A Rabbi on Holy Isle
I’m a rabbi. I have experienced hundreds of Shabbat celebrations with Jewish communities of all sorts, in synagogue, at camp, as part of youth groups, leading youth groups, with my family. So how did it come to be that the most unexpectedly joyful, meaningful and deeply spiritual one I ever experienced was with a Christian-born-and-raised Canadian at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center on a Scottish island?
It is an amazing story. And though I am a person of words, I am finding it hard to locate the right ones to describe how this transpired.
I write this article/journal entry sitting at the simple desk in my spartan room at the Centre for World Peace, on the Holy Isle, a mystical jut of an island just off the east coast of Arran, which itself is an island off of Scotland’s southwest coast. This island has been considered holy for centuries. In the 6th century it was the home of a certain St. Molaise, who spent most of his time living in a small cave (which I visited) tucked into the mountainside. The entire island is about 2 miles long and a few hundred yards wide, with a camel-like set of high humps in the center with an apex of about 1200 feet—beautiful views from there. In 1992, the island was purchased by a Tibetan Buddhist organization called the Rokpa Trust. The Holy Isle Project is now directed by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, named Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, who is committed to ensuring that the island itself, and its programs and retreats, provides a sustainable environment, where individuals of the Buddhist faith, of other faiths, and of no faith, can develop and experience inner peace. It sounds lofty. It is.
I arrived here by plane, then train, transferred to ferry, and finally on to a dinghy. The travel was interrupted for a day as a result of stormy weather that made the crossing from the bay of Lamlash, on Arran, over to the Holy Isle simply impossible. As I write this, there is no way of knowing whether weather conditions will permit me to make it back to Arran in order to take dinghy to ferry to train to plane to return to the US. I am here for a weeklong meditation retreat, combining with elements of Qi Gong (pronounced chi-gung) practice, which is an ancient Chinese/Buddhist approach to movement and life-centering in one’s body, as well as some sessions of shiatsu.
I chose this retreat and this island somewhat by happenstance. Having dabbled recently in meditation—exclusively in Jewish settings with Jewish teachers and Jewish fellow meditators—and having brought some of that elemental practice to my spiritual work as a rabbi, and even to members of my professional team as we try to add some mindfulness to work that can become mind-numbing, I knew I wanted to immerse in it more deeply. I happened to have this particular week free on my personal, professional and familial calendar. Add Google to the mix and, voila, I found this meditation retreat that happened to take place over the exact right dates, and in a location whose remote-ness and promise of always-changing Scottish weather drew me in like a magnet. So much of meditation, I am learning, is an acknowledgement and embrace of the ephemeral. Life. Our thoughts and moods. And, yes, the weather. Recognize that thought or feeling that is in your mind right this second. Nod to it. Accept it. Look at it. It will be gone before you know it, replaced by a renewed spiritual landscape, a new emotional sky.
I hesitated before registering. In a lengthy email exchange with Sue Weston, the leader of this particular retreat, I inquired what it would be like for an observant Jew and rabbi to come to such a retreat. Could I yield to the spiritual and cultural norms and expectations of this location and find the space to carry out my own personal observances? She assured me that my faith, and my personal prayers, would be welcome. And also that Shabbat would be no concern. There would be no writing or travel at the retreat, or any other activity inherently at odds with my traditional Shabbat observance. I would easily be able to take part in the retreat’s sessions, say my Shabbat prayers, and have plenty of time to read, rest and recuperate.
So I signed up, quite reassured, and arrived with an open heart and a sense of burgeoning awe for what I was about to experience. Nothing prepared me for the island’s beauty. Its rawness. And the liminal feeling of crossing the bay of Lamlash to an island that, in its entirety, is dedicated to serenity, openness, love and spiritual grounding.
The first few days of the retreat passed momentously in their own right. The Qi Gong was, and continues to be, revelatory for me. As someone who has struggled with a gimpy lower back for years, some of the exercises and movements were reminiscent of what this osteopath or that massage therapist or this chiropractor had offered me before during previous flare-ups. But I soon realized I was learning a spiritual choreography. An ancient, grounded body-wisdom that re-integrates the natural awareness of the body we have when we are pre-sentient babies with the actual muddled and stressed and overly cerebral body with which most of us go through our adult lives. I loved it all instantly.
