Friday, July 10, 2009

Rodger Kamenetz' "Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Jewish Mystical Masters": Book Review

This sequel to "The Jew in the Lotus" continues his quest for meaning, integrating Tibetan Buddhist aspirations towards silence and emptiness with Jewish traditions of kabbalah, meditation, and non-intellectual search for the ultimately Unknowable One. "Our knowledge of God is passive," he's told.

That is, according to Rabbi Art Green: "We do active things to reach the place of the passive knowledge of God." (220) Green tries to get to the place, as a liberal, that only the ultra-Orthodox assert, the way to grasp God interiorly. Kamenetz twice imagines the Jews burdened into the wilderness, dragging "fleischik" and "milchik" pots, carrying multivolumed commentaries on their backs. He admires the Tibetan emphasis upon the inner search, and his book takes him to the rabbis and teachers who try to recover, or invent, ways in which modern Jews-- the 85% who are no longer able to be "naive" believers in the God of history after the Enlightenment, assimilation, secularism, and the Shoah-- can try to regain, as Green models, a way to get beyond the legalism of the "ba'al teshuvah" neo-Orthodox. The problem with simply "returning" to the shetl is that today's Jews who do so have not learned from their grandparents how to live as Jews; one cannot gain this from a stack of commentaries or a practice tethered to legalism.

Rodger Kamenetz interviews different teachers of Jewish meditation, kabbalah (the non-Madonna marketed glitzy kind), and alternative, counter-cultural influenced rabbis who try to get beyond the impatience, anger, chatter, and kibbitzing of "Jewishness" to find a more calm, silently lurking, and personally meaningful "Judaism" that may appeal to those not ready to accept Orthodoxy as the only way, but who may shrink from synagogue routines, boring prayers recited aloud, facile God-talk and touchy-feely platitudes. "It's not a simple dilemma, the struggle between humility and chutzpah, between equanimity and passion, between Jewish and Judaism." (210) Kamenetz uses his own interest in Tibetan Buddhism (this book follows his "The Jew in the Lotus"--recently reviewed by me on this blog & Amazon US-- about the 1990 encounter of Jewish rabbis and teachers with the Dalai Lama) and his own skepticism as an assimilated, largely secular Jew trying to connect with mystical and spiritual paths into whatever God might, or might not, be.

Screenwriter turned "maggid," or storyteller Paul Woolf tells him how the best characters are those in denial. We and our planet share this denial: "About who our creator is and what we should be about." Those who are Jewish, Woolf affirms, must work from within their community and tradition to find their soul's home even if "God is not Jewish." For, "Judaism is our way to God." (173) Yet, bickering and jockeying continue to separate wrangling Jews on Torah's path. For instance, Woolf-- after an "endless discussion" about whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox "are doing it right" and his own struggle with reconciling an inability to conform to Jewish tradition even as he seeks its meaningful messages-- offers Kamenetz this analogy.

"Our ancestors, who were all Orthodox, went on an adventure. They found a pristine, beautiful, endlessly deep lake with the purest sparkling, azure blue water. They mapped out a path to this lake and it was very precise. Turn left here, go right here. They said, 'If you want to reach this lake, follow this map, because we worked on it and we're not bullshitting you-- this works.' Then somewhere along the line somebody who wouldn't follow that map found the lake and told the other mapmakers about it. They said, 'You're crazy. You couldn't possibly get there without this map.' They started to argue about it. They argued and argued for centuries-- and nobody went swimming. That's what we're doing. Nobody's going into the lake. Go into the lake!"
He continues:
"I say to my Orthodox friends who want to argue with me, 'I tell you what, I'm not going to convince you and you're not going to convince me. Go in the lake. That's the most important thing. That's where you're supposed to be. Go in the lake!" Paul paused and added, 'And if you see me in the lake, don't be too surprised.'" (175)
Woolf's teacher, Jonathan Omer-Man, who accompanied Kamenetz to Dharamsala in 1990, remains along with fellow rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi the guide for Kamenetz in this sequel. With his own pain and struggles, his diffidence and his reserve, he provides a telling counterpart and contrast with the exuberant Zalman. Omer-Man provides a fascinating analogy of his own.

