An under-constructionist Jew probes mysticism and renewal

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The synagogue of the future may be a place where Jews sit in silence for an hour, say the Sh'ma and go home.

That's the vision of author Rodger Kamenetz, who believes spiritual connection may come not only from ritual and mitzvot but from silence, listening and occasionally, crying out to God.

But a quiet roomful of Jews may be an oxymoron.

Nonetheless, the writer who chronicled the historic 1990 encounter between Jews and Buddhists in Dharamsala, India, forsees a necessary evolution within Judaism.

"I think the role of silence and its connection to a deeper understanding of revelation is often not understood," he said during an interview last week at the Bulletin.

"There's not much room for silence. We're carrying the richness of an old tradition and we haven't learned how to edit."

Kamenetz, who was in the Bay Area to discuss his new book, "Stalking Elijah: Adventures With Today's Jewish Mystical Masters," calls himself an "under-constructionist" Jew who wears a "yellow hard-hat yarmulke." The 47-year-old poet, professor of English and director of Jewish studies at Louisiana State University has been probing spiritual sources for some time.

In his 1994 best-selling book, "The Jew in the Lotus," he recorded the meeting between a delegation of U.S. Jews and the Dalai Lama.

In "Stalking Elijah," Kamenetz casts aside his narrator's objectivity to chronicle his own spiritual journey through the Jewish Renewal movement.

Kamenetz, who gave a presentation last week at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, will discuss his book Sunday, Nov. 9 at a program in San Francisco sponsored by Chochmat HaLev.

In his book, Kamenetz begins his exploration of Jewish Renewal with a question posed by the Dalai Lama in "What are our Jewish methods for genuine transformation?"

The result is a penetrating look at a progressive American Judaism that moves outside the synagogues and traditional Jewish neighborhoods, picking up influences from liberation movements, Eastern meditation and holistic healing.

"In a sense, I'm a consumer tester for Jewish spiritual techniques," Kamenetz said. "How do you gauge the effect of prayer or meditation without looking into yourself?

"I'm a teacher. Much of teaching is how to learn from other people."

In his book, Kamenetz examines the Jewish mystical tradition and Chassidic teachings with Rabbis Jonathan Omer-Man and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who were part of the delegation to Dharamsala.

During an encounter in Berkeley with Rabbi Shefa Gold, he learns that the basic — although most often-ignored — command of Judaism is to listen and that "part of Jewish renewal is a realization that God is not Jewish" and is "beyond religion."

In Albuquerque, N.M., Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb introduces him to new ceremonies and stories that honor Jewish women.

In Southern California, he visits a halfway house where he discovers that for some, a Jewish path is the difference between life and death.

And in the Boston area, Rabbi Arthur Green tells him of the need for a more simplified halachah (Jewish law) that will create "a serious religious alternative to Orthodoxy."

Kamenetz belongs to a Reform synagogue in New Orleans, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He also worships at a number of Jewish institutions, including those that are Orthodox. But he doesn't explore a fully observant path in this book.

"I have an intense interest in finding a Judaism I can live with," he says.

Yet he acknowledges the appeal of Chassidism. "Those who carry with them this Torah of the Chassidic tradition are carriers of great wisdom," he says. "I'm attracted to the wisdom, but not the clothing. There's a confusion between custom and halachah. I think that [the way of life] is very suitable for an enclave existence, but not if you want to be open to the larger world, which I do.

"Can we learn? Take what is wise and insert it into our own context. There's something there that we need — a nutrient."

Kamenetz, who calls himself a "heterodoxical Jew," admits that he struggles with halachah. Like Schachter-Shalomi and Green, he wonders if it's time to "revisit halachah," to create a workable model for those who wish to be neither Orthodox nor non-observant.

Green, who says kashrut would take the form of vegetarianism, suggests 10 rules for Shabbat: "Do: stay at home, celebrate with others, study, be alone, mark the beginning and end of this sacred time. Don't: do anything you have to do for your work life, spend money, do business, travel, use commercial or canned video entertainment."

Kamenetz contends there is a middle path.

"We don't have the faith of our ancestors. Nor should we. We have to have our own faith. We have to make it new."

One of the ways to make it new, he says, is to move beyond synagogue prayer, exploring personal prayer, learning to "empty oneself, call out, find a voice."

After a session with Omer-Man, Kamenetz drives east toward Joshua Tree National Park on the San Bernardino Freeway and begins shouting, "Please, God, tell me what you want, God…Open my heart! Please, God, open my heart."

Although Kamenetz doesn't dismiss synagogue, community and mitzvot, he says "Jews have to take responsibility for our own [spiritual] development," and that expecting the rabbi or the institution to serve as agents of transformation is unrealistic.

The key question that troubles the Jewish establishment, he says, is whether "the spiritual quest is a threat to the Jewish community."

But throughout Jewish Scripture, "every prophet or leader left the community, wandered and disappointed parents. We're upset when it takes contemporary forms.

"We have to be less afraid," Kamenetz says. "We're afraid we won't survive. This fear in itself is destructive."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

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