Friday, June 16, 2017

Reincarnation and multicultural Awareness

As many of my readers know, I took down my old website a while back. Several people have asked where to find this essay from 20 years ago.  I suppose it is archived somewhere online (nothing ever really vanishes from the Internet) but here it is again.

Multi-cultural Aspects of Reincarnation Studies

A presentation by Rabbi Yonassan Gershom

at the Institute for Discovery Science, Las Vegas, May 1997

If you would converse with me,
define your terms." (Voltaire)


When Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth century Jewish mystic, was asked to write down his teachings for future generations, he replied, "How can I know where to begin? Everything is connected to everything else." And so, he wrote almost nothing at all about his personal spiritual experiences -- not because such experiences did not exist, but because he was at a loss as to how to put them on paper without limiting them to a narrow, linear format.

I have often thought that Rabbi Luria would have been right at home on the World Wide Web, which would have allowed him to structure his writings more closely to his actual inner experiences. The Web resembles the common format of Jewish theological discussions, in that it does not have a defined starting place, nor does it have any specified end. You simply jump in wherever you are at in the moment, and every page is the "right" page for beginning the discussion.

In the Talmud, for example, everything is indeed connected to everything else. The usual lines between religion, science, history, culture, folklore, philosophy and spirituality are not so clearly drawn in Judaism as in Euro-American thought. To interact with traditional Jewish thought is to enter a spiritual ecosystem which does not have clear boundaries between "science and religion" or "secular and sacred." To an observing Jew, eating kosher food (a seemingly mundane physical act) is just as "spiritual" as sitting in contemplative prayer all day. Why? Because, from the standpoint of Jewish theology, everything in the universe is related to Jewish practice. Judaism is about the totality of life itself, not "religion" as a separate category. This is why the Bible itself begins with the story of the Creation of the entire Cosmos, not the story of Moses and the Jewish people alone.

Over the years, when speaking to non-Jewish audiences, I have learned that it is better for me to explain this "spiritual ecosystem" approach of Judaism right from the start, lest the audience begin to wonder, halfway through my presentation, whether or not I have lost the thread of logic altogether. So today I ask your indulgence for this twenty-minute period, and ask you to trust that it will all come together in the end.




The topic assigned to me is to discuss experiences in the field of reincarnation studies. As you probably already know, I am the author of two books describing anecdotal cases histories of individuals who believe that they are reincarnated souls who died in the Holocaust. I do not limit my own interest in reincarnation to the Holocaust period alone, but, because I am a rabbi who write on this subject, I have become a focal point for this type of case.

I came to reincarnation studies from the standpoint of two very traditional schools of Jewish thought -- Chassidism and kabbalah -- which have believed in reincarnation for many centuries. I, too, believe in reincarnation. Therefore, the existence of reincarnation was never in question, and the idea of people reincarnating from the Holocaust was not shocking or surprising. I was not concerned with whether or not these experiences are "real" in the objective sense. Rather, I was interested in healing the deep emotional pain which these people carried in their souls. The people who come to me do not come for purposes of scientific research, but to find some type of religious and/or spiritual context on their own personal journeys.

When I first began collecting reincarnation anecdotes over 15 years ago, I was very naive about things like scientific method and statistical analysis. I had never even heard of "false memory syndrome" or cryptonesia. After all, I'm a rabbi, not a clinical psychologist! In my first book I described myself as a lone inventor who, while puttering around in his basement, accidentally stumbled upon something that works. I still affirm that description of myself today. I know that what I have found does work as a form of healing therapy, but at times I have not got the faintest idea -- from a scientific standpoint at least -- as to how or why it works.

Over the years, as I have listened to hundreds of narratives and also learned more about parapsychology, there have been a number of questions which have arisen in my mind, regarding the nature of these memories. For example:

1) How does one determine which past-life stories are true, and which are fantasies?

2) Do we accept only those for which physical evidence or other documentation can be found?]

3) Do we also give credit to stories for which no "proof" is available, but which nevertheless seem historically accurate?]