And the initial days of meditation brought me to an inner voice and body-based tranquility that cleared mental cobwebs, awakened aches for ways of living my life that had been hovering for years but hadn’t burst to the surface, and inspired my thinking regarding how I could bring some of this work and wisdom back to my community, and my family, and link it to the Jewish faith and tradition that so suffuses our lives.
The connections between this far-eastern spiritual body-practice and the inherited layers of Jewish living are far more intimate and shared than one might initially think when considering, for instance, how far apart the life and culture of a Tibetan monk are from those of an observant Jew. Some overlaps and nexuses: The first Qi Gong move we began to master is called Wild Goose. It is an elaborate and incredibly hard-to-master set of moves, breaths and intentions. And some of it is done in sweeping arm motions around the body. Instantly, the move felt familiar, as I realized that how I put my tallit on in the morning, wrapping the woolen cloth around my upper body in a sweeping motion before pausing for a moment of reflection and centeredness and letting it rest on my shoulders, was evocative of this Qi Gong move. Much of Qi Gong is focused on which “leg” you are in, using the hips, sacrum and pelvis to ground yourself and toggle from right to left and back. We took hours to master the simplest shift from one leg to the next, and I realized I was ahead of the class because my own shuckling during davvening, which I learned through osmosis rather than from any one teacher. It closely resembles this shifting, through the midsection of the body, using subtle changes in weight and posture to create a dynamic within prayer.
And then, the bowing. We Jews have forgotten how to bow. Admit it. You know that I am right, even if you are fighting back when reading these words. I watch a Muslim bow, prostrate to the ground, and I am envious. I go the distance during the Aleynu prayer during the High Holidays, and some in the congregation behind me do the same. But it is a bit ersatz. We are fully aware that come the end of Yom Kippur we will return to the nearly knee-less and almost certainly waist-less half-gesticulation that constitutes a bow in most Jewish communities. But in Qi Gong you must bow. Not to a deity. But to open up your body, activate and release your core, and find ways to pour energetic Qi to as many parts of your body as possible. These are bows and dips which are simultaneously painful (particularly for someone as non-limber as I) and cathartic. By day three, I could go deeper and breathe into it. And among a cadre of fellow non-retreaters, not a single one of them Jewish, doing ancient Chinese body-meditation under the auspices of a Tibetan Buddhist holy order, I remembered my Shulhan Arukh, my close reading and study of the traditional code of Jewish law from the 16th century. I remember how much detail went in to Rabbi Yosef Caro’s explanation of how to bow during prayer in such a way such that the soft material between each vertebra is exposed to the air, curving your back all the way over. Was he writing with a sense of body-awareness like the spiritualists from the far east? Or was this merely his translation of talmudic texts that were focused more on obeisance, modesty and utter insignificance relative to the presence of God? I’d like to think a bit of both. By the end of the second day I made a true and binding religious vow to myself never to bow again in prayer without being fully open to the experience.
As hours passed, I became both more open to the practices and forms I was learning for the first time, and blessings and rituals I had done thousands of time but to which I was now returning as if for the first time. For instance, for decades I have had the personal religious practice of saying the “asher yatzar” blessing after relieving myself. It began when I was in yeshiva, with a burst of both frumkeit and awareness/gratitude. But for as long as I can remember the prayer has turned into a mumble. Said quickly and mindlessly on the way to the next meeting or appointment. With no connection to the very body whose functioning I was supposed to be blessing. This week, that blessing has become a symphony to me. Because the meditative and Qi Gong practice is so grounded in the body, I have been reawakened to this blessing’s force. And as I curve my mouth around the words, n’kavim n’kavim, halulim halulim, naming and thanking God for our openings which stay open and our closings which stay closed, I find myself profoundly connected to my intestines, my bowel, and the very miracle of my body’s healthy functioning.
As another example, my blessings before and after meals have been revivified. They, too, I have been saying dutifully for decades. Dutifully, but not always soulfully. It is, admittedly, hard to sustain any spiritual or religious or relational practice at a consistently high level. But at least for this week, my food-gratitude blessings are alive again. Some of our meals are taken in noble silence, within which I feel the crunch of each bite, taste the kaleidoscope of each organic green and grain I am consuming, and am a witness to the activity, often so mundane in our culture (even among those who regularly say blessings) and yet so elemental to our being alive and thus worthy of our continued awe: eating. The meals on Holy Isle are unhurried. What is important is the food, and the company, whether being shared in conversation or in silent presence. And because I truly am grateful for the delicious all-vegetarian (and nearly all-vegan), all-natural meals I have been served, with the ingredients nearly all home-grown and home-cultivated on this island, I am experiencing birkat hamazon (which I have been singing to myself in my head, rather than just rushing through nearly inchoate) as a digestif, both a slow eruption of gratitude and one which in some psycho-spiritual-embodied way is actually aiding my digestion and thus the very miraculous process I am blessing. After one meal I urged myself to conjure the faces of my immediate family as I blessed them in the harahaman section. When my children’s faces emerged in my mind’s eye, a tear fell upon my cheek. When was the last time an oft-said blessing moved me so much? When did it last move you? What would your reaction be if someone began to cry when saying birkat hamazon at a communal Shabbat dinner at your synagogue?
