Tag Archives: crossing the boundary

Through the Wall of White Supremacy

The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today. Things have improved from the radical promotion of white people at the expense of all others, which has persisted for most of our history, yet most of us have not accepted the extent to which white identity guides so much of what we still do. Sometimes it seems that the white nationalists are most honest about the very real foundation of white supremacy upon which our nation was built.”

                                               –R. Derek Black (godson of David Duke)

It is up to each of us to question the worldview of our parents and whatever sense of  tribal identification they pass on to us. We must find within ourselves what truths to hold and what to toss out. Some adopt without question their parents’ ideas or conversely reject them through unconscious rebellion. Others take a more balanced approach, and through a rational process of evaluation or through a process of spiritual discovery, discern for themselves what is valuable from what is destructive, sort the good from the bad, (which can sometimes be very bad).

I am always heartened by the courage of those who find themselves in a world in which they no longer want to live, and choose to step out, cross what often feels like a great psychological boundary. I tend to listen closely to their observations of the minds and hearts contained in the world they left. This is essentially the theme of this blog and my book Crossing the Boundary. A few days ago, I saw a piece in the New York Times that gave me that feeling of deep appreciation and drew my close attention. Among the many articles and opinion pieces on the White Supremacist/Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, and the remarks by our Madman in Chief, there was one by R. Derek Black, the son of one of the leaders of the White Nationalist movement and a godson of David Duke.

In his piece, “What White Nationalism Gets Right About American History,” he makes clear his rejection of his White Supremacist roots. But he also shares deep insights into the thinking of those in that group and the truth they do hold. The truth is that their core belief in white supremacy has indeed dominated the history of this country until very, very recent time and is still very present throughout our society.

The bold statement above, from a man immersed in White Supremacist culture since childhood, is to me a cautionary message for all of us who feel we are immune to the feelings and thinking of this truly disgusting ideology. It was the explicit and/or implicit view of the culture in which our own consciousness was nurtured and developed. This insidious infection of the mind has almost certainly entered into our hearts and we will only begin to be free of it through acknowledging its present existence.

I am curious to know the process that Mr. Black went through to liberate himself from his racist conditioning, insofar as he has. It would help shed light on how we can all question our most firmly held beliefs. Humanity appears to many observers, to be going through a major shift in consciousness. Certainly, we are liberating ourselves, albeit fitfully, from old notions of tribal, racial and gender superiority, I would suggest we also need to question the notion of human superiority over the rest of nature with whom we share this world. To do this, we need to cultivate awareness of our own mind and sense of identity and learn the methods of transformation that are the gifts of our spiritual ancestors.

I strongly recommend reading R. Derek Black’s piece here:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/19/opinion/sunday/white-nationalism-american-history-statues.html and which I’ve copied below.

                                                                 –Alan Levin


My dad often gave me the advice that white nationalists are not looking to recruit people on the fringes of American culture, but rather the people who start a sentence by saying, “I’m not racist, but …”

The most effective tactics for white nationalists are to associate American history with themselves and to suggest that the collective efforts to turn away from our white supremacist past are the same as abandoning American culture. My father, the founder of the white nationalist website Stormfront, knew this well. It’s a message that erases people of color and their essential role in American life, but one that also appeals to large numbers of white people who would agree with the statement, “I’m not racist, but I don’t want American history dishonored, and this statue of Robert E. Lee shouldn’t be removed.”

I was raised by the leaders of the white nationalist movement with a model of American history that described a vigorous white supremacist past and once again I find myself observing events in which I once might have participated before I rejected the white nationalist cause several years ago. After the dramatic, horrible and rightly unnerving events in Charlottesville, Va., this past weekend, I had to make separate calls: one to make sure no one in my family who might have attended the rally got hurt, and a second to see if any friends at the University of Virginia had been injured in the crowd of counterprotesters.

On Tuesday afternoon the president defended the actions of those at the rally, stating, “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” His words marked possibly the most important moment in the history of the modern white nationalist movement. These statements described the marchers as they see themselves — nobly driven by a good cause, even if they are plagued by a few bad apples. He said: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”

But this protest, contrary to his defense, was advertised unambiguously as a white nationalist rally. The marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us”; in the days leading up to the event, its organizers called it “a pro-white demonstration”; my godfather, David Duke, attended and said it was meant to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”; and many attendees flew swastika flags. Whatever else you might say about the rally, they were not trying to deceive anyone.

Almost by definition, the white nationalist movement over the past 40 years has worked against the political establishment. It was too easy for politicians to condemn the movement — even when there was overlap on policy issues — because it was a liability without enough political force to make the huge cost of associating with it worthwhile. Until Tuesday, I didn’t believe that had changed.

We have all observed the administration’s decisions over the past several months that aligned with the white nationalist agenda, such as limiting or completely cutting off legal and illegal immigration, especially of Hispanics and Muslims; denigrating black communities as criminal and poor, threatening to unleash an even greater police force on them; and going after affirmative action as antiwhite discrimination. But I had never believed Trump’s administration would have trouble distancing itself from the actual white nationalist movement.

