Thursday, December 19, 2013
Monday, May 20, 2013
WELCOMING THE DALAI LAMA TO NEW ORLEANS PART TWO:
THE ANGEL OF NEW ORLEANS
-- a talk given at Temple Sinai, New Orleans, May 9, 2013
Your Holiness, when you did dialogue with Jewish teachers in Dharamsala, there were two exchanges. One was people to people, about a shared history of exile and destruction. And there was a second, very intimate exchange, that had a profound effect on all whoheard it. And this one was soul to soul, and angel to angel, the Jewish soul and the Tibetan soul, the Jewish angel and the Tibetan angel. For the spiritual dimension of reality is so often neglected despised even hated in today's world, but it is a major part of what makes Jewish survival worthwhile in the first place. And right now, it is in the midst of our wreckage I speak to you, both as a Jew and as a New Orleanian. Because survival is not just a matter of urban planning, or of financial aid, or willfulness.. it is something deeper, it is of the soul , the soul of individuals and the soul of the city, and the soul of nation. To rebuild is important, but to recognize a new historical moment and to renew is a matter of soul I do believe, and without soul nothing we do can ever really be new.
Your Holiness, the second rabbi who spoke with you soul to soul, was a man who became my teacher as you also became my teacher, and his name is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, though everyone calls him Reb Zalman as if to say, brother Zalman. And Reb Zalman began with a Hebrew prayer translated into Tibetan, and then he spoke to you as one who had escaped the fires of the holocaust but barely, fleeing Austria and then Belgium, and landing in a dp camp in southern France under command of the Gestapo, before somehow making his way via the West Indies to New York. And Reb Zalman carried with him all the teachings of Jewish mysticism, of a world that was being destroyed as he fled, for we must never forget that largely Hitler succeeded in destroying Jewish Europe and its institutions and its holiest teachers, as if someone had come to the US and destroyed Harvard, Yale and MIT, and then wiped out a whole generation of political leaders as well.
Reb Zalman during the sixties left Chabad and became the leader of a movement known as Jewish Renewal, which sought to combine the mysticism of Hasidism with feminism and an openness to meditation , and most of all to joy. And this movement has greatly influenced every branch of Judaism, with its music, its style of prayer, its egalitarianism, and its interest in mysticism.
And this is something that we need to remember about New Orleans too: that culture is carried by human beings, specific men and women who know how to cook an etouffee, or play a drum with a certain beat, or sew beads on to a suit, and these precious kinds of knowledge are easily lost and are carried by human arks.
So Reb Zalman spoke to you as that sort of human ark, carrier of centuries of wisdom, a fellow exile, and as a man who lived the loss of home and culture that you have personally have experienced over the past 63 years now since the Chinese army moved into Tibet and took control. And since then even unto today the Tibetan people in their own land have been subjugated and their religious leaders, their monks have been persecuted, their temples destroyed and then in some case rebuilt as tourist destinations, a land where merely wishing you long life, Your Holiness and carrying your picture cane be punished by imprisonment and torture. And when we had the Seder together in Washington, we played the tape of Tibetan nuns in prison chanting a song of freedom, and even today they are not free and in your homeland your people are burning themselves alive in anguish and protest and still they are not heard.
And Reb Zalman said, "I want to say when a soul comes down to earth they show him first what he has to do here, that's our tradition. And I believe those who volunteer for difficult jobs deserve special consideration. When I think of the job you have to do, which is not only to guide your people through the crisis, and God wiling, the restoration of your home, but also the risks you must take and the choices you must make of what is essential and what is to be left behind, I want you to know that I feel with you from heart to heart."
His task was to explain the inner meaning of Jewish practice, especially the more esoteric teachings we know as kabbalah, which means, actually 'tradition. For it is a largely esoteric tradition that was once kept entirely secret or passed on by word of mouth only to a select few. For you had asked to know another secret, what is the benefit of Jewish practices such as our holidays and prayers, -- a very Buddhist question I might add-- and you asked it this way, "What are the Jewish practices for overcoming afflictive states of mind?"
