How your dreams can be a divine experience
Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus influenced a generation of spiritual seekers. He speaks to Ariel Kahn ahead of his Jewish Book Week appearance
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In the UK next week: Roger Kamenetz
Roger Kamenetz's writing has been a catalyst for contemporary spirituality. He participated in a multi-denominational rabbinic pilgrimage across India to meet with the Dalai Lama, an encounter described in his international bestseller, The Jew in The Lotus.
He is a celebrated poet, and has also written about his work as a dream therapist, about which he was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. His books describe immersive journeys of body, mind and spirit. They have inspired generations of spiritual seekers and activists.
The Jew in the Lotus struck such a universal chord because it was an honest, open-ended quest for spiritual meaning and authenticity; the encounter with the Dalai Lama exposed for him a profound absence of spirituality, of essence, in his own traditional, external version of Judaism - the inner fire was missing. Kamenetz, the Boswell of the rabbis' mission to Dharamsala, constantly reflects on what he sees and hears, grounding it in his own experience, and discovering that the real interfaith encounter was between the different Jewish denominations making the journey.
Kamenetz sees important resonances between this encounter and current political events: "The old ways of creating barriers and walls between cultures and religions and ethnicities don't work. We see that happening right now on the streets of Cairo as in Tunisia. You can't control dialogue any more or prevent it. Secularism and religion are rubbing elbows on the street, and by the way it's clear from what I see that there's more fear in the Jewish community of Egyptian religion than there is of Egyptian secularism.
"What I learned in Dharamsala was that the questions one culture asks of another in this context are both disturbing, energising and profound. The Dalai Lama, living in exile in India, asked the Jews, 'What is your secret of surviving in exile?' We Jews gave him many answers, but somehow in the middle of the dialogue we ran out of answers, and realised we had more questions for him than answers to give."
This quest for a passionate spirituality has led him to explore contemporary Jewish mysticism in Stalking Elijah - winner of a National Jewish Book Award in the USA - and to a profound engagement with the spiritual significance of dreams and dreaming.
"To me dreams are also a display of an active dialogue - though I think I'd really call it a profound struggle - between the comfortable, familiar, received and ossified part of us, and this process of the soul which is constantly attempting to emerge," he said.
"Dreams you might say are the birthpangs of the soul. My job in working with people is to work as a midwife, like Puah, and not smother the new birth as the Pharaoh would prefer us to do. Dreams are part of the active unfolding process - we might call it the "God-process" with the understanding that the divine is not just a dogmatic proper noun, but an active verb in the present tense. There's also the creative and imaginative aspect.
"It's quite clear, that Kafka used a waking dream process to create his most important works, in a nocturnal setting. That's true of The Judgment, The Metamorphosis and much of The Trial. He never really wavered from his view that this particular method of writing - which essentially nullified the possibility for him of a 'normal' life - was essential.
"Likewise, of all the Chasidic masters, Rabbi Nachman is one of the more elaborative and evocative dreamers, and again it's clear that his tale draw on dream processes."
As Kamenetz says of his own poetic inspiration, "the best poems come from the language of the heart, and the heart is a secret and intimate meeting place where there is no exile. And yet we leave it again and again."
Just as the Dalai Lama cut to the heart of the relationship between Israel and the diaspora with his searching questions, so in his latest book, Burnt Books, Kamenetz sets up a fruitful, suggestive dialogue between the exquisitely ambiguous Kafka (who, Gershom Scholem argued, provides a key to understanding the Kabbalah in the 20th century) and Rabbi Nachman, tormented master and extraordinarily original thinker.
Both men communicated their vision through stories: both used dreams to express and formulate their writing. Both insisted that their work be burned, suggesting that it is the process, not the product, that matters on a spiritual quest.
What is strikingly original here is a two-way dialogue Kamenetz reveals between the 19th-century rabbi and the 20th-century writer; that each, on a spiritual level, influenced and inspired the other. Whether you agree or not, his book will have you revisiting both figures with new eyes.
"My newest book is also a dialogue between the modernist secular sensibility of Franz Kafka and the deeply religious sensibility of Rabbi Nachman," he said. "My question is, in what sense can we understand Scholem's gnomic riddle, namely that Franz Kafka in some way is a kabbalist. If he is, what does this mean since he had no real mastery of Hebrew, or deep Jewish learning? I am interested in deepening the dialogoue between the literary and religious imagination."
Ariel Kahn is a writer and lecturer at Roehampton University. Rodger Kamenetz will discuss Burnt Books with Susanna Heschel at Jewish Book Week in London on Sunday at 12.30pm