Yet President Trump stepped in to salvage the message that the rally organizers had originally hoped to project: “George Washington was a slave owner,” he said, and asked, “So will George Washington now lose his status?” Then: “How about Thomas Jefferson?” he asked. “Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue?” He added: “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”

Until Trump’s comments, few critics seemed to identify the larger relationship the alt-right sees between its beliefs and the ideals of the American founders. Charlottesville is synonymous with Jefferson. The city lies at the foot of Monticello and is the home of the University of Virginia, the school he founded. Over the years I’ve made several pilgrimages to Charlottesville, both when I was a white nationalist and since I renounced the ideology. While we all know that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal,” his writings also offer room for explicitly white nationalist interpretation.

My father observed many times that the quotation from Jefferson’s autobiography embedded on the Jefferson Memorial is deceptive because it reads, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these [the Negro] people are to be free.” It does not include the second half of the sentence: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”

Jefferson’s writings partly inspired the American colonization movement, which encouraged the return of free black people to Africa — a goal that was pursued even by Abraham Lincoln during the first years of the Civil War.

The most fundamental legislative goal of the white nationalist movement is to limit nonwhite immigration. It is important to remember that such limits were in place during the lifetimes of many current white nationalists; it was the default status until the 1960s. In the 1790s, the first naturalization laws of the United States Congress limited citizenship to a “free white person.”

Legislation in the 1920s created quotas for immigration based on national origin, which placed severe restrictions on the total number of immigrants and favored northern and western European immigration. It was only with the civil rights movement of the 1960s that the national origin quota system was abolished and Congress fully removed the restriction favoring white immigrants.

I’m not offering these historical anecdotes to defame the history of the country. I’m not calling for Jefferson’s statue to be removed along with the Confederate memorials. I do, however, think it is essential that we recognize that the white nationalist history embedded in American culture lends itself to white nationalist rallies like the one in Charlottesville. If you want to preserve Confederate memorials, but you don’t work to build monuments to historical black leaders, you share the same cause as the marchers.

Until Tuesday I believed the organizers of the rally had failed in their goal to make their movement more appealing to average white Americans. The rally superimposed Jefferson’s image on that of a pseudo K.K.K. rally and brought the overlap between Jefferson and white nationalist ideas to mind for anyone looking to find them. But the horrific violence that followed seemed to hurt their cause.

And then President Trump intervened. His comments supporting the rally gave new purpose to the white nationalist movement, unlike any endorsement it has ever received. Among its followers, being at that rally will become something to brag about, and some people who didn’t want to be associated with extremism will now see the cause as more mainstream. When the president doesn’t provide condemnation that he has been pressed to give, what message does that send but encouragement?

The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today. Things have improved from the radical promotion of white people at the expense of all others, which has persisted for most of our history, yet most of us have not accepted the extent to which white identity guides so much of what we still do. Sometimes it seems that the white nationalists are most honest about the very real foundation of white supremacy upon which our nation was built.

The president’s words legitimized the worst of our country, and now the white nationalist movement could be poised to grow. To challenge these messages, we need to acknowledge the continuity of white nationalist thought in American history, and the appeal it still holds.

It is a fringe movement not because its ideas are completely alien to our culture, but because we work constantly to argue against it, expose its inconsistencies and persuade our citizens to counter it. We can no longer count on the country’s leader to do this, so it’s now incumbent upon all of us.

Through the Buckskin Curtain – Embracing Indigenous Spirituality

b270cec1dc134cceb98f25795c1da365 The intense struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, led by Native Americans, highlights the original and continuing “sin” of the United States of America, the genocidal treatment of the indigenous inhabitants of this land and the centuries of betrayal of agreements. But it also offers us a possible pathway for the rectification of many of our present dilemmas, moving us to be guided by the wisdom of indigenous spirituality, respecting and honoring the sacredness and intelligence of the natural world.

 

The encampments at Standing Rock alongside the Cannonball River that feeds the Missouri have brought together a multi-cultural movement that recognizes the leadership of Native American tribal elders and activists from over 300 Indian Nations. They have come together in a non-violent and spiritually centered movement for protecting the water and land. They have specifically defined their actions as protective rather than as protest. From their spiritual perspective, the true function of the Warrior is to protect, whether in reference to the body, the community, the nation, or the planet.

 

Stepping back from the particulars of this struggle to protect the land and water sacred to the Lakota Sioux and stop the continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, it is important to recognize the significant inclusion of the indigenous spiritual attitude with social justice and environmental activism. This wider and deeper view of the human relationship with Spirit and Nature, e.g., calling attention to the sacred fire, sacred water, sacred sky, sacred Mother Earth, not just in words, but in the way we feel and the way we move about, is transformative and infectious. It holds keys to the healing power needed to shift humanity from the destructive trajectory we seem locked into.

 

How we as individuals and as groups of social justice and environmental activists learn from these ancient ways that are connected to Mother Earth herself, needs to be made very conscious. It will not be helpful (in fact it is disrespectful) to mimic the practices of Native Americans. But we can learn to re-awaken what is indigenous (innate) in all humans, the mutual and respectful sense of holiness in Creation and Creator, whether we currently experience them as distinct or as One. This sensibility has been covered over by a radical over-emphasis on the rational, logical, thinking-mind devoted to technological control of our environment and ourselves. What is being called forth is a heart-centered and holistic way of being and relating, one of communion-with rather than control-over.

