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In literary journalism there are interviews and there are conversations. The latter are deeply felt, heart-rendering dialogues in which the figurative mechitzah (the divider separating men from women during Orthodox synagogue services) between the interviewer and interviewee dissolves and an exchange of ideas and observations flows freely.
It happened for me with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, author of an affecting memoir called With Roots in Heaven: One Woman's Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith (Dutton. 368 pp. $24.95). Like the best memoirs, the book inspires readers to add or to amend parts of its narrative to shape their own life stories.
In a recent conversation with Jewish Family & Life! Rabbi Firestone said that she penned her story "not only to write my autobiography but for people to see the larger themes. My life has been very dramatic, but the issues are the same--leaving, returning, healing religious and family wounds. I came full circle making it as much a memoir as it is a spiritual guide."
A former yeshiva (text-based academy for Jewish learning) girl who took to the road in search of spiritual enlightenment, Rabbi Firestone left suburban St. Louis to hitchhike across Europe, visit ashrams on three continents and briefly apprentice herself to a guru named Beloved with three wives. On the surface hers was a rebellion against a rigidly Orthodox Jewish home in which rules straight-jacketed her spirit. But no matter how far afield Rabbi Firestone went, she never relinquished her Jewish soul. She writes, "Despite my desire to forget about Judaism, I found that during my meditations and even my dreams, Hebrew phrases and passages from the Torah and liturgy would frequently bleed through my consciousness."
Rabbi Firestone explains that the frequent moments of Jewishness she experienced on her protracted return to Judaism have both Jungian and spiritual roots. She notes that "[Carl] Jung's concept of the Self, the guiding power that he spoke of, is very much a Jewish tradition. We must learn how to listen to that voice inside all of us--the inner maggid or guide. Every one of us has angelic assistance. There is a story from the Talmud that says every blade of grass has an angel standing next to it saying 'grow, grow, grow.' If a blade of grass has that kind of encouragement imagine what people can get from their angels."
The observation is among the many powerful and unexpected evocations that Rabbi Firestone brings up in conversation and in her writing. What often sounds initially like a New Age dictate veers straight into Talmudic tractate. For example, dreams for this rabbi are the quiet unfolding of the dramas taking place in her life and are often a pipeline to God. "Hashem [the Lord] often speaks to me through my dreams," she says. "If we were to collect all of our dreams we would recognize our inner voices. Although it's hard to look at your dreams, it's also a time-honored Jewish tradition." In her book she further elaborates that "the Talmud, too, concurs with Jung when it tells us that dreams are like letters from God, which require opening."
Rabbi Firestone ultimately found herself drawn to the Jewish Renewal Movement and the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Once again in a Jewish community, she began to make sense of the years she spent sifting through Eastern religions, Christian gnosticism, yoga, and Native American rituals. Although unbearably lonely at times, she eventually realized that she had not been alone in her quest. She observes that "Twenty-five percent of American Buddhists are Jews. That is staggering. Buddhism offers these Jews some sort of nutrient that they think they can't find in Judaism. I think it's the silence as well as getting away from linear thinking. These Jews are attracted to the calm and repose that Eastern religions offer. We need to understand that these things are already there in Judaism and tap into Judaism's contemplative side."
In her own congregation in Boulder Colorado, Rabbi Firestone's Shabbat services, often standing room only, incorporate meditation, mysticism and music. She has also founded Beit Sefer Chadash, a religious school specifically aimed at children from unaffiliated or interfaith homes. To that end she has defied the local rabbinical board and performs intermarriage ceremonies. However, she does so within well defined parameters. "A couple must become members of my community or some Jewish community. They need to have a Jewish home and commit to giving their children a Jewish education. My outreach to intermarried couples often ends in conversion, but conversion is not the goal. It is about living a Jewish life." She has a particularly personal stake in this aspect of her rabbinate. Rabbi Firestone was married for almost two decades to a Christian minister who, she says, was instrumental in helping her to rediscover her Judaism.
After spending years on the run from one Jewish community and then reconnecting to another, Rabbi Firestone now understands that community is "developmentally important" in Jewish life. More than a conveyance for religious observance, community serves as a way to connect the past to the future. "We need our ancient traditions to go forward. It's not practical to recreate the Judaism of a nineteenth century shtetl (village). Although it's a beautiful form of our religion we need to reformat our Judaism for the 21st century. As Rav Kook said, 'The old will be made new and the new will be made holy.' I strive for that every single day."