Tomer Persico Interview – Part 2: Spiritual Journey & What Kind of Judaism Do We Want.

Here is the second part of my two part interview with Tomer Persico. Part I was dedicated to his new book on Jewish meditation and Part II is on his spiritual journey and vision for a future Judaism.

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This interview is based on my having read two earlier interviews with Tomer Persico. One in Globes and a great interview in Haaretz that they translated into English. In the Haaretz interview Persico stated his desire to create a humanistic Judaism with a message for the world that is not dependent on the impoverished ethnocentric world of contemporary Orthodoxy.

The fundamental question is what kind of Judaism we want. Do we want an isolationist Judaism that entrenches itself in its own minutiae, contributing nothing to the world, or do we want a Jewish culture that has a religion but is much more than that? The situation is ridiculous. The Bible contains a universal vision, encapsulated in the simple slogan, “a light unto the nations.” That is the message of Judaism. Yet the groups we consider the most religious are precisely the most separatist and insular, and wield the least influence worldwide. The average Western person has never even heard the names of the revered local rabbinical sages. It’s absurd.

The secular public – and in this regard, I include myself among that public – must articulate an autonomous Jewish identity for itself, one that is not dependent on Orthodox Judaism to represent it. The Jewish tradition is packed with values that are easily translated into humanistic and even feminist language. It’s authentically ours. Of course, the tradition is also packed with other things, which are easily translated into racism and ethnocentrism.

But if we look at the Jewish identity of the religiously observant community in Israel – both the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionism – we find that it is far more impoverished than it seems to be from the outside. It looks very sure of itself, but there is very little original religious creative work going on. It’s often a meager identity, based on ethnocentrism, xenophobia, a false sense of superiority or the cloning of passages from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, or from Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik or Rabbi [Eliezer] Shach. But they have no answers to offer to the challenges faced by present-day Jewish society in Israel. It’s running on empty. It is not such a daunting challenge to put forward an alternative, autonomous identity that provides a decisive answer.

As discussed in the prior interview, Persico sees the source for a meaningful Judaism in the turn to spirituality and personal religion. Yet he is aware of the problems of the New Age movement and the crude marketing of contemporary spirituality- both secular and Orthodox.

New Age became a series of products for people in search of self-fulfillment and transformation. Workshops and courses were offered of a kind never seen in the history of the religions familiar to us. Taking a potpourri of elements from a range of sources, New Age turns them into a product, such as workshops in fasting and reincarnation. It reaches grotesque levels, in which one supposedly learns how to “suck in abundance from the universe.” Like in “The Secret.” If you believe you’ll have a Porsche, and hang a picture of a Porsche in your house, you will have a Porsche.

There are spiritual techniques that work. Just because the market learned how to exploit the whole spectrum of beliefs for its needs doesn’t mean that you can’t find pure gold in it – but the search becomes more difficult.

Instead of changing the rules of the game for you, New Age becomes a kind of release valve for a pressurizing