 

Through the centuries of subjugation, native peoples have passed along the practices, stories and songs that sustain this consciousness in each region and on each continent. We immigrants have the opportunity to listen to them and hear the resonant tones of our own indigenous ancestors calling from within, finding our own pathways towards a balance of the elements of the web of life. Along the way, it’s important that we not confuse embracing “indigenous spirituality” with exploiting or coopting the objects, rituals and ceremonies of specific tribes or peoples. Native Americans are understandably very sensitive to this abuse. In “Native American wannabes: Beware the Weasel Spirit,” Lou Bendrick points out that, “Members of the Lakota tribe have declared war on exploiters of their ancient spirituality. Their declaration states that they have ‘suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian ‘wannabes,’ hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled ‘New Age’ retail stores and … pseudo religious corporations have been formed to charge people money for admission into phony ‘sweatlodges’ and ‘vision quest’ programs …’”

 

On the other hand, I personally know a number of White, Black and Latino women and men who have submitted themselves to decades of rigorous, disciplined education under the guidance of Native American elders and have been sanctioned to practice and teach certain aspects of those traditions. In my interview with Tom Pinkson, (see Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths), he describes his initial passing through the buckskin curtain when he began studying and being tested by a Native American teacher which led up to his decade-long apprenticeship with Huichol shamans in Mexico. Ken Cohen, also interviewed in Crossing the Boundary, studied intensively for many years with his teachers, Keetoowah, Rolling Thunder and Grandmother Twylah Nitsch, and was initiated and adopted by a tribal clan. These two, and quite a few other White (in this case, Jewish) men and women, respectfully entered into a relationship with indigenous spiritual teachers and tribes and only practice and teach what they have been given permission to share.

 

Though few will feel called to cross that boundary so deeply, by embracing an indigenous spiritual outlook the environmental and social justice movement is shifting the very mindset in which it has viewed the problems and solutions it addresses. We are finding ourselves gazing up at the sky, sitting by the sacred fire, getting down on our knees and kissing Mother Earth as we face those of our brothers and sisters who have forgotten what they have lost, forgotten what they’ve forgotten.

 

For more information see the Standing Rock Sioux Nation website: http://standwithstandingrock.net/

 

A personal observer’s account of the activity at the encampments: Mark Johnson’s, “Standing Rock #NoDAPL. It’s not so complicated, But it is complex.” http://clbsj.org/news/2016/11/23/standing-rock/

 

A deep mythological/archetypal/political view, “History in the Making at Standing Rock.” By Paul Levy: http://www.awakeninthedream.com/standing-rock/ 

 

A look at the growth of the indigenous spiritual focus in the environmental movement: “The growing indigenous spiritual movement that could save the planet.”https://thinkprogress.org/indigenous-spiritual-movement-8f873348a2f5#.u1q1rzood

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A Good Jewish Boy

A good Jewish boy. It’s an expression I grew up with, sometimes applied to me, often to Jewish men who made it big on the world stage of science, entertainment or sports. It evoked special feelings when we spoke about those who weren’t obviously Jewish, (e.g.: Tony Curtis, Harrison Ford, Peter Coyote). I apply it here, with a taste of Jewish humor, in speaking of the truly good man, Krishna Das. I had the great pleasure to see Krishna Das, (or KD as he likes to be called) just last night as he led a beautiful kirtan, singing Hindu and Buddhist chants at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Wappinger Falls, NY. And yes, Krishna Das, raised as Jeffrey Kagal, is (or was) Jewish.

 

I say “is or was” referring to a primary question in my book, Crossing the Boundary, for which I interviewed KD. Does a man or woman born to Jewish parents and raised with Jewish identity continue to be Jewish when they embrace and immerse themselves in an alternate spiritual path? Just where and when does Jewish identity cease to be relevant in describing someone (or oneself)? In writing the book I asked around for people who made that journey, crossed that boundary, knowing that I could not easily tell by names or looks. Starhawk, Sat Santokh Singh Khalsa, Krishna Das don’t sound like typical Jewish names. I wanted to know if these folks still considered themselves Jewish, that that identity still described who or what they are.

 

Last night, Krishna Das sat beneath a 50 foot golden Buddha statue with surrounding Buddhas and hundreds of Tibetan Tankhas depicting Buddha in his many forms around the temple. He sang chants, which are mostly repetitions of the names of Gods and Goddesses in

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the Hindu tradition, and told stories of his time with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, the Indian saint who continues to be the source of divine guidance for him. The room filled with a sacred glow as people participated in the call and response chanting and sat in meditative stillness or danced to the rhythmic beat of the tabla and bells accompanying KD (who played a droning harmonium). At intervals, KD told stories of his time with his guru and offered teachings about awakening to our essential nature, opening our heart to God/Love, and honoring those great beings from many traditions who continue to guide us on our path.

 

KD didn’t mention Torah, Moses, Abraham, at least not last night. From what he shared with me in his interview for Crossing the Boundary, it’s not part of his repertoire and not really a significant aspect of his consciousness. Jewishness is the neighborhood he grew up in. He was turned off by the hypocrisy he saw in his own family and community, went through a difficult and rebellious period, and found grace and freedom in far off India, he found a different neighborhood in which to live; he found home. He told me that he has no animosity with his family or the Jewish people, they are a part of the larger human and spiritual family he embraces. He still loves Jewish humor and the Jewish way of talking or shticking, but it just does not define who he is.

