Good evening, friends and neighbors! Happy New Year! I hope everyone is starting 2018 off well. I’ve been starting mine off with getting a bit more reading in- and now I’m starting to look up more regarding Kabbalah.
No, not that fashionable, Madonna, celebrity bullshit. The real deal- and I started off learning about it with a book about a group of rabbis sitting down with the Dalai Lama.
No, that’s not a joke.
In “The Jew in the Lotus,” Kamenetz recalls when he joined a contingent of rabbis spanning various sects of Judaism on a trip to Dharamasala, India in order to meet none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama back in 1990. The meeting was the Dalai Lama’s idea- living in exile from Tibet, he wanted to learn how the Jewish people had kept their identity, religion, and traditions alive across 2000 years of diaspora.
The rabbis, meanwhile, were trying to figure out the answer to a pressing problem of their own. In recent years, incredible numbers of people who had been born and raised Jewish were leaving the faith for Buddhism- some even becoming leaders and authorities in their new faith.
Over the course of a week, the rabbis and the Dalai Lama talk, culiminating in His Holiness learning some new ideas about how to preserve his people’s identity in the midst of exile. The rabbis learn a new appreciation for the similarities between their two faiths, and Judaism- hopefully- learns what it can do to help its people stick around.
“Ok, Matt, that’s cool- thanks for the book report and all, but this is a food/exercise/wellness blog. When did we sign up for the Black Hat Book Club?”
Well, you signed up to hear about my favorite books when you found this blog.
The rest, however?
The reason Judaism is having trouble holding on to its people- like it lost me for a while- was because of something that I tell you guys all the time when it comes to wellness and self-improvement.
Judaism had lost track of its “why.”
For thousands of years, Judaism had an incredible mystical tradition- kabbalah, which literally means “receiving.” Receiving what? Wisdom… advice… messages from God… a connection with the divine? All of the above really.
It was a mystical tradition that could not- and is not- given to transmission in writing. Instead, kabbalah requires a teacher and a teacher-student relationship. This because many of the greatest lessons of the tradition are handed down not through studying texts or practicing rituals, but through stories- and the role of the teacher is to give the right story to the right student at just the right time. Kabbalah offered theories of the nature of God, meditation, transcendentalism, even some concepts of natural philosophy and alchemy.
About 300 years ago, however, much of this tradition was pushed away and relegated to esoterica by a wave of rationalism among the Jewish community. Life was getting serious, living as a Jew was difficult, and it was widely felt that- in order to survive- Judaism had to put aside what was considered “magical thinking” and focus on relating to the real world.
This meant maintaining cultural elements, prayers and rituals- things that would constantly remind the Jewish people that they were Jewish, in a world that was ready to destroy them for it. Kabbalah was kept alive only in very small pockets of ultra-religious sects of Judaism: the Orthodox and Hasidim, whose own culture was focused on a much more ecstatic form of Judaism, where every action of every day should be a holy act and treated as such.
When the Holocaust happened, however, suddenly most of the teachers of Kabbalah were gone, and the rationalists got a horrible new surge- a motivation of hatred and spite. “We are Jews, and we must be as Jewish as possible, because the world hates us and if we don’t, the Nazis win.” I had female friends who were told to their faces that, if they didn’t marry a Jewish man and have lots of Jewish children, they were “giving Hitler a posthumous victory.”
People do not join religions to stand around in buildings and chant. They don’t do it because they suddenly dislike pork. They DEFINITELY don’t do it to be berated and guilt-tripped.
People join religions in order to have questions answered, and to touch something greater than themselves. They NEED a connection to the divine, and the mystical. For a religion, that is their “why.”
Between embracing rationalism, kicking aside mysticism, and retreating into itself after the Holocaust, Judaism had gone from an ancient and wonderful tradition to one propelled by fear, spite, and anger.
This is the Judaism that took root in America- the Judaism I was born into. A Judaism that was alive and strong, but demanded obedience and adherence out of cultural piety and survivor’s guilt, passing that guilt along to anyone who spoke out.
Imagine hiring a gym trainer who ignored your questions, gave you exercises that hurt or seemed ineffective, and rules you didn’t understand. When you raise objections or concerns, the trainer would sneer at you and say, “This is the way I was taught, this is the way that works. If you don’t like, you must want to be a fat slob forever and I’m wasting my time.”
You wouldn’t stay with that trainer- no one would.
That was the Judaism I was born into, and that was the Judaism I left to become a Buddhist.
“Wow.. ok, Matt, but you consider yourself a Jew now though- I mean, you talk about it all the time. What changed?”
What changed was that I found that that “why” wasn’t the ONLY one Judaism had to choose from. After a few years of being a Buddhist, I had to opportunity to make friends with some Orthodox and Hasidic Jews- the people who held on to the older, ecstatic tradition, rationalism be damned.
Through them, I reacquainted myself first with the aspects of Jewishness I already loved- Jewish food, humor, music, dance, art, etc. The realization that all of this was MY culture- mine by virtue of being born- made me want to seize upon it and learn more.
The first step in my return to Judaism was pushing away the spite, and loving what had been created rather than mourning what was lost.
Then came learning new ways to approach the old elements of Judaism I had learned to hate: the rote prayers could be sung while dancing. The “chosen people” doctrine was not one of superiority, but responsibility. Every custom, ritual, and prayer had untold layers beneath the motions and words, placed there to connect one more deeply to the divine.
If an exercise or a fitness concept isn’t doing anything for you, or you’re not getting anything out of it, try something else. Judaism wasn’t helping me, and so I left until I found something in it that would.
Spite, anger, and guilt is nothing to build a faith on– you need something that empowers and connects you. The Judaism I was raised with was powered by fear and spite- the Judaism I found was powered by joy and self-improvement. You need to find motivations that empower you- a “why” that extends beyond self-loathing, or fear, and toward the thrill of movement and the wish to be better and healthier than you were before.
Seek out connectedness, and look beneath the surface to find ways to elevate yourself toward self-perfection.
Now THAT’S something to build a New Year on.