4) Are there cultural biases which determine our decision to accept or reject certain anecdotal evidence as plausible?

5) Does the choice of therapist or regression technique affect the experiences of the subjects?

6) Are we sometimes unconsciously skewing our study samples because we fail to take cultural differences into consideration?

To explore this question, I will now share some watershed experiences from the past two decades that I have been involved in this field. In essence, I am going to take you on a quick hyper-tour through some of my personal "brain-sites" -- places in my mind where key experiences sent my thinking in a new direction.

Brainpage #1: 
When I was growing up in America, I heard a nursery rhyme about "four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" and "when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing -- wasn't that a dandy dish to set before the king!" This ditty never made any sense to me, because American blackbirds -- be they grackles, crows, cowbirds or whatever -- do not sing. They make a raucous squawking sound that would hardly be a suitable gift for a king! So the imagery in this poem always puzzled me -- until I went to Europe on a speaking tour, and heard the European blackbird, which does indeed sing! Although it looks black like our blackbirds, it is, in fact, from a totally different genus -- the thrushes -- and is more closely related to the American Robin. Suddenly, I understood the nursery rhyme.

For the rest of that European tour, this story was my a paradigm for me to explain the pitfalls of inter-cultural dialogue in relation to reincarnation and afterlife studies. It is perfectly possible for two people from two different cultures to be using the exact same words and/or imagery to describe and experience, but hear them in very different ways. That insight became my theme for the rest of that speaking tour, and becomes the connecting thread for the rest of the seemingly unrelated -- but closely interwoven -- narratives I will share here.

Brainpage #2:
 Right from the start, I inadvertently skewed the sample in my first book by failing to take into account a vast cultural difference between Jews and non-Jews. I am not talking about religion per se, nor am I talking about what Jews and Christians believe about going to heaven. No, it's much more subtle than that. I'm talking about a basic behavioral difference that manifests itself among even the most secularized Jews and gentiles.

That important difference is this: Gentiles frequently tell their personal stories in public, but Jews usually do not. In the traditional Jewish world, it is not the usual practice for people to share their private dreams, visions, and other spiritual experiences in a book. This is not about shame or embarrassment -- it is about modesty and humility. How so? Because the Talmud says that the Biblical prophets only wrote down those dreams and prophecies which were intended for the entire Jewish people as a whole, for generations to come. Certainly they also has personal dreams and visions, but these were kept private, to be discussed only one-to-one with a teacher or fellow prophet.

Thus, from a very early point in Jewish history, a social pattern was established, whereby one does not publicly reveal a personal dream or vision from the pulpit, because that would be tantamount to declaring oneself to be a prophet. This attitude has carried down through the centuries so that today, even in modern secular situations such as AA groups or other 12-step recovery programs, Jews are often very uncomfortable with the testimonial format -- so much so, that many Jewish-sponsored recovery and support groups do not use this format at all.

On the other hand, the non-Jewish world in America has a long history of telling one's story in public. Many Christian sects testify in front of the congregation, while the above-mentioned 12-step programs also use this method of processing personal problems. In the New Age community, too, we find a plethora of holistic therapies which are based upon telling your dreams and visions. And, of course, in the world of psychology, the group therapy format is common.

Given this vast difference in cultures, is it any wonder that, when I put out a call for Holocaust reincarnation stories, I got twice as submissions from gentiles as from Jews? Unfortunately, based upon this totally unscientific sample, I naively reported that "two thirds of the cases came back as non-Jews," and this blooper has come back to haunt me ever since. But I learned a great lesson as well; we are indeed products of our cultures, every one of us, and hidden biases do sometimes lead us to make serious mistakes in research.

Brainpage #3: 
A past-life therapist is working on a book about people who believe that they were the opposite sex in their previous incarnation. Her editor thought the book was not well-balanced because all of here case histories were about women who believe they were men in a previous life. When she told me about this, I was puzzled, because it is a statistical fact that transexuality (a prime possibility for transgendered reincarnation) occurs more often from male-to-female (where a man has a sex change to a woman), and it would seem logical that transsexuals might be possible subjects for a study on the transgender soul experience. Why, then, was she unable to find any men who thought they were women in another life?

