As promised in my last Rabbinic Message I am now going to discuss two books that I have been trying to get through in the last few weeks. But this is not a book review; it is really about an area of much greater importance: the issue of practical belief. So first, some opening reflections: The most recent Pew Research study on American Christianity (released just a few days ago) shows an almost 8% drop since 2007. Such a major shift is remarkable. Those self-identifying as no religion jumped from 16% to 23%. One could say that America is becoming more secular, and many could find some pleasure in that.
But what will take up the slack? I have always been very interested in such questions. I have always had the greatest difficulty with orthodoxy (which means “right thought”). How can one really KNOW for sure what is right thought versus, let us say, right action which can be seen, quantified, and measured? Attempts in Judaism to come up with dogma statements have always met with mixed results and less then universal acceptance. Judaism has always been much more an orthopraxy (right action) faith as are most Eastern faiths. Buddhism is even clearer on this; every premise Buddha said must be tested to see if it is right.
So what does this have to do with the two books that I said I would discuss this month, Healing with God's Love by Rabbi Douglas Goldhammer and The Art of Kavana by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld? Both are rather short (267 and 177 pages respectively). Even with a busy schedule, I should have plowed through both easily in my late-night reading schedule. Sheepishly, I have found BOTH rather daunting not because of length but due to the inconvenient questions they pose in their individual ways.
To the more troubling book, I have met and had Rabbi Goldhammer speak in my previous congregation. By the way, he is a Reform rabbi. Nothing he said or did at that time could have prepared me for this book. In many ways it has challenged me to look into an area of my thought that I have really tried to avoid in my life: whether faith and prayer really can cause things to happen. I guess since adolescence, I have been a Doubting Thomas, thinking it would be nice if words could change anything, but rationally thinking that, at best, they were uplifting aphorisms. But what if the mind was more powerful than that and words uttered with REAL belief could reach Divinity?
Rabbi Goldhammer was diagnosed with Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, a rare vascular disease, in 1976, and the prognosis was he would lose one, if not both, legs. To make a long story short, he ventured into a specifically Jewish healing methodology which turned around his condition, and he has been using what he learned to help many individuals as a congregational rabbi in the Chicago area ever since. This does seem to be rather difficult to believe. If modern Western medicine and science says something, we have been raised to believe it. But in my limited experience, I have met a number of people whose life stories contradict the fundamentalism we have been taught that cannot be true. This book is very challenging even for someone who “wants to believe” in a different paradigm.
I found The Art of Kavana, by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, to be much less of a test to my credulity even though its thought dovetails with Goldhammer’s belief in being able to train one's mind to see the world as miraculous. It makes no claims and tries to get the reader to see the world with new eyes. Let me close with a quote from Rabbi Goldhammer:
“In my special room, I visualize in front of me, in huge letters, YHVH. Or I visualize the Burning Bush, or a room filled with light. And, I speak with these images with the same passion and trust that I would speak with my best friend. I first say Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, numerous times. This alters my level of consciousness. I then say Ribbono shel Olam-Hineini, Master of the Universe, I am here to do whatever You want, many times. After each time I say it, I visualize an experience that God and I succeeded in together... I then thank God for everything I have that I consider great or wonderful, and I mean everything...the best advice I can give you is to talk to God every day. Set aside the same time every day to hear Him.”
- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, May 2015