Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Kabbalah: Feeling the Spirit of Prayer

By Dan Berrett

Aug. 29 - Sept. 5, 2005 issue - How much time have you spent in the presence of God?" Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's tone is both gentle and disarmingly direct as he questions participants at a retreat in Johnstown, Pa. His eyes miss nothing, not even the subtle flinch of those in his presence who are unused to talking about God in person-al terms. "God is real," he says. "That is what escaped us in Hebrew school and in the books that we read."

Such discomfort with the Almighty is not unique. A recent survey of American Jews found that while 78 percent believe in God, only 62 percent believe God intervenes in their lives. Schachter-Shalomi's mission is to bring an intimate God back to Judaism through Kab-balah, the ancient mystical tradition of Judaism experienced through meditation, study and prayer. The Kabbalah that the rabbi cherishes is not the Hollywood version, which many scholars say is repackaged self-help fluff. Instead, he draws on a tradition long suppressed by mainstream Judaism as esoteric and superstitious. While less glitzy, authentic Kabbalah is influencing Judaism: seminaries now teach courses in mysticism, rabbis invite Kabbalists to their conferences and Jews study it at adult-learning programs, synagogues and retreats, such as the ALEPH Kallah, the Jewish renewal conference started by Schachter-Shalomi.

Born in 1924 in Poland, Schachter-Shalomi escaped to the United States in 1941, where he was ordained by the Lubavitcher Hasidim, the Orthodox sect that preserves the Judaism practiced in Russian villages 250 years ago. He became entranced by the mysticism of Hasidic practice: its meditative prayer, parables, ecstatic worship and embrace of Kabbalah. As a young rabbi in the postwar years, Schachter-Shalomi was sent to college campuses to bring Jewish students back to the fold. That led to his own spiritual search. He sought out Baptists, Roman Catholic monks, Native American elders, Sufis, psychologists, Buddhist masters and the Dalai Lama, to explore theological ideas.

Today, based in Boulder, Colo., he and his students combine elements of Orthodox Judaism (morning prayers, strict observance of the Sabbath and a kosher diet) with a contemporary sensibility. The result is what he calls Neo-Hasidism. Like other liberal branches of Judaism, Schachter-Shalomi's Neo-Hasidism ordains women as rabbis, accepts gays and lesbians, and welcomes intermarried couples. But it goes further to embrace mysticism and the spiritual wisdom of other faiths, and it sees environmentalism as sacred.

His core belief is that prayer should be deeply felt, not just read. "The written material is freeze-dried spirituality," he says. To demonstrate how meditation deepens prayer, he closes his eyes, gently sways and slowly utters "Baruch ... ata ...," the words that begin most Jewish prayers. Kabbalah does more than reconnect Jews to God, says Schachter-Shalomi. "My mind can't wrap itself around what the soul knows." Ultimately, Kabbalah attunes them to the world's deeper rhythms and meaningsĀ—those that can't be easily seen or measured, only felt.

Ā© 2005 Newsweek, Inc


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