Several possibilities came to my mind:

1) Western society feels less threatened by masculine women than by effeminate men, so it would probably be more difficult for a man to say he believed he was once a woman in another life, because he would fear being called effeminate in this life;

2) Politically-correct gay and lesbian theory often discredits the idea of "women trapped in men's bodies," so cases from that quarter might not come forward;

3) Transexuals often distrust psychologists, so they may not open up about their inner beliefs in a clinical setting;

4) In general, more women than men seem to be interested in psychical topics (judging by the audiences that I see), so it might be that more women than men are willing to participate in the study;

5) The researcher herself is a woman, so maybe women are more willing to open up to her than men would be.

All of these possible factors might contribute toward skewing the sample. The obvious solution, of course, would be to look for volunteers from other areas of society besides the therapy community. It will be interesting to see if publishing her research attracts a more balanced sample in the future. In my case that is certainly what happened. After my first book came out in 1992, many Jews apparently felt that, because the book was written by a rabbi, it gave them "permission" to talk about their own Holocaust reincarnation experiences in public. Suddenly I was inundated with calls and letters from Jews who also had past-life memories of dying in the Holocaust -- so much so, that I now believe the majority of Jewish victims probably came back as Jews again in the post-war generations.

Brainpage #4: 
A recent study by Sukie Miller on what different religions and cultures believe about the afterlife made the totally inaccurate statement that "formal Judaism has no teachings about life after death." When I asked the researcher (who is herself Jewish) what she meant by "formal Judaism," it turned out that she was speaking primarily of modern American Judaism as experienced by the (in her words) "man-on-the-street." This is hardly formal Jewish theology! As every clergyman knows, the "man on the street" can be woefully ignorant of what his or her religion actually teaches.

I then asked Miller if she had interviewed any Chassidic [Hasidic] Jews (who not only believe in an afterlife, but in heaven, purgatory, and reincarnation as well!) No, she replied. The questionnaires had gone out mostly to Jewish students and colleagues in her university circle. Unfortuately, such "cultural Jews" tend to be assimilated, very secularized, and not actively practicing or studying Judaism. In many cases, their understanding of Judaism does not come from actual exposure to the religious texts and commentaries, but from folklore that has filtered down (often very inaccurately) from family members who are descendants of Jews who used to be religious. Even worse, secular ideas about Judaism often reflect the dominant culture's attitudes about the "Old testament" which are not really Jewish at all.

In other words, Miller's much-touted research did not really get a cross-section of what formal Judaism teaches about the afterlife -- only a sample of what secularized Jewish academians think it teaches -- which, in many cases, turns out to be "when you are dead, you're dead." By failing to include the more mystical branches of Judaism, such as the Chassidic Jews (who do not, as a rule, attend secular universities), the researcher inadvertently mis-informed the public that "formal Judaism" has no teachings about life after death.

Brainpage #5: 
In my second book, From Ashes to Healing, there is a detailed description of the afterlife by a woman named Abbye Silverstein. Silverstein is Jewish in this life, and grew up in a home where the Sabbath and holiday observances were a part of family life. She also believes that she was Jewish in her previous life, again from a traditionally-observant family. So naturally, she understands her past-life memories within a totally Jewish context.

Under hypnosis, Silverstein described how she had died in a car accident around the time that Hitler came to power. She does not, therefore, have memories of the Holocaust itself, but she does claim to remember working in the spirit world as a healer for Jewish souls who died in the camps. She described their astral bodies as being "crippled" and "mangled" because of the pain and torture they had experienced. In order for them to be able to heal spiritually, the angels created an area in heaven which was a duplication of the villages that the Nazis had destroyed. There they were re-united with their families and friends. After spending some healing time in this nurturing Jewish environment, the souls were ready to reincarnate on earth again -- as Jews born in the post-war "baby boom" generation.

