because I just couldn't leave Israel and her warmth and support and the sense of belonging I feel here. I couldn't leave a place that felt like a community rooted in space and time in a way I have never before experienced.

But there is something else as well. The sense of community and family also comes with a strong religious component, and in Jerusalem, the intensity and energy are even higher, and everything takes on a sort of Kodachrome saturation. And for me, in my personal and internal way of processing, religion - even my own religion - very quickly feels like a cage.

The bars of the cage are also its support columns, and it's hard to know sometimes what is holding you up, and what is holding you in, and what is holding you back, and very often these are identical. And while I'm grateful for the support and the structure and the place of belonging, I get a little panicky on the spiritual level when it feels like I have to stay in the cage to keep the connection.

The cage is the sense of being obligated to Judaism as a religious practice according to a particular understanding and way of being Jewish. The cage is the sense that this religious observance is built into the fabric of an entire country, which is considered a democracy, not a theocracy. And coming from the US, where my religious observance (or lack thereof) was almost exclusively a personal matter, religion being part of the public and political municipal sphere still feels foreign. Even when it's my own religion.

A very powerful, senior yogi once held my hand, looked me deep in the eye, saw straight to the very center of my being, and said: "You are very naughty." And we both laughed when she said this, because we both knew she was right, and I also knew exactly what she meant. That while I love G*d very, very much, I do not hold by the authority of human beings and their ideas unless they're really, really good. And a lot of them aren't - neither the people nor the ideas.

I've spent a year exploring ideas I didn't have access to before, and I'm profoundly changed by the exposure. They are all part of an amazing narrative that is more rich and complex than I realized, and it's all still at work inside of me, shifting and sifting and sorting itself out as I digest this religious meal, eager to see what it ultimately nourishes within me. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Soft, Warm Hug

Women nurture the world. We create life, we sustain life, we nurture life. We create and sustain and nurture. It's part of the biology. It's not all we do. Not all we are. But a lot. A huge amount. And in all the nurturing and sustaining, we are told again and again that what matters - most, or a lot, or importantly - is how we look while we're doing it.

We nurture the world, babies, men, relationships, and each other, but when we feed and nurture our own bodies, we are told to question every morsel we consume, that we shouldn't nurture ourselves too much, that in the middle of everything else we are doing, it's important to pay attention to how we look most of all. And to focus on the weight that we acquired, the weight that a feminine body so easily carries in its role of nurturing the world and everyone in it.

This isn't a defense of weight or size or shape, but an acknowledgement that women's bodies come in an endless variety of weights and sizes and shapes. And that nurturing and sustaining, bringing feminine energy and qualities into the world to balance and smooth out the other stuff constantly threatening to overtake us, sometimes means soft, warm, round bodies.

Which is not actually a sin. It's a gift. A gift to be able to nurture and give and be generous with that capacity. There is nothing like the warm hug of someone who knows how to nurture un-self-consciously, who isn't afraid to draw you close and wrap their arms around you and share themselves to comfort you, someone who doesn't worry that you'll judge their hug by their size or shape or weight, but just offers it freely, one human to another.

The spiritual journey always offers the reminder that we are not the bodies in which we live. At best they are a reflection of our spiritual selves, and at worse, they hide who we are, but our essential truth isn't in the body. It's in our heart, mind, and soul. And over-focusing on shape, size, and weight, at the expense of sharing ourselves naturally, means we might miss the best part of the journey.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Putting It Out There

My amazing friend Tim (Tim Maeder) has been an inspiration to me for years now. He is the kind of singer that you hear and think, "this guys gonna be a rock star." Things haven't turned out exactly that way for him (yet), but I remember when he first gave me his CD 'Rebuild the Afterworld', and I was touched so unexpectedly, not only by the music, but by how much he put himself into the music, how much he just opened himself up and let everything fall out of him.

I know artists who do that, but this was a friend of mine, not some guy on the radio or a stage, and knowing that he poured himself out into the world that way, so vulnerable and unprotected, not just willing to share his voice, but needing to share was a moment in time that changed what I understood as possible.

I've never been that kind of person. I've stayed in a very self-protective space, even spiritually, cultivating solitude in my practice, and being reluctant to share, even when asked. But Tim has been on my mind. He is the kind of person everyone falls in love with. He is warm and kind and considerate. He has a dark sense of humor and artistry that you don't expect from the incredible caring he offers, but he's a sensitive soul, and he feels his pain and the pain of the world with a fullness I wouldn't wish on anyone. And yet...and yet he still opens himself up and pours himself out into the world.

I don't know if he does it out of courage or need, or maybe both. But he is my inspiration. I think of him and take courage for myself to just put it out there, whatever it is that needs expressing. The world may love it or hate it, embrace it or reject it, but there's something really important in just doing it, in not being too precious about what you're holding onto so much that it's an obstacle to letting go.

I asked Tim if it's ok to write about him, and he gave me his blessing. So I feel like he's here with me, his energy also in these words. And if you have the great fortune to ever meet him, you will see what a kind and loving person he is, how he lets all of that pour out of him along with his art. I am blessed to have him as a friend. And an inspiration.