Thursday, August 23, 2012


Okay. I learned a new word. And I'm not sure what I think about it.  In the past I've been downright incensed at the theft of indigenous spiritual practices by white wannabes.  True, my outrage is for the most part borrowed.  My indigenous friends just about foam at the mouth over this one.  Especially when the appropriated song or ritual or practice is used by the wannabe at the wrong time, at the wrong place, and for the wrong purpose.

How can you, they inquire, take my song and abuse it this way?  You took our land and our language. You stole our children and shipped them off to Christian boarding schools —and now you want our spirituality? Spiritual theft, indeed.  I get it.

Remember the Cherokee elders who heckled Felicitas Goodman one year when we were all in Tempe, "The Creator made you a Presbyterian," they shouted.  "Go back to church!"

My indigenous friends make the case for pure systems.  Or for trying to keep them as pure as possible given that these 'systems' are by now long ago polluted with otherness, or almost completely wiped out anyway.

I understand the indigenous complaint.  I'm sensitive to it.  My own people are practically extinct as well.  And I'd like to say that I don't beg, borrow, or steal from the traditions of others.  Surely I don't  practice anyone else's religion. I mean, I barely practice my own.  No wonder it's dying out.  So there should be nothing to complain about on that front.  And I've learned to be super careful about not inviting guest lecturers to speak in my classes if they're folk who are immersed in someone else's tradition, no matter how knowledgeable or devout or sincere they may appear.

But then there's Zalman.  Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, my mentor. Reb Zalman, whose teachings helped me reconcile my love for Islamic cultures with holding on to my own unshakeable (nearly extinct) Sephardi identity.  I had it all worked out at one point: I mean after all, it's because of the Ottoman Islamic State that my people survived at all.  And before that, we thrived in Islamic Spain.  It all sounds so rational when you put it like that.  I mean, it's not like I wear a hijab (though I think they're pretty elegant), and I certainly don't perform Islamic prayers five times a day. No.  I just appreciate Islam. It makes a lot of sense to me.

I hadn't seen Reb Zalman in many, many years, but here he was, giving a symposium for Star King at the Islamic Cultural Center in Oakland.  Three days of Zalman!

And the service had everything in it.

Just name a religion, and it's tradition was in there somewhere.  No pygmy chants that I recognized, but you get my point.

The word of the day was 'multireligiosity' —and the Star King folk, they practice what they preach.  And it was pretty stunning.  Each sentence was peppered with the weaving together of traditions. And so were the songs that were sung, and the gestures, and the clothing.

I want to call it syncretism, but it isn't.  It's something more personal that that.  For it seemed that every person in the hall had a different combination of religious affinities. And the lectures and sermons encouraged more of the same.

And to tell the truth, it was pretty neat to hear the Jewishisms coming out of the mouths of Muslims, and the Islamicisms falling out of the mouths of Jews.  It wasn't forced, or enforced—it was merely comfort and familiarity with the Other.  Or, no, not that—for Otherness had disappeared from their vocabulary.  It was fairly seamless.

Reb Zalman spoke of the virtues of being in-between the strict adherences of the isms.  He encouraged all to cultivate the larger tapestry.  What kind of religion serves best the healing of the planet? Go and practice that.

It was three days of religious liminality.  But it wasn't just about appreciating the Other, it was about practicing the practices of each.  The symposium wasn't just merged wordings—there was ritual too. Performativity.  And this is something I'm profoundly uncomfortable with.  But Zalman encourages participation (and sure, it's part of anthropological methodology as well) (and so, deciding to be a good sport, and put my bloody notebook down and stop taking notes) I found myself in —


—crying my eyes out, as we chanted and bobbed. The rhythm is exactly the type that moves me, or maybe moves everybody.  Look at films of zikr and you'll see just how entrancing it is.  And it made me feel instead of making me think.  Which is exactly what it's supposed to do. And exactly what Reb Zalman wants me to do.  After all, he's a Jewfi.

Two zikrs in three days can bring on an addiction for sure. It's precisely the practice of religious ritual that is so powerful, not the intellectual appreciation of it.  I'm still going to chalk it up to participant-observation, this time, at least.  But deep down, I'm not so sure.  I believe I'm in grave danger of wanting more.

And maybe of going out and finding it.


  1. a few words to illuminate the feelings of wordlessness

  2. Apparently the rhythm doesn't move everybody, or some of us can't move that rhythm. Don't know why.