Wilderness rabbi brings Jewish shamanism to Berkeley

Born in Denmark, the son and grandson of ultrareligious rabbis, Winkler abandoned urban Judaism 14 years ago to live in the woods, where he felt he could experience God more directly. In the process, he rejected Orthodoxy, developing a more free-spirited personal theology he refers to as "flexidoxy."

He also discovered that the vision quests of the nature-centered Native American religions have parallels in the Jewish tradition.

Winkler, 48, has written nine books about his journey. He will be discussing the Jewish shamanic tradition and his personal odyssey on Saturday, Nov. 23 and Sunday, Nov. 24 at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley. The workshop is titled "Leviathan and Levity: The Way of the Jewish Shaman."

His most recent book, "The Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy," was published by Jason Aronson Books, which next spring will release "The Way of the Boundary Crosser: An Introduction to Jewish Flexidoxy."

"All of our inspired prophets and teachers in ancient times received their inspiration and their supernatural capabilities…in the wilderness," he said during a phone interview from his home in Cuba, N.M.

Citing such sages as Moses, Hillel and Akiva, he said Judaism's great teachers drew from a font of wisdom that "went four levels beneath the literal interpretation of the Scriptures," delving into personal experience of the Divine.

"It's very similar to the Native American concept of the vision quest," he said, adding that the parallels "came to me backwards, living in the wilderness surrounded by four Indian nations: Navajo, Apache, Jemez and Zia.

"In my spending time with them, observing their rituals by invitation, bells began ringing in my head — the shamanic rituals and ceremonies in our own tradition that we had lost over the centuries because we weren't allowed to be a people of the land.

"So I went back to the scriptural teachings and many of the kabbalistic [mystical] postscriptural teachings that had been buried over the centuries, and the whole thing just became alive."

Winkler is currently working on a book tentatively titled "The Way of the Jewish Shaman." The shamanic path, he said, "involves the ability to shift reality."

That mystical path was not something Winkler traversed when he was growing up in New York in a world of shul and yeshiva that eventually led to rabbinical training in Jerusalem. While serving as a Jewish educator and countermissionary in New York, he brought the nonobservant and those who had converted to other faiths back to Judaism. But the more deeply he got involved in his work, the more he began to question his own path.

"I was living a life that was not me. I couldn't fit in with the organized Jewish world's agenda," he said. "I wanted to live more leniently."

Deciding to get away to think, he gave his first wife his bankbook, got into his car and kept driving until he reached California's Angeles National Forest. He rented a primitive cabin with no electricity or running water.

"There I stayed and did a lot of thinking and examining. Not only did I not want to go back to Orthodoxy, but I also did not want to go back to city life. I loved being in the woods."

He worked as a sheep rancher and writer, eventually becoming a circuit-riding rabbi and teacher, giving seminars and workshops throughout the country and serving as a Hillel adviser.

Three-and-a-half years ago, he and his second wife, Lakme, settled in New Mexico's San Pedro Wilderness, "two hours from anywhere." The couple's daughter Aharonit is now 2. The only other Jewish person in the area is a physician on the other side of the mountain who serves the Navajos. Once a month, Winkler goes to Durango, Colo., for a Shabbat potluck.

Other than that, "my minyan is the coyotes and the elk."

Rural living "has brought me very close to a dimension of the Jewish tradition that I feel has been lost," he said.

"All our festivals originally centered around cycles of nature; a lot of the commandments are earth-related; and many writings of the kabbalistic teachings talk about meditation as being most powerful in nature.

"That's how the prophets got inspiration. They were shepherds."

The attraction of Judaism is that "it gives me infinite freedom of interpretation. The Jewish people have never had a literal interpretation of their Scripture. We are a people called God-wrestlers," he said.

"That's what keeps me in Judaism. I'm a free-spirited person. I need room."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].