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Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Living Judaism

What's The Point Of Judaism?
Jewish holidays and all that chest-beating.

— Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Dear Rabbi Milgram:
Just answer me this, what's the point of the Jewish holidays and all the chest-banging? If there's an important point, despite graduating Hebrew school some fifteen years ago, I still don't get it. I hope you'll answer me in your column because I'm loving Buddhism and sure didn't get much from Judaism. Thank you.

Daniel Schwartz

Dear Daniel:

Many report boring and meaning-lacking experiences with Twentieth Century afternoon Hebrew school educations similar to yours and mine. Like yourself, I started asking questions and discovered a treasure chest of powerful spiritual practices inside of Judaism that were covered over by what I think of as a period of mourning and depression after the Holocaust. 

It's so great that you have written to connect to your roots and the time leading up to the High Holy Day season is one of the most wonderful points for tapping into meaning and spirituality in Judaism. It has been long enough for our pain to be transformed into fuel for a healthier future. It is time for us to tackle the new paradigm times in which we live and to shine the light of Torah onto ourselves. 

Seen through the lens of meaning for living, the mission of the approaching season is support for the human capacity for self-acceptance in order to clear the way for our evolution to higher, kinder states of consciousness. Let's contemplate the sound of the shofar when blown through the human soul. It is meant to be a wake up call for your life. So, too, tapping on your chest is knocking on the door to your heart, to see what needs to be addressed so that a New Year will have newly opened doors to healthier relationships.

This is the season for the Jewish practice of realigning/healing problematic relationships. Our tradition utilizes a process spelled out perhaps best by the sage Maimonides, called teshuvah, from the root shuv, for turning. I'm not talking about "cheap teshuvah", where someone calls a few minutes before Yom Kippur to say, "We're fine with each other aren't we? Oops, gotta run, time for services." Or some other insincere check-in. True teshuvah is one of the most important Jewish spiritual practices, it's very different from the Christian practice of forgiveness, which is often termed, "let go and let God." Judaism insists that we must work things through with each other and then the way is paved for a healthy New Year.

Jews use the metaphor of God as a parent to imagine ourselves asking for support and guidance if we are ready to do a teshuvah dialogue with someone with whom we have something to work out. Of course, not everyone is safe to do a teshuvah process with, sometimes a letter is indicated, some things have to wait for another life-time even. One must use discretion; listen for your inner truth about when and with whom. That said, to hold someone hostage who wants to do teshuvah with you, if they ask three different times and bring witnesses to their sincerity and are rebuffed, then the obligation falls on your shoulders, not theirs; they tried. Ask your rabbi or study Maimonides laws of teshuvah for more details on the many fascinating aspects of teshuvah.

How does sincere teshuvah take place? My method is to start by sitting quietly. Let anything that is on the plate of your life that might get in the way of this process come up inside of you. Notice what arises and let it know that you honor its presence in your life and you will attend to it later, after you do this very important spiritual exercise. Set that item on your life agenda outside of you, use your imagination to do this.

Now, allow anything else that needs clearing, one at a time to arise, be named honorably, and set all of them, outside of you respectfully.

Now inside yourself again, not inside your "head" per se, but deep inside your spirit/body, ask, "is there something between me and someone in my life that needs attention?" See who arises. It might be a twinge, a closing of the throat, or sense of tightness in your stomach or some other sensation. See who is attached to that sensation or explore the sensation's qualities. Longing? Sorrow? Anger? An unmet need? Outrage? 

See how refined you can get your understanding of the negative energy between you and that other person by letting your body speak your truth inside for you to notice. It might be that you did something to that person, or s/he did something to you. Whole families, work sites and social circles can be disrupted horribly by even minor problems between people. Judaism sees it as intensely holy to work something out, to take responsibility for our part in the system. When even one person changes, even if the other person refuses contact, something changes for the good.

Now, ask your body, "Should I approach this person for a teshuvah session?" You might imagine yourself calling that person and saying: "Hi, I'm so aware there is negative energy between us. I'd like to put our relationship onto a better level, not now on the phone, but to begin a process. Would you be open to meeting? I'd be glad to listen to what you've been feeling and not respond defensively? Could we try that? Would you be open to setting a time to get together?"

What do you feel in your guts when you imagine initiating such a meeting? If it feels very unsafe to do, don't; or if you imagine a skillful therapist or mediator present, does your body signal to go ahead. Or does your body signal that this could be a good thing, even if somewhat scary? What do you detect? Your intellect might give you false information, thinking something through doesn't always result in your deepest truth. Listen for subtle cues from your body, your soul --- a twinge of pain or an opening, a shift toward hope or healing? Go with that.

The method I've just described is called Focusing, it was discovered by Dr. Gene Gendlin, author of best-selling book by the same name. His discovery is well-documented in Jewish sources. The inner subtle voice is one of Judaism's most ancient God definitions. This is found in the Book of Kings, where G*d is troubled by the prophet's extreme egotism and commands.

"Go out, and stand on the mountain in the face of That Which is Becoming."

That Which is Becoming passed by
and a great and strong wind tore the mountains
and broke in pieces the rocks 
In the face of That Which is Becoming.
But G*d/That Which is Becoming 
was not in the wind; 
and after the wind an earthquake; 
but G*d/That Which is Becoming 
was not in the earthquake; 
and after the earthquake a fire; 
but G*d/That Which is Becoming
was not in the fire; 
and after the fire 
a subtle (some translate "small") still voice." 

There it is --- create a safe space, clear your mind of old knowledge, thoughts and emotions and —after the wind, after the earthquake and after the fire let the felt sense come and speak to you with the subtle small still voice from underneath it all, the message we get when we wait and allow it to emerge. 

The Hassidic text Etz Hazman comments on this experience in a piece called:
In the Subtle Voice --- In Stillness.

Subtly, in a moment, in stillness, and in contemplation, we are able to hear the echo (bat kol) of "that which I command you this day." (i.e, from underneath can come the little steps to say what and how I am to do today, just now.) Being that the "sound" of the Bat Kol comes in the subtle stillness, tenderly, it is more difficult to hear it if there is a denser stronger kol (voice) which is overcoming and forcing it aside; polluting it." [Voices of self attacking, anger, fear, guilt, shame and bitterness constrict us, very loud voices! Then we hide from those voices and hear nothing inside. Therefore tenderness is needed and a few minutes of safe welcoming. "Where am I just now, under all that?" Then we hear from deeper down, where the soul is always praying and struggling to live forward in some good way."

Rav Kook, [19th century chief Rabbi of Israel before founding of the modern state] taught that the soul is always active, communicating, we just aren't listening to it. He explained the soul as our inner voice, our uniqueness, containing knowledge of our mission in life. He wrote that if one doesn't listen to her inner voice she will become depressed, enervation will wither; there will be a lack of passion, personal confusion. In the prayer book he edited, Olat Ra-aya, he also describes the felt-sense phenomenon I've encouraged you to use for your teshuvah process:

"The perpetual prayer of the soul continually tries to emerge from its latent state to become revealed and actualized, to permeate every fiber of the life of the entire universe...Sudden spiritual clarity comes about as a result of a certain spiritual lightning bolt that enters the soul...[ A clarity can also come right now in very small steps from the small voice under it all] when many days or years have passed without listening to this inner voice, toxic stones gather around one's heart, and one feels, because of them, a certain heaviness of spirit. The primary role of spiritual clarity is for the person to return to him/herself, to the root of one's soul."

Daniel, Judaism is full of such gems. May part of your teshuvah, turning, this year include a returning to discover the power and beauty of our ancient path.

L'Shana Tova, Rabbi Goldie Milgram

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