And I want to say-- it would be another talk to explain-- that many many Jews today would not even know what that question means, let alone what the answer is. For in the urgency to survive especially in the period post war, many Jews concerned themselves primarily with institutions and buildings and not with the inner work, what Reb Zalman called "the esoteric, the deep attunement, the deep way." And I have to say, the very words I am using such as soul, and deep way, might sound very foreign to some of my Jewish brothers and sisters, very remote.
But on his way to explaining the "deep way" of Jewish mysticism, Reb Zalman spoke with you about angels or devas and here the dialogue really became exciting because I saw, Your Holiness, we all saw how fascinated you were with angels, you wouldn't let go of the topic, Reb Zalman waned to explain the four worlds of Jewish mysticism the four worlds of prayer, but you kept him in the second world, the world of formation, the world of imagination.. and dreams are there, and feelings are there, and angels are there, messengers who mediate in the imagination between the loftiest heights of pure thought and the ground and senses where we live as bodies. And you wanted to know if angels had different colors and yes Reb Zalman answered, there are orange angels and blue, and there's the black angel we call the opponent or Satan-- and he too .. they are all serving God. That is our tradition Reb Zalman kept saying though the other rabbis seemed either astonished or embarrassed even horrified you could see that in their faces, so estranged from this inner core of Jewish life had the mainstream Jewish world become.
So you moved worlds there Your Holiness and you wanted to now if angels have anything to do with earthquake, there was a small earthquake that morning in Dharamsala and Reb Zalman said yes, in our tradition, angels cause earthquakes and changes in the weather and there are little angels over every blade of grass that say grow grow grow. Yes he said it's in our tradition and by then some of the rabbis were giving each other looks, like this clearly wasn't in THEIR tradition, but Your Holiness you were not deterred, not at all, and then Reb Zalman said something about the angel of cities and the angel of nations, which is really not a foreign notion at all--- Maimonides writes about it-- and you were really curious about this idea, and Reb Zalman said, "Oh yes there's an angel of each nation, there's an angel of the Jews and an angel of Tibet.. and if we do the dialogue right, the angel of the Jews is speaking through me and the angel of Tibet is listening in you, and vice versa you see-- so the dialogue isn't just at one level."
Suddenly it wasn't. That was the moment that encapsulated the whole thing. These two men were no longer just men, but something was speaking and listening in them that was greater than any individual.
And I saw a certain light there which I still see and I've been trying to explain ever since. There was something very beautiful in that moment, what I could say is, it was both a metaphor-- and yet literally true, well we poets call that a metonymy--- because wasn't Reb Zalman in effect speaking for the Jewish people and weren't you, Your Holiness listening for the Tibetan people and speaking for them as well... speaking their essence-- so the dialogue wasn't just at the human level. For the angel of a nation , Maimonides teaches, is the essence of that nation, and now you ad Reb Zalman were speaking for just a moment essence to essence, in a dialogue that had never before ever happened at that level between these two unique peoples, the Tibetans and the Jews both of whom had tasted in the twentieth century exile and destruction.
That moment it really did seem as if these angels were talking to one another, the only way I think angels can, through two human beings who are open to astonishment, and who have the curiosity and the love to share soul to soul.
And that is the kind of dialogue I wish for Your Holiness as you come here to New Orleans, For if there's an angel of Tibet and an angel of Lhasa, surely there's an angel of the Jews and an angel of New Orleans. So I hope you will meet us not just as a people struggling with social problems or even ecological catastrophe though we clearly are, but also you will somehow meet the angel of New Orleans in some of us, and that we will somehow also feel the angel of Tibet speaking through you. Then the dialogue will not be just on one level-- and I hope there will be a dialogue-- it will be also on a deeper level.
I know that the precious times when I've had the privilege to speak with you, I have felt the intensity of your presence, and the power of your listening.
