from the September 3 edition of the Jerusalem Report:
"Last Night's Dream" is the tale of Kamenetz's attempt to break free …by training himself to place dream imagery on an equal footing with text in his quest for a spiritual connection. The book is deeply personal and artfully written; Kamenetz was an established poet before his 1994 classic "The Jew in the Lotus" turned him into a Jewish Renewal celebrity. It is also an accessible primer on the evolving status afforded dreams in Jewish and Western thought and science.
Kamenetz… represents the best of what the Renewal movement strives for - authenticity of spirit combined with critical thinking. That is why this book will likely receive a lot of attention. Look for it to show up on many a list of the year's best Jewish books.
September 3, 2007
DREAMING THE SAME DREAMS
BYLINE: Ira Rifkin
SECTION: BOOKS; Pg. 40
LENGTH: 1213 words
The History of Last Night's Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul By Rodger Kamenetz - HarperOne 272 pp.; $24.95
The Achuar Indians of the Peruvian Amazon are into dreams. No longer isolated jungle dwellers, today they maintain a tribal website and profit from eco-tourism - a far cry from the time I visited them more than three decades ago when a Velcro sleeping bag still befuddled and amused them and snapping a Polaroid of the village chief secured an invite to hang out with the tribe. But they still get up before dawn to sit around in groups and discuss their dreams of the previous night. For the Achuar, dreams are the deeper truth meant to guide time spent awake.
The ancestors of contemporary Western rationalists once subscribed to a similar worldview. What Freud relegated to the psychological realm as eruptions of suppressed emotions and desires were once the source of prophecy and revelation, the raw material out of which religious thought and cultures were crafted. But that, Rodger Kamenetz writes in his latest book, "The History of Last Night's Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul," was before Western religion fell hostage to its greatest creation; the sacred texts that democratized but also canonized group wisdom. "How, " he asks, "could a tradition that gave us the dream of the ladder end up essentially 'phobic' about the revelation dream?"
"Last Night's Dream" is the tale of Kamenetz's attempt to break free of the phobia by training himself to place dream imagery on an equal footing with text in his quest for a spiritual connection. The book is deeply personal and artfully written; Kamenetz was an established poet before his 1994 classic "The Jew in the Lotus" turned him into a Jewish Renewal celebrity. It is also an accessible primer on the evolving status afforded dreams in Jewish and Western thought and science.
In mostly non-linear fashion (and why should a book about the spiritual realm unfold in linear fashion?), Kamenetz tells us how hitting a spiritual wall pushed him toward the exploration of dream imagery after a lifetime of using language to distance himself from the pain that invariably accompanies the inner-discoveries he so desired. "For me, it had to be a complicated truth, the kind I found in religious books and commentaries and commentaries on commentaries, where too often I got lost in words."
Along the way, we meet his primary teachers; Jerusalem's Colette Aboulker-Muscat, who until her death in 2003 had an international reputation as a spiritual (a word she loathed) healer of body and mind who employed visualization and dream interpretation; Tarab Tulku, a Tibetan lama of high rank living in Copenhagen; and Marc Bregman, a postman cum astrologist living in a "small but not quaint" town in northern Vermont. There's even an encounter with Morrie Schwartz, the ex-sociology professor whose lessons about life, imparted as he lay dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), were immortalized in Mitch Albom's bestseller, "Tuesdays with Morrie." All of them push Kamenetz toward a blend of meditation and dream immersion drawn from Tibetan Buddhist and kabbalistic sources.
The point, he writes, is to retain, when awake, insights gained through dreams - and to remain aware that even awake the mind dreams on, separating us from tougher truths and "natural religion." Kamenetz claims progress in this regard, but nothing close to full attainment, that always allusive abstract.
For those familiar with Kamenetz's transformation from Jewishly ambivalent to Jewishly omnivorous, "Last Night's Dream" will be another stop on his pilgrim's journey, last updated in a major way in his 1997 book, "Stalking Elijah." Kamenetz revisits his Baltimore Reform upbringing: "My family did not pray in a crisis; we worried... I don't recall God being taken seriously in anyone's mouth." He also writes about his struggle to connect with his father, a difficulty Kamenetz blames on his own fragile ego - an insight gained working with his Vermont postman.
"Last Night's Dream" has two distinct tracks. The first is Kamenetz's personal journal. The second, and subordinate track, is the role of dreams in religious development, particularly within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Kamenetz moves deftly between them to produce a consistent narrative.
My preference would have been a more complete exploration of track two. There is much to be said about how dreams - or, more specifically, their acceptance as a group truth by some controlling authority - have been pivotal to the course of human history.
Kamenetz does address this point, but to a limited degree. "Every time a group of people dreams the same dream, a new religion gets born," he writes. He discusses the place of dreams in Sumerian civilization, recounts the importance to Jewish thought of the Biblical dreams of Jacob and Joseph, and notes the "animosity" toward revelatory dreams included in the Book of Deuteronomy: "And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death"
(Deut. 13:6). This, he says, is the mark of the gatekeeper class asserting rank to protect its ranks, and stifling Jewish spiritual evolution in the process - the Baal Shem Tov and the rise of hasidism notwithstanding.
He likewise touches on the same process within Christianity - the revelatory dreams of the early disciples and the church fathers' inevitable closing of the door to revelation in the following centuries.
But, curiously, Kamenetz says next to nothing about the impact on humanity of what one imagines were the prophetic dreams of Jesus of Nazareth. He also ignores Christianity's central image, the Resurrection. Could the Resurrection have been a dream - that is to say, a wholly internal experience - shared by Jesus' core followers, as John Dominic Crossan and other New Testament scholars have surmised? And what about the collected revelations of the Prophet Muhammad that became the Koran?
These are sensitive questions. Did Kamenetz avoid them to sidestep controversy or because of the prodigious scholarship required to do them justice? Or did he rule them out as diverting from the focus of his book? His text provides no hint of an answer.
Kamenetz could also have said more about non-Western beliefs, instead of largely limiting his comments on non-Western interpretations to Tibetan Buddhism, in which he is well versed. The Australian Aborigine concept of dreamtime - which bears some resemblance to Achuar beliefs - would have been a good place to start. Here, again, there is much that could have been said.
Still, none of these quibbles should detract from Kamenetz's accomplishment, perhaps the most striking of which, from a Jewish perspective, is his insistence on staying within the broad tradition no matter how far he ranges in search of insight.
Jewish Renewal has its flaky fringe; Kamenetz is not part of it. He represents the best of what the Renewal movement strives for - authenticity of spirit combined with critical thinking. That is why this book will likely receive a lot of attention. Look for it to show up on many a list of the year's best Jewish books.
Ira Rifkin is the author of "Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval," SkyLight Paths.