Spiritual journey brings poet home to Baltimore roots

Kamenetz to address area congregation on Jewish mysticism

November 13, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It's been a long journey for poet and author Rodger Kamenetz since he attended Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in his youth.

He embarked on an odyssey, both physical and spiritual, that took him to Dharamsala, India, to discuss mysticism with the Dalai Lama, to learning from Buddhist masters in the United States and finally to Judaism's own mystical tradition of cabala.

And now, it's back to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Upper Park Heights, where Kamenetz will serve this weekend as scholar-in-residence, a program that brings in a speaker each year who delivers the sermon during the Friday night service and leads Torah studies over the weekend.

"I see it as sort of a homecoming," said Kamenetz, who teaches literature and Jewish studies at Louisiana State University in New Orleans. He is the author of "The Jew in the Lotus," which recounts his pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama, and "Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Jewish Mystical Masters," about his search for Jewish mystical teachers.

During his sessions this weekend, he hopes to introduce the members of his former synagogue to the Jewish mystical tradition that for centuries has been largely ignored.

"Judaism since the Enlightenment wanted to re-present itself as a highly rational religion," Kamenetz said. "In seeking to do that, cabala and Jewish mysticism were swept under the carpet.

"But it's also a cultural thing."

The German Jews who immigrated to the United States and founded Reform congregations wanted to be accepted as Americans and shunned practices that seemed too exotic or that would set them apart. "There was a rejection of Jews from the East," men with long beards and Hasidic practices, Kamenetz said.

But Reform Judaism, which for many years defined itself by its rejection of ritual and religious practice, like the wearing of yarmulkes or keeping Kosher kitchens, is seeing a new openness on the part of some of its members to such aspects of Jewishness.

Cabala refers to a system of esoteric teaching that reached its peak among rabbis in the 12th and 13th centuries and involves a mystical interpretation of sacred scripture. Modern practitioners also engage in meditative techniques that they say give them access to an inner life.

It is the experience of this inner life that Kamenetz believes is lacking in modern Judaism.

"For so long, Jews have been concerned with survival," Kamenetz said, having had to face, for example, the horror of the Holocaust, the mass migrations after the war, and the struggle to found and defend the state of Israel.

Survival is obviously important, Kamenetz said, "but for me that's not enough. The question is, `What do we survive for?' "

Judaism, which focuses on social justice and repairing the world, also has been suspicious of the otherworldliness of cabala and mysticism. "Mysticism is not just to sit in a cave and meditate," Kamenetz said. "You must come back and teach. You must come back and be part of the community."

Not that Kamenetz insists that every Jew go out and find a spiritual guru to learn the mysteries of cabala.

"It's not [necessary] for everyone to operate at this level," he said. "But for those who have a taste for it, it's there."

And that's the challenge he will offer to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

"We're Hebrews. We're supposed to be boundary crossers," he said. "That's what Hebrew means."

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