From a talk given at Temple Sinai in New Orleans on May 9, 2013. This is part two in a series. Read part one.
Your Holiness, when you did dialogue with Jewish teachers in Dharamsala, there were two exchanges. One was people to people, about a shared history of exile and destruction. And there was a second, very intimate exchange, that had a profound effect on all whoheard it. And this one was soul to soul, and angel to angel, the Jewish soul and the Tibetan soul, the Jewish angel and the Tibetan angel. For the spiritual dimension of reality is so often neglected, despised, even hated in today's world, but it is a major part of what makes Jewish survival worthwhile in the first place. And right now, it is in the midst of our wreckage I speak to you, both as a Jew and as a New Orleanian. Because survival is not just a matter of urban planning, or of financial aid, or willfulness. It is something deeper. It is of the soul -- the soul of individuals, the soul of the city and the soul of nation. To rebuild is important, but to recognize a new historical moment and to renew is a matter of soul I do believe, and without soul nothing we do can ever really be new.
Your Holiness, the second rabbi who spoke with you soul to soul was a man who became my teacher, as you also became my teacher, and his name is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, though everyone calls him Reb Zalman -- as if to say, brother Zalman. And Reb Zalman began with a Hebrew prayer translated into Tibetan, and then he spoke to you as one who had escaped the fires of the Holocaust but barely, fleeing Austria and then Belgium, and landing in a DP camp in southern France under command of the Gestapo, before somehow making his way via the West Indies to New York. And Reb Zalman carried with him all the teachings of Jewish mysticism, of a world that was being destroyed as he fled, for we must never forget that largely Hitler succeeded in destroying Jewish Europe and its institutions and its holiest teachers, as if someone had come to the U.S. and destroyed Harvard, Yale and MIT, and then wiped out a whole generation of political leaders as well.
Reb Zalman during the '60s left Chabad and became the leader of a movement known as Jewish Renewal, which sought to combine the mysticism of Hasidism with feminism and an openness to meditation, and most of all to joy. And this movement has greatly influenced every branch of Judaism, with its music, its style of prayer, its egalitarianism and its interest in mysticism.
And this is something that we need to remember about New Orleans too: that culture is carried by human beings, specific men and women who know how to cook an etouffee, or play a drum with a certain beat, or sew beads on to a suit, and these precious kinds of knowledge are easily lost and are carried by human arks.
So Reb Zalman spoke to you as that sort of human ark, carrier of centuries of wisdom, a fellow exile, and as a man who lived the loss of home and culture that you have personally have experienced over the past 63 years now since the Chinese army moved into Tibet and took control. And since then even unto today the Tibetan people in their own land have been subjugated and their religious leaders, their monks, have been persecuted, their temples destroyed and then in some case rebuilt as tourist destinations, a land where merely wishing you long life, Your Holiness, and carrying your picture cane be punished by imprisonment and torture. And when we had the Seder together in Washington, we played the tape of Tibetan nuns in prison chanting a song of freedom, and even today they are not free, and in your homeland your people are burning themselves alive in anguish and protest and still they are not heard.
And Reb Zalman said, "I want to say when a soul comes down to earth they show him first what he has to do here, that's our tradition. And I believe those who volunteer for difficult jobs deserve special consideration. When I think of the job you have to do, which is not only to guide your people through the crisis, and God wiling, the restoration of your home, but also the risks you must take and the choices you must make of what is essential and what is to be left behind, I want you to know that I feel with you from heart to heart."
His task was to explain the inner meaning of Jewish practice, especially the more esoteric teachings we know as Kabbalah, which means, actually, "tradition." For it is a largely esoteric tradition that was once kept entirely secret or passed on by word of mouth only to a select few. For you had asked to know another secret, what is the benefit of Jewish practices such as our holidays and prayers -- a very Buddhist question I might add -- and you asked it this way, "What are the Jewish practices for overcoming afflictive states of mind?"
And I want to say -- it would be another talk to explain -- that many many Jews today would not even know what that question means, let alone what the answer is. For in the urgency to survive especially in the period post war, many Jews concerned themselves primarily with institutions and buildings and not with the inner work, what Reb Zalman called "the esoteric, the deep attunement, the deep way." And I have to say, the very words I am using such as soul, and deep way, might sound very foreign to some of my Jewish brothers and sisters, very remote.
