Are Jewish Meditation & Social Action at Odds?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow *, 6/8/2005

American Jewish efforts to renew Judaism have been exploring new forms of tikkun olam (healing the world toward peace and social justice) and tikkun halev (healing the heart toward calm and equanimity).

In the social-justice arena, conventional synagogue social action committees have for decades either pursued legislative lobbying or provided support for hands-on social services like homeless shelters. What is new is that Jewish festival celebrations, art, theater, dance, and music have been made frameworks for public actions on specific policy issues.

Thus The Shalom Center aimed a Tu Bishvat Seder against corporate destruction of the redwood forest; a New Freedom Seder for Pesah against the Iraq war; a Seder of the Children of Abraham, Hagar, & Sarah to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And plans are in the works for joint multireligious action to protect human rights and the environment this coming October when Ramadan, Tishri, and the saint's day of St. Francis of Assisi coincide.

Another new form of tikkun-olam: Groups of Jews in their 20s and 30s have joined in living together while working for social change. Avodah (New York and Washington) sends out its residents to work on issues of urban poverty. Adamah (Connecticut) and Elat Chayyim (the Catskills) provide a base for learning and teaching eco-Judaism while tilling organic vegetable gardens and exploring eco-friendly building modes. Living communally, these non-halachic activists observe Shabbat, festivals, and both traditional kashrut in regard to food and eco-kashrut in regard to sustainable energy sources, voluntary simplicity, etc.

Meanwhile, a growing number of American Jews are unearthing, creating, and using meditative Jewish symbols and chants to calm the heart from turmoil and seek internal shalom. Such institutions of Jewish renewal as Elat Chayyim retreat center in the Catskills and Chochmat HaLev in California have shaped hundreds of meditators and dozens of teachers. Old Jewish practices have been revived — Rabbi David Cooper and Shoshana Cooper, for example, have reaccessed meditations on Hebrew letters and the Names of God that were shaped by Abulafia in the Middle Ages — while teachers like Rabbi Shefa Gold infuse women's consciousness into new chants on texts from the Psalms and the Song of Songs. Hundreds have joined in silence that has been long unheard-of in Jewish circles - for example, meditative retreats of one to four weeks in length with the silence broken only by brief Torah teachings.

What is the relationship between tikkun olam and tikkun halev? For some on both sides, the two seem utterly separate. Some activists see meditation - even Shabbat — as a waste of crucial organizing time. And for some meditators, the fact that the practice takes a great deal of time and energy and the notion that inner peace must come before world peace can encourage worn-out people to put off the latter always to another time.

But from both directions, there have begun to be some efforts at integrating these modes.

Such leaders as Rabbi Sheila Weinberg and Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man teach that in the very midst of meditation, going deep within includes addressing one's own racism, materialism, and violence so as to end up healing worldly hurt.

And teachers like Leah Green and Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener have developed an approach called compassionate listening, which opens the heart to the hurt of many sides in a social controversy and seeks to resolve it only after absorbing what is stirring the conflict. Thus Jewish delegations to Israel and Palestine have met with militant Israeli settlers and passionate Israeli peaceniks, with Hamas leaders and nonviolent Palestinian women, trying to absorb all the conflicting viewpoints before coming to their own.

Beyond compassionate listening, there may be compassionate - as well as passionate - action. Though I honor such angry ancient Prophets as Amos and Jeremiah, I find myself questioning the efficacy of anger alone in bringing about change — a task in which most of the Prophets failed, at least in their own generation.

So I begin to think of how non-violent action carries meditation into action because it joins respect for the humanity of the opponent to anger at injustice. I find myself exploring both ancient Jewish moments like the midwives' civil disobedience of Pharaoh and the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said that in marching for civil rights he found that his legs were praying.

And in the spirit of Heschel's teaching that prayer is useless unless it is subversive, I have been experimenting with new forms of prayer that are not about tikkun olam but actually embody it.

For instance, I invite people to experience the Divine Name YHWH as a breathing sound, Yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh, to focus on God as Ruakh ha'olam rather than Melekh ha'olam, the Breathing Spirit of the world rather than Ruler of the world. Breathing the Name then becomes itself an act of tikkun olam because it makes each person a part of the God Who breathes in every language and all cultures, even hostile ones; and brings each person as well into the trees and grasses that breathe out what humans and other animals breathe in.

These versions of meditation and contemplative visualization are intended to draw people deeply into the experience of Oneness with all other human beings and our planet. Are these, on the one hand, and nonviolence and compassionate listening,
on the other, ways to bring the two addresses for tikkun - the world and the heart - into closer consonance?

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center www.theshalomcenter.orgAre Jewish


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