Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 5, 2023 / 14 Iyar 5783
Summary: Today’s Oasis Songs focuses on Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, who passed away two days ago. I hope this will be the last reflection or eulogy on an important Jewish leader’s death for a while. Yet it feels important to highlight the life of those who labored on behalf of our larger Jewish community, even as we reflect on the teachings they transmitted.
Reading Time: Six minutes
On Wednesday, Jonathan Omer-Man “shuffled off this mortal coil.” That deeply powerful phrase, from Shakespeare, is an acknowledgement of life’s difficulties; contained within it is the hope that whatever comes next will not be so fraught. Yet waiting for joy, like waiting for love, is a fool’s mission; both are ever present, requiring our openness to receive as well as a shift in our perspective.
For those of us in the midst of suffering, that previous sentence can seem obtuse or insensitive; compassion for those who are stuck in their dilemmas is essential. Simultaneously, the thrust of spiritual development in most traditions is teaching us how to navigate our travails with greater equanimity even as we learn to access our birthright of divine love. That’s not always easy, especially once we reject saccharine platitudes, but it is possible. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man dedicated his life to discovering a path, which he then shared with the rest of us.
Omer-Man moved to Israel early, worked as a farmer, a high school teacher, and an electrician. In other words, his young adulthood placed him thick in the world of laborers, which itself provides remarkable guidance about being human. As a former chef, I sometimes worry that those of us who work mostly in the symbolic realms of “mind work” lose out on something essential. In any case, two incidents shifted the trajectory of his life in a manner that benefited so many of us. First, he contracted polio; second, he felt a strong pull into the study of Jewish mysticism. That resulted, among other achievements, in rabbinic ordination and eventually his founding of Metivta: a center for contemplative Judaism, in Los Angeles. In other words, he was part of a generation of Jewish leaders who reclaimed the deepest parts of our tradition that had languished in mid-century America and before.
In some ways, there remain two trends active in Jewish life: those who are dedicated to the inner path, and those who focus on the externals of Jewish community. We need both trends and types of leadership, yet it is fair to say we have far more of the latter and a shortage of the former. This is why so many Jews who hunger for spiritual development turn away from Judaism, seeking their nourishment instead from non-Jewish sources. This, in turn, means that our mainstream institutions tend to focus even more on externalities precisely because the Jewish seeker, who has always had the essential job of reviving Judaism, has abandoned Judaism as a source of answers. That sort of “customer” is “shopping” elsewhere, and the “product line” of mainstream Judaism gets tailored for the customers who remain—the law of supply and demand. I say all this without critical judgment; it just seems to be a realistic appraisal of where the American Jewish community is focused. What I know about Jews is that our community foci are never static; we easily adapt and change as needed, so we never need to bemoan where we stand today. Jewish history demonstrates that corrective action is always available to us. We are a remarkably flexible people.
Clearly, in response to the sociological constraints of the baby-boomer generation, there arose a new generation of Jewish leaders who cared deeply about the spiritual well-being of Jews because they were unsatisfied with the status quo. Rabbi Omer-Man was one of those; while his name may be less well known than Harold Kushner, whom I wrote about last week, it would be hard to overstate the impact of Omer-Man and the other leaders of the inward trend: Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, Shlomo Carlebach, Estelle Frankel, Alan Lew, Sylvia Boorstein, and others.
It was shortly after he founded Metivta that I had a number of opportunities to learn with him when Rabbi Omer-Man would visit the Bay Area. In those days, I was involved in the Jewish Renewal world as well as working with Rabbi Alan Lew. Omer-Man was an important influence on me, not only because he was such an influential practitioner, but also because his keen intellect provided important caveats and correctives to the Wild West of this new Jewish spirituality.
As an example of this, he was once asked about whether spiritual and/or mystical experiences have significance or if they matter. He answered by noting that when we try to hold on to the experience, it becomes a commodity: we discuss it at coffee houses the same way we trade stories of vacations. The only value of the mystical experience, he argued, is if it helps us to become more refined, in turn leading us to the next plateau of personal development. In short, he provided a test by which we can determine when spirituality is a self-absorbed pursuit, or when it can impact the social good.
I recognize that the ears of the average person don’t exactly perk up when we start discussing mystical experiences and spirituality. They can feel too overwhelmed with their everyday challenges; it can sound a bit woowoo; they have not yet had such experiences, or it cuts against the dominant form of Jewish belief today, which seems to be social action, yet all of that is a terrible loss. The generation to which Rabbi Omer-Man belonged was responding to the excess materialism then dominant in American society.
So many of our challenges today—environmental degradation, income inequality, and a host of other seemingly intransigent structural problems, spring from the unexamined life of a nation. These problems, I want to argue, are symptoms, not the illness. When our inner demons, either personal or national, go unaddressed, they manifest in the forms of social malaise we note today. As with any medicine, we do need to address the symptoms (thus tikkun olam); yet when we end treatment there, nothing fundamental changes, and, like a game of whack-a-mole, new or old symptoms appear, sometimes stronger and more virulent than in the previous iteration. It is my firm conviction that if we wish to establish a more balanced, loving, and equitable society, the development of the person’s inner resources is as crucial as any other fix, yet it is often given short shrift.
That was the life’s work of Jonathan Omer-Man: this week another one of our great spiritual masters fell away. Yet as God reminded the Jewish people after the death of Moses, chazak, chazak—we remain strong, knowing that new leaders will arise to help guide us.
I’d like to conclude by including a poem by Rabbi Omer-Man, published exactly a decade ago. It speaks of how the greed of the human heart sows discontent when unaddressed.
MANNA, AND MORE
Manna dropped softly on the harsh desert sands,
our daily portion of bread from heaven,
yes, we said, this would suffice!
but the generations of the leech cried out: Give, give,
ever sucking, never sated, always hungry.
We wanted more.
Next came the quails, those erring migrants,
nightfall’s stragglers entangled in our nets,
and yes we said, this could suffice!
and still the generations of the leech cried out: Give, give,
ever sucking, never sated, always hungry.
We wanted more.
A crimson cloud unfurled in the east,
dawn’s herald of life restored.
Shabbat Table Talk
- What is the primary focus of your Jewish identity: religious/spiritual; traditional; social/cultural; social action? Why do you think you gravitate to this expression of Judaism?
- Have you experienced a spiritual “peak moment” that shifted your life or made you reevaluate your choices? If so, what was it? Why do you think it had such an impact on you?
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