Footnotes from India
I’ve been in Varanasi, India for the past ten days. I cannot describe the other-worldly feel of this chaotic city, but I will share some of what I encountered.
Gawker at the Gates
Having left my passport in my room, I was denied entry into a Shiva Temple. Even with my passport I would have had to swear devotion to Shiva in order to prove I was not there to gawk. I have no problem worshipping any God or Goddess, but the truth is I was there to gawk. In fact I gawk wherever I go. To gawk is to “stare openly and stupidly.” I’m not sure about the “stupid” part, but I do stare openly and wondrously and even incredulously at all things religious.
Mostly I gawk through a camera lens turning real lives and real people into props for my next faux National Geographic Special: A Gawker in Varanasi. The camera creates both distance and intimacy. Distance in that you cannot see my face, and intimacy in that I’m taking a portrait of yours.
Kaddish on the Ganga
I am on a small boat floating on the Ganges. We pull in close to shore to watch bodies being cremated. Mesmerized by the blazing funeral pyres and hypnotic ritual prayers a thought strikes me: I’m crashing somebody’s cremation. And worse, I’m photographing it. I immediately felt a need to justify my presence and began chanting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer we Jews say when honoring a death. I said it over and over as my attention was drawn to one funeral pyre after another.
A Buddhist priest drew close and asked me what I was doing. I’m saying the Jewish prayer for the dead. But these people aren’t Je —then he stopped speaking, took a breath, and said: how kind of you! It was, I suppose. At least I’m glad he thought so. I snapped his picture as he walked to his side of the boat.
We are talking about spiritual experience. I offer my opinion that there is no such thing as a spiritual experience. If you know you are having a spiritual experience, I suggest, then the experience you are having is egoic, not spiritual. A spiritual experience entails the emptying of self, the experiencer, any sense of personal “I” might be capable of saying, “I am having an experience.” There may be something happening, but if there is there is nobody to whom it is happening.
Well, that’s just your opinion, I was told.
Of course it’s my opinion, whose opinion would it be?
And you’re imposing you’re definition of spiritual experience on the rest of us.
Not exactly: I’m simply offering my understanding of spiritual experience. If I’m going to use words I want you to understand what I mean by the words I use.
No one can judge another’s experience.
Actually we do that all the time. Take Joseph Smith’s experience of God telling him to found the one true Christian Church. Mormons judge that experience to be true, the rest of us judge it to be false. There is nothing wrong with making judgments; indeed it is essential to right living. The key is to make them without becoming judgmental.
The Rebbe’s Clothes
When my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died, I was gifted with the loose Indian style clothing he wore on the High Holy Days. What better outfit to wear during my talks in India, I thought. And I was right.
The owner of my hotel commented on the clothes. She was a Jew from the States who married a Hindu and joined the family hotel business in Varanasi. She liked my clothes and offered to instruct the hotel tailor to reproduce the outfit in blue, white, black, and saffron. I was delighted. The cloth is homespun from the Mahatma Gandhi cooperative. I have visited there twice before and was convinced that Reb Zalman would like the connection. Today she delivered the blue (almost grey) outfit. The cotton is rough and wonderfully unfinished. I plan to wear it tomorrow. I have to intention of filling Reb Zalman’s shoes but I’m doing quite well with his pants and shirt.
Judaism in a Nutshell
Most of the people at this conference—Hindus from India and Buddhists from Tibet and Bhutan—have no idea what Judaism is, and, given the language and conceptual barriers, no interest in spending more than a minute to find out. So I came up with this sixty–second summary:
Judaism is a five thousand year old nomadic and tribal faith rooted in the call of YHVH, the One who is all happening, to Grandfather Abraham and Grandmother Sarah (and through them to each of us) to lech lecha—to journey (lech) into the true self (lecha) by freeing ourselves from all conditioning—national, ethnic, parental, etc.— in order to see the world as God wants us to see it: a diverse and creative expression of a singular dynamic Happening, and to live our lives as a blessing to all the families of the earth, human and otherwise (Genesis 12:1-3). All the rest—our customs, holy days, laws, etc. are ways we live as a blessing.
Given my audience, this is going over quite well. I doubt my fellow rabbis would be as impressed.
Too Old to be Uncomfortable
We are sitting crossed legged on thin mats covering a marble floor in a Tibetan monastery. By “we” I mean everyone but me. I found a chair and sat behind everyone out of the way but still a bit conspicuous. A middle-aged monk walks over and invites me to the mat. I smile and tell him I’m too old to be uncomfortable. He nods in agreement. “But never to old to be unhappy.” I nod back.