 

As I watched him, I thought of our (his and my) Jewish ancestors. What came to me was the very ancient ones, the mythic wanderers and vision seekers in the wilderness. I felt their presence right there. The Divine One and her/his Angels (Gods and Goddesses) that appeared in fire, sustained the people in the desert, sent messages from the mountain for right conduct in this world, are right in there with Neem Karoli Baba and KD. What more do they ask of us than to wake up and spread the Light and Love of the Divine through the world?

 

Thank you, KD, kirtan wallah, mensch.

 

 

Reb Zalman, The Rabbi Akiva of Our Time

searchRabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died on July 3rd two years ago. It is a Jewish practice to honor those who have died on the anniversary of their death, their yahrzeit.

The notes below are my own thoughts on the remarkable life of this modern day sage and his intersection with many of the people I interviewed for my book, Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths.

In an ancient Jewish tale told in the Talmud, four rabbis enter the mystical state of Paradise. One goes insane, one dies, one becomes a heretic and is excommunicated, and one returns in peace. The heretic is the focus of Crossing the Boundary. The fourth, Rabbi Akiva, became one of the most significant founders of the Jewish religion as it is known today. To my mind, Reb Zalman is no less significant and in many ways very similar.

According to most interpretations of the Talmudic tale, the heretic, Elisha ben Abuya, was banished from the Jewish people as he became an “unbeliever.” In my book, I suggest that perhaps after his experience in “paradise” he gravitated towards the Greek mystery schools such as the Eleusinian, in which participants drank plant mixtures that induced altered states of consciousness. I further conjectured that he, Aher, and Akiva remained good friends respecting each others different paths of spirituality. Respect and tolerance would come, I surmised, from their experience and understanding that the true nature of divinity, indeed reality, and how one lives a good life is beyond the trappings of any particular religious form. (There is a chapter in Crossing the Boundary devoted to this story and the nature of heresy).

In our time, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, like Akiva, entered the mystical state and  also brought a new vision of Judaism to his people. He was the primary founder and organizer of the Jewish Renewal movement. For the last fifty years of his life he focused on bringing direct spiritual experience to Jewish individuals and groups with an open-minded cultural mindset. Steeped in his early training in the ultra-orthodox Jewish world, he opened to learn from and integrate teachings from a wide range of other spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism and more.

I had the privilege to attend a number of his retreats and teachings and experience first-hand his generous, joyous and wise spirit. Several of the folks I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary shared stories of their encounters with Reb Zalman and his profound openness to their alternate spiritual paths. Some wondered aloud about whether they would have chosen a Jewish path if they had met him in their formative years. He was an honorary Sufi Sheikh and participated with an open heart in ceremonies and rituals of other faiths. In the article in The Forward, he is pictured laughing with Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), well known as a spiritual teacher who chose Buddhist meditation and the Hindu guru, Neem Karoli Baba, rather than following his family’s Jewish religious path.

Reb Zalman spoke of Jewish identity and what he called Jewish PTSD, the inherited trauma in the Jewish collective psyche from centuries of abuse, pogroms and the Holocaust perpetrated primarily in the Christian world. He reflected that this imprinted trauma and fear was a contributor to the Jewish community’s fear-based relationship to the Israeli conflict with the Palestinian people. But he mostly withdrew from political involvement to focus on his spiritual teachings for healing the psyche and soul and advancing the development of the Jewish Renewal movement. He appears to have sensed his mission to be the transmission of the joy of renewed spirituality that bridged people of all faiths, a recognition that Paradise is not for one chosen people.

Reb Zalman embraced people of other faiths and Jews who chose other faiths even though he was deeply embedded in the practice of his own Jewish traditions. As with my understanding of Akiva and Elisha ben Abuya, the people in Crossing the Boundary, (Sufi, shaman, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, etc.) walk side by side with him.search-1

For a most eloquent and factual tribute to Reb Zalman recently published in The Forward, please see:

http://forward.com/news/201430/reb-zalman-married-counter-culture-to-hasidic-juda/

Review of Crossing the Boundary and Upcoming Book Signing

I’m happy to say that Crossing the Boundary has received a very positive review in the independent book review journal Forward Reviews. You can see the full review here.

I continue to receive messages from folks reading the book about how much they enjoyed it and also how thought-provoking it is for them on their own spiritual journey. I recently had a wonderful time discussing the book with Alex and Allyson Grey at their Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) center in Wappinger Falls, NY.  Allyson is featured in the book, and Buddhist teacher, Marty Lowenthal, who also has a chapter, was there for a very illuminating discussion.

My next talk and book signing will be at the Katonah Village Library in Westchester County, NY, for any of you who are in the area. Please see their listing here: http://www.katonahlibrary.org/author-alan-levin-presents-crossing-boundary/.

Blessings,

Alan

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Starhawk and Allyson Grey

The best part of writing my book, Crossing the Boundary, was meeting and learning from the amazing spiritual teachers I interviewed and being able to stay in touch with them. I recently had the opportunity to bring Starhawk to the Stony Point Center near where I live and introduce her to a very adoring crowd of folks. People were eager to hear her talk about a wide range of issues including her new book, City of Refuge, which is a sequel to her best selling The Fifth Sacred Thing. A great many of the people in the audience spoke of being inspired on their spiritual path by Starhawk’s earlier work, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religions of the Goddess, which helped launch the modern feminist spirituality movement.

photo credit: Photo by Myles Aronowitz/LUSH Photography

photo credit: Photo by Myles Aronowitz/LUSH Photography

Starhawk is a true boundary crosser, not only in her choosing to shift from being a practicing Jew to  Pagan witch, but in her consistent activism, challenging our political and social norms and awakening others through her writings, teachings and actions that a different, more loving and cooperative world is possible. She spoke of her current work leading eco-activist and permaculture workshops and answered questions on a very wide range of issues including the dynamics of our current political options in the U.S.