The public reaction to Silverstein's story has been very informative from the standpoint of multi-cultural awareness. By and large, Jews relate to it very well. So do people who have been abused in this life. Both groups understand the need to have a safe place where abuse victims can heal without fear of further abuse. Just as a rape survivor might need to spend time in an all-woman therapy group in order to be able to open up about her feelings from this experience, so, too, might Jewish souls feel more comfortable healing among other Jews who can understand the deep levels of their pain and suffering.

On the other end of the spectrum, many New Agers do not relate to Silverstein's story at all. New Age teaches that we must experience a smorgasbord of cultures in different lifetimes in order to grow spiritually. So the idea of a soul coming back repeatedly into the same culture is rejected outright -- well, almost. Because although New Age Thought resists the idea of Jews coming back as Jews, it apparently has no problem with Tibetans coming back as Tibetans. In numerous instances where somebody in the audience has told me that coming back as a Jew over and over again would be spiritually limiting, I have asked if they felt the same way about the Dalai Lama coming back for fourteen incarnations as the Dalai Lama. Not once has anybody told me that the Dalai Lama was spiritually limited because of this!

When the same experience -- being reborn into the same culture for many lifetimes -- is interpreted as "spiritual" for Tibetans but "limited" for Jews, we have to ask ourselves: are we seeing a subtle form of antisemitism at work? If so, is it possible that similar prejudices color our perceptions of other reincarnation stories? And does this prejudice, in turn, affect the sample of people who are willing to be included in these studies?

As I travel from place to place, speaking in front of numerous audiences, I cannot help but notice that the vast majority of New Agers in America are middle-class, dominant culture people of European background. Which raises yet another question: Are New Age perceptions of the afterlife really universal, or are they, too, culturally limited?

Brainpage #6:
 I was in Berlin, speaking at a conference on "Reincarnation and Karma," sponsored by the Anthroposophical Society. Anthroposophy is a European esoteric philosophy that was founded at the turn of the twentieth century by the German philosopher and psychic, Rudolf Steiner. (Best known to the American public as the founder of the Waldorf method of education.) Anthroposophists believe in reincarnation.

So far, so good. However, when we began to dialogue in more depth, it became apparent that there are some very big differences in theory between what Anthroposophists believe about the levels of the soul, and what I as a Chassid believe. These differences, in turn, tended to affect how we interpreted the value of reincarnation anecdotes. I was told [by several Anthroposophists] that descriptions of the afterlife which include detailed physical imagery -- such as Abbye Silverstein's past-life memories referred to above -- could not be very deep spiritual experiences, precisely because they are so detailed!

Among American researchers of esoteric subjects, the more detailed the descriptions, the more credible they seem to us. But from the standpoint of Rudolf Steiner's philosophy, such clearly-formed visions would belong to the lower astral planes, while the higher planes are like unformed swirls of undifferentiated energy.

My mind raced back to my first impression of the children's art work at the Waldorf school in Minneapolis. Nobody was drawing houses, horses cars and trucks -- the usual things children make in primary school art class. Instead, the walls were covered with artwork that was literally fuzzy around the edges, without clearly-defined forms and boundaries. To me, all the childrens' painting looked alike. I saw no individuality in them at all -- even though Anthroposophy places a strong emphasis on the development of individuality. So what was going on here?

I later spoke at the Goetheanum -- the Anthroposophist headquarters in Dornach, Switzerland -- where I saw that the artwork on the walls was also done in the same abstract swirls of pastel colors. This, I was told, is because the paintings represented the creative energy of higher spiritual worlds. Clearly, the Anthroposophists have been conditioned from childhood to "see" these swirling colors as representing something spiritual. But are they "higher levels" than the more concrete details that others experience in visions? Or are they just one more way that a specific culture expresses a generic experience?