But on his way to explaining the "deep way" of Jewish mysticism, Reb Zalman spoke with you about angels or devas and here the dialogue really became exciting because I saw, Your Holiness, we all saw how fascinated you were with angels; you wouldn't let go of the topic. Reb Zalman wanted to explain the four worlds of Jewish mysticism, the four worlds of prayer, but you kept him in the second world, the world of formation, the world of imagination -- and dreams are there, and feelings are there, and angels are there, messengers who mediate in the imagination between the loftiest heights of pure thought and the ground and senses where we live as bodies. And you wanted to know if angels had different colors and yes, Reb Zalman answered, there are orange angels and blue, and there's the black angel we call the opponent or Satan -- and he too, they are all serving God. That is our tradition, Reb Zalman kept saying, though the other rabbis seemed either astonished or embarrassed, even horrified, you could see that in their faces, so estranged from this inner core of Jewish life had the mainstream Jewish world become.
So you moved worlds there, Your Holiness, and you wanted to know if angels have anything to do with earthquake, there was a small earthquake that morning in Dharamsala and Reb Zalman said yes, in our tradition, angels cause earthquakes and changes in the weather and there are little angels over every blade of grass that say grow grow grow. Yes, he said, it's in our tradition, and by then some of the rabbis were giving each other looks, like this clearly wasn't in THEIR tradition, but Your Holiness you were not deterred, not at all, and then Reb Zalman said something about the angel of cities and the angel of nations, which is really not a foreign notion at all -- Maimonides writes about it -- and you were really curious about this idea, and Reb Zalman said, "Oh yes there's an angel of each nation, there's an angel of the Jews and an angel of Tibet, and if we do the dialogue right, the angel of the Jews is speaking through me and the angel of Tibet is listening in you, and vice versa you see -- so the dialogue isn't just at one level."
Suddenly it wasn't. That was the moment that encapsulated the whole thing. These two men were no longer just men, but something was speaking and listening in them that was greater than any individual.
And I saw a certain light there which I still see and I've been trying to explain ever since. There was something very beautiful in that moment. What I could say is, it was both a metaphor and yet literally true -- well, we poets call that a metonymy -- because wasn't Reb Zalman in effect speaking for the Jewish people, and weren't you, Your Holiness, listening for the Tibetan people and speaking for them as well, speaking their essence, so the dialogue wasn't just at the human level. For the angel of a nation, Maimonides teaches, is the essence of that nation, and now you and Reb Zalman were speaking for just a moment essence to essence, in a dialogue that had never before ever happened at that level between these two unique peoples, the Tibetans and the Jews both of whom had tasted in the 20th century exile and destruction.
That moment it really did seem as if these angels were talking to one another, the only way I think angels can, through two human beings who are open to astonishment, and who have the curiosity and the love to share soul to soul.
And that is the kind of dialogue I wish for Your Holiness as you come here to New Orleans, For if there's an angel of Tibet and an angel of Lhasa, surely there's an angel of the Jews and an angel of New Orleans. So I hope you will meet us not just as a people struggling with social problems or even ecological catastrophe, though we clearly are, but also you will somehow meet the angel of New Orleans in some of us, and that we will somehow also feel the angel of Tibet speaking through you. Then the dialogue will not be just on one level -- and I hope there will be a dialogue -- it will be also on a deeper level.
I know that the precious times when I've had the privilege to speak with you, I have felt the intensity of your presence and the power of your listening.
I believe that is what you will bring to us here in New Orleans, the power of the quiet mind, shaped by the daily meditation and visualizations which are the precious spiritual values you and the Tibetan people carry -- and we hope thanks to you and them, that this will survive and will continue benefit human beings.
I hope, if we listen not just with our ears but our hearts, we will learn from you your own secrets of spiritual survival in exile, and perhaps also you will learn a little from us as well, how we live our New Orleans soul and even get a glimpse in the joy of our daily lives, in music, in dancing, in food and in our culture, of the angel of New Orleans.
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of 'The Jew in the Lotus.'