I just completed a six-month online writing course. In the introductory session, the convenor spoke of many things, including his Christian upbringing in Nigeria, mentioning the sabbath and all the attending rituals. He happened to choose Saturdays for the class meetings, though apparently without any special awareness of the religious significance of that day of the week. I think his sabbath must have been Sunday.
This talk of the Sabbath (Shabbat) and the course rituals that followed took me on a journey through my own religious upbringing. I’ve not conserved many of the minute details of my childhood, perhaps because there weren’t too many events that stirred me. Maybe it’s because I was too stolid or remote to be stirred. I remember being bewildered, disconnected from my internal life, unmoved by much of the religious ritual. I did feel more connection with cultural events associated with my ethnic roots. I was a member of a cultural community, not especially a religious one.
I was raised in a reform Jewish family. Reform Judaism is a stripped down version of far more complex rules and instructions for living and worshipping. That meant our family observance was a minimal affair of lighting candles on Friday at sundown, performed by my mother, followed by dinner and possible attendance at the local synagogue for a Shabbat evening service. Beyond that, we adhered to almost no further restrictions or behaviors associated with Shabbat.
The earliest Shabbat services I can remember were at a small congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we lived for four years—from age 6-10. There was nothing notable about that experience except that I was bored to death by the rabbi. It was all mechanical, rote recitation of prayers, call and response, singing short prayers and longer hymns, followed by lofty words and praise.
Then there was the sermon. I can’t have been all that different from other kids my age. This can’t be over fast enough. He put me to sleep every time. He may have been a scholar, but he was no orator. There was no inspiration to it. I was not being fed or even educated. Well, I was being fed, but I wasn’t enjoying it or digesting much of it. Maybe some part of me grasped that having a spiritual root was important, but other than that it was a duty.
We moved to Philadelphia, joined a different congregation, and then it was time for me to begin more deliberate studies in preparation for Bar Mitzvah, the ritual passage into adulthood. That included three classes a week in Hebrew, Saturday services from time to time, discussion of religious topics and meetings with the rabbi. This rabbi was a guy dripping with Jewish stereotype, the gray beard, the booming personality, the authoritative voice and scholarly brilliance, not to mention a sternness that did not totally belie his kindness toward the young and naïve. He inspired. He actually made me proud.
But from there, my connection to Jewish tradition, study and practice went downhill for a long time. We spent two years abroad with virtually no practice whatsoever, then returned to North Carolina where my continued exposure through high school to the same rabbi as before triggered terminal disengagement.
Everyone else I knew was something—some form of Christian, of course, but they gave themselves an identifier beyond that, the name of a denomination. They were all identified. I felt different, removed from all of that, but I wanted to be identified as well. It was often said of this area, the Bible Belt of America, that it didn’t matter what you belonged to as long as you belonged. That was a lie of course, as it turned out that religious tolerance was more of a thin veneer than a deep principle. No, they are not satisfied that you belong to some other denomination or, God forbid, that you might not even be Christian. Now, they most want you to become one of them. And God help you if you are an atheist.
Did I just say that?
It wasn’t until years after moving to California, dabbling in Buddhism, inquiring into multiple spiritual traditions, reading various teachers, spiritual philosophies, marrying and having a child of my own that I turned once again, despite animus toward organized religion, to the question of grounding my own child in a spiritual tradition. By then I was in my 40s.
My discomfort with organised religion was allayed somewhat by the discovery of Jewish Renewal. It turned out to be an integration of mystical Judaism, New Age philosophy and conventional Jewish traditions. Shabbat became something I had never dreamed possible, a community bringing spiritual practice into the immediate moment, inviting the feminine aspect of god into presence. This was entirely new to me, but it made total sense.
Suddenly, singing prayers, calling on my soul to come home, was moving and immensely inspiring. Not only was there a feminine aspect of god, hallelujah!, but she was calling me home. As has been clear, and in nearly every domain one can name, if we as a culture are to “return home” to something essential to our spiritual and physical health that has been hidden or disregarded, patriarchy must be dismantled along the way.
Scientific investigation tells us we are nothing but light to begin with. So calling the light of my soul carries the imprimatur of essence. I call my essence to return me to something essential, a spiritual home, a feminine aspect of myself that helps me create a home of my spiritual nature, the home that is always waiting to be built again and again by merely murmuring the right words in the right combination, like opening a lock, allowing light to shine through from something essential, awakening an awareness of such a thing as a spiritual home within.
I dissolve into light upon realizing the unity of opposing energies. I return myself to an expanded condition, still a relative state to be sure, but a state of relative truth. Something appears that feels more open, more here, and which also carries the recognition that I am connected with everything. Essence: a grounded and transmissible healing of divisions within and without.
Being in the writing course has also been a different view of the poverty of my culture, its unnamable dimensions that, ironically, tend to homogenise and strip us of individuality, silence our voices, dumb down our learning and bury our stories. We are being swept along on a journey that is destroying diversity—biological, cultural, the diversity of knowledge and language. People everywhere are awakening to this emergency and acting to re-ignite the flames of creativity, diversity, the recovery of lost knowledge, the preservation of language and culture. All of these efforts are acts of coming home.
In the midst of all this, I contemplate a personal journey through this lens of Shabbat, the indoctrination into a streamlined, homogenized religious practice emptied of personal meaning, through a re-connection with something more personal and meaningful, expanding down the years into a rich and embodied Buddhist practice.
And yet, in the course of my interactions with fellow classmates, what is reflected back to me once again are the limitations of my personal connection to a cultural, linguistic and artistic tradition. I will have to create my own journey. I seem to have no forebears, no roots. I do not seek a tribal history and have no interest in regenerating one for its own sake. The basic ground I inhabit is not religious, but spiritual.
So then, burning down through layers of colonized mind, the shedding of the undergarments of doctrinal mummification is what this process became. It was about coming home all right. I could call it a coming home to myself, but every time I say that word, I am reminded that it carries the linguistic baggage of separation. This “self,” this home, is a generative place, erotic and chaotic in its fundamental creative character, compassionate, artistic, cognizant, expressing universal values, celebrating diversity and relentlessly and fearlessly exploring the loss, the promise, the internalized violence of the dominant paradigm toward a true adult emotional clarity. It is abundant. It is a healing place.
It is not merely to myself that I come home, but to an invitation and integration of the “feminine aspect of god,” the mother tongue known to us all, the Source of infinitely creative compassion, the collective Self, not merely to an attendance of my own personal concerns, of being able to satisfy personal objectives or “goals,” but to an immediate and accessible revelation of an infinitely refreshing vast and vibrant reality.