But all of what I just described is a mere prelude to the true and unexpected jolt I experienced on Holy Isle. Let me explain what happened on Shabbat.
I had planned to mark the beginning (and end) of Shabbat as inconspicuously as possible. I did not want to invade, or proselytize. I was a guest. My hosts were Tibetan Buddhists. My peers came for Sue Weston’s Qi Gong and meditation, not Rabbi Kligfeld’s Lecha Dodi. They are very fire-conscious here, and so I asked if there might be a safe place where I could kindle two lights. Oh, and might they have some juice for a special blessing? The on-site director of the retreat center, a humble and gracious Buddhist nun, bowed towards me with her hands clasped at her chest when I made this request. She thanked me for the opportunity to serve my spiritual needs. She provided me two tea-lights, each within a little glass bowl, held in place by dry rice grains. And she procured some sweet cinnamon-pear juice that had been prepared for a previous meal. She bowed towards me again, and not only gave me permission to use them in the main meeting place—Peace Hall—but also asked if I wouldn’t mind doing my ritual in front of the whole retreat, as well as any part-time and long-term volunteers who make up the working staff of this island. Sue, the leader of this retreat, thought the idea was fabulous. I was humbled. And felt a tiny wince of shame, wondering how many Jewish institutions, and retreat centers and synagogues—including my own—would be so tolerant, and even so proactively gracious and inviting, were visiting Buddhists to request the space and accoutrements to perform their religious practice.
And this is how it came to be that at about 8:45 on Friday night on Holy Isle, this rabbi who came to meditate as a lay-person became the local teacher and dramaturg of the Friday night seder shabbat to a group of about 50 spiritual seekers in Peace Hall.
I was not expecting this. And I said as much as I began to talk, having no idea what I would say. I started with a niggun: the one referred to as Neshama’s Niggun, as it is one of the most beloved of all those written by Neshama Carlebach. (Seeing as how our entire week was focused on the breath and the spirit, I thought it appropriate to offer a tune written by a Neshama.) And then I had an outer-body experience, watching myself describe the rationale behind all of our well-known, but also well-worn, Friday night rituals. Waving the hands towards us as the Shabbat candles are kindled, one for zachor, to remember Shabbat, and one for shamor, to observe it; welcoming, inviting and receiving blessing from the Shabbat angels who escort us from services on Friday night and who are the subject/object of Shalom Aleichem; the sweetness of the kiddush juice or wine, including why I was saying a different blessing tonight than I would be had the substance been a grape-based juice or wine rather than the delicious cinnamon-pear juice they provided me; the eshet hayil poem with which I address and praise my wife every week, and then the proffering of a blessing upon the heads of my children, taking the original place of the priests in the desert.
As I went through this litany, there was absolute silence in the group surrounding me. Not just silence. Reverence. I could feel it, palpably. And then I ended with another niggun, explaining how wordless tune has become so central to modern Jewish practice, and how essentially ecumenical such tunes are. For, after all, what tradition owns a particularly musical note, or even a string of them? The ones we generally sing sound Jewish to us. But they aren’t on a categorical level. They just have ascribed Jewish flavor to us. The one with which I ended is the most recent one I learned from Netanel Goldberg, an extraordinary Israeli composer/spiritualist.
Without my asking or inviting them, this group, none of whom expected any part of this week to be an exposure to Jewish music or ritual, started singing. Maybe because their hearts and chests and whole bodies had been so opened by meditation and Qi gong, or maybe because non-Jews are a little less reticent to sing when a rabbi starts singing in front of them than many Jews are when being introduced to—gasp!—a new tune (you know who you are…), whatever the reason, they didn’t just sing. They became an instantaneous choir. The acoustics in Peace Hall are fabulous. The niggun rose and fell, swelled and waned, and ended on a a thoroughly unrehearsed and yet somehow fully harmonic, chord-like coda. I use niggun all the time in my work. In the last few years, I believe we have introduced no fewer than 50 new tunes into our musical repertoire at Temple Beth Am. I love singing with my community. And with my colleagues. And yet I do not remember a more heart-filling and awakened musical or spiritual moment in my life.
