(This essay appeared in ZEEK Magazine, Print Edition and Online, Winter, 2009.)

In January 2009, the world lost a great and much beloved spiritual leader, Rabbi Alan Jeffry Lew. Loved for his ready smile and gracious manner, his generosity and deep wisdom, his gifted prose, poetry and oratory, and, most of all, his immense heart. It was my privilege to be a student of Rabbi Lew’s for six years and a member of the community that gathered around him at Makor Or: A Jewish Meditation Center, which he founded with his close friend Norman Fischer on the turn of the millennium.

Today we face a fractious split in the Jewish community. Some have rejected Judaism altogether and instead pursue a life of significance through actions aimed at social justice. Then, there are those who seek a religious experience different from their parents’ generation, which gave lip service or no service to the life of the spirit. Many of those Jews took up the practice of Buddhism, only to find their spirituality lacking something essentially Jewish, which they could not deny. Alan Lew participated in both these movements. He was active in the affordable housing movement, working with Sister Bernie Galvin, the Founder of Religious Witness with the Homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was also an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, and a strong supporter of economic justice—indeed, his arrest log was long in support of these causes. “He was someone who people looked to as a conscience of the community,” said Rabbi Marvin Goodman, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, an organization Rabbi Lew led for several years.

Early in his life, Lew’s spiritual search took him on a path through Zen Buddhism. It was only when he was in the process of becoming a Zen priest that he discovered that being born a Jew was of supreme importance for himself. Thus he put aside the priestly robe he was sewing, stood up from the meditation cushion, and set out at age thirty-eight to become a rabbi.

Rabbi Lew did not, however, discard what he had learnt from Buddhism. Instead, he established Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center, in order to offer a pathway to authentic Jewish spirituality and traditional Jewish practice. Makor Or became the center of a different kind of Judaism, a place where Jews could derive fresh meaning from Torah study, inject new life into the prayer services and Jewish life-cycle rituals, build spiritual communities, and discover a relationship to God that is meaningful in the contemporary world. From this experience and the example of Rabbi Lew’s life, the impulse in his students to take social justice action naturally sprang. 

What is Jewish Meditation?

People sometimes get the wrong impression that in Makor Or, Rabbi Lew and his colleague Norman Fischer somehow grafted Buddhism and Judaism. What they actually did was borrow from Zen Buddhism the practice of zazen as a form, but the context in which they conducted meditation and the content was all Jewish. Leading his students to each seek the transformative encounter with God, Rabbi Lew used three passages in the Torah that describe what it is for the individual. The first is when Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching from the earth to the heavens (Genesis 28:10-19). The second is the account of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious man in the middle of the night while sleeping by the Yabok River (Genesis 32:25-33). And the third is Moses’ sighting of the famous burning bush and his conversation with God (Exodus 3:1-16).

All these encounters begin with a leave-taking, leaving home, and setting out into the unknown. So we must leave our regular lives to take our seats in meditation. Each of these three biblical encounters represents a stage of consciousness. In the first, Jacob comments, “God was in this very place all along and I did not know it.” So in meditation we enter the place of the body and the breath and there we eventually awaken, as from a dream, to “a luminous sacred world, a world suffused with the presence of God.”

In the second encounter, Jacob’s name changed to Israel, meaning “the one who has wrestled with God,” because every turn of Jacob’s life had been characterized by struggling against his lot. Rabbi Lew states: “This is the most significant moment of personal transformation we ever reach in our lives,” when we realize that our divine name is “the thing about ourselves we have been avoiding…the very thing that makes us unique, that gives us our unique power as human beings.” It is precisely this power that points each of us in the direction of how to take ourselves into the world. In his 5759 Rosh Hashanah sermon, he said, “And I wish very much for all of us, and for the sake of the world we all serve as well…[that we] see that those impulses we dislike in ourselves so much, are simply masks for the will of God. Then I think we would really start cooking with gas in this world. Then there would be no stopping us and the good we could do.”

When Moses encounters God, he is resistant to his mission of leading the Israelites out of Egypt on God’s say-so, for, after all, who is God? Moses wants to know what to say when he imagines their inevitably asking him what is the name of this God. Rabbi Lew feels that God’s answer is “the single most important information the Torah ever imparts to us. ‘Ehiyeh asher ehiyeh’ (‘I will be as I will be’). But the verb ehiyeh is a very strange verb in Hebrew…’to be’…a flowing tense partaking of past, present, and future…What God seems to be saying to Moses here is, ‘My name—my essential nature—is absolute and unconditioned being in the present moment; absolute and unconditioned becoming, past, present, and future, absolute existence in the great, eternal moment.’”

From awakening to the felt sense of God in our lives, to recognizing and accepting ourselves for who we are, to glimpsing the essential nature of God, we are progressively brought right here, into our lives, the present-moment. Now we are square with the world as it is and the compelling need to find our place in it, not in a passive way, but to use the power of who we are, in partnership with God, as a force for the collective good. In a 2006 PBS interview with Kate Olson, Rabbi Lew said, “This combination of the imperative for social justice and this real experience of connection really make it almost impossible not to do this kind of work.”

