Up the Spiral

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat


If I were a planet, Judaism would be my sun: it nourishes me and keeps me grounded. Over the last decade, my orbit has been elliptical: I swang pretty far from attachment to Judaism before hanging a tight curve around Pluto and coming back this way. As it happens, a book about the intersections of Judaism and Buddhism set me in that orbit…and kept me there.

Ten years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus. It is the true story of a group of rabbis–ranging in denomination from Reform to Orthodox–who travelled together to Dharamsala, India, to meet with the Dalai Lama and taught him how the Jews have maintained cohesion as a Diaspora people. At that time, I was a religion major at Williams College, and was leaning strongly towards rabbinical school.

The Jew in the Lotus blew my mind. I wanted to grow up to be Rodger Kamenetz, to be the poet who is invited to chronicle a journey like that! But even more astonishing than Rodger were the rabbis who came to life in his pages. I had a pretty solid academic understanding of how varied Judaism can be, but these rabbis were living proof. I followed the esoteric dialogues from the edge of my seat. Though I’ve never kept kosher, I cheered for Blu Greenberg as she taught the monks how to kasher, make kosher, their kitchen so that she and her husband could eat. When Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, during morning davening, prayers, in Dharamsala one day, quietly told Rodger, “Your God is a true God”–challenging him first to know his conception of God, and then to marry knowledge with faith–I got chills.

I came away convinced that there was more to Judaism than I had realized: that we, too, have a meditative and mystical tradition to draw on, that we can be compassionate and open to other traditions instead of merely insular and inwardly focused. I decided to hunt down books by the rabbis in The Jew and the Lotus. I was excited, I was engaged, I was on fire. But maybe the time wasn’t right for my transformation; I got distracted by other things.

Not long after that, one of the most wonderful people I know asked me to be his life-partner, and I said yes. We’d been dating for five years, and we were ready for the next step. I expected the world to rejoice along with me. One small challenge: he’s not Jewish.

The year that followed wasn’t easy. My childhood rabbi wasn’t comfortable marrying us, which I understood, though it saddened me. Other rabbis I spoke to weren’t comfortable with the idea, either. Not everyone was menschlich, kind, about it. As the months went by, I grew progressively sadder and angrier, both. We did find a rabbi to marry us, but by the time the wedding was over, I didn’t really want to think about Judaism much. Rabbinical school was no longer an option. I wasn’t sure I wanted to affiliate myself with a tradition that treated my spouse–or me–so dismissively.

But over time, I found that Judaism wasn’t really something I could leave. A few years after we were married, The Jew in the Lotus caught my eye from my bookshelf, and I picked it up to re-read. It was even better the second time. This time, I actually sought out books by some of the thinkers in its pages.

I learned that the rabbi who moved me most–Zalman Schachter-Shalomi–was raised, and ordained, within Lubovitch Hasidism. Today he’s a figurehead in the Jewish Renewal movement, a transdenominational movement which seeks “to bring creativity, relevance, joy, and an all embracing awareness to spiritual practice, as a path to healing our hearts and finding balance and wholeness.” That excited me. And I got even more excited when I found out that he teaches sometimes at Elat Chayyim, a retreat center in the Catskills.

I psyched myself up to commit the time and money to go there, and signed up for one of his classes… which was cancelled when he fell ill unexpectedly. I felt surprisingly bereft to be missing out on something I had only just decided I wanted to do. I read their catalogue obsessively. In the summer of 2002, I picked another class, packed my things, and went.

Elat Chayyim was an eye-opener. It was everything I had dreamed it might be. I took classes in Jewish meditation with Jeff Roth; discussed tikkun olam, the imperative to heal the world, with Arthur Waskow; saw women lay tefillin, phylacteries, for the first time; tried interpretive davening at dawn in a yurt. I had conversations with God. As my week drew to a close, God answered.

Today I have made Elat Chayyim a regular part of my spiritual practice: I visit at least annually, and this year I plan to go twice–and hope to finally meet, and study with, Reb Zalman. I’ve joined a shul, synagogue, and am a regular at Shabbat, Sabbath, services, as well as at Friday morning meditation. Last weekend I served as shaliach tzibbur, services-leader, when the rabbi was out of town.

The year or two I spent alienated from Judaism seem anomalous to me now. My journey has brought me back to Jewish involvement again. It’s not a circle so much as a spiral, like the ramp in the Guggenheim museum in New York. I’m back in the place where I started, but I’ve climbed a level up.

One of these days I might send Rodger Kamenetz a thank-you note. He doesn’t know me from Eve, but his trip to India all those years ago changed my life. Maybe my journey, small as it seems, will change yours.


About Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Her most recent book is 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), a collection of Torah poems.