The moment ended. People started filing out of Peace Hall, as they had been told (by the nun) that I had my own personal Sabbath prayers to add on to this ritual and they didn’t want to disturb. Some could not help themselves, and came to me to tell me what this experience was like. I promise no embellishment as I convey what some of them said to me.
One said she will remember this moment for the rest of her life. One told me that the last tune, in particular, had helped heal a deeply-held wound in her soul. Then one of them pointed to a large rock on the table that held the Shabbat candles and kiddush cup and asked the significance of the stone in the Jewish ritual practice. We all had a cathartic laugh when I told them that the rock just happened to be on the table and I had decided not to move it. A peer in the retreat suggested I go back to my community saying that I had uncovered an ancient Scottish Jewish rite, that had every Friday night dinner begin with a large, craggy rock smack in the middle of the table.
Eventually the room emptied, and I was left to davven Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv in the waning light, and digest what had just transpired. This particular set of prayers, which I generally loathe to say by myself, were elevated, uplifted and infused with spirit. I sang them all out loud, to myself, in Peace Hall. I sang so full and so loud that at times I wasn’t even sure if my voice were the one making the sound. And I had my childhood and adolescence, and college years, and the members of both congregations I have served in my rabbinate thus far, and the voices and tunes of countless artists and composers as my minyan as I went through the liturgy. There, in Peace Hall, on Holy Isle, on an island with Tibetan Buddhists, and a whole sea of non-Jews, I had Nava Tehila from Jerusalem with me. And Micah Shapiro, a recent graduate of Boston Hebrew College whose tunes for Kabbalat Shabbat have become part of the Beth Am experience. He was there, as was my partner and cantor, Rabbi Hillary Chorny, as I sang her exquisite composition to Psalm 93. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was with me as well, of course. As were the anonymous (at least to me) composers of the traditional Ashkenazi Friday night nusah. I had feared I would be alone on this isle for Shabbat. I have never felt so un-alone in my Jewish practice.
If that were the end of the story, dayenu. It certainly would have been enough. But it was not.
My mini-Shabbat service, I had learned, had quickly become the topic of conversation and curiosity and awe among this sacred community. Throughout the rest of the evening and into the next day, I kept hearing how the experience had moved people. I heard it from people who said it to my face, one of whom said she would only come back for Sue Weston’s retreat if Jewish chanting were a formal part of it. And I heard it from people who were just talking to one another in a different room but within my earshot, explaining that they never understood how spiritual Jewish practice could be. “Do you believe that such love and tenderness is expressed between spouses as Sabbath begins?” “When he blessed his children, in abstentia, I thought of my own children and tears welled up. I wish we had this in our religion.” And I also heard it from another small but important subgroup of people who happened to be with me on this island for Shabbat.
Let me go back a bit. When I had started to sing Shalom Aleichem in Peace Hall, I swore I heard some light singing of the tune, and the words, in the background. But how could that be? When I said the “boreh pri ha’etz” over the pear juice, I almost certainly heard an unbidden “amen,” sung in tune. And by the time I got to the second half of the longer kiddush paragraph, I heard two distinct and clear voices joining in with “ki vanu vaharta, v’otanu kidashta mikol ha’amim…” Among the volunteers on the island and those here for just a getaway but not part of our retreat, were two Jews. They had not previously identified themselves to me, despite my very obvious Jew-y kippah that I had been wearing all week. But they were there. Seeking. Searching. Still, clearly, tune-connected to the religion and people of their origin, but on this island precisely because the Judaism they had fled had never filled their spirits adequately enough to keep them in the game, as it were. I found it a bittersweet irony that they “came out” as Jews, to me and to the rest of the group, by uttering the words of the kiddush that are some of the hardest words to say with a full and non-guilty heart when experiencing beautiful shared spirituality with non-Jews: “For God chose us, and sanctified us, among all the peoples…”
Over the course of Shabbat, I spoke at length to these two Jews, both from Britain. One thanked me for exposing the beauty and sweetness of Judaism in an era, and continent, of what she called rampant anti-Semitism, thus perhaps creating some subtle ambassadors as those on this retreat would go back to their homes and might speak about the nice Jew that they met and the nice rituals he led. The other spoke about the pain of never feeling alive or soul-connected in her Jewish life and education. She grew up in a pretty Jewish part of London. She knew the words and the prayers. And she said hearing the kiddush was a surge of comforting nostalgia for her. But just that. Maybe a hint of what spiritual power there could be in Judaism, but which she had never imbibed. It was hard for her to believe that Judaism and Jewish practice, and particularly traditional Jewish observance could be non-fanatical, embodied, nourishing, intellectually honest, both particular in form and yet universal in aspiration. Had she experienced all of that, she told me, she might never have felt the need to escape to Holy Isle. I told her that I did experience those very parts of Judaism, and try to teach, model and embody them, and I still came to Holy Isle to learn even more ways to animate the Judaism that I love so dearly, but which I know suffers through moribund stretches that call for re-awakening.
