(Page 2 of 2)
“All Breathing Life” arose out of Schachter-Shalomi’s dismay at the Jewish absence from anthologies of spiritual writing featuring Hindu, Sufi and Christian writers. “[In] vain did I look for Jewish writings that would show heart, soul, and spirit,” he writes. “I knew well that they existed, but alas, only in their Hebrew originals.” In this book, he renders those Hebrew originals in his own idiosyncratic verse.
These poems are meant to be prayed, not merely read for information or style. And the poems I like best are the ones I’ve actually had the chance to sing aloud in community. Take, for instance, his rendering of “Yedid Nefesh,” which begins:
You who love my soul
Compassion’s gentle source,
Take my disposition and shape it
to Your will.
Like a darting deer I will flee to
Before Your glorious Presence
Humbly do I bow.
Let Your sweet love
Delight me with its thrill
Because no other dainty
Will my hunger still.
Singing these words in community on the Sabbath is a powerful experience. At the core of Shachter-Shalomi’s teaching is the attempt to open up the possibility to feel really connected with both God and community through these Hasidic prayers and teachings, despite all the ways in which neither I nor many of its intended readers fits the classical Hasidic mold.
Post-it notes proliferate on my copy of “All Breathing Life,” showing which poems I most often use in my own prayer life: “Ana B’Khoach,” “Nishmat Kol Chai,” “We Are as Clay,” Psalm 27. (Many of these are also available as audio recordings on the publisher’s website.) I share these with my congregation and with my blog readership. Sometimes I pray them by myself.
At times the poems can seem clunky in their too faithful rendering of Hebrew wordplay. And sometimes the dense welter of stories in “A Hidden Light” is too much; it can be hard to keep track of the names and relationships and dynasties. Both of these books are best read a morsel at a time.
But I am glad to have both of these new books on my shelves as compendia of resources that would otherwise be inaccessible to most contemporary readers. Even well into his 80s, Schachter-Shalomi is still opening Judaism’s rich treasures to share with a wider world.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She is the author of “70 Faces: Torah Poems” (Phoenicia, 2011), and blogs as The Velveteen Rabbi.