On my iPod I have a list of songs I call "He Made it his Own." It was inspired by Johnny Cash's hit rendition of the song "Hurt". Listening to Cash's stark voice amid the spare acoustic accompaniment, it's hard to imagine anyone else ever having sung these words, not to mention them being sung by the heavy metal band (Nine Inch Nails) which had performed the song originally and had made it a hit (for the first time).
It's something like the Passover Seder, the grand and ordered holiday meal where we retell the story of our people's redemption at God's hand from slavery, and that was the center of the Judaism in which I was raised. It's such a quintessentially Jewish practice that it's hard to imagine that anybody else ever did it. But scholars tell us that much of the Seder's practices were borrowed from the Roman practice of a symposium meal.
My Jewish heart -- and its desire for all things Jewish to be something purely and uniquely our own -- could be discouraged by what the scholars tell us about the Seder. But I've learned to see things a bit differently.
Last week, at the Oraita retreat, I was privileged to study with Zohar scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed (as well as the great Art Green). Hellner-Eshed drew this rich picture for us of the world the authors of the Zohar -- the great work of mysticism in Judaism -- lived in as members of a minority group in 13th c. Christian Spain. One of their challenges was the attraction of the surrounding religious culture and its seductive promise of a more loving (and more human ) God than the seemingly harsh God of the Hebrew Bible.
The Zoharists created a rich symbolic system that described a God that was not only loving, but that was in an intense love relationship with the people Israel. That is, this was a spirituality manifested as an intoxicating dance between lovers constantly seeking union and the (holy) products of that union. In effect, the Zoharists were saying -- "you Christians have a loving God, I'll show you a loving God!"
As professor Hellner-Eshed taught us at Oraita, "the project [of the Zohar] is molding something that feels more Jewish. This is a kind of Jewish religious genius. . . You do that midrashic dance [with the Jewish tradition and its Holy texts] and you have to give it enough time so it slowly becomes Hebrew and it feels good."
That is, the Zoharists took some things that may have first come to them because of their contact with Christians but they then imposed Jewish forms, language and styles of biblical interpretation (that is, midrash) on them. With time, this grew into something uniquely and quintessentially Jewish (kabbalah) that has helped sustain and preserve the Jewish people throughout the ages. In effect, they made it their own.
Making it our own remains the central task before Jewish leaders, today. The "it" changes, surely. For me, right now, the biggest "it" is the world of pastoral care (chaplaincy) and especially the task of training the spiritual caregivers of the future (as a CPE supervisor, which I am training for).
When I first started to hear about "pastoral care," I recoiled. Just the word "pastoral" bothered me. It sounded too much like "pastor", which was a Christian word. How could a Jewish person be involved in such a Christian project?
But the study of pastoral care is no longer brand new to the Jews. We've been living with it for a while. We've been playing with Jewish language and forms for it. We've wondered whether calling it "spiritual care" instead of pastoral care helps at all. We've been teasing out which pastoral care assumptions and practices are antithetical to Judaism and which ones are not.
And, yet, I don't think we've done enough midrash with it to feel in any way like the project of making pastoral care our own is anything but in its infancy. What's really lacking, in my view, is the application of serious scholarship to this project. Our midrash with pastoral care has to involve our finest minds and has to be deeply grounded in a serious understanding of our tradition and its texts -- the kind of understanding of those things that the Zoharists had. It's that grounding that allows us to truly make things our own. This is the project that I really hope to dedicate much of my rabbinate to -- doing the serious midrash required to make pastoral care and CPE our own. And some of what I've written here on this blog is very much about this project.
It strikes me that the kind of people needed for such a project were the very kind of people who were the teachers at the Oraita retreat. As Natan Margalit -- the organizer of the retreat -- said, the teachers he was looking for were people who can teach in a way that is both 1) intellectually rigorous, and 2) deeply meaningful. Too, often, in the Jewish world we see these two things in an "either/or" kind of way -- either a teacher is a brilliant (but boring) academic scholar, or he or she is indeed a charismatically spiritual teacher, but has no serious intellectual grounding.
This false division leads nowhere. This is especially true regarding the making it our own project that is even more important to me than the spiritual care one -- the project of preserving the Jewish people here in North America. Most people are pretty smart. So, while they may be attracted by a dose of spiritual religious charisma at first, that will not sustain them in a lifelong pursuit. So, too, intellectual challenges may interest a person for a while, but if it doesn't have real spiritual content, folks are just going to move on to another (non-religious) intellectual challenge. Only a leader -- or a movement -- that has both can be successful in a making it our own kind of project.
I call the project of preserving the Jewish people a making it our own project because the great challenge before our people is the seductiveness of the surrounding culture (just as the Zoharists faced the seductive challenge of their surrounding culture).
We live in our own time where our people are being seduced away by the surrounding culture. Endless words have been written in universities and on the op-ed pages of Jewish newspapers about the decline in the number of Jews affiliating with Jewish organizations. We are afraid of disappearing.
Our response has to go back to the same Jewish religious genius -- the genius to make things our own -- that the Zoharists used to help sustain and renew our people.
This, of course, leaves us to ponder what it is that is so seductive about the surrounding culture and what parts of it we might make our own. I don't know the answer to that, but I think one thing we have to think about is the way people -- especially young people -- play with their identities these days. The anonymity of the Internet, for example, has created a possibility for folks to safely try on different "faces" and folks seem to do it often. How can we bring that into Judaism?
One obvious answer is Purim, that holiday where we turn things "upside down" and where wearing costumes and masks is common. Purim was certainly put forward as a "solution" at the Oraita retreat, especially because of its miraculous nature, and the potential that miracles and wonder have to attract people. But more on that another day.
May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that you should find great teachers in your life, teachers of both rigor and spirit. Teachers who can help you find your own path to making the things before you your own.