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#1567 - Thursday, September 25, 2003 - Editor: Jerry
By Holly Lebowitz Rossi
I had no idea that the purpose of these holidays is to rehearse my own death, to strip away the false protection that I surround myself with and truly confront the reality of my life
All those years, I had no idea.
I was a High Holy Days-only synagogue attendee growing up. My enormous Reform temple had velvet-covered seats, a lofty choir that, majestically, sang from out of sight and an impressive collection of both Torah scrolls and shofars.
Every year, I ate apples and honey on Rosh Hashana for a sweet new year. I thought about my sins on Yom Kippur. I thought that was pretty much it.
But I had no idea that the purpose of these holidays is to rehearse my own death, to strip away the false protection that I surround myself with and truly confront the reality of my life and to do the exact same thing the next year.
Other nonobservant Jews might have a similar reaction surprise on reading Rabbi Alan Lew's new book, "This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation" (Little, Brown and Co.).
Some might even feel "completely unprepared" for Judaism itself. The journey Lew describes sounds, after all, like a lot of work.
Then again, so are most things that are worth doing.
"Do you know how much energy it takes to remain stupid? We're wasting our lives in denial," Lew told the Forward. At first this sounds like it comes less from the Judaica shelf and more from self-help. But Lew is trying to present the theology of the High Holy Days in a way that is serious without being too pop-psych, new to secular Jews without being New Age. And he succeeds fairly well.
Lew, 59, who leads an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in San Francisco, is a self-identified "Zen rabbi" who spent the 1970s as a Buddhist, living in monasteries, rigorously practicing meditation. He shares some of these experiences in his 2001 book, "One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi."
Born in Brooklyn, Lew grew up in a rural area of northern Westchester County, N.Y., where he was raised by parents who he said "weren't the least bit religious" but identified themselves as Jews.
When he left home, he made his way to northern California, where he became ensconced in Buddhist life. Ironically, he says, it was his Buddhist practice that brought him to traditional, observant Judaism, which he would commit himself to for the ensuing decades.
Zen meditation, Lew said, "forces you to look at those parts of your life that you're reluctant to look at. For me, Judaism was one of those. I felt it was already a part of my soul. It seemed like I was illuminating an inner life that was already there."
During the late 1980s, Lew attended the Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. He's been at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco for 13 years, a congregation that Lew described as the only non-Orthodox synagogue in Northern California offering a traditional daily prayer minyan.
It is also a unique congregation in that it has a meditation center in the building next door, which features both daylong meditation workshops around specific holidays and events, and meditation sessions before Sabbath services and morning minyan.
Lew is someone who identifies himself as "observant" but resents the term's Orthodox connotations. He represents a Jewish crossroads somewhere between Jew-Bu and neo-chasid a set of seeker-Jews devoted to traditional observance but open to insights from other traditions.
"That's how I am," he said. "I'm very, very traditional in terms of my own observance, very rigorous in terms of my own Jewish practice, but also very adventurous in terms of wanting to expand the boundaries of Judaism."
"This Is Real" explores the entire High Holy Days period, seven steps from Tisha B'Av the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to Sukkot the Feast of Booths that marks the end of the contemplative season.
Simply put, he said, the reminder and lesson of the High Holy Days is, "We are not prepared for our lives." We have failed, time and time again.
This in itself is not an encouraging or uplifting notion, but Lew points out that it is the beginning, not the conclusion, of the High Holy Days journey. Through the prayerful month of Elul, the sweetness of Rosh Hashana and the heartbreak of Yom Kippur, being unprepared is the problem. Reaching out for God and each other brings us our solution.
"In this journey, as we peel away the layers of defense and delusion, we get closer and closer to the presence of God," he said.
As for Jews who "do" the High Holy Days, Chanukah and Passover but little else, Lew hopes that this book can be, like the blasts of the shofar, a wake-up call from the malaise of the year and the guilt over not having been to services since last Yom Kippur.
"The de-facto theology of the High Holy Days is that Jews feel guilty that they have such a weak connection to Judaism so they flock to the synagogue and they do penance by boring themselves for days at a time," he said.