Coming up on March 25th, I’ll have the opportunity to speak with another woman I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary, Allyson Grey. We’ll be doing a panel at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, CoSM, which she and her husband, renowned visionary artist, Alex Grey have developed. If you’ve never been to CoSM, and you live anywhere close enough to Wappinger Falls, NY, along the Hudson River, you are in for a wonderful experience to just see what is happening there. The basic mission of CoSM is “to build an enduring sanctuary of visionary art to inspire a global community.” Please take some time to tour around their website to get a taste of the art and inspiring work that is being done there. I’m looking forward to talking with Allyson about the many themes in Crossing the Boundary.Allyson no text

 

In attending the event on March 25th, you can come early for a tasty vegan dinner at 6 or just come for the panel and discussion at 7 PM. There’s always a very interesting group of people who come to CoSM events.

CoSM event page: http://cosm.org/events/friday-nights-crossing-boundaries/

Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1029748750405085/

In my own teaching work, I continue to integrate mindfulness meditation, Agni (light-fire) Yoga, and shamanism at Tree of Life Meditations retreats. See: http://www.sacredriverhealing.org/april-2-2016-flyer.pdf for the next retreat on April 2nd, and the Tree of Life Meditations Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TreeOfLifeMeditations/.

Meanwhile folks who have read Crossing the Boundary continue to tell me they are enjoying and finding themselves inspired by what they find in there.

Please share any or all of this message.

With blessings and love,

Alan

 

Crossing the Ultra-Orthodox Boundary

When modern Jews cross the boundary to other spiritual paths, there is often little resistance from family and friends. There are exceptions. Of the fourteen I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary, three had families with strong objections who made attempts to intervene. Psychiatrists were hired and in one case a deprogrammer, to change the direction of the spiritual seeker. Generally, the more Orthodox the family, the more resistance. When it comes to boundaries, the Orthodox have strong ones, and the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredi or Hasidic,* have ultra-strong ones.

I just finished reading the memoir of Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return.*  Deen tells the chilling story of life in the ultra-Orthodox community of New Square, NY, where the Skverer Jews make their home. He goes on to share his slow but steady awakening to the completely alien world of modern America and his growing doubts about the rules and beliefs of his people. The children of New Square are raised in the most insular of the insular, where even the practices and choices of the ultra-Orthodox neighboring areas are frowned upon. The schools barely teach English, let alone any skills that might enable employment outside their community. Connections to the wider society, computers, TV, etc. are taboo. As with cults in general, those outside the group are viewed with suspicion and believed to “hate us.”

He describes with clarity and honesty his feelings and inner thought processes as a child giving vivid testimony to what happens to the natural questioning mind when the prime directive is, “Obey.” Obey the commandments; obey the rabbi’s interpretation of the commandments; obey the rules and codes of the community. And he shares what happens to those who don’t, including ostracism, harassment, violence and excommunication. Yet, year after year, his questions grew and his doubts mounted to where he no longer believed any of it, not even the fundamental belief of Judaism: that there is a God.

Deen ultimately crossed the boundary to secular American life. His experiences in the Haredi world led him to be an unbeliever, a heretic, an apostate, and yet it took a great deal of courage to leave the familiar world in which he grew up and face the uncertainty of life outside the protective physical and psychic walls of the Skverer community. The price he paid was to lose his family and almost his mind. It’s a powerful story and very well told. Like the stories in Crossing the Boundary, it has relevance to all of us, Jews and non-Jews, religious, spiritual or secular.

While the boundaries of the ultra-Orthodox are extremely intense, they are also quite clear. Most of us deal with boundaries that are more difficult to see and therefore are often more hidden from awareness. We may scoff at those with extremely rigid religious beliefs, but still be unable to hear or open to understandings and experiences of reality that challenge our own. It’s always struck me as ironic that the so-called “new atheists” have such a strong belief in the denial of any reported experiences that might point beyond a strict materialist view of the universe. While some religious people deny empirical science that contradicts a literal reading of their scriptures, these atheists will discount all reports of esp phenomena, near-death and out-of-body experiences, energy healing, etc. because those observations contradict the theory that consciousness arises from matter, human brain matter.

At the end of his book, Shulem tells us that he is still on his journey of discovery. I wish him the best in opening to the many threads of human wisdom, including the spiritual lineages, for their gifts. He will find that this can be done freely, without having to buy into the patriarchal and coercive group pressures of the hierarchical institutions that make claim to these teachings and distort them.