As the chatter about the Friday night experience in Peace Hall rose throughout Shabbat morning, there was a swell of curiosity and interest in more Jewish singing. What a nutty phenomenon: You had people who came to a Buddhist meditation and Qi Gong retreat for spiritual healing and centering clamoring for a Jewish rabbi to offer them more niggun sessions. And it wasn’t taking away from the spiritual thrust of the retreat, or the place. It was purely additive.
By mid afternoon, the host Buddhist nun and Sue Weston both came to me, knowing that I would need to end my Sabbath with another short ritual later that night, and asked again whether the entire island could be invited to join. I told them I would be honored, and asked what they thought if we met about 45 minutes before the time for Havdalah for an extended, fully ecumenical, wordless and contentless niggun circle. Formal programming on the island ends at 8:30. Havdalah was set for 9:45. Meeting together in Peace Hall at 9 would not interfere with any of the retreat’s or the island’s volunteers’ normal activities. They were delighted with the idea.
Aspects of this whole dynamic led to some moments that were both sweetly comical (sometimes to me, sometimes to others as well) and also painful (only to me). Some examples. I was struck by the incongruity of my finding a way to make tea on Shabbat afternoon at a Buddhist retreat center using a kli shlishi (“third vessel”), which is how many observant Jews make tea on Shabbat in such a way that does not, according to halakha/Jewish law, violate the obligation of cooking raw food. I will always linger on the “who would have imagined it?” moment when a Buddhist nun asked whether leaning two birthday candles together would be sufficient for Havdalah. Those were sweet. And some painful and internally awkward moments as well. For instance, how do I tell this loving and embracing Buddhist nun what my texts really tell me to say when she innocuously and generously asks whether she can take the extinguished tea-lights thad had served as Shabbat candles and add them to the devotional space in their Buddhist prayer room? By strange coincidence, my regular and rhythmic study of Talmud has me studying, right now, the tractate Avodah Zarah, dealing with the prohibitions of idolatry and of dealings with idolaters. On that very day, I was studying the section that discussed how far away from idolaters’ holidays one must refrain from doing business with them, lest they use something they purchased from you in their practice or even bless you in gratitude in the name of their God(s). I do understand why the Talmud wrote those laws and restrictions. And I am not even convinced that the rabbis, if they really knew enough of Buddhist thought, would have considered practicing Buddhists to be idolaters. But that is sophistry. At the core, I felt that my own tradition, in the midst of it being as welcomed and blessed as could be possible in another religious tradition’s holy place, was shouting out some of its xenophobia and blatant judgment of others’ religious forms. When the nun did indeed ask me that question, I told her I would be honored. I do feel it was the right decision, even if there may be texts that question whether extinguished Shabbat candles ought to end up part of a Buddhist rite.
And my very Shabbat prayers, which as I have said before were so awakened and alive for me, also caught me in some harsh ways. Here I was, relishing in the rest of Shabbat, and utterly grateful for the womb of tranquility being offered to me by a community of non-Jews, hearing my mouth say these words from the Shabbat morning amidah: v’lo n’atto adonai eloheynu l’goyei ha’aratzot. “God, you did not give Shabbat to the nations of the world. Nor did our King bequeath it to idol-worshippers. The uncircumcised will not dwell in its restful embrace.” I believe that on some level. I believe that our Shabbat has unique qualities and characters to it. But it felt insulting, and inaccurate, to utter those words amidst a community of very holy people experiencing a very holy and restful Shabbat though they never uttered a single Hebrew prayer nor had taken upon them the yoke of the Jewish commandments. I felt guilty uttering those words just feet away from people without whose open and embracing hearts this Jew would never have experienced Shabbat’s rest this weekend.
