Meditation, Kabbalah simple, rabbi insists

"I had some experiences which led me to appreciate a realm of spirituality for which I had not been trained," he said last week in a telephone interview from Whidbey Island near Seattle where he is on sabbatical.

"There was no connection to Judaism. In fact, some of the experiences I had were so powerful that it became clear to me that the spiritual path had to be part of my life. And if it was not in Judaism, I would have to find my way elsewhere."

He left the rabbinate as part of his exploration, and he believed he might have to leave Judaism altogether.

"I became somewhat of an oddity," the 55-year-old Cleveland native said.

Then, Falcon stumbled onto Judaism's mystical tradition. He discovered the Kabbalah. He learned about Jewish meditation. And he returned to the fold.

"I found an embarrassment of riches I had not anticipated, and it was right in front of me," he said.

He began teaching and spreading the word about Kabbalah and meditation. In 1978, he helped found Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles, which is believed to be the first meditation-based synagogue and flourishes to this day.

He remained well outside the mainstream for many years, however.

"I was out there a lot of times by myself," said Falcon of the practices and teachings that absorbed him during the '70s and '80s.

The rabbi now lives in Seattle and heads the Bet Alef Meditational Synagogue, which he founded after leaving Los Angeles in 1993.

Falcon, who no longer seems so "out there" and is now one of scores of alternative spirituality teachers within Judaism, will come to the Bay Area for a weekend of teaching this month.

He will speak at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco on Dec. 19 and at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley on Dec. 20. His weekend will culminate with a daylong workshop on Dec. 21 at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

His Marin County appearance is being organized by Kol Shofar's alternative prayer group, Neshama Minyan, an outreach program partially funded by the Koret Synagogue Initiative.

Falcon describes his approach to meditation and mysticism as extremely simple. He dislikes elitism. And he encourages the belief that everything needed for spiritual awakening is already within each person.

"Spirituality comes from the inside out," he said.

To Falcon, simple means that the six words of the Sh'ma, which most Jews know, are enough to help someone enter into the deepest meditative state possible. Of course, there are stages and steps, he said, but they are not complicated.

"I try not to say that when you grow up and study this for 20 years or 30 years or 40 years, you can do it. No. Here it is, do it," he said.

And while any 13th-century document rich in metaphor can be difficult to understand, he said, Kabbalah's texts aren't a hidden teaching full of secret codes and cryptic messages that must be revealed by a master.

He also teaches that the reason for studying meditation or Kabbalah isn't solely for personal, purely internal benefit.

He asserts that meditation should awaken practitioners to a "greater sense" than their individual selves. That awareness should help make one a more compassionate and charitable person. It should translate into performing more gemilut chasadim, or acts of lovingkindness.

He recalls a rabbi's wife verbally attacking him in the 1980s for talking about love. She told him that Christians talked about love and that Jews talked about justice.

Jews "tend not to talk about love," he said of the incident. "But from what I can tell, true justice flows from love."

For a devotee of alternative spirituality, Falcon feels quite comfortable critiquing it.

For one, he isn't part of the Jewish Renewal movement.

That's primarily because Falcon isn't into gurus. In his eyes, Renewal has a guru — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of its founders and primary leaders.

"For the Renewal rabbis I know, he is their rebbe," Falcon said.

Though Falcon said he has a deep respect for Schachter-Shalomi, he distrusts any guru relationship.

He's seen such imbalanced relationships disappoint followers again and again. He's also seen followers fall into competing with one another, degenerating into, "My guru is better than your guru or this teaching is better than that teaching."

Falcon readily admits that his personal practice and philosophy, for example, aren't the only way to go.

"It's the best for me. But it's different from saying it's the best for everyone."

The rabbi also sees problems in the quickly increasing popularity of Kabbalah study.

Though he should be pleased with the dissemination of knowledge, Falcon finds himself worrying that Kabbalah will become another passing fad.

He's seen crazes, particularly in the psychology field, come and go. Someone comes up with the answer, the teacher or the way, he said. People just jump on the bandwagon and are then let down. Then someone else comes up with the new answer, he said. And the cycle starts again.

He feels that if Kabbalah becomes just another fad, its depth will be irretrievably trivialized.

"It's awful — the trendiness," he said.