Notes: The terms ultra-Orthodox and Haredi are non-judgmental terms used to describe Orthodox Jews who dress and seek to maintain the very strict ways of religious Jews from the specific areas of Europe from which they emigrated. Chasidic (or Hasidic) Jews are one branch of the Haredi. The Skverer are as well. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haredi_Judaism

All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir, by Shulem Deen, Graywolf Press, Minn. 2015

Who is Black? Who is Jewish? Julius Lester on Rachel Dolezal

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We are all now familiar with the story of Rachel Dolezal, (the white woman who identified herself as Black for many years) and have heard many strong opinions about it. It struck me that her journey resonates with that of those I interviewed for my book, Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. True, there is a major difference. Religion is not the same as race. The folks in my book chose different religious paths from their birth family and in some cases (not all) chose to no longer identify with being a Jew. It was a choice they could make about belief and practice and identity. Racial identity, we are told, is a more biological reality. Black people can’t choose to identify as white, which is why the usually sober New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, was so irate about Dolezal’s behavior. (See “The Delusions of Rachel Dolezal.”  But is it really so different, so black and white?
In all honesty, as a white person, I was uncomfortable weighing in on this issue. But I felt great resonance in the following article by Julius Lester in which he shares his personal experience around identity. Lester, a Black civil rights activist and writer, shocked many people when in 1982 he chose to convert to Judaism. His reflections on racial and religious identity have the ring of deep wisdom. Please feel free to comment and share your own experiences with the nature of religious or racial identity.

Blessings,

Alan

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https://jewishphilosophyplace.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/being-black-being-jewish-julius-lester-rachel-dolezal/

JULIUS LESTER
“My maternal great-grandfather was a German Jewish immigrant named Adolph Altschul. His wife was a freed slave woman, Maggie Carson. She was so light-skinned she could have passed for white, and one of Adolph’s and Maggie’s daughters did when she grew up. In the 1870 census records Adolph and Maggie’s names appear. Everyone’s race is indicated by a “B” for black, except for Adolph. Beside his name there is a “W” for white. Even though he was white and Maggie could have passed for white, they chose to live in the black community.
Part of my childhood was spent in Kansas City, Kansas, during the time when that city, of all the ones in Kansas, chose segregation. My father was a minister, and in his church there were two women named “White.” One was referred to as “Miz White,” the other as “Miz White White.” Miz White was black; Miz White White was white. She was not married to a black man, and I do not know why she chose to live in the black community. But she did, and she was accepted as one of us.
Growing up as I did in Kansas, Arkansas, and Tennessee, I was defined by the system of racial segregation. For the sake of my survival I learned to say “sir” and “ma’am” to white people, learned to ride on segregated buses without showing anger, learned not to stare at white people, especially white women. I learned that I had to conform to what society thought was right and good, and that included the very proper mores of black middle-class life. I attended an all-black college and reprimanded by the Dean of Students because I wore jeans on campus and sat on the library lawn playing my guitar. That was not the image the school wanted to project.
But my first year college (1956) an older student introduced me to Existentialism and the work of the French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. “Existence precedes Essence,” he wrote in Being and Nothingness. What that meant was because society sought to impose definitions on who I was and what I could do, the simple fact was that my existence came before the meaning society sought to impose on me. In other words, I was free to define myself. Neither whites nor blacks could tell me who I was if I didn’t let them. When the Dean of Students told me I couldn’t wear jeans and sit in front of the library playing the guitar, I continued wearing jeans and playing the guitar on the library lawn. I would live by my definitions of who I was, but to do so, I had to be willing to accept the consequences. I was.
I was around seven when I learned that my maternal great-grandfather was a German Jew. Thus began a journey that culminated in my conversion to Judaism in 1982. I was surprised by the antagonistic response I received from many blacks. The general consensus seemed to be that I was no longer black. I had people tell me that a person could not be a black and a Jew. Blacks I had known for years acted differently around me, as if I had changed personalities. Yet, I knew that if I had converted to Catholicism, no one would have cared. If I had become a Muslim, blacks would have embraced me. But I had become a Jew, and somehow, for many, that obliterated my identity as a black person.
Identity is not so simple. I learned that from a white female student in one of my black literature classes. She was the only white student in the class. She was also the only student in the class who seemed to have a visceral feel for the literature we studied. She understood things I had to explain to the black students in the class. And she had grown up in a small town in Massachusetts where there were no blacks. Yet, as far as I was concerned, she was black, even though she had blonde hair and blue eyes. She had an understanding and grasp of the black experience that went beyond the intellectual. And she went on to become a professor of black literature.
Identity is mysterious. When I was a child I used to play over and over on the piano a simplified arrangement of “Kol Nidre.” I was haunted by that melody. I had no idea where it came from or what it meant, but I loved it. Many years later I attended synagogue one Saturday morning when the daughter of a friend was being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. This was some years before my conversion, and I remember sitting in the service listening to the cantor singing the various melodies of the Shabbat morning service, and I found myself almost in tears because I wanted to pray in song as she (the cantor) was doing, and I never would because I wasn’t Jewish. It was three years after my conversion that I finally began to lead parts of the Shabbat morning service, and I eventually became cantor for the High Holy Days. That first year I was surprised when Israelis, when people who had survived the Holocaust came to me after services to say that my singing reminded them of when they’d been children in synagogue with their grandparents. I didn’t understand how that could be, and yet, I knew that praying in song in Judaism meant so much more to me, evoked a passion and love from me that singing black music never had.
Identity is unfathomable. A few years ago I had my DNA done. I was not surprised to learn that my ancestry was 70% Sub-Saharan African and 29% European. Of that 29% European, however, 19% was European Jewish. I would never have dreamed that almost one-fourth of my DNA was Jewish. But I learned something even more important that was transformative. Before the last Ice Age, what is now the British Isles and northern Europe was one land mass called Doggerland. Doggerland was unknown until some years ago, when fishermen would find in their nets, bones, pottery and other artifacts. Archeological work on the sea floor found the remains of what they called Doggerland. Ten thousand years ago, when the seas began to rise, the people of Doggerland began leaving, some to what is now northern Europe, some to what is now Great Britain. Some of my DNA was traced to Doggerland.
Identity is more than this me. The African part of my DNA traces to Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia. The European traces from western Europe through Great Britain, and there is less than 1% which is East Asian. What was transformative was realizing that I am not only the child of W.D. Lester and Julia B. Smith Lester. I am also the issue of an untold number of women and men who knew each other, in the Biblical sense, over a period of 10,000 years, at least. (I am most intrigued by the East Asian who left 0.7% of her or his DNA as part of me.)
Who am I? There are not enough words to describe who am I, who any of us are, because we all carry within us traces of lives going back ten thousand years and more. What a shame that there are those who would reduce the wonder of being human to such a narrow and restrictive a concept as race.
There is a woman in Spokane, Washington, who identifies herself as black. Her birth certificate says she is white. Social media has abused her viciously by calling her a liar; her picture has been on the front page of the New York Times. I keep waiting to hear what harm she has done to merit such scorn. But all I read says that she has done very good things in her work as a black woman. Yet, so many Americans are acting as if she has injured each of them personally. I’m sure she thought all she was doing was living her life.
In 1982 I drove my mother down to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where she was born and raised. Her grandfather, Adolph Altschul, is buried in the Jewish cemetery there; her grandmother, Maggie Carson, is buried on property the family owns. Most of Adolph and Maggie’s children are also buried there. My mother was a very taciturn and angry woman, but on that trip she spoke to me as she never had, and it was only a couple of sentences: “I had a hard time growing up. White people didn’t like me because I looked white but I wasn’t. Black people didn’t like me because I was black but I looked white.” That was all she said, but it was enough for me to see into her life as I never had.
There is a woman in Spokane, Washington, being told by millions of people who she isn’t. But she knows who she is, and I hope she can hold onto her existential identity despite the anger and hatred she is being subjected to.
Identity. It is not only the color of our skins. Ultimately, who we are is as mysterious as the universe of which each of is mere dust. I hope that Rachel Dolezal will one day be able to celebrate the mystery and be who she is without anyone being so presumptuous as to tell her she isn’t.”