I said the Shabbat afternoon prayers right after a particularly meaningful meditation. My heart and soul were alive and open, and I thought of the wisdom of the Mishnah in tractate Brakhot, where it says that the early pious ones would meditate for a full hour before they would recite their prayers. (Nowadays in shuls if weekday prayer is not fully complete within an hour, someone’s job could be on the line). I recited the Shabbat minha service more awake to the meaning of the words than I have in a long time. That was mostly a blessing. But it came with a wince as well, as when I uttered the self-referential words “mi k’amkha yisrael? Who is like your people Israel?” they sounded jingoistic to my ears. What makes us so special? And the following words in the liturgy took on a different contour than what I imagine is their original intent. “Goy ehad ba’aretz. One nation upon the earth.” The plain meaning is that we, Israel, are the singular nation on this planet. This time, the words echoed for me as a prayer that, even with our disparate forms, languages, liturgies, rites and belief systems, the human community is—could be—one nation upon the earth. And religious communities could and should be leading the charge to that messianic possibility, rather than reinforcing only those boundaries that keep us separate.
If my afternoon of prayers and interactions included some internal hiccups, the end of Shabbat was all glory. All sweetness. Some version of this experience, of course, is repeated and indulged in by Jewish communities—particularly at camp and at youth group retreats—all over the world. Who doesn’t like Havdalah? But something made this Havdalah different than all other. First, we sat in a circle in Peace Hall and we sang. I reinforced the two niggunim I had sung the previous night. Then I introduced them to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s “Rova Niggun,” one of his simplest yet least-known tunes. They picked it up in a second and the room exploded with musical meaning. After that, I taught them Zusha’s “East Shtetl Niggun.” Google it. It is out there, and wacky, and wonderful. I think it was this group’s favorite. I threw in a few more before teaching them the niggun I learned for Havdalah when I was at Yeshivat Hamivtar in 1994, and have been using and teaching ever since. (If my rebbes in yeshiva knew I was teaching their tune to non-Jews at a Buddhist retreat center on Holy Isle…!?). They mastered the tune quickly. We sang it fast and energetic, and then slow and elegiac. I explained how the rituals, and music, of Havdalah are caught in liminality, grateful for the Shabbat we just experienced and yet sad to release our extra soul, not to meet it again until the following Shabbat. I was singing, and explaining, not to proselytize. Or to convert. Or to make people more religious. Or to grow my community. But just to share my love and my spirit, and the sweetness of our notes. Maybe the very absence of pressure or missionary posturing contributed to people’s openness to the notes, and the feeling, of the entire service. I can’t explain the exact pathways, But this Havdalah was triumphant. And transcendent. When we ended I did the simplest thing that Jewish camp counselors and youth leaders learn: grab hands and make a circle. For some reason, this tipped this group over the top. They simple sunk in to the embodied nature of a simple grasp of the hands. Someone started a squeeze and sent it around the room. It wasn’t me, but I felt it come my way and I sent it to the next person. When we were done, we were breathless and breath-full at the same time.
And as a result of this unexpected weekend, there is now a group of 45-50 people, mostly British, but some Canadian, German, Polish, Brazilian, of all ages. Of all sizes. Some seekers. Some in pain. Some committed meditators. Some who had never met a Jew. All of whom who now know of Shlomo Carlebach, and why we look at our fingernails during Havdalah. A group of people who are incredibly touched that a Jewish husband turns and praises his wife when Shabbat begins, and who are humming Zusha’s East Shtetl Niggun to themselves as they go about their work on the Holy Isle. We have a collection of folks, mostly of originally Christian heritage but now on a search for deeper peace and meaning, who, before being serendipitously cloistered on this island with a rabbi from LA had never experienced a specifically Jewish moment, who now understood something that professional Jews like myself spend their time, and careers, trying to get Jews of all ages to understand and embrace: and that is that there is tremendous organic and embodied power to Jewish forms, rituals, music and ways. One told me she felt it to be a true privilege to hear the sounds and be witness to the rituals of the Jewish Sabbath. They understand this organic Jewish spirit so well that they want more of it.
