My words are underlined and Reb Zalman's words are in regular font. Some personal questions I asked are not included in this posting.
There are a large number of Jewish students at Naropa and I’ve also encountered a lot of the Jews I grew up with, a lot of them have explored Yoga and things like New-Age and basically I grew up in sort of a secular Jewish house-hold, like culturally Jewish.
Calgary, in Canada.
And we have the biggest synagogue when I was growing up was Conservative.
I know, I was in both Conservative and the Reform synagogue just last year.
[Reb Zalman and I then discussed specific things about Calgary’s Jewish community]
And I guess the first thing I want to ask is in your opinion why are many young Jews especially in my generation wandering from what they’ve been brought up with.
They haven’t been brought up with anything good. That’s to begin with. No, I’m not kidding about that because they have been thinking that the Jewish education consists of getting a parrot ready to parrot at the Bar-Mitzvah day all the right things in the synagogue and then forget about it. In fact, that was the implicit promise that parents made, you only have to go on until after your Bar Mitzvah. The teachers themselves were very often people who were looking, I’m not saying this in a happy way, because very often they were Israelis who were looking for a way of making a living and they came to a synagogue and said “I’m a Hebrew teacher” because they could speak Hebrew and so on and so forth but they had no way of talking about how to meet God in prayer, what to do in synagogue on a spiritual level and so on and so forth. So, when I was in the two synagogues that’s what I was talking about, how to connect with something. So that all the kids who grew up were saying “alright, that’s my tradition and I’ll try and be nice to it” but it doesn’t cut any ice as far as I’m concerned. Because it doesn’t help my in any way in which I can find my place in the Universe. So then they went and looked at Yoga and sometimes drugs in order to find some way of getting to the expansion of mind and soul and heart. And then some people come to Naropa because at Naropa there’s a promise that there’s something more that’s going to happen then the academic stuff. And they call it contemplative education.
Is there a way for the Jewish community to catch up?
That’s what we are doing, that’s what Jewish Renewal is all about. In fact, you have a wonderful professor there, Reb Zvi, who himself has come out of a good Orthodox family and education and who has the equivalent of what you would expect like a Doctor’s degree in Jewish Studies, serious Jewish Studies. And at the same time he’s also a person who has experienced other things. And he is an excellent person to do that at Naropa. When I was teaching at Naropa I would say at a seminary you are a prescriptive teacher, you tell people what to do. At an academic institution you are descriptive. You tell people what this is all about so they see it objectively. At Naropa you can be both prescriptive and descriptive. And that’s why I enjoyed teaching there when I was.
Here’s a question I often ask for myself. It has to do with the whole notion of continuing on in a culture or in the tradition.
Well let me say something so we can get things straight. There was a time when we could drive with horse and buggies. I am not interested in creating a culture in which horses and buggies are still going to continue. People always want to say what works for them. The problem was that in the time when we lived in ghettos and enclose enclaves it was much easier for a person to stay in the traditional role because they didn’t really have a choice. You were not a Jew by choice. You were a Jew by birth and by the enclave in which you belong. Nowadays every Jew is a Jew by choice. And if you don’t want to be you are not. And it’s so interesting that many young people after they have done the army service in Israel will be going to India and to some other places where to find out what it’s all about. The great thing in Jewish Renewal and the work that we have done is to view the issue differently. And that’s why I wrote a book called Paradigm Shift using the notion of paradigm shift in Judaism to say that the Judaism we had until Aushwitz, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Moon walk, and so on, that one has to be transcended has to be moved into the next level of growth. A paradigm shift has occurred. And in this paradigm shift we are looking at how people saw Earth from outer space. That was such a remarkable shift that now we look at Gaia and we start saying there are no borders when you look at Earth from outer space. That was such a remarkable shift that now we look at Gaia and we start saying there are no borders when you look at Earth from outer space. You don’t see where Canada ends and the United States begins for instance. So it’s very clear that we have to think of one whole Earth. In a whole Earth every religion is like a vital organ of the planet. And therefore Judaism is a necessary vital organ. It’s impossible for a person to live without a liver. And so I think if Judaism were gone there would be a vital organ missing on the planet. And that goes for every other religion.
I guess the question for me then is if someone’s brought up in Judaism and maybe they’re not exposed to something that they connect with whether it’s through a fault of the educator or just something about them doesn’t resonate, maybe that’s not their organ, is it incumbent upon them, is there any sense of duty.
