Tuesday, November 8, 2011

the return of the shekinah

To southward I set the mystical candelabrum,
I make room in the north for the table with loaves...
Let the Shekinah be surrounded by six Sabbath loaves
connected on every side with the Heavenly Sanctuary.
Weakened and cast out
the impure powers, the menacing demons
are now in fetters.
(Sabbath hymn of Isaac Luria)

7 nov, 2011, ben gurion airport, tel aviv

The final moments here in Israel could have gone very badly. There is supposed to be a general labor strike starting this morning at 6 o'clock which will close Ben Gurion airport down at 8. I am leaving at 7:20, inshallah! Just in time. A few folks stayed behind to fly to Jordan today to tour Petra, but their flight already got cancelled so they are having to reshuffle. I was already dreaming up a contingency plan, what I might do if I got stuck in Israel and all my connecting flights home got cancelled... It would have been interesting.

These last days have been very relaxed. Morgie took us way back up north on Friday before shabat and before heading to Tel Aviv. It is considered to be the center of Jewish mysticism in Israel--many students and teachers of kabbalah--and also an artist colony filled with Orthodox hippies, as one of our Jewish friends described them. I was also told by a reliable source that, to my surprise, in spite of the mystics, artists and hippies it's also a very conservative town, some of the most ardent Zionists. We first had a wonderful visit with an American born artist named David Friedman. As we walked into his studio space I pointed to a copy of one of his paintings that was on display at the entryway and said, "That reminds me a little of Peter Max." Sure enough, he told us at the beginning of his presentation that he was inspired early on by psychedelic art and album covers. If some elements of that style remain, he has also evolved a long way. He himself is a serious student of kabbalah and makes great use of its symbolic language, numbers and images. His presentation about his art was just as much a spiritual teaching about the unity of the Divine.

I don't know if I ever saw Morgie as reverent about anything else on this tour as she was about Zefat, and especially when she talked about the Kaballah tradition that grew up in this area. It mostly centers around a man named Isaac Luria. After Jews got expelled from Spain in the 15th century by Columbus' patrons in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, many of them settled in Zefad around Luria, who developed a certain mysticism based on the experience of exile. The idea was that God had actually gone into exile, God had "contracted," as it were, to make room for the created world. And the Shekinah, the power of God who is visioned as feminine, the bride (I need to look up if there is any relation between this word and the Sanskrit shakti, also feminine), had also been separated from the Godhead. And now there were divine sparks scattered all around and imprisoned, as it were, in matter. So there is a displacement at the heart of Being itself, and nothing could be in its right place. The exile of the Jews then stood as a symbol of a kind of cosmic homelessness of both God and humanity. But by faithful adherence to the Torah and careful observance of the Sabbath, Jews could end the exile of the Shekinah. Isaac Luria drew on this experience to teach about the primal unity that had existed before the beginning of time, a unity that could be brought about again, even in one's own body. By the way, this is also the symbol of Rachel's Tomb, God's Shekinah in exile. Some of Luria's disciples used to perform a Rite of Rachel, in which they would get up at midnight and rub their face in the dust, weeping. This would be followed in the early hours of the morning by the Rite of Leah, in which one would recite a passage about the Shekinah's return and union with the Godhead until one could feel her presence in every part of the body.

Morgie told us about the origins of some of the other more common Sabbath rituals that had their origin here in Zefad too, many of them very sexual in their imagery. )Rabbi Paula was barely keeping herself contained as Morgie was talking, because these are the very rituals she has taught her congregants and us, to some extent, on this trip.) The Shekinah and the Sabbath became joined and on Friday afternoons, people would dress in white and process out to the field outside the city to greet the Sabbath-Shekinah, the bride of God, and escort her back to their homes. Every home was prepared like a temple, with bread and wine, candles. And there was a song that accompanied this, composed by Luria himself, the same song that Paula had us all sing both Sabbaths we spent together. Paula reminded us too how when we were at the synagogue with Morgie in Jerusalem two weeks ago, even then we had faced the door. This song is always done facing toward Zefat, from where the bride will come. For one day each week, everything is back in its proper place, a little sanctuary of time, everything back in right relationship. Karen Armstrong adds in her description of it that this Friday night ritual also looks forward to that final return to the Source of Being. We stood out at a spot that was right above where the Jews did their mikvah (ritual baths) and from where we could see the distant hill where Isaac Luria lived.

