Tag Archives: crossing the boundary

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


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.










“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

Welcome to Crossing the Boundary

This is to welcome and introduce you to Crossing the Boundary blog and website. The site is designed to focus on the book, Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. Here, you can learn more about the background of the book and read short passages from the chapters on each of the fourteen teachers interviewed for it. I’ve added some descriptive information about each of these men and women and links to their websites, books, and schedules for their teaching activities and workshops. You can find all this under the People of the Book menu.

This project began from an experience I had on a vision quest in the desert of Southern California in 1983. Wandering and fasting in the desert, I realized that after many years of denying it to myself, I was a Jewish man. It opened up for me a quest to understand what that meant and deepened my spiritual explorations into the nature of identity and reality itself. If it is true that I am a Jewish man, what does that mean for how I live my life? Do I need to begin observing and practicing Jewish rituals and ceremonies? Further, where do the notions of who I am and what is real come from? How much choice do I have in the matter of what I think or believe, what I feel and experience, of who I am?

As I explain in my autobiographical chapter in the book, I tried for a number of years following that vision quest to incorporate Jewish religious practices in my life. But it never felt comfortable, it didn’t fit. I continue to honor Jewish spiritual teachings, especially the mystical aspects such as Kabbalah, and I open to what they bring to me and the world. But as a daily practice, I have for over 45 years been meditating with methods drawn from Agni (light-fire) Yoga and Buddhism, and exploring the many realms of consciousness through shamanism. Jewish spirituality is one of a number of streams of wisdom from which I drink.

However, Jewish identity is more than observing religious practices. A large number of Jews, if not a majority, are non-observant (of Jewish religious rituals) yet see themselves as spiritual, or consider themselves atheists. How does the sense of Jewish identity inform their lives? Is there something in the  DNA of Jews that unfolds as a way of being in the world, as a set of inherent values? How does the connection to a common ancestry and mythical story influence the way Jews see the world? How do these issues operate in the other tribal peoples that inhabit this planet? These questions and others are themes in my interviews with the fourteen spiritual teachers of the book, Crossing the Boundary, and I continue to explore them here in a form that invites your participation.

For some folks, being on a spiritual path that is dramatically different from that of one’s family is an act of heresy. But, as I say in the description of the book, “We are walking on the precipice of a massive catastrophe coming about due to human ignorance and greed and masked by the ethnocentric blinders that pit us against each other. It is my hope that the stories and wisdom of the “heretics” gathered in this book provide keys for our collective awakening, and lead us towards not only tolerance for others, but eagerness to encounter and learn from the ways of all peoples.” My vision is that through this awakening, we will find the wisdom, courage and strength to live through these times with grace and do what needs to be done.

~Alan Levin