Crossing the Racial Divide – A Psychological and Spiritual Journey

We are here again–facing the raw and ugly feelings of bias which make conversations across racial lines uncomfortable at best. The differences in perception that align with our racial identities are stark. Fear and mistrust are on the rise. It brings me to reflect on my own journey with the boundary between the races, a barrier built by our ancestors and passed through the generations.

When I was a child there were many boundaries of varying densities that surrounded my Jewish world. The unspoken lines of separation that I feared to cross were mostly defined by religious, ethnic or racial identities. Though the schools were integrated, the neighborhoods were not, and once past the first few grades of elementary school, there was little mixing of the races.

My family had a maid, a colored woman, who came in weekly to do housecleaning. My parents and their generation referred to her and all Black people as shvarzas. When asked, one was always told that, “shvarza literally means ‘black’ in Yiddish; Jews aren’t prejudiced.” But the term mostly had the same connotation as the “n-word,” which I never heard spoken. What I was told is, “They all steal. They all lie.”

I was a freshman at the University of Florida in 1962 when it admitted it’s first 7 Black undergraduate students (of about 16,000 undergrads). I was oblivious to their presence while I nervously found my people by joining a Jewish fraternity. Jewish students had a choice of three fraternities amongst the several dozen that would not admit Jews. Walls and barriers were taken for granted.

UF was situated in Gainesville, central Florida, a deeply Southern town, strictly segregated. The few Black students were not allowed to eat or shop off campus except in the Black section of town, far from the University. When a small group of white and Black students began the first civil rights protest, they picketed the restaurant across from campus and only asked that the Black students be served. Most students and faculty were outraged by this affront to the rights of private property owners. My fraternity brothers considered the protestors geeks, very uncool.

This was the setting for my first experience of crossing the psychic boundary of race identity. I made the choice to go to a meeting of the protestors, “The Student Group for Equal Rights.” I was afraid. I had the sense I was entering another world. Inside, I saw Blacks and whites talking and joking together and strategizing their next moves for pressing the cause of integration. As I write this now, it’s embarrassing to acknowledge how amazed I was by what I saw. But for me at the time, it was mind-blowing. I stepped over a line that defined my people as Jews, (and white), rather than as humans. At the same time, I stepped across a line that kept me a passive observer of events, and I became an activist involved in changing the way the world is.

Years later, I experienced a much deeper understanding of the racial divide and how it had been imprinted in my psyche. In the mid-Eightees, I had begun exploring the teachings and practices of indigenous people, the spirituality we know as shamanism. I was with a group of people experiencing a practice drawn from the Amazon region–working with the medicine plant Ayahuasca to connect with deeper sources of awareness and healing. As I entered an altered state, I had a heightened sensitivity to very subtle sensations in my body. I became aware of tightness and fear related to the man sitting next to me, who happened to be Black. The discomfort was not something I’d been aware of when I met him or when I first sat next to him. In fact, I had been fairly certain that I was free of racial prejudice, what people like to call “color-blind.”