Kaddish for the Ganges
I now know why I was drawn to this conference on the banks of the Ganges, I announce to a few trusted American colleagues: I’m here to say Kaddish for the Ganges. Each day as we sing out our love for Mother Ganga (Ganges), we are poisoning her with tons of human and industrial waste. I’m not here for Her rebirth, I’m here to officiate at Her funeral.
My friends nod solemnly, and then warn me not to say this in public. It is one of the things Indians do not want to talk about.
Caste and Coercion
Another thing you don’t talk about is caste. This morning one Hindu scholar suggested that if we simply created a worldwide caste system along the lines of the Hindu one all would be well with the world because everyone would know her place and do his duty. In a private side conversation I expressed my belief that the caste system was a tool of social control imposed by the Brahmin class to keep themselves in power. “This is an idea best kept to yourself. This is an idea that could land you in jail. Or a hospital.” Warning taken.
Rabbi, fine. Zayde, better
Not surprisingly the term rabbi is also largely unknown here. When talking with one woman she kept equating it with priest. Before I could correct her, she said, “Priest, rabbi—nothing special. Tell me something special about you.”
I’m going to be a Zayde, a grandfather, I told her.
“Now that is special! Don’t call yourself priest, call yourself Zayde. We have too many priests. We can never have too many grandfathers.”
I managed to slip away from the hot conference tent and sit on the banks of the Ganges. I sat for hours sitting in the shade, listening to the speeches, and staring out over the river. As evening fell the Muslim call for prayer wafted over the river and I found myself on my knees, my forehead to the ground, chanting Allah hu Akbar, God is Great.
I came out of my trance to discover that the day’s speeches had ended. As I went to join the others I passed a Brahmin priest conducting the evening Hindu prayers. I stopped and joined him. I had no idea how long that took but by the time it was over everyone had left for the hotel. No one noticed that I was missing. Not even me.
Anyway I did what any semi-enlightened being would do—I panicked. Racing around looking for someone to ask for help I found a guard (the priest had left) who understood that this raving white man was part of the conference that has just left. He managed to find me a truck and driver and I arrived back at the hotel in time for dinner. When I explained that they had left without me no one seemed astonished. After all there were dozens of us on five small buses. What seemed astonishing to them wasn’t that they had left with me but that I had not been with them when they left. I explained that I had stopped for Muslim evening prayer and then again for Hindu evening prayer.
“What about Jewish evening prayers?”
Oh, no. I rarely pray. Then everyone broke up laughing. Was it something I said?
My blessing to all India
When asked to introduce myself to some of the graduate student body of Benares Hindu University I opened with this: “Two thousand years ago the Romans exiled my people from our homeland. In most of the places to which we fled our persecution continued culminating the murder of six million of us at the hands of the Nazis. But those of us who came to India we were welcomed with open hearts and open hands. We have lived here in peace for two millennia and for that, on behalf of all Jewish people, I have come here to thank you.” Needless to say the response was most positive.
A Benares Hindu University student asked us how to calm the mind. With a room full of swamis and lamas there was no dearth of insights and practices. In Jewish fashion I respond to a question with a question: Why do you need to calm your mind? Who told you a wild mind was wrong and in need of calming? If your mind is agitated and you try to calm it you will only get more agitated. Leave you mind alone and in time it will leave you alone as well.
Peace Between Israel and Palestine
Several times I was asked, “What can be done to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians?” Here is the gist of my answer:
If you want a political or military answer, I have none to offer. The key to the conflict cannot be solved this way. The key to peace lies elsewhere.
Jews and Palestinians are two traumatized peoples. The Jews spent two thousand years hounded by Christian Jew-haters, a trauma that culminated in the murder of six million of us during the Nazi era. The Palestinians were traumatized first by the betrayal of the British under the British Mandate and then the Jews during the Nakba, the Catastrophe that we Jews called Israeli Independence, and that turned millions of Palestinians into refugees and aliens in their own land, and which is perpetuated by the neo-apartheid policies of the State of Israel.
The problem is that both peoples use their respective tragedies to excuse and even foment moral atrocities. Rather than allows their suffering to soften their hearts in the face of the other’s suffering, they deny the other’s trauma and use their own to claim the moral high ground that makes all criticism of their actions moot. While the world focuses on political or military solutions to the problem, the real work is in the heart. Until Israelis and Palestinians and Jews and Arabs heal their own traumas and recognize the trauma of the other peace is impossible.