So far, the book intermittently had kept my interest; I have no attraction to kabbalah and the lack of exoticism that made the Indo-Tibetan travelogue naturally captivating makes much of this sequel more mundane. This speaks well to the struggle to find the core meaning of Judaism beneath the superficial glitz of the renewal rabbis, but it does make for a less dazzling meeting of minds than Dharamsala. It's as if, with Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill," the settings of the sensational East tend to look awkward or bizarre when plonked beside a congested freeway or strip-mall. Yet in such locales, Kamenetz listens and begins to understand ancient truths.

That may be the point: how difficult it is to bring home captivating Jewish teaching into staid American practice. Trying to explain kabbalistic cosmology (which provides a leitmotif in this narrative, if not always in the most scintillating manner despite the patient efforts of rabbis and the yearning writer to make this esotericism clear to the general reader), Omer-Man hits upon the pertinent image that for me made these rarified concepts of time, space, and life finally more relevant.

Flow of energy from on high is punctuated into breaks akin to bytes of information. "There are packets, but the space between the packet determines the nature of the packet." As Kamenetz elucidates, in the gaps of non-communication, of lack of connection, the energy received is defined. Similar to the silences revealing more than the words spoken in conversation, this helps Kamenetz (and me) with his problem. Ever since he met Rabbi Zalman, with his insistence on God's reality, the writer balked. Now, Kamenetz realizes that his "absence of connection I felt to God-- the beeper out of range-- is itself an essential element of the communication." (197)

So, while the first couple hundred pages of this narrative moved fitfully and to me erratically as Kamenetz delves deeper into his own troubled relationship with a personal God that he finds lacking in his own experience, learning from Jonathan Omer-Man, and then Green, he stumbles closer to entering the "sha'ar harachamim," the "gates of mercy," by his own chance encounter with a nameless Israeli, the Elijah figure he cannot stalk but who will find him when least expected: when Kamenetz returns five years after his 1990 visit to the Dalai Lama, in his Indian exile in Dharamasala. While there's no grand epiphany, the book gradually tapers off with an account of how Kamenetz interpreted the seder ritual for Tibetans there, and continues the first book's groundbreaking attempt to instruct one people in exile by another, how to survive and endure and continue their practice.

There's plenty of ideas to reflect upon in a wandering account that appropriately finds Kamenetz at one point screaming by the side of the freeway and then finding solace in his own mini-desert exodus. Much of this book might have worked more as shorter essays, although themes build bit by bit, if not always followed through. This mimics the author's own trek, but it may frustrate readers wanting a neat resolution to what must be a honest teller's rambling tale that cannot end so neatly.

Throughout, Kamenetz and his fellow seekers urge more silence, less talk. More peace, less anger. These are not easy for Jewish people used to wrangling and debate, as he admits readily. Yet, inspired by his Buddhist-grounded understanding of insight, Kamenetz begins to apply this to a more communally based Jewish outreach. As he meets Green, he wonders: "how can I connect this being, who escapes language, with the very concrete stories of the Jewish people? It was harnessing a soap bubble and hoping to rise to heaven." (246)
(Posted today to Amazon US & my blog; see author's website.)


Bo said...

This was a great review, as ever: I must say your rate of production and steady, unhurried eloquence over thousands and thousands of words makes me quail!!

No Jewish blood or background here--alas!--though my adoptive/spiritual father is a Jew: but very interested indeed in Buddhism. I've been reading your recent reviews avidly.

The word verification, rather nicely, was 'rabbiligr'

Fionnchú said...

Thousands and thousands of words indeed: I appreciate your patience with wading through so many, and I return the compliment to your own magical weaving of word and image. May I add, as an adoptee, I admire your juxtaposition of "adoptive/ spiritual" father: this speaks worlds. How's the Hebrew coming along-- besides Finnish and Sanskrit? All the best again...