In the shamanic journey process the agreement is to go within, not to try to engage or communicate with others during the experience. So I focused my attention within and asked for guidance. Shortly, a vision opened up and I saw my grandfather coming from “the old country” (Eastern Europe) through Ellis Island and into New York City. He was encountering Black people for the first time (in the context of the early 20th century). What struck me, what he seemed to be showing me, was the dramatic difference in body posture and rhythm. There was a vibrational difference with which he could not relate, the alien nature of which triggered fear. Faced with this, he embraced the very old European assumptions of superiority.

My grandfather was showing me this and encouraging me to see this false sense of difference and separation. In my vision, he was helping me dissolve what feelings of fear or discomfort with Black people I was holding in the very cells of my body. At the same time he was helping me, I sensed that he was clearing his own karma through healing the negativity he had passed along. This negative transmission was not only an emotional sense of separation, but of choices in behavior complicit in the exploitation of African-Americans that were part and parcel of the economic world.

In my vision, my grandfather helped me cut the chain of the “sins of the fathers” from passing to another generation. As I relaxed and opened to the flow of energy within, my feeling of brotherliness with the man next to me grew and my heart opened as if for the first time to the whole human family–all infused with the same Spirit.

As I look around now at our country and at the world, it is easy to despair at how deeply racism continues to express itself through the massive incarceration of young Black males, ongoing wealth disparity, and discrimination regarding job and educational opportunities along racial lines. So I share these personal boundary crossing stories and encourage others to do likewise. My hope is that the stories will help embolden more people to experience the joy of stepping into active participation in the movement for world harmony and justice. Likewise, to know the comfort of accepting our spirit-ancestors’ guidance and healing power which transforms the deeply embedded delusions of racial superiority and fear.

-Alan Levin

 

Rethinking Heresy

One of the core issues that I sought to explore in Crossing the Boundary is the nature of heresy. In fact, I originally wanted to call the book “The Way of the Jewish Heretic,” and I wanted to put forth the idea that what some call heresy, others call creative adaptation. In other words, though it generally has a negative connotation, heresy is often the source of a positive turn in thinking and experience. However, the negative association was felt to be too strong, even for some of the book participants, so I chose to make the case about heresy within the book (and here) instead of in the title.

The issue came to mind recently when I found a very interesting blog post on the internet by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin entitled, “I’m Proud To Be A Heretic.” Rabbi Salkin writes in response to an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who recently made the claim that not only the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism, but the modern Orthodox movement itself is “steeped in apikorsos – filled with apikorsim, (heretics).”

A bit of history can help here. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairetikos, meaning, “able to choose” (from the New Testament Greek Lexicon). From Plato’s time, the word heresies was used to describe the teachings of particular schools without any negativity implied. Jews in the first century (C.E) referred to their various sects, the Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees as heresies. This was also the term for the “sect of the Nazarenes” (the early Jewish Christians). It wasn’t until the second century that the term heresy came to be seen negatively, as it is now, implying a deviation from the true path or beliefs.(1)

The term apikoros is also taken from the Greek, and according to Rabbi Salkin originates with the philosopher Epicurus (regarding his philosophy). Salkin argues that the early Jews changed the meaning of the term to refer to “someone who mocks or scoffs at the tradition of Torah,” giving it the negative understanding it now has in the Jewish world. He then points out the irony that some of the most influential Jewish philosophers and visionaries, including Maimonides, Spinoza, Marx, Freud and Einstein, were seen by some as apikoris. Not bad company.

The spiritual teachers in Crossing the Boundary all chose paths of belief and practice that could easily fit with the definition of heretic or apikoros. As seen in the book, they all made a conscious choice (the original meaning of heresy) as to the way in which they access the divine and creatively practice living in harmony with life. It was a choice that was different, in some cases radically different, from their family tradition. Though the words and rituals they use may sometimes be alien to the Jewish religious worldview, they see themselves (appropriately in my view) as contributing to the well-being of humanity, including their Jewish brothers and sisters.

As I say in Crossing the Boundary, “Abraham was a heretic to those who maintained the old ways, but he became the heroic founder of a new religious path for his followers and descendants, who now include Jews, Christians and Muslims. He heard an inner voice and broke with the path of his family and community. Jews honor him as the father of their people and universally accept the idea that he found the true God and left behind the superstitious, idol-worshipping pagan beliefs of many gods and goddesses. Ironically, now some Jews, (such as myself), have the heretical idea that the early indigenous, animistic and shamanistic traditions hold wisdom we need for our lives today. We don’t think of statues of gods and goddesses (which Abe is reputed to have smashed) as idols to be worshiped, but as windows to the spirits of higher consciousness.”

Today, those who choose the path of peace in times of war, who choose non-violent activism as a means to bring about social change, who enter non-ordinary realms of consciousness for healing or vision, are the heretics of modern time. While they are mocked by the media and attacked for their thoughts and actions, it is my view that they (we) hold the keys to transforming the catastrophic direction of humanity’s more destructive impulses.

-Alan Levin

1. 1 See “Orthodoxy – Just Another Heresy,” by Peter Nathan: http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=145