I am delighted to announce the publication of my latest book, “Up The Mountain”, which chronicles my experiences, as a Buddhist, of Judaism. It starts a couple of years ago with my first visit to a synagogue for Shabbat, but most of the book occurs in the last year, beginning with my experiences of the Jewish High Holidays in September 2013.
As the High Holidays approach once again I am beginning my preparations and am looking forward to the wonderful and enriching immersion in spiritual practice, healing, and personal growth that it offers – as well as really good food and wonderful community! Here is an extract that seems particularly appropriate…
After observing Ramadan for the first time, I felt a profound spiritual high and a spiritual depth that I wanted to continue and so decided to intensify my exploration of Judaism.
I selected Judaism above other faiths because it seemed natural: I had already cultivated some familiarity in my faith explorations; I had already developed a considerable affection for many of the traditions and practices; my mentor, Jan Swanson, had spent a year living as a Jew; and the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days were approaching. So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I shifted the focus of my personal interfaith practice from Islam to Judaism.
Let’s begin with a little background on the High Holy Days.
The two “big days” of the Jewish calendar are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The former is the Jewish Spiritual New Year and the latter the Day of Judgment at which one seeks to be written in the book of life for another year. Rosh Hashanah begins a ten-day period that culminates in a 25-hour fast on Yom Kippur, after which The Book of Life is “sealed.” This period of ten days is for reflection and repentance. So many Jewish people attend synagogue only on the High Holidays, that synagogues are built with blow-out walls to accommodate this influx, and many synagogues sell tickets (which I understand may both regulate attendance and serve as a fundraiser).
Once I made my decision I contacted several Jewish friends – a disproportionate number of whom are rabbis – about my intent and was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity I received in the invitations to share their lives and services. The leaders of five separate synagogues offered me free tickets for their High Holy Days and other friends offered to host me for ritual dinners in their homes. The wondrous expressions of welcome and hospitality are deeply, deeply humbling. To my great regret I could not accept all my service invitations, and I am glad I resisted the temptation to over-fill the next week with a tourist agenda of visits, but rather to structure a more disciplined spiritual path.
On the eve of the Jewish New Year I was hosted for Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner in a family home (the home of Elizabeth Appley, described previously in chapter 5); I attended Rosh Hashanah Day One at Or Hadash Synagogue; I attended Day Two at Temple Sinai (there are many theories as to why Rosh Hashanah and some other Jewish holy days include a two day observance… far too many to detail here!); and I was treated to a beautiful Tashlikh ceremony with each community. At the end of Day One (well, right after Tashlikh) the rabbis of Or Hadash invited me to their home for dinner, and I left the Tashlikh service with Temple Sinai on Day Two to embark on a week of reflection during which I read Psalm 27 and the Eighteen Benedictions every morning and, during my regular daily routine, reflected and repented with Yom Kippur in mind. Rabbis at both Temple Sinai and Or Hadash were kind enough to share their personal practice during this period and both indicated a major part of this is to consider those whom they have wronged during the last year and to contact them to seek forgiveness. One also told me he assesses how he has not lived up to his potential this last year and how he can be a better “him” in the year ahead. I adopted these practices myself and contacted several people – maybe you were one! – seeking their forgiveness before Yom Kippur.
Of course a highlight of the ceremonies was the blowing of the Shofar, but what reduced me to shuddering tears was not just the raw power of the horn, but the intent that accompanied the ritual. I cannot remember the verses, but the first blasts on the first day were directed not at self-enlightenment, at being written in the Book of Life, or even at the re-gathering of the people of Israel, but instead at universal compassion, at love for all humankind and creation; at world peace. My sense from these pivotal services is that Jews experience their chosen-ness as a responsibility in a universal context to live the Golden Rule, not as a special privilege; chosen-ness is seen not a gift or an advantage conferring special blessings; to paraphrase Woody Allen, “The next time you choose a people, can You choose the Presbyterians?” My understanding from the Rosh Hashanah services is that chosen-ness is experienced not just as a call to nationhood – though this is very important – but as a call to bring peace and love to others. I had seen glimpses of this before, but two days of lengthy services and dinner conversation left me enriched, humbled, and optimistic for our future.
I could pick other highlights of the services – Tashlikh is a beautiful and moving outdoor ceremony held by a river for washing away sins; the experience of being in ceremony with a room full of prayer-shawl-wrapped worshipers was powerful indeed; the musicality of the entire ceremony was exquisite and powerful; but above all, the highlight was the people, and it is to this I want to return in closing. I have experienced before, the hospitality and warmth of the Jewish culture, but the experience of these weeks reinforces and builds upon this in a most remarkable way. I have never before been welcomed so generously by so many sets of open arms, invited so freely into homes for dinner, been hugged so powerfully and closely by rabbis who are deeply grateful to me for simply attending their services. A window into a spirituality and religious practice of great beauty and wonder was thrown open to me, and I was much richer for it. Rosh Hashanah was the start of what I was confident would be a beautiful, deeply moving, and deeply enriching year.