I am honored and humbled to be in this company, and I teach here today only by the grace and permission of my teachers and colleagues, and most particularly in memory of my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, who passed away in July.
There’s so much to say—it’s hard to know where to begin. But I can say this: meditation practice saved my spiritual life and set me on the path to my current work as a rabbi and teacher of embodied spirituality. I have lived the life of a dance artist and a healer. Judaism as a faith and a culture has an ages-old mandate to care for the stranger, the widow, the poor, the orphaned—the weakest members of society, to love one’s neighbor, to care for the land, to conduct business equitably, to pursue justice, to become a rodef shalom, a pursuer of peace. In our country in the past century, Jews have been strong activists and advocates in many social justice movements—workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights, the environmental crisis, fighting hunger and poverty. But although as a young person I had a strong grounding in certain aspects of Jewish practice and culture, for many years I was unable to stand up for what I believed, to serve as a public activist for justice, or even to stand up and be seen as a Jew in the world.
For much of my life, I have needed a great deal of my life force energy for a journey of inner repair—what we call in Hebrew tikkun ha-nefesh, repair of the self. I was born soon after World War II, to Jewish parents—to a father traumatized by his military service, both as a human being and as a Jew, and to a first generation American mother, not consciously in touch with her immigrant parents’ painful loss of family, culture, heritage, and religion, which also shaped her life. I—as we all have been—was raised in the shadow of the awful genocides of the 20th century. Though I became a performing artist, I was actually shy and very sensitive, and for sensitive people, this world can be a difficult place to navigate.
It took me many years to even begin to deal with the layers of numbness, disconnection, and denial held in my body. From a young age, I danced and made dances and expressed through my body. As a young professional dancer, the pain and injuries I soon experienced catapulted me into a decades-long exploration of my body’s inner contents and workings. I studied and taught many somatic modalities, most notably Body-Mind Centering®. As I became part of a somatic community of support, my tissues began to unfreeze, and I started to feel the emotional and physical pain that they’d been holding in suspension for lifetimes.
Even though my skin is white and I’ve had many, many economic and educational advantages, for which I’m deeply grateful, inside I was always shaking, terrified of annihilation. Both as Jew and as a woman, I had been taught in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to deny who I was, to hide out, to make myself small. In mid-life (my late 30’s), desperate for spiritual nourishment and, like so many of my generation, unable to gain access to the mystical wisdom of my own faith tradition, I stumbled into Buddhist mindfulness practice and finally begin to enter deeply into the heart of my life.
Ultimately, through my deepening practice with dedicated, inspiring teachers and the many, many hours of holding my seat through layers of pain precipitating out of my body-mind, I began to find my way back into Judaism. Mindfulness practice taught me to befriend my pain and to open to the pain of other people—of my people—instead of squeezing tight or moving away from it. At the same time, it awakened the longing and urgency to discover the dignity and majesty and healing potential of my heritage, the ancient Jewish path of connection to life, to the world, and to what I have always experienced as the Mystery, the Oneness that sources and lives in each one of us.
Unlike Buddhism, Judaism has no unbroken lineage of meditative or contemplative practice, handed down in clear form from teacher to student for millennia. Rather, the rivulets and streams of Jewish mysticism, known collectively as Kabbalah--literally “That Which Is Received”—were seen to be so powerful and potentially dangerous that for many generations they were kept hidden and practiced only by small groups well-grounded in study, prayer, and mitzvot–Judaism’s detailed daily life practices designed to connect one constantly with the Divine. It’s my sense that in each generation, an elite cadré of learned and often saintly people—men, as far as we know—performed powerful meditative and theurgic practices that at times verged on magic or shamanism, trying to bring about the perfection and ultimate liberation of the world—what we call mashiachvelt, the time of the messiah. Perhaps women were also doing such practices—but mostly we can only guess at or try to channel through ourselves the women’s practices.
Later this morning I’ll share with you some of the meditative movement practices that I’ve been evolving over the past 15 years, integrating my movement background, healing, body awareness, and mindfulness background with some of the deep truths of Jewish tradition and practices hinted at in some of the ancient and not-so-ancient texts. Until recently, I’ve always been a “quiet activist,” working to heal individuals, doing healing work within my own community, contributing financially to causes I believe in, joining progressive communities whose values I share, and trying to live in alignment with those values. What I have found is that in fortifying me to live into the truth of my own life, the meditative practices I’ve learned and am adapting have gradually purified my fear and are giving me strength to stand for what I know to be true, not with anger or self-righteousness, and not without inner quaking, but with love and a growing sense of support, of Guiding Presence. There’s a well-known Jewish teaching that if you save one person’s life, you save a whole world, olam in Hebrew—all the richness that might come forth from that person, their creativity, their loving, their offspring. Saving my own life—the repair of my own nefesh, my self, through meditative practice—has prepared me to join with my fellow humans of all faiths to address the great tasks of tikkun olam, repair of the world, facing us now in our time. It has eased my own suffering, opened me to the suffering of others, given me powerful tools to help, and girded me for action.