Brainpage #7:
I thought about the concrete, detailed vision-drawings of Black Elk, the Lakota Indian medicine man whose well-known story is told in the book, Black Elk Speaks. In his view of the afterlife, Black Elk saw horses and buffalo, trees and prairies. He saw the Tree of Life in full flower, and his tribe living on the prairie as free people more. I see a closer parallel with Silverstein's heavenly villages rather than the Anthroposophist swirls of energy. In fact, if Black Elk had seen the vague swirling forms painted by the Anthroposophists in Brainpage #4 above, he might have thought that he failed to have any vision at all!

I investigate further and find that many Native Americans, like the Jews, believe that one normally reincarnates in one's own tribal culture. I also learn that the Druse, a middle-eastern tribal culture, believe that a Druse always reincarnates as a Druse again. And many Druse children do describe memories of a past life which are quite accurate, to the point of recognizing family members from the previous life. Yet tribal peoples (and I include Jews here as tribal) are vastly under-represented in reincarnation studies. Are we missing something here?

Brainpage #8: 
A psychic from an esoteric Christian background visited the site of one of the Nazi concentration camps, and sensed the presence of earthbound Jewish spirits there. The psychic tried to convince then to "go into the light," but the earthbound souls were totally terrified to do so. The Christian psychic concluded, based on her own theology, that this was because Jews do not accept Jesus, who is called "The Light of the World." She saw the earthbound souls as stubborn Jews who refuse to accept "releasement" and be free.

When I heard this story, I immediately saw another possible interpretation: In the concentration camps, to go into a bright light meant being caught in the searchlights, which, in turn, could mean being shot by the guards. To hide in darkness was safety; light was danger. Over and over, Holocaust survivors have told how they huddled together in darkness, fearing at any moment that somebody would shine a flashlight into their hiding place. For such souls, "go into the light" has a totally different meaning! The souls refused to go, not because they were Jews against Jesus, but because they were terrified of being captured and tortured.

Unfortunately, this type of misunderstanding is very common -- even in scientific circles -- when it comes to Jews and Judaism. Many academians from Christian backgrounds, who believe themselves to be totally objective, nevertheless are so conditioned to see Judaism in a negative light, that they unconsciously make negative assumptions about Jewish reincarnation cases which they probably would not make if the same details appeared in non-Jewish cases. Nor do they appreciate me pointing out this unconscious bias.

I recently had a scientist tell me that he would prefer for me to speak as a "generic theologian" rather than as a Jew per se. From his viewpoint, it was possible to discuss "God" and "afterlife" without bringing in any specific religion. But from my viewpoint, this is an impossibility. Why? Because so much of Western theology simply assumes the Christian viewpoint in such subtle ways, that I, as a Jewish theologian, must begin by defining his terms and explaining how words like "Heaven," "soul," "salvation," "prophecy," etc. have very different meanings. Say "Heaven," and a Christian automatically pictures angels on clouds, while a religious Jew pictures scholars learning Torah in the Garden of Eden. Both cultures use the word "Heaven," but the word itself means very different things. Which brings us full circle to where we started -- with the story of the European and American blackbirds.

An ongoing conclusion

These are just a few of the "brainpages" which I try to keep in mind as I travel and speak in multi-cultural situations. Is it possible to completely set aside one's own cultural background when evaluating the reincarnation stories? Probably not. But if we can remain consciously aware that these differences exist, then perhaps we can begin to broaden our understanding of reincarnation through contact with cultures which, up to this point, have been inadvertently excluded from this area of study in Western circles. It is my hope that as we enter the 21st century, we will begin to see how, as Rabbi Luria saw five centuries ago, everything is, indeed, interconnected with everything else.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Parable of the Rooster Prince

A tale of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

(As told by Yonassan Gershom)

Once there was a prince who went mad and insisted he was a rooster. He sat on under the table naked, clucking and eating his food off the floor. The king had tried everything to cure him, but nothing worked, and he was in despair. How could this mad son of his ever grow up to inherit the kingdom?

Then a Hasidic Rebbe arrived and said he could cure the prince. The king was desperate, so he said, "OK, fine, go ahead, I'll try anything..."