Not of Judaism, per se. They don’t want bar mitzvahs and lulavs. Rather, they want the spiritual force that gushes forth from so many of our traditions, but which have been diluted by over-intellectualization, disconnect from the body, poor education, lack of commitment and raw ennui. How do we get our shuls, and those within them and those who would never set foot in them, to rediscover this path? If we cannot take them all to Holy Isle, how do we bring some of what Holy Isle stands for, and enables, to our established communities? How do we re-open Jews to the treasure of their inheritance? How do we take seriously our role as caretakers of the tradition and refuse to permit the rabbinate and cantorate to be mostly page-calling, stage-directing and expertise-exhibiting when services are on? How do we meet the needs of those who do fill the pews and who are not necessarily interested in having their familiar Judaism be broken down so it can be re-embodied and re-spiritualized…while also meeting the needs and wishes of the Jews who will never find home and retreat in Judaism unless that very surgery takes place? How do we serve what we sense the universe needs from our Judaism and Jewish practice? Which is introducing soulfulness and an open heart, and gratitude, and connection to our bodies and, in the safest of ways, even to others’ bodies as we continue to cherish, observe and also reawaken the unique forms that make up Jewish practice and observance.
The retreat is not yet over. As of writing this, there will be at least two more niggun sessions. One was requested by a few who asked, almost with temerity, whether I would be comfortable if they recorded some of these tunes so that they could bring them back to their lives and families and communities. Would I be OK? Can you imagine it? Church groups in Wales singing the East Shtetl niggun? A choir director in southern England using Calrebach’s Rova niggun as a warm-up for their practice? It is too wonderful to consider. So that recording session will take place, with a room full of singing voices and iPhones set to capture the tunes. And Sue has formally asked me to use niggun to end the retreat itself. As someone who puts an enormous amount of time into how I begin and end sessions that I lead, I am honored and touched to think that what I brought to this experience was sufficiently powerful that Sue, a master presenter and teacher, who I am sure planned exactly how she intended to close the experience, has considered that there would be no better way to end this week together than with my leading some singing. I plan, at that closing session, to introduce words for the first time into our group singing. Not liturgical ones. That would violate the covenant we are all sharing. But I do think that concluding with Od yavo shalom aleynu, v’al kulam would be most appropriate. Indeed, let peace come upon not only us, but upon everyone.
I will, weather permitting, leave this island in a few days. I will take away more that can be named. Certainly, a re-attachment to the words of our prayers that become re-ignited in my consciousness. Including those words said so early on a morning weekday or Shabbat service that sanctuaries are usually still empty by then, and which are usually raced through by those who are there: barukh she’amar v’haya olam: Blessed be the One who spoke, and there was a world. Our words, like God’s in Genesis, can create worlds. And sew worlds and people together. Beyond words, I will leave Holy Isle with a renewed commitment to embodied religious life. In Sue Weston’s words, to outrageous vitality and perkiness, and to being unashamed at having those stances be reflected in my Jewishness, in my rabbinate, in my soul. Will we Jews permit ourselves to be ecstatic? Can we fully live in our bodies as we live our Judaism? Can we accept our hands and feet and heart and chest and pelvis and ears and toes as instruments of our divine work? I aim to try. I aim to try to say “yes” to the nun’s extraordinary offer that I come back and lead a chanting retreat on this Holy Isle, and I hope that perhaps some from my community may join me if it comes to fruition. I aim to accept the wonder that as this group of non-Jews became open to the spiritual power of Judaism and Jewish music, they re-opened me to my own embodied inheritance.
I recited the Aleynu prayer many times this week. I bowed deeply at the appropriate words. But towards the end, in the paragraph almost always said silently in Jewish communities, a few words got caught in my throat. Yakiru v’yed’u kol yoshvei tevel. All the inhabitants of the earth will recognize and know. Ki l’kha tikhra kol berekh. That to You will bow every knee. Tishava kol lashon. That to you will swear every tongue. L’fanekha adonai eloheinu yikhr’eu v’yipolu. That before You, our God, all will prostrate, and all will bend. All that bending before the Divine light. And all that knowing the divine goodness. And all that committing to making that awareness be a spark for acceptance and beauty in the world. And all that permitting our entire bodies and beings be part of our religious practice. All of that? It is happening, here, on Holy Isle. This prayer has Jews being so very concerned that all the peoples of the world will learn this pose, this awareness, this craft. It is worth aspiring to. But when it comes to bowing. And awareness of God’s presence. And fully embodying religious life…can we work on ourselves first?
Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.