Incumbent isn’t the right word. Will they be able to fulfill their human DNA issues if they go outside? The answer is you can have a transplant. Look, the person who has been practicing another religious or spiritual tradition is using what in Hinduism and in Buddhism is called upaya, skillful means. And meditative things, contemplative things are skillful means. But there is also that which has to do with more tribal things, with more ethnic things, with the continuity of family. You know I have my grandparents inside of me and they have their grandparents inside of them. And this is because when we think of ourselves as individuals, that’s an old notion that comes from the renaissance. When people were first thinking about ego, I’m a self. Nowadays they’re even talking about a fertilized egg being already an ego, a self, a person. Then truth is that we are just cells in a larger being. And if the planet has a brain, as it were, we are the brain cells of the global brain. So, a Jew can find happiness if you will outside, but I think the fullness of realization and individuation will come to someone if they can be at home both in their body and in their heart and their feeling life and in their mental life and in their spiritual life. All these four when they’re aligned together that’s good. But that doesn’t mean that we should say what we used to say in the old paradigm, which is that when the Messiah comes all the others who are not Jewish are going to go down the drain. There are some other people who talk about the rapture that way and so on. Okay, next.
[Here Reb Zalman and I talked about my experiences in the Boulder Jewish Community].
I’m curious about your thoughts on the Baal Teshuvah movement in general. It seems like for me what I’ve seen is people generally my age are either, if they’re interested, are either Baalei Teshuvah, or they’re Buddhist. Or you know, kind of that.
I tell you something, Buddhist is not the only option. How would I say? The fashion’s changed. There was a time they used to go and be Sufis and they used to be Hindus you know. Because whatever it was that had energy and spirituality in it. Today, you know, Buddhism is like, how would I say, like brown rice. And it doesn’t have any curry on yet, you know? You can sit you can do your thing but it’s dry. I’ve had conversations with people at Naropa. I’ll give you an example, when Reb Shlomo Carlebach was around he used to tell stories, sing songs, and you know liven the thing up. One day a student came to see me and dragged a guitar and said how dry his Buddhism was for him. So I said “take out your guitar and give me a C major chord.” Then I said [Reb Zalman sings] “Born in a palace in India land.” Now, how come that nobody has ever made songs like that, you know? Go to George Harrison, [singing] “I really want to see you Lord.” You know? He did very beautiful with that. But I feel it’s dry. Now, it also does not make any demands because if you were a monk then you have 300 prescriptions how a monk has to behave and how to go with your begging bowl and the difference between the Theravada, the Mahayana, the Vajrayana. I asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama, you know the three they talk about the turnings of the wheel, the Buddhist wheel. The first wheel is the Hinayana, but it’s Theravada. So I asked him “When will you proclaim the fourth turning of the wheel?” Because in a sense the Buddhism that is now is not the same Buddhism that Vajrayana is. He said for this you need to have the Gautama himself. And I was polite and I didn’t want to challenge him more. But I was saying “you are it, you can’t pass the buck.” But you know this is the big issue in the world. Roman Catholicism could not manage with somebody like Matt Fox who was saying, Father Matthew Fox.
I think I’ve heard of him.
And they couldn’t manage with him. They had to throw him out. And so he’s now Episcopalian, which is still a Christian. But instead of talking about original sin he talks about original blessing and all kinds of things. The Vatican is still not ready to recognize women as Priests and so forth but it’s going to take a while, you know, it’s going to happen. Islam is right now by in large more than a way of fundamentalism because there is no one who applies to the reading of the Quran the same strict scholarly academic thing that they would apply to New Testament and Old Testament for instance. Or to the Pali Canon of the Buddhist scriptures and so on. So, you know, they’ll have to get to that place but they’re not there yet. So there is a paradigm shift happening and in this paradigm shift we are getting closer with the real practitioners of spirituality. We are not getting closer with the people who are looking at the things from the outside like I said who put straight-jackets on you. Whether they have to do with sexuality, homosexuality, abortion, stuff like that, but the people who are really the inner practitioners of the inner religions, we are very close. We had a session here at Naropa with Father Matthew Fox and Reggie Ray and myself and it was a remarkable weekend. See if you can get hold of the video tapes of that.
And I guess, you’re talking about the people who put on the straight jacket [taking on Halakha from the outside-in, which Reb Zalman had referred to earlier]. There are a ton of young Jews that are seeking that.
It’s because they have week father figures. I’m not kidding about that. If you had a strong father who really spent time with you it would be a different story. But here comes a Rebbe with a nice beard and a black hat and he has a tradition behind him. And he says “I will love you and care for you and give you food and shelter” and all that kind of stuff. “Now you put on the tzitzis and behave the way I tell you.” And people say “oh finally I have somebody who tells me what to do.” Now some of the people survive that. Some of the people don’t survive that. They say “what brought me there wasn’t fulfilled.” So I have to go look elsewhere. What else?
Is there anything different about this generation, like my generation of seekers versus the generation that was maybe in their twenties in the sixties?
I want to tell you something. Each generation has different questions. And yet if you were to go and make an analysis you would find that they’re similar. They all have to do with “I can’t believe” notions about reality that don’t make sense to me. You tell me the world was created 5772 years ago, I don’t buy that. And with that the whole business falls down for many people because someone insisted in telling them something that came from an old paradigm that was there before Copernicus. Before everyone was thinking that Earth was the center of the Universe. So we can’t, I can’t argue with this and so on. That’s passé. But if you say I want to understand the quantum reality, transpersonal psychology, and at the same time the mysteries , the deepest teachings that are there in Kabbalah and in Hasidism, it’s a different story. And that’s very important because if they force a reality map on you that you can’t buy then that’s a waste and you have to feel that I’ve got to get free of that.