So the Rebbe took off his clothes and sat under the table, pretending to be a chicken, too. The king was totally shocked. No doubt he had expected the Rebbe to argue with the prince or try to verbally beat it out of him. But the Rebbe knew what he was doing. And so, sitting there under the table, he got to know the Rooster Prince.

Then one day, the Rebbe called for a pair of pants and began putting them on. The Rooster Prince objected, saying, "What do you mean, wearing those pants? You're a rooster -- a rooster can't wear pants!"

"Who says a rooster can't wear pants?" the Rebbe replied. ":Why shouldn't I be warm and comfortable, too? Why should the humans have all the good things?"

The Rooster Prince thought about this for a while. The floor under the table was very cold and uncomfortable.. So he asked for pants, too, and put them on.

The next day, the Rebbe asked for a warm shirt, and began to put it on. Again the Rooster Prince objected: "How can you do that? You are a rooster -- a rooster doesn't wear a shirt!"

":Who says so?" said the Rebbe. "Why shouldn't I have a fine shirt, too? Why should I have to shiver in the cold, just because I'm a rooster?"

Again the Rooster Prince thought about it for a while, and realized that he was cold, too -- so he put on a shirt. And so it went with socks, shoes, a belt, a hat.... Soon the Rooster Prince was talking normally, eating with a knife and fork from a plate, sitting properly at the table -- in short, he was acting human once more. Not long after that, he was pronounced completely cured.

Moral of the Story?

Instead of condemning the prince for being mad and acting like a rooster, the Rebbe was willing to meet him where he was and then go forward from there. Of course the prince was not really a rooster -- but the Rebbe did not try to argue him out of his madness. That would have been useless. Instead, the Rebbe began with positive reinforcement of things that the prince was willing to do, knowing that he would eventually drop the crazy "rooster business" on his own.

Sure, there were in-between stages where the prince still thought he was a rooster but was already beginning to act like a human. Similarly, there are stages in tshuvah (repentance) where a person may be only halfway there, keeping some of the mitzvot (Torah commandments) but not others. So maybe the guy keeps kosher already, but is not yet observing the Sabbath completely. He's on his way, but not there yet. But does the non-observance of some mitzvot invalidate the mitzvot he is doing? Not as far as I know, because each mitzvah has a value in itself.

Repentance is an ongoing process, not a static state of perfect observance. Nobody is totally observant, and nobody is totally sinful. We all fall someplace in the middle. As the Midrash says: Even the biggest sinners in (the people) Israel are as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds. We are all still traveling on that continuum somewhere.

The important thing is not whether we are doing everything perfectly, because nobody but God can do it perfectly, and none of us are God. The important thing is for our Jewish experience to be continuously growing toward an ever greater level of observance.

So, when a Jew says to me, " Look, I'm Reform, we don't do such-and-such like the Orthodox...": then I reply, "Why not? Who says a Reform Jew can't do such-and-such, too? The Torah was given to all of the Jews, and all of the mitzvot belong to all of the Jews -- so a Reform Jew can do anything that a Hasid can do."

Or, if a New Age Jew says to me that he believes in angels and reincarnation and spiritual healing, then I say, "OK, fine -- so did the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, and so do most Hasidim today! So Let's look at some of the Jewish sources for these things..."

For each Rooster Prince that I meet in the world, I try to find that point of commonality. At sci-fi conventions, I have led discussions about Jewish Themes in Star Trek. In New Age groups, I will focus more on the esoteric ideas in Hasidic thought, etc. With gardeners and farmers, I can talk about the wonders of God's Creation and how all things are singing His praises... and so forth. In this way, I seek to meet each person where they are at, and bring them closer to the Torah, which ultimately contains all of these things -- and so much more!!!

The Torah -- in its broadest sense as the totality of all Jewish teachings -- encompasses everything on earth. M'lo kol ha-aretz k'vodo -- "The whole world is filled with God's glory." So in everything and in every place -- even the darkest, remotest corner of the universe -- one can still find a bit of God's light, even if that light is obscured by layers and layers of seemingly crazy ideas. I look for those points of holy light, the points of agreement where we can understand each other, and then go forward from there. This is the Hasidic way.

