Making Judaism New, Minus the New Age

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
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ll those years, I had no idea.

I was a High Holy Days-only synagogue attendee growing up. My enormous Reform temple had velvet-covered seats, a lofty choir that, majestically, sang from out of sight and an impressive collection of both Torah scrolls and shofars.

Every year, I ate apples and honey on Rosh Hashana for a sweet new year. I thought about my sins on Yom Kippur. I thought that was pretty much it.

But I had no idea that the purpose of these holidays is to rehearse my own death, to strip away the false protection that I surround myself with and truly confront the reality of my life — and to do the exact same thing the next year.

Other nonobservant Jews might have a similar reaction — surprise — on reading Rabbi Alan Lew’s new book, “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation” (Little, Brown and Co.).

Some might even feel “completely unprepared” for Judaism itself. The journey Lew describes sounds, after all, like a lot of work.

Then again, so are most things that are worth doing.

“Do you know how much energy it takes to remain stupid? We’re wasting our lives in denial,” Lew told the Forward. At first this sounds like it comes less from the Judaica shelf and more from self-help. But Lew is trying to present the theology of the High Holy Days in a way that is serious without being too pop-psych, new to secular Jews without being New Age. And he succeeds fairly well.

Lew, 59, who leads an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in San Francisco, is a self-identified “Zen rabbi” who spent the 1970s as a Buddhist, living in monasteries, rigorously practicing meditation. He shares some of these experiences in his 2001 book, “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi.”

Born in Brooklyn, Lew grew up in a rural area of northern Westchester County, N.Y., where he was raised by parents who he said “weren’t the least bit religious” but identified themselves as Jews.

When he left home, he made his way to northern California, where he became ensconced in Buddhist life. Ironically, he says, it was his Buddhist practice that brought him to traditional, observant Judaism, which he would commit himself to for the ensuing decades.

Zen meditation, Lew said, “forces you to look at those parts of your life that you’re reluctant to look at. For me, Judaism was one of those. I felt it was already a part of my soul. It seemed like I was illuminating an inner life that was already there.”

During the late 1980s, Lew attended the Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. He’s been at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco for 13 years, a congregation that Lew described as the only non-Orthodox synagogue in Northern California offering a traditional daily prayer minyan.

It is also a unique congregation in that it has a meditation center in the building next door, which features both daylong meditation workshops around specific holidays and events, and meditation sessions before Sabbath services and morning minyan.

Lew is someone who identifies himself as “observant” but resents the term’s Orthodox connotations. He represents a Jewish crossroads — somewhere between Jew-Bu and neo-chasid — a set of seeker-Jews devoted to traditional observance but open to insights from other traditions.

“That’s how I am,” he said. “I’m very, very traditional in terms of my own observance, very rigorous in terms of my own Jewish practice, but also very adventurous in terms of wanting to expand the boundaries of Judaism.”

“This Is Real” explores the entire High Holy Days period, seven steps from Tisha B’Av — the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem — to Sukkot — the Feast of Booths that marks the end of the contemplative season.

Simply put, he said, the reminder and lesson of the High Holy Days is, “We are not prepared for our lives.” We have failed, time and time again.

This in itself is not an encouraging or uplifting notion, but Lew points out that it is the beginning, not the conclusion, of the High Holy Days journey. Through the prayerful month of Elul, the sweetness of Rosh Hashana and the heartbreak of Yom Kippur, being unprepared is the problem. Reaching out for God and each other brings us our solution.

“In this journey, as we peel away the layers of defense and delusion, we get closer and closer to the presence of God,” he said.

As for Jews who “do” the High Holy Days, Chanukah and Passover but little else, Lew hopes that this book can be, like the blasts of the shofar, a wake-up call from the malaise of the year — and the guilt over not having been to services since last Yom Kippur.

“The de-facto theology of the High Holy Days is that Jews feel guilty that they have such a weak connection to Judaism so they flock to the synagogue and they do penance by boring themselves for days at a time,” he said.

The holidays, though, have a transformative power and a true drama. Lew is, for lack of a better term, religious about presenting the High Holy Day period with the weight of tradition behind it, even as he relates it to incidents from his life and the lives of his congregants.

But Lew does quote the Buddha and cite Cherokee proverbs in the course of making his points. Some scholars wonder at this phenomenon of looking outside of traditional Judaism in order to illuminate it.

“There’s something in the Jewish mind that is so nervous about its own particularism,” said Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School. “It feels the need to link onto something universal.”

Lew’s colleagues, however, counter that while Lew was certainly influenced by Buddhism, meditation has a long tradition within Judaism, particularly in preparation for prayer.

“There’s nothing about calming the mind and opening the heart in preparation for prayer that is foreign to Judaism,” said Rabbi Nancy Flam, director of the Spirituality Institute, a western Massachusetts retreat center for rabbis, cantors and lay people.

“It’s deep in our tradition, and it’s simply deep in the human psyche,” she said.

Lew, I am sure, is hoping that the Jewish psyche is open to his brand of both tradition and innovation. Personally, I feel completely unprepared for it — but ready to learn more.

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