But I guess there is a reality map in the new paradigm of Judaism that is compatible with
That’s the whole point. There’s a book that I wrote, the publisher gave it a title and it’s not a title that I liked. He calls it Jewish with Feeling. So I wanted to call it If You’re so Universal, Why be Jewish?. It’s a whole other meaning to the question. And that’s the question that you have. If you’re so universal anyways, why be Jewish? And that’s what I was saying about the organismic understanding of being a vital organ.
But I want to add something that you didn’t raise. There is a level of spirituality that has to do with attunement. If I’m attuned only to the shopping mall mentality I’ll never understand anything that has to do with spirituality. Behaviorism will help me with that but that’s not much more. Psychoanalysis and so on and so forth is a little deeper it goes into the emotional stuff. Jung is still better, he goes into archetypes. And then there’s humanistic psychology, which is pretty good. But then there’s transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal psychology knows about regions of awareness that are much higher and deeper. If you move into that space then you have to get to the Archetypes, you have to get to all those spiritual beings that are in this larger universe. For instance, have you been up to Red Feather Lake?
To the Shambhala Mountain Center?
No I haven’t.
Well, there is a Stupa there, I don’t know if they’ll let you in. But you have to really be initiated to go inside the Stupa. So you can see and experience the different levels of reality. Our Siddur, the Hebrew Prayer Book, is built the same way, on those levels of reality. But most people have never initiated you into it. So when Shabbos comes, people often feel “Now I can’t do what I like to do.” You know? Like the straight jacket thing. But what would it be if you were to say, “Finally, I can get out of the shopping mall mentality of the six days of the week, and I can go into the inner center and I can go into the consciousness in which I recognize the matrix of life that gives me awareness, consciousness, and love.” That’s something that people haven’t experienced and I just wanted to make sure that it is to say it’s available in Judaism but you can’t buy it for cheap.
And is the way to access those states through prayer or Mitzvot?
That’s why all my life I’ve been working on what I call Davenology. Which is to say if you’re davening, how to make it real. Yes, there are ways and descriptions and now I have a twelve DVD training thing and a book called Gate to Prayer and I had another booklet called Gate to the Heart. So there’s a lot of material that I’ve worked on that’s available. And some of my students, Jewish Renewal now has over 150 Rabbis who have been trained in that way of being able to experience the spiritual, and Reb Zvi is one.
[In the following section I shifted the focus to my own life and shared some of my personal spiritual experiences. This is what Reb Zalman said to me in response]
I want to tell you something, all you’ve got at this point is a map of inner states. You have not yet created a domicile for yourself. A domicile is a place where you live. Imagine for a moment there is a region in which your heart is open and you see the world almost like “oh what a beautiful morning.” And everything feels Divine and alive. These are states that sometimes you touch and sometimes not. And the average person who doesn’t know about transpersonal psychology will say, “it’s a beautiful day but I can’t even remember what the quality was.” You know the quality. And when you get there you know you’re there but you don’t have a home there.
Yeah, it’s not all the time.
No, no, no. You don’t have to always be at home. You can come back to the home. It’s not accessible to you in this way. And especially not the Jewish garden of that. So you’ll come back to Calgary and you’ll come back to Shul and you’ll say “I’d like to experience something in the Shul.” And the likelihood is that people will be talking before the service, they won’t sit in silence there…
[Reb Zalman discusses specifics of Calgary synagogues]…
But there’s a reality there and that reality could be fostered. Like if you grow a garden you have to have patience with the garden.
So, there’s within Judaism a way for me to find out how to build a home?
The answer is yes but then you have to have someone to help you a little but with it. Because you see what happens to the people when they go from the outside the Baalei Teshuvists they’re trying to do it right to get their tzitzis hanging out. And you haven’t really yet experience to feel like you’re going to a Mezuzah and to feel like you’re going through a transition point there. Do you have a tallis with you at home?
Oh good, so sit sometimes and do your meditation under the tallis.
I do, actually.
Well, then you’re going to feel something. If it’s during the week, light a couple of candles. And if you have tefillin it’s even better. And you’ll see that something is going to come. When I talk with people I’m very much aware that this call is being monitored for quality purposes, that there is a presence of God here. Because it comes to me because I pray. And I think the most important part is not what you daven from the Siddur but when you sit with tallis and tefillin during the week, or tallis during Shabbos and you start saying “Center of Consciousness and Awareness of this Universe, Center of Compassion, I open myself to you. Help me, guide me, lead me.” You’re going to see that something’s going to happen.
[At the end of the interview I told Reb Zalman about a dream I had had recently and he told me his thoughts on it]