(© copyright 1997 by Yonassan Gershom. From my old now-defunct website 20 years ago -- and still relevant!)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Cleaning for Passover: Don't be a fanatic!

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, once got so caught up in an obsession about getting rid of chometz (leavening) before Passover that it almost drove him crazy.  During Passover, not only is it forbidden to eat chometz, it is forbidden to own it or derive any benefit from it at all.  So he started worrying about whether or not there would be chometz in the water used during the festival.  What if someone had dropped a piece of bread down the well?  That could taint the whole water supply.  Even the tiniest bit of chometz would render the water unusable for the whole eight days of the festival.

After much deliberation and minute examination of every possible halachic detail, Rebbe Nachman finally came to the conclusion that the only way to be absolutely, positively sure there was no chometz in the water would be to camp out next to a spring in the woods where the water bubbled up fresh and uncontaminated.  The problem was, the only such spring was a long way from his home.  If he went there, then he would be away from his family, his friends, his disciples, and the whole Jewish community.  Was that any way to celebrate a festival?

In the end, Rebbe Nachman decided that such ultra-strictness was unnecessary, even on Passover.  Being overly rigid killed the joy and led to depression.  Don’t be a fanatic, he taught, and do not worry yourself sick with unnecessary restrictions. “The Torah was given to human beings, not the ministering angels.”

That’s good advice.  And lest you think this obsession with “the letter of the law” is limited to Orthodox Jews, let me assure you that it occurs among secular people also.  Rebbe Nachman’s lesson came to mind a while back when I received an email about a vegan woman who had decided to take her practice to the ultimate ethical vegan level and refuse to eat anywhere meat, fish, eggs, or dairy were being served.  Basically, this meant hanging out only with other vegans in vegan restaurants, vegan homes, or at vegan events.

This ultra-strictness also resulted in her walking out on a reunion of family and friends that she had really been looking forward to, because they were serving meat. It was not enough that the organizers were willing to provide her with a vegan meal. Unless everyone there refused meat, the entire event was, to mix cultural metaphors, not kosher.

Many people in the vegetarian community probably lauded her utmost devotion to the cause. But if I were to do that, it would mean never eating with anyone but my wife.  We are vegetarians (not vegans) and we live in a rural where most of my family, neighbors and associates are not vegetarians, let alone vegans.  If I followed that woman's advice to the letter, I would end up in an isolated social bubble, not unlike what would have happened if Rebbe Nachman had decided to camp out next to the spring in the forest during Passover.

It was this kind of fanaticism that Rebbe Nachman warned against.  Yes, we must clean house, search out all leaven and remove it, change the kitchen utensils over to the Passover set, etc.  But don't drive yourself insane doing it.  Don't make it a burden that kills the joy of the holiday.

This is why we have the bitul chametz procedure for declaring any leaven we might have missed to be null and void.  This is not a mere legality.  The rabbis who enacted this rule long ago were aware of the human tendency to obsess over things. There is always the possibility that we missed a bread crust the kids dropped somewhere.  Or maybe a guest you invited for the Seder isn't as thorough as you are, and dropped some crumbs from his pocket on the living room rug.  Or a mouse stored grain in the walls of your house... A person can go on and on about this kind of worry.

However, if we have done due diligence to remove all the leaven we know about, then renounced all ownership of what we might have missed, then dayenu, enough. Time to move on and celebrate!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Book Review: "The 99 Names of God" by Daniel Thomas Dyer

Daniel Dyer, author and illustrator of this beautiful children's book, has created a wonderful set of lessons for connecting with God's presence in the world around us.  Although The 99 Names is intended for Muslim children, it's really a treasure for all ages and faiths. In fact, it could be used as a basic primer on spirituality, and would be a fine addition to any religious library. I defy anyone to read this book and not come away with a deeper appreciation of God's presence in the universe.

