Baltimore-born author seeks path to his soul Meeting with Dalai Lama started scholar on search

November 05, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It was an encounter with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist master, that started Baltimore native Rodger Kamenetz on an inward path to discover his Jewish soul.

During a 1990 Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama posed a simple question to Kamenetz that changed his life: What practices in Jewish tradition purify "afflictive states of mind" such as anger, lust and hatred and foster spiritual development?

"So I took that Buddhist question and tried to find a Jewish answer to it," said Kamenetz, who teaches creative writing and directs the Jewish Studies program at Louisiana State University. His ensuing search of Jewish mystical teachers is chronicled in a book, "Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Jewish Mystical Masters." Kamenetz will read from his work at 7: 30 p.m. today at Bibelot bookstore in Pikesville.

Kamenetz's search for a Jewish answer to the Dalai Lama's question led him to the study of cabala, the Hebrew word for Jewish mysticism. It more specifically refers to a body of Jewish mystical theology that says God reveals himself to humanity through a series of 10 attributes called the sefirot. Keter refers to God's crown, hokhmah is wisdom, binah is understanding, hesed is loving-kindness, gevurah is strength, tiferet is beauty, netzah is eternity, hod is glory, yesod is foundation and malkhut is sovereignty. Humans can make contact with God by meditating on these sefirot.

Cabala has been viewed with a great deal of suspicion through the centuries. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book "Jewish Literacy," noted that 17th-century rabbis legislated that it should be studied only by married men older than 40 who were also scholars of the Torah and the Talmud.

But, in recent years, cabala study has increased in popularity, particularly among Hasidic Jews and Jews who have dabbled in other religious practices, such as Buddhism, yoga or New Age spirituality.

Kamenetz found the meditation he learned from Buddhism satisfying, an experience he documented in an earlier book, "The Jew in the Lotus: A Jewish Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India." But as he practiced meditation and continued his regular Jewish observance, he felt "a growing tension."

"The more I was attracted to Buddhist teaching, the more I searched for Jewish equivalents," he writes in "Stalking Elijah." "This may be an essential difference between those Jews who continue on the Buddhist path and me. I sought parallels."

"I think that I had an instinct or an intuition that where I was going, I wanted to bring my whole life with me and the best parts of myself," Kamenetz said in a telephone interview. "On a Jewish path, I can bring with me warm memories of growing up in Baltimore of Seder with my grandparents, seeing if Elijah had come to drink the wine."

The outward observance of synagogue worship did not satisfy his spiritual longings the way that Buddhist meditation did. But he found that satisfaction in Jewish mysticism. "I think the Jewish mystical tradition, meditation, were things that I was looking into the most because they are the parts that have been the most hidden," he said. "I grew up in an outward-looking, socially conscious liberal Judaism, so I had that piece. But I was interested in inward-looking practices, the mysterious, the mystical."

Cabala provides "a way of understanding ourselves with more depth, which is something we all need. It used to be called soul," Kamenetz said. "So the question also is, how do you cultivate the soul? And how do you develop what's inside you? In general, mysticism addresses that by providing a reality map of the inner landscape. Cabala provides gates or doors to different aspects of the holy one."

Kamenetz said the experience of mysticism and meditation is not necessarily a far-out notion. "Meditation is not such an outrageous thing now, or moments of silence. It's happening in liberal synagogues now," he said. "It wasn't happening when I was going to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation as a child."

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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