E: Now, how does all of this translate into the services you lead for your congregation?
O: We have two services – both would be considered unusual in comparison to the typical Jewish service. In the slightly more traditional Shabbat (that has been going since the community was created 17 years ago) we have a group of singers, guitar players, drums and piano who create music that is geared toward entering into relaxation and calming states of mind and sometimes inducing altered states. We have a short prayer service, and I introduce all the prayers and blessings to engage people to enter into them with kavanah, spiritual intention. We carry a theme throughout the evening, and I weave the theme through my blessings, prayers, and commentary on the weekly Torah reading. We always have at least 10 to 15 minutes of either guided or silent meditation. Some Shabbats can be enlivening and joyous where you might even catch us dancing the hora around the sanctuary. Others are more contemplative.
At another location, we have what I named Nishmat Shabbat. Nishmat is a play on the Hebrew words “Neshamah” [soul], “Nishma” [listen], and “Neshimah” [breath]. This service is a more mystical take on Shabbat, with only one musician and maybe a drummer. We dim the lights of the sanctuary and invite people to experience, if they are willing, a kind of service that hopefully would support their reaching altered states of consciousness. There are no prayer books for this one. We light the Shabbat candles. The rest is a mix of silence, ecstatic music like kirtans and zikrs, inspired by a variety of traditions, and deep meditations and teachings, mostly inspired by the Chassidic masters and the ancient teachers of Kabbalah.
E: Do you see this, this way of incorporating such a variety of practices, as a movement affecting Judaism in a widespread way – throughout America or even around the world?
O: Yes. I hope so. I think there is a movement that is bringing nondual wisdom and practices into Judaism in a way that is being embodied in communities. And Judaism awakens in community settings. We are community based. That’s how we’ve grown. So I hope I live long and I am able to speak to as many people as I can. Like I said at the beginning, one of the things that is really attractive about Buddhism to many of the Jews is that there is a set path toward awakening. And I’m looking to hopefully rediscover and record the same kind of path within Judaism. And I think, once that is made available, there will be a way for Jews to begin to embrace that kind of practice as part of their spiritual awakening.
E: What do you hope will come of your work? When will you know that you have met your goals?
O: I don’t know. It’s good that I don’t know, and I’ll tell you why. Because when you know, that’s ego. And I don’t want my ego to get in the way. Because if I start imagining a picture of a final goal, then the worst thing that could happen is that I would actually reach that. Because then I would not allow for everything else to have the possibility of unfolding. So, the key teaching of the kind of spirituality that I love is to be comfortable in the “I don’t know.” It’s so powerful to be in that space of not knowing. Because that prevents you from the illusion of certainty. Or the illusion of "knowing" who you are.
You know, this kind of conversation is always challenging for me as a Rabbi, because I try to convey that there is power in the nondual spiritual practice that I’m trying to share, and at the same time it’s very important to me to clarify that those are practices that are deeply rooted in Judaism. My path is rooted in Torah. My path is rooted in celebrating all the Jewish holidays. My path is rooted in mitzvot and in the most amazing teachers that our tradition has ever had. I fully embrace my Jewish lineage. And I am very, very, very careful that everything that I teach is always coming from our sources. Our teachers. That’s really important for me.
And sometimes when conversations like this happen, because these ideas are somewhat complex and challenging, and because most Jews haven't been taught to see Judaism through this lens, they have a tendency to say, “Well that’s not Jewish.” They say, “Oh, that’s a take on Buddhism that is being Jewish-ized.” But in fact, that’s not the case. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of years of our own teachers pointing at this stuff. It goes back as far as Ezekiel and his vision of the chariot. Those were amazing spiritual awakenings that were translated into biblical images. The Kabbalistic path is 2000 years old, even more. We now have generations of nondual wisdom, including the Chassidic tradition, which is so powerful. So I always want to make a point that this is Jewish. And that’s for me where the power lies. That’s for me where the beauty is. It is absolutely grounded in the power and the vastness of our tradition.