In a time when there is so much misinformation (and hostility) about Islam in the Western world, this book goes a long way toward opening a window on what true Islam is really like. If there's one thing Jews and Muslims have in common, it's the plethora of hostile websites claiming to "unmask" us by taking quotes out of context and compiling lists of every negative thing ever said by any of us anywhere.  For years it has been an uphill climb for me to convince non-Jewish readers that we Jews even have any spirituality. Recent dialogues with Muslim teachers have shown me that they, too, have this same struggle. Hence my delight in finding this very accessible book.

A sunset reminds us of God/Allah
as The Majestic One
The author begins by explaining that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. In Arabic-speaking countries, non-Muslims -- including Christian priests -- also call God "Allah."  This is an important point, since many Christians in America assume that Allah is a separate deity from the Creator in Genesis. I have more than once been told that Muslims worship Allah, not God, which is as absurd as saying that Germans worship Gott and the French worship Dieu as separate deities. In fact, "Allah" comes from the same Semitic root as "Elohim," the name of God used in the first chapter of Genesis.

God/Allah is the Giver of Life 
Here again, Muslims and Jews have something in common, namely, the distortion of our God-language in the American public mind.  Non-Jews tends to think of the "Jewish God" as an "angry Jehovah" (which, by the way, is not how YHVH is pronounced) and some even go so far as to claim that Jews don't believe in God at all.  The "Muslim God," Allah, is seen as nothing but a cruel warmonger. Both of these are negative stereotypes that purposely disguise the fact that all three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- worship the same Creator of the universe.

This book serves as a primer for teaching us that true Islam is indeed a peaceful, reverent path that respects all life. Dyer, who is a British convert to Islam, was initially attracted to the faith through the poetry of Jalal'u'Din Rumi, a thirteenth century Persian mystic and scholar who taught: “Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.” Rumi saw the evidence of God's presence everywhere.  This poetic universalism comes across in the book, teaching children to build bridges, not walls, among the faiths and peoples of the world.

Jalal'u'Din Rumi
Each lesson in The 99 Names has one or two Names (depending on context) in Arabic calligraphy, transliteration, English translation, and a quote from the Quran using the Name. This is followed by a simple but meaningful explanation of how that aspect of God is manifested in the world around us. Also included are teachings and stories from the Prophets and various Muslim sages, both male and female, and positive references to other religions.

Most non-Muslims (including me) would be hard put to name 99 different attributes of God -- which is what the Names really are. God is the Compassionate, The Merciful, the Sovereign, The Holy, the Source of Peace... and so many more. This, I believe, is a great gift that Islam has brought to the world at large, to remind us of how many different ways God manifests his/her Presence.  All too often, we limit God to a single attribute -- such as Love or Peace -- and forget how all-encompassing Omnipotence really is. Love is an attribute of God, yes. But God is so very much more.

A cat manifests God/Allah's
attribute of Watchfulness
I have gained a lot of new insights from contemplating the lessons that author Daniel Dyer sees in these Holy Names.  As author of a nature blog, I especially like the way the lessons connect the Names with nature, encouraging the reader to look for God's ways in all things. (The nature photos here are my own, not from the book. They are examples of how I see God/Allah's presence through the eye of my camera.)

 Once again,  Muslims and Jews are on a similar quest, to bring our urbanized children more in harmony with the wonders of God's world and our responsibility to care for it. This is where all people can come together in harmony, since we live on one earth. (I was also happy to read that Muhammad loved cats.  Readers of this blog know that I do, too!)

Each lesson has a "Signs of (Name)" section, with many examples taken from nature.  The cat, for example, is Watchful, pairs of geese are Faithful, a sunrise is Glorious.  The lessons also have a "Reflections and activities" section where children and parents can discuss/do things together. As author Dyer explains in his introduction,  "No answers are contained in this book. The important thing is that we learn to ask questions, reflect, research, and discuss with others to arrive at out own considered point of view."  Rather than being a book of dogmas, it is a map for exploration.  I highly recommend it.

(This essay was updated by the author on April 5, 2017)