Morgie took us on a good tour of the rest of the village, sharing stories all the way. "Anything can happen in Zefat," she kept saying as she regaled us with two or three different versions of various events in the history of the town. She pointed out to us a town in the distance that was the home of a great rabbi, and explained to us various songs and prayers that originated there in that region; she led us to two Sephardic synagogues, wonderfully colorful and busy in their interior design, one of which was miraculously actually lifted from its original home in Spain and transported here to Israel. (Anything can happen in Zefat!) She also gave us a tour of the candle factory and introduced us to her favorite Yemeni food shop, the proprietor-cook silent behind his grill wearing his distinctive black and white Yemeni kippa over his dark eyes and jet black side curls, for all the world a Jewish yogi who would not have looked out of place in Rishikesh, incense burning and very hip world music playing in the background. There was a long narrow cobbled street chock full of shops, many of them artist studios or purveyors of fine tchotchkes. Twice I got asked (at first in Hebrew) if I wanted to have the teffilin tied on my hand, once by an old man and once by a young one. When I showed my confusion, they both asked if I was Jewish. When I said no, I was dismissed, not unkindly. I asked Ariyeh later what that was about and he explained to me that they would then either try to get you to by a set of tefillin from them, or try to "evangelize" you toward being a more observant Jew, especially as Sabbath was approaching. Indeed, the older man gave me a tract about the coming Messiah and the signs that would accompany it. I slipped away with Ariyeh and had a scrumptious vegan meal at the kiosk of another American born Jew, this time a woman. We were pretty high in the hills, and it was raining off and on, and had gotten refreshingly cool, then downright cold, so it was nice to pile onto the warm bus and make the long trek down to Tel Aviv for our final days.

I had arrived in Tel Aviv but hadn't seen any of it yet. I'm not sure why, but Tel Aviv felt like a world of difference from the other places we'd been. Even though there is definitely more secular city than sacred in Jerusalem, we had spent most of our time in the old city, I guess, and none of the other places seemed quite as modern and cosmopolitan as Tel Aviv. It's also very new, built from the ground up (though right next to the old city of Jaffa) in the early twentieth century. It made it feel a little like Beirut. It's also a university town and feels like a young town, with quite a night life. Okay, I'll be honest: it felt like Babylon after Zefat and Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Our hotel was only a block from the sea, which was very nice and we all made the most of that. There was also a health food store around the corner and lots of coffee places, a lot fewer people in kippas or kuffis or any kind of religious garb. It reminded me that the Zionist movement in the late 19th/20th centuries was not necessarily religious, but secular and socialist. The focus was more on the kibbutzim than the kippa, more on politics than (or at least as much as) on the spiritual life. I have to keep reminding myself that Jewish is an ethnic group, like Italian or Swedish, that happens to be also a religion, and there is a uniqueness about the wedding of those two that is unlike even Hinduism, I think, though that may be the closest correlative in my mind. The big deal about the Ethiopians who were brought up in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon last century was that they could actually prove their Jewish blood line.

After a sumptuous meal, (do they eat like that every Sabbath?) we had a simple Sabbath gathering with a talk a woman who is an active member of the GLBT community in Tel Aviv. This was of special interest to the group since they were a number of folks from that community who were part of our group as well. But Donna surprised everyone. Only about half of her talk was about GLBT issues; she also was very articulate, passionate and forthcoming about other social issues in Israel: the military and the military mindset, the economic disparity, and racial issues, for instance. We enjoyed her talk a great deal.

The next day everything was optional until the afternoon event, which was highly recommended (nothing was really mandatory. Morgie was leading a tour of the ancient city of Joffa, and I was tempted to go but I wound up spending deciding to spend most of a glorious day alone on the beach, walking, writing, letting things sink in. Our meeting that evening was the beginning of our processing as a group. There was one question that Morgie kept putting to us and we were going finally going to dance around it a little bit: "What makes a place holy?"

I remembered talking to a young monk at a monastery I was vi sting once, who was lamenting about the state of life among the brothers there and struggling with whether or not he should stay, if that was "the right place." He came to the conclusion himself and stated it eloquently: "This is the right place. But we are not the right place." I have come to the conclusion that every place is holy and no place is holy. That was my revelation about the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. It's been a very important theme for me to recall how even after the destruction of the first temple during the Babylonian captivity, the Jews were coming to realize that their worship did not have to depend on a place, and so they developed the synagogue tradition and the closeness to the Word. That didn't stop Herod and his predecessors from building a bigger and better temple, but along the way what might have been forgotten was Jeremiah's prophecy: Behold the days are coming when I make a new covenant with the house of Israel. Deep within their beings I will implant my Law; I will write it on their hearts. And so again this beautiful image of Mary--that's really where the whole Jesus event starts. Her virginity is a sign of a pure receptive heart-soul-home for the Word, received so deeply that it takes root and becomes flesh. And so, to see Jesus in that lineage, the first thing he does in the Gospel of John is relocate the Temple to his very own body. And of course then Peter and Paul understand that all of our bodies are temples now.

What makes a place holy? We make a place holy in the same way we bless something--our blessing God doesn't make God holy: it acknowledges a holiness that is already there, it (here's my favorite word again) "realizes" it, it makes us a aware and our awareness makes it real. Every place is the right place. But we are not always the right place. If we were the right place??--a pure receptive heart-soul-home for the Word??--every place would be the right place, every place would be holy. I remember David Whyte's teaching about Moses, that the big shock wasn't that he was standing on holy ground; the big shock was that he'd been standing on it all along and didn't know it. Doesn't Jacob say the same thing (and Merton quotes it on 4th and Walnut): Truly this place was holy and I did not know it.