A quick Hebrew lesson: There is a single Hebrew letter that is used as a prefix to indicate the word “and”. That letter is “vov”. It strikes me as interesting that, in Hebrew, “and” cannot stand alone…it can only be conveyed by a “vov” attached to another word.
This past glorious week, I was in Broomfield, Colorado, participating in the OHALAH Conference, which focused on the concept of Deep Ecumenism. “Deep ecumenism” is a term first coined by Matthew Fox, an American post-denominational priest who was a contemporary of the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l. Deep ecumenism teaches that the one river of Divine spirit is accessible through many different wells.
OHALAH, the professional organization of Rabbis, Cantors, Rabbinic Pastors, and Chaplains for Jewish Renewal, normally limits participation to qualified Jewish members of those fields, but this year we also had a minyan of non-Jewish clergy, including a Buddhist Sensei, a Franciscan Monk, a Lutheran pastor, and a Muslim Imam, and a Sufi, among others. So, together, nearly 220 clergy created a space of learning and listening, truly comparative theology, enabling us to re-evaluate our own tradition in the light of encountering with others.
Now I came into this amazing experience with an unexpected mindset, as last Friday, just before the Shabbaton that preceded the OHALAH Conference, I attended a day-long continued education seminar in Hashpaah, Spiritual Direction, where we focused briefly on the “vov” within the context of Mashpiah/Mushpaah (Spiritual Director/directee) relations. The power of “vov” stayed with me throughout the week and is with me as I share with you this evening….
What a powerful concept “vov” is: Ani v’atah…n’shaneh et ha-olam (you and I…can change the world); “Shalom u-v’racha (peace and blessing); “Chazak v’amatz” (strength and courage). “And” leads to togetherness, closeness, intimacy, friendship, attachment, cooperation, collaboration, unity…
In a world so fractured, at a time where we are becoming so wary of one another, how easy it becomes to succumb to mistrust, isolationism, and, worse yet, xenophobia…a word we used to only see at Yom Kippur. We see how Islamophobia is growing, how rattled politicos are about accepting refugees from war-torn Syria. Yet our country is based on reaching out to the tempest-tost. Our Jewish heritage is based on “v’ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha,” and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
This past week at OHALAH, workshops and plenaries we spent sacred time with one another, explored the interconnectedness of all beings in all four mystical worlds, and developed frameworks for understanding the role each religion must play in sustaining the earth. Some of us studied the complicated relationship between Jews and Muslims; some of us delved into the role of adversity in building a dynamic local interfaith group; and some of us examined common denominators between Mormonism and Judaism. We heard from the first and only rabbi who is the spiritual leader of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We were fascinated by the words of a rabbi who works with a priest as a co-leader of a successful Jewish-Catholic family school. We stretched to find how non-Jews could be led by a Jew, how interfaith families could successfully balance two faiths at the same time. Was this too far out? Was this cutting edge?
There were opportunities for embodying prayer through dance and movement; workshops on sacred dance; and between the workshops our talented chevreh broke out their guitars, mandolins, cellos, keyboards, and drums and filled the hotel with spontaneous song and dance. Our late-night songfests were out of this world.
Our davvenen, prayer services, were rich and uplifting. My head is still filled with the beautiful music….and, oh, was it fabulous! Imagine four talented chazzanim leading a doo-whop version of Adon Olam to Pharell Williams’ “Happy.” Another service featured the Sephardic chazzan, George Mordecai, accompanying on guitar. There was a workshop entitled “Uniting Heaven and Earth: Mystical Chants of Sufis and Kabbalists…mesmerizing.
Rabbi Julie Hilton-Danan and Pastor Peg Schultz-Akerson explored the concept of the Holy Spirit from a Jewish and Christian point of view. And we tackled some of the challenging texts of both Judaism and other religions and discussed the abiding problems to look for what carries integrity for ongoing work of deep ecumenism.
Some of us who had experienced the Parliament of World Religions in the fall, shared our reflections of that incredible meeting of 10,000 people of hundreds of different faiths of the world.
And on the last night of the Conference, we entertained each other in a closing celebratory Cabaret. Singers, rappers, comedians, story-tellers, dancers….oh it was a mah-she-hu, indescribably delicious. I hope I never forget the performance of Rabbi Mark Novick (who, some of you will remember, was a guest here with his wife, Renee Brachfield) and Brother Al Mascia, a Franciscan friar. Mark, on guitar, and Brother Al, on melodica, did a hilarious take on Pirke Avot’s quote by Ben Bag-Bag, making us all giddy with laughter as they riffed off the “Bag-Bag’ name.
Our keynote speaker, Rabbi Art Green, did a masterful job of intertwining classic texts, Chassidic tales, and brilliant theology as he captivated us with his substantive teachings.
We had our session for the annual business meeting of the association, of course; but I was surprised (and, to be honest, blown away) by being presented with both a certificate of appreciation and an unprecedented gift of art, in honor of my work as past-President of OHALAH and member of the Board, from which I have just rolled off. (If you’re coming to Torah Study in the morning, remind me to show you the piece before I take it in to be framed.) Needless to say, this unexpected honor was humbling and over-whelming.
Coming home was like trying to come down off a mountain. What a spiritual and emotional high it had been. So, trying to assimilate all that I had taken in during the wonderful week of learning and sharing, I realized that the interweaving thread for this entire experience had been the concept of the “vov” that had been planted in my imagination last Friday.
And I thought to myself: What if each of us were to take it upon him or herself to ‘’become the vov.” As an “and”, we invite in new ideas, are open to possibilities, welcome other opinions. If, even for a day, we conceive of ourselves as a “vov” and look for opportunities to say “and” and not “but;” to reach out, rather than push away; to go outward rather than sealing ourselves off….oh, as Dr. Seuss (z”l) would say, “The places we’ll go, the people we’ll meet.”