The holidays, though, have a transformative power and a true drama. Lew is, for lack of a better term, religious about presenting the High Holy Day period with the weight of tradition behind it, even as he relates it to incidents from his life and the lives of his congregants.
But Lew does quote the Buddha and cite Cherokee proverbs in the course of making his points. Some scholars wonder at this phenomenon of looking outside of traditional Judaism in order to illuminate it.
"There's something in the Jewish mind that is so nervous about its own particularism," said Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School. "It feels the need to link onto something universal."
Lew's colleagues, however, counter that while Lew was certainly influenced by Buddhism, meditation has a long tradition within Judaism, particularly in preparation for prayer.
"There's nothing about calming the mind and opening the heart in preparation for prayer that is foreign to Judaism," said Rabbi Nancy Flam, director of the Spirituality Institute, a western Massachusetts retreat center for rabbis, cantors and lay people.
"It's deep in our tradition, and it's simply deep in the human psyche," she said.
Lew, I am sure, is hoping that the Jewish psyche is open to his brand of both tradition and innovation. Personally, I feel completely unprepared for it but ready to learn more.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass
"Believe in butterflies.
If they can fly a thousand miles,
think what you can do.
You are alive so celebrate every moment.
Discover what the world needs
that you believe in with all your heart -
a service you are really good at and love most to do.
Do that. Dive in. Let it be your classroom.
Play with possibilities.
Cherish good people, including yourself.
Get negative people out of your life.
Romp on the floor with your dog.
Celebrate every moment.
Like a bird, soar the updrafts.
Make friends with trees and listen to their stories.
Talk to yourself.
Ask yourself what you think.
Pay attention to what you say.
Forget about being entertained -
depart the audience and get onto the stage.
Fling wide the curtains.
Earn enough for your need but not for your greed.
Leaving a heritage so that when you die,
you will be missed."
Dr. Sami Sunchild, American Artist, Poet and Social Entreprenuer
"Handmade Houseboats" by Russell Conder.
A little tidbit here to wet your appetite:
"This is a crucial point in the evolution of a human
being from land-based
creature to houseboater. Of course it'll be hard. When you're up against the
brick wall of a lifetime of conditioning; when the wall can't be climbed or
drilled into or dug under or walked around, it's understandable to stop,
procrastinate, and look for more understanding and guarantees. It takes a
phenomenal surge of faith to look at the wall and know it's not there -- to
walk through it."
When it comes back to teach you
or you come back to learn
how half alive you've been,
how your ignorance and arrogance
have kept you deprived --
when it comes back to you
or you yourself return,
joy is simple, unassuming.
Red tulips on their green stems.
Early spring vegetables, bright in the pan.
The primary colors of a child's painting,
the first lessons, all over again.
~ Thomas Centolella ~
a woman is enlightenment when you're with her and
thread of both your passions flares inside you and you see
for us no difference between reading eating singing
making love not one thing or the other
and the nights inside you rocking
smelling the odor of your thighs is everything
only one koan matters
from Being One
Life is just a dream, so lighten up!
"Our current confusion and the prospects of liberation
from it are illustrated well by the example of dreams.
When we dream and do not know that we are dreaming,
all the forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile
sensations we seem to perceive on the outside, and all
the thoughts we seem to have on the inside, appear to
be real; we believe they are real, and we have further
experiences that seem to confirm to us that they are
real. As a result, we experience the turmoil of
attachment to things in the dream that we find
pleasing and of suffering when we think something or
someone is harming us, even though all the while there
is nothing really there at all. If we can simply
recognize that we are dreaming, however, then all that
trouble just vanishes... Then, whatever good or bad
appears to happen, since we know that it is just a
dream, we know that we do not need to fixate on it -
we can just experience whatever it is in a way that is
untroubled by the mental afflictions, in a way that is
open, spacious, and relaxed.
"Like dream appearances, the daytime forms, sounds,
smells, tastes, and tactile sensations we perceive on
the outside, as well as our thoughts and mental states
within, are all mere appearances that are empty of
inherent nature, that do not truly exist. Appearing
while empty, empty while appearing, all the phenomena
we experience is the union of appearance and
emptiness, like dreams and illusions. The more you
understand this, the less troubled you will be by the
mental afflictions - in fact, even when mental
afflictions and suffering arise, you will be able to
know that they too are illusory, and they will
gradually lose their strength and dissolve. You will
gain deeper and deeper insight into the genuine nature
of reality beyond concept, insight that will become
more an more subtle and will eventually transform into
the wisdom of direct realization."
~Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso
From the book, "The Sun of Wisdom, Teachings on The
Noble Nargarjuna's 'Fundamental Wisdom Of The Middle
Way,'" published by Shambhala.
It takes only the acceptance of a single belief to make someone a
magician. It is the meta-belief that belief is a tool for achieving
effects. This effect is often far easier to observe in others than
in oneself. It is usually quite easy to see how other people, and
indeed entire cultures, are both enabled and disabled by the beliefs
they hold. Beliefs tend to lead to activities which tend to
reconfirm belief in a circle they call virtuous rather than vicious,
even if the results are not amusing. The first stage of seeing
through the game can be a shocking enlightenment that leads either
to a weary cynicism or Buddhism. The second stage of actually
applying the insight to oneself can destroy the illusion of the soul
and create a magician. The realisation that belief is a tool rather
than an end in itself has immense consequences if fully accepted.
Within the limits set by physical possibility, and these limits are
wider and more malleable than most people believe, one can make real
any beliefs one chooses, including contradictionary beliefs. The
Magician is not striving for any particular limited identity goal,
rather he wants the meta-identity of being able to be anything.
May Day and Memory Loss
© 2001 Michele Toomey, PhD
[email protected] May 1, 2001
The beauty of Spring and the rebirth it brings is in stark
contrast to the deteriorating state of lost memories and
memory loss. One is the harbinger of hope, the other a harsh
reality of decline leading to permanency. Hope is grounded in
movement and change that is in the desired direction with the
desired outcome. Memory loss moves toward loss and dreaded
outcome. May Day seems at odds with loss. In many ways it is.
Only with a shift can we reconcile the two. A major shift.
Not only a shift from anticipating the future to treasuring
the present, but a shift from relying on the past to form the
essence of where we meet in the present. Both the past and
the future are affected, and the nature of the present
forever changed. The connecting link that our relationship to
time usually provides must now be replaced by our
relationship with each other.
It's as if we've been stripped of the bridge that time
provides for us to stand on together as we meet and interact.
We are in mid air, instead. No shared past,no future
restored, only the meeting at the moment. Suspended we are
left to focus on the moment. Feel the feelings, touch the
words, see the eyes, study the face and watch the mouth.
Embrace the aura of the exchange and find each other in it.
May Day is one day, not a season, not a week, or a month or a
year. One day. Today is May Day. We can meet here. We are
meeting here. That means we are meeting as birds sing and
flowers bloom. It is not on the bridge, it is in midair, but
it is amidst the beauty and hope of spring. What a lovely
place to meet. Far better we are aware of it, than oblivious.
So, just as awareness has its harshness, it has its gifts.
Without awareness we would be truly stripped, empty in the
truest sense. With awareness we can have these precious
moments of today. The shift costs but it also rewards. Carpe
Diem takes on a new meaning. We must and we will. In fact, we
contributed to NDS by Ben Hassine
May Day, by Wilkie Collins
Notes on the painting: Wilkie Collins says little about May-day in his biography of his father. It was he says "considered to display the same steady progression towards excellence as those which had preceded" and he quotes this contemporary review:- "Mr Collins has attained to a very high degree of success in this picture. The characters are various and natural, and of all ages. The groups are well distributed, and employed in a combined purpose, so that each several assists the humour and action of the whole. There is great mellowness and richness in the humour of the several faces, particularly in the countenance of the drunken chimney-sweeper. Upon the whole, this piece has more imagination and shows greater knowledge of life, than the 'Weary Trumpeter,' by the same artist."
May Day celebrations were often boisterous and chimney sweeps traditionally dressed up and danced through the streets demanding money. The picture also shows a young woman with a May Doll, covered by a cloth, and demanding a penny to see it.
May-day painted and exhibited at the British Institution in 1812. Sold for 150 guineas (£157.50) to the Reverend Sir S C Jervoise, who owned land in West Bromwich near Birmingham.. It is currently in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, a gift of Jean M Harford.
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