From Meditation to Social Justice

Sarah Rose Horowitz—teacher, poet, political activist—was a student of Rabbi Lew’s. She died last year, just about ten months before Rabbi Lew left this earth. Sarah was born with a very small stature and many medical problems, including a serious congenital heart condition. Her eyesight was poor; she was nearly deaf. A problem in her hip hindered her ability to walk and she could not get around except slowly, with great hardship and pain. Yet, during the time I knew Sarah as a fellow meditator at Makor Or, she almost never missed a morning meditation, retreat, or class. When Sarah was not teaching autistic children, she was regularly serving meals to the homeless, attending executions at San Quentin, writing and speaking out against the death penalty, for human rights and gender equality. At the same time she was a Torah scholar, became an MFA in writing, was getting another masters degree for special education, and publicly read her poetry around town. Undaunted by her physical difficulties, she travelled to El Salvador to build homes for poor Catholics, Uganda to live in a mud floor hut and teach the poverty-stricken children of the Abyudaya tribe of African Jews, and to Mumbai to help sexually abused Hindu girls. Only months before she died, she braved the two-degree weather in Iowa, going door-to-door, to get out the vote for Barak Obama’s campaign.

No teacher could have had a more devoted student, no student a more inspiring teacher. Today their remains are buried in close proximity, student and teacher falling away together back into the earth, fellow travelers I imagine in the World to Come. And their deeds still shine brightly in this world.

Sarah was a rare human being, but even the more ordinary folks at Makor Or, like myself, have had their lives similarly changed, if not so dramatically. I arrived at Makor Or broken-hearted over my son’s mental illness, a multiple brain disorder so severe that he was incapable of knowing he was sick. He was treatment-resistant from the get-go and on-and-off again homeless. Every mental health professional stating that his was the worst, most complicated case they had ever encountered only magnified my despair. I couldn’t be in the presence of other people except at Makor Or, where I could sit in silence and there were no demands on me to socialize.

After a couple of years, I did find God in that place, the place being my broken heart. I also found healing and Rabbi Lew gave me the Hebrew name of Raphaela. Now I am actively working through my synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, and the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center to organize our caring community to support all those affected by mental illness, their families and friends. A principle feature of this work is to educate people about how the stigma of mental illness is held in place. Beyond the Jewish community, I am also a member of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which does advocacy work. I feel I have only begun, but Rabbi Lew left me with the tools I need to manifest who I am in this effort.

 Learning How to Live

In the last chapter of his first book, One God Clapping, Rabbi Lew says, “Serious engagement in meditation and Jewish practice lead inevitably to social action.” Then, in the first chapter of his most recently published book, Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life, he says, ”Meditation is always transformation.” So how exactly does the need for social action emerge from meditation?

In  Be Still, Rabbi Lew traces a path through suffering and the inner roots of conflict, on through a developed awareness, to the point of being able to “become who you are” by approaching “the sacred emptiness” at the center of all being. Meditation is the discipline that prepares us for an encounter with God. “We inhabit our breath and our body with consciousness, until this mindfulness overflows, to the heart, to the mind, to the soul, each stage unmasking itself as something deeper than we thought it was, until they’ve all given way to the Ain Sof, the unlimited, undifferentiated essential being of God, which lies behind every mask, beyond language, beyond nature, beyond desire, beyond the breath and body itself.” When this happens, we are now in radically different relation to ourselves. The question becomes: how can we bring spiritual practice into our lives?

It is not easy to stay with this question. Because “the inertia of [the unawakened] state is almost irresistible…we need to establish a countervailing inertia of equal forces, and this we can only do by daily practice.” By this Rabbi Lew means not only meditation, but Jewish practice that “imbues every moment of our lives with a sense of the transcendent.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov made the point that we cannot stay there [in the transcendent] and remain human. We must return to the world, and when we do so, it is with hearts that have been broken and opened by our own suffering so that at last we can truly perceive another’s.

It is of primary importance to practice in a community. Again from Be Still, “This is how one moves from a sense of oneself as a discrete and separate individual to feeling oneself to be part of something larger.” The community supports our sticking to our struggles to undo our dysfunctions and grow whole. People stay with the practice out of a feeling of being needed, “to believe that we have a vital and indispensable function to perform in this world on behalf of others.”

And here is how Rabbi Lew makes the next crucial step: “But the real value of practicing in the community is that it prevents us from having delusions about who we are…We are all a part of a vast interlinked chain of being, and when we practice together…this sense of connection becomes very real…spills over…so that when we go out on the street, we can’t walk by a homeless person without feeling a connection to them, without acknowledging that their suffering is our suffering, and that we must alleviate it as surely as we would feel that we had to pull out a nail that was stuck in our own leg.”

By relieving the suffering of the homeless person, I do not believe he meant to merely drop a coin into the cup, though that too is essential. But why is the direct action of the cup not enough? Because the ultimate revelation of God at Sinai was a revelation of the Israelites as a community. It was an illumination of the conduct of right relationships, the people to God and the people to one another. The social imperative does not only emerge from the religious experience, is not only embedded within it—it is identical with it.

Rabbi Lew’s Jewish practice was much more vast than the act of meditation. Meditation led to prayer, Torah study, essential daily practices, and all the life cycle observances and rituals. It was the totality of his religious life that he could not separate from the need for social justice. But the process is best illustrated in meditation, how the self becomes circumscribed enough to be able to contemplate the other, whether as God in its essential being-ness or within another human being.

When Rabbi Lew died, the community of the many who knew him fell into deep grief. It was as though the whole universe were one grand piece of fabric that had been ripped to shreds. Everyone said the same thing. That Rabbi Lew had changed their lives. Then they would correct themselves and say, “No, it was that he taught me how to live.”