...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

“You don’t have to convert to Judaism to find a spiritual path through Judaism.”

Last Thursday I met with Rabbi Asi, who along with his wife Aviva runs the Chabad House at the University of Oregon, to interview him for my thesis. (Thesis in a nutshell: the different ways that the theology of tikkun olam, “the healing of the world,” is interpreted by different Jewish movements, particularly the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect and the Jewish Renewal movement; the reasons for those different interpretations; and how the interpretation of tikkun olam affects practitioners’ orientations towards the world.) I was dead nervous about meeting Reb Asi—I’d honestly never met an Orthodox Jew before, let alone a Hasid, and I was unsure of what to expect. He wouldn’t have expected me to present as frum (observant), since he knew I wasn’t Jewish, but I wanted to be as respectful as possible so I was careful to dress modestly, making sure that my elbows and collarbone were covered as per halakha (religious law). I kept reminding myself not to extend my hand when I met him, since physical contact between us would violate halakha. Preparing for the meeting, I regretted that I wasn’t meeting with the Rebbetzen Aviva, who I thought I had much more in common with. Both she and Reb Asi are baalei teshuva (returnees to the faith, literally “masters of repentence”—Jews who take up a more Torah-observant or Orthodox lifestyle after growing up in less- or non-observant families) but she was raised Reform in California, rather than Modern Orthodox in Israel as he was, and graduated from Stanford; according to the pictures on the UO Chabad website, she looked kind of like how Ani DiFranco would look if she were a Hasidic Jew.

In some ways Reb Asi was as I imagined him, and in some ways he was different. He looked enough like my stereotyped mental picture of a Hasidic rabbi that I was able to identify him when he walked through the door, but his clothing wasn’t conspicuous by any means, and the only thing that would have marked him to the casual observer as a Torah-observant Jew was the tzit-tzit that dangled from below his Eddie Bauer-style forest green jacket. I was impressed and thankful for how openly he talked about tikkun olam with me; I learned a lot that will definitely be useful for my thesis, especially about his opinion of the way tikkun olam has been interpreted by the Jewish Renewal movement: the way he saw it, in their social-justice activism, they emphasize the “olam” (world) part of tikkun olam, while Chabad believes that the healing of the world must begin with the healing of the soul of the individual Jew, which comes from recognition of the relationship between God and the Jewish people and observance of the Torah. In the Tanya, the mystical work composed by I believe the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, the n’shama, or soul, is envisioned as being connected to God by 613 strands representing the 613 mitzvot (commandments) given to the Jewish people in the Torah. Severing even one of those strands alienates that a part of the n’shama from God; the project of tikkun (healing, mending) is to reconnect the strands of the n’shama to God by observing the mitzvot.

After we discussed all the questions I had written out in my field notebook, I asked him about some more personal questions I had been thinking about. He knew that I was Christian and that I’ve been attending Jewish Renewal services; as I told him, although I still identify as Christian, I feel a strong spiritual connection with chassidus and the Judaism that I find in the Jewish Renewal movement. So then, I asked him, as a non-Jew, to what extent can I be involved in Jewish practice without disrespecting Judaism or crossing inappropriate boundaries? I was heartened and reassured by what he told me: “You don’t have to convert to Judaism to find a spiritual path through Judaism.” Although he told me that Shabbat was given by God just for the Jews, I’m pretty sure that he meant the halakhic observance of Shabbat; he emphasized that God can and does use non-Jews in the project of tikkun olam, as envisioned by Chabad: he reminded me that it was the non-Jewish captain of the ship that woke up the reluctant prophet Jonah and reminded him of his responsibility to the people of Ninevah; Jonah, the only Jewish prophet called to prophesize to the gentiles. I had the idea—partly reinforced by some statements made during services at P’nai Or, the Jewish Renewal congregation, that Chabad would be totally uninterested with talking to me, since I’m not Jewish; my experience with Reb Asi was totally the opposite. I do think it helped that he knew I believed in God, and that we could connect on that level; I wonder how the interview would have gone if I had presented myself as totally secular or as an atheist: he told me that, for instance, he would much rather his neighbors were devout Christians than secular humanists.

I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I didn’t expect to: as much as I’m inspired by Chassidus and a lot of what I know about the Rebbe, for instance, I could never get behind the stark gender essentialism and rejection of the secular world. But interviewing Reb Asi gave me a great perspective on the Chabad understanding of tikkun olam, shattered some stereotypes I had about Hasidic Jews, and gave me a lot to think about with regard to my own spiritual practice.