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Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Liberal Learning -No matter what your involvement with the Jewish community, or where you live in the world, or how much you even care about our people's survival, there are certain names one keeps hearing; their words quoted: the poetic social activist, author and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, the brilliant philosopher of the Holocaust and the state of Israel (who sadly passed away just before the High Holidays this year) Emil Fackenheim, the Lubavitcher Rebbi, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Professor Fackenheim lived in Toronto and taught at U. of T. for nearly half his life before making aliyah, but "Zalman"—as he is often referred to in a one-name fashion, like Cher or Madonna—has his own deep roots in the frozen soil of Our Home and Native Land: for two full decades, he was a professor of religion and head of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at the University of Manitoba—and, interestingly, an earlier edition of his latest book, First Steps to a New Jewish Spirit, was first published exactly twenty years ago by Bantam Books of Toronto, edited by a Toronto-born novelist.
Enough about "Canadian content"; is Reb Zalman's new book worth your time and effort? Well, it certainly won't take much time to read: barely over 100 pages in length, this paper-cut thin paperback can be enjoyed (for it IS often enjoyable) in one sitting. Putting many of his often intriguing ideas— frequently more mystical, almost New Age, than particularly Jewish—into practice would take quite a bit longer.
Which is as it should be. Enlightenment doesn't come in a day, and the author eagerly provides many exercises—yoga for the mind, if you wish—which could well help many a reader into appreciating life and God more. In an initial "Note to the Reader," Reb Zalman makes his feelings clear, even if they might drive many traditional Jews to irritation, if not distraction. Many Jews are on a spiritual quest, he writes, "motivated by a malaise, a feeling that there must be more in Judaism than the cut-and-dried version frequently encountered in contemporary services. All too often, people feel left out. Services tend to be conducted in a formalistic way, and many worshippers don't participate actively and don't know what's going on. . . ."
Fair enough. So, after a dozen pages on his own life and spiritual journey (born in Poland nearly 80 years ago, raised in Vienna, barely escaping the Nazis, inspired by Lubavitch and becoming a rabbi in his own right), he discusses the importance of making time holy (Heschel's THE SABBATH does this a million times better), and then gives dozens of ways in which each of us can "reconnect with the universe." For example, we should "eat with consciousness," by "seeing" the corn of your corn flakes grow, how the wind swept it, how the blowing pollen made the plants fertile: "When you watch this in your imagination, and carry the process from the planted seed up to the present moment in which you are chewing the corn flakes, you see how your eating is connected with the whole fertility dance of the plant world. If we don't become a conscious part of the process, what right have we to eat the corn flakes?" Many readers will find this embarrassingly hippy-dippy and New Age-y, but who can deny the veracity of his words? What makes this book so Jewish is Reb Zalman's following few words: "This is why we make a blessing over food before we eat it—to make sure that we eat with consciousness. All of these steps lead us back to the natural universe and into the organic time in which the universe unfolds. The more we live in organic time, the more we are in an appropriate relationship with life."
There is a fascinating chapter called "Relationships: Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage," which is passionate and could be helpful to many. Certainly it is a joy to see someone revel in the voluptuous response of Judaism to sexuality (unlike quite a few other major religions I can think of), and it's good to read the words of an 18th-century Hasidic master: "Creation was for the purpose of love-making. As long as there was only one-ness, there was no delight. . . ." This could be little more than an obnoxious pick-up line at a Bar Mitzvah party, were it not for the author's continual demand for Jewish meaning behind it all: "A physical act must be somehow spiritualized to become sacramental. . . . We have to think about what exactly spiritualized foreplay would be, to lead into intercourse as sacrament."
To be fair to Reb Zalman—and often, one longs to satirize much of this, because it sounds so 1960shavurah- ish—he DOES provide many good "exercises" to improve our daily spirituality as Jews. And, I must admit, I'd love to see more "traditional" Jews accept some of the sharpest challenges of the author: "According to Jewish dietary laws, all fruits and vegetables are kosher. But what about green beans or tomatoes harvested by ill-treated, underpaid, and exploited migrant workers—are they kosher? What about bananas from countries ruled by despots where the workers have few rights, and the bananas are heavily sprayed with DDT. . . .are they kosher?" Hear hear. Conscious eating; conscious living; isn't that what it's all about?
A nasty reviewer could find dozens of one-liners in FIRST STEPS which make the author sound like a stoned-on-pot hippie. But this would deny such exceedingly valuable chapters as "Prayer—Fact or Feeling," "Singing to God," "The Dance of Sabbath" and more. (The chapter on circumcision is powerful, moving, and profound.) "Our task is clear," Reb Zalman writes at his conclusion. "We are here to fulfill our potential for godliness. Even with all our weaknesses and faults, we strive toward that great and sustaining goal. And if perfection seems remote, beyond the possibilities of our limitations, all we have to do is work toward improvement. We work to follow God's will, which we understand to be the natural laws of the universe as they are encoded in our tradition."
The orthodox rabbi—a kind, generous, decent man—who lives across the street from me in Toronto would find much of this book laughable, even infantile. But there are major nuggets of gold in this book as well, for those willing to dig for it.