I believe that is what you will bring to us here in New Orleans, the power of the quiet mind, shaped by the daily meditation and visualizations which are the precious spiritual values you and the Tibetan people carry-- and we hope thanks to you and them, that this will survive and will continue benefit human beings.
I hope-- if we listen not just with our ears but our hearts-- we will learn from you your own secrets of spiritual survival in exile, and perhaps also you will learn a little from us as well, how we live our New Orleans soul, and even get a glimpse in the joy of our daily lives, in music, in dancing, in food and in our culture , of the angel of New Orleans.
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus
Friday, May 17, 2013
The rabbis built a good strong boat after the fall of the Temple. It carried us along for about 1,800 years. Then it started to fall apart. We've been drifting on planks of wood and life savers for the last 250 years. But that's an amazing boat. It lasted for 1,800 years and even the wreckage is pretty amazing.
But as beautiful as that exchange about suffering and history and destruction was, there was a second exchange that had an even more profound effect on many Jews. And this one was soul to soul, and angel to angel -- the Jewish soul and the Tibetan soul, the Jewish angel and the Tibetan angel. For the spiritual dimension of reality is so often neglected, despised, even hated in today's world, but it is a major part of what makes Jewish survival worthwhile in the first place. And right now it is in the midst of our wreckage I speak to you, both as a Jew and as a New Orleanian, because survival is not just a matter of urban planning, or of financial aid, or willfulness. It is something deeper. It is of the soul, the soul of individuals and the soul of the city, and the soul of nation. To rebuild is important, but to recognize a new historical moment and to renew is a matter of soul I do believe, and without soul nothing we do can ever really be new.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Every year for the past 2000 Jews all over the world celebrate Passover by gathering for a ceremonial meal. We tell our children the story of how we were slaves in Egypt. Why would a group of people remember their trauma in this way? Most people would prefer not to remember a past like that. We can see in our own American experience how the memory of slavery can itself be traumatizing, to have been a slave or have ancestors who were slaves brings for many reactions of shame. It raises uncomfortable questions such as, Why did our ancestors allow themselves to be enslaved? Why did we not resist or have the courage to die rather than submit to slavery?
The truth is, slavery is what we in the dreamwork call pathology. And we are all enslaved to pathology, we often lose the battle, every day in fact, and we often live doing what pathology tells us to do, in the iron grip of our reactions, of guilt, shame, reactive rage, of our lies and delusions.
While the Passover is mandated in the Torah-- the actual instructions are sparse: to eat a meal, to tell the tale to the children so they will know what the Lord did for us in Egypt. The actual Passover ceremony as we know it is of rabbinic origin and specifically is a response to the greatest trauma in Jewish history which was the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70CE, and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people from their homeland. An exile that lasted for two thousand years.
So here is what seems another puzzle: in response to the greatest trauma in Jewish history, the complete destruction of the Temple, the loss of the sacrificial worship on that holy site, really the sense of a complete withdrawal or absence of the divine-- why would the rabbis create an elaborate ceremony to recall another trauma, that of slavery in Egypt?
The simple answer is that to tell the tale of redemption, how God with "a mighty arm and outstretched hand" freed the Hebrew slaves from Egypt--- it's necessary first to tell of the bitterness and tears of slavery. And in the ceremonial meal there is a shamanic ritual, in which bitter herbs and salt water are eaten-- to reinforce the teaching-- Jews literally ingest their bitter sad story, taste it with their tongues.
But there is a deeper pattern here that has to do with the pattern of cycling through trauma that we do in the dreamwork. The cyclical nature of the healing process in which trauma is re-experienced--- tasted again-- in order to once again be released or redeemed,
History repeats itself. Trauma repeats itself again and again. The deepest understanding of this problem came from Rabbi Isaac Luria (often known as the Ari or Lion), a 16th century kabbalist who lived in S'fad in northern Israel. The Ari explains that beneath the linear flow of time as we experience it in the horizontal, is a deeper pattern of three phases of reality which he called the tzimtzum, the shevirat ha kelim, and the tikkun. Tztimtzum is the experience of absence of God-- the 'withdrawal" or contraction of the divine. The shevirat ha kelim is the shattering of the vessels-- the sense of utter destruction which appears again and again in history. The Jewish examples of "shattering" include the destruction of the Temple, the Inquisition, the exile from Spain, and the Holocaust. But the truth is, history in general is full of examples of shattering.
So is our personal life: divorce, death, loss of a beloved ,loss of a child, loss of a job or a career-- can all be experienced as utterly shattering moments. Luria's insight is that they are reflections of one eternal moment of shattering that was present from the beginning-- built into creation. and wil be present until the final repair.
This repair, the tikkun olam, the healing of the world is the third phase of reality, this is the repair of the shattering. So in the Passover story, the shattering experience is slavery itself, the tzimtzum is the utter hopelessness of having been abandoned by God in the darkness of slavery-- and the tikkun is the redemption of the slaves, and the liberation from Egypt.
One point Marc Bregman has made about trauma is essential here-- it is what Luria calls the tzimtzum. What makes trauma trauma.. rather than simply pain or suffering-- is this element of utter despair and the feeling of the absence of God in that moment. For the soul wishes always to be with its beloved, and yet in the very depth of the shattering, the beloved does not seem to be present. Indeed, as Marc has pointed out, in cases like the inquisition, where torture was used on victims, the purpose of the torture was to get a person to completely separate from any sense of connection to God, and this leaves a permanent mark on the soul. In the same way in the Exodus tale, the Pharoah deliberately embittered the slavery experience by forcing the Hebrews to make bricks without straw.
The tzimtzum according to the Hasidim was experienced at the personal level as psychological despair. But we can also understand the absence of the divine as producing a trauma reaction-- it is experienced as dissociation in all its many forms: amnesia, numbness, confusion, shock, leaving the body.
This layer of reaction makes it exceedingly difficult to heal the trauma. IT is necessary to pierce this layer in some way in order to re-experience the underlying pain and terror that it covers over. And here we begin to understand the beauty of what the rabbis were doing-- or trying to do-- with the Seder. Celebrants were literally ingesting the story-- taking it in by mouth, chewing it, swallowing it--- in order to get below the layer of trauma reaction to the trauma itself. For without touching down to the pain and terror of the trauma, they could not experience the third phase of healing or redemption (tikkun). In my view the culmination of redemption is the arrival of Elijah who represents the male archetype or animus in our terminology. He is the one who heals the pain between parent and child, adn who brings the promise of ultimate redemption. Invoking his presence at the seder means imagining an archetypal moment of encounter with a reality that is outside of history. As Elijah enters the room, it is the emergence of the timeless within time, the encounter with the archetypal that is usually experienced only in dreams
So all three phases of reality that Luria describes are in the Seder: the layer of amnesia or forgetting which is the ordinary state of mind of traumatized people,-- and this represents simultaneously the absence of the divine-- for people who are numb and disconnected really can't feel the presence of God or the connection to God and their souls. So this is the tzimtzum.
Then there's the shattering, which is the experience of the original pain that has been hidden. We are told, that each year we are to experience the Seder as if we too had been slaves in Egypt. The theater of the Seder is such that the experience is to be that the liberation is happening that very evening. IT is not history any more, it is happening now, once again, both the oppression and the liberation. And only then can the experience of the tikkun, the liberation occur. And the sign of that is the entry of the archetypal figure, Elijah, who brings the promise of redemption and ultimate healing.
The three fold experience of absence, shattering and healing, is explicitly cyclical. At the end of the Seder we say Next Year in Jerusalem. That is next year perhaps we will finally be redeemed. But the truth is we also suspect and know that the cycle will repeat itself: the amnesia, the memory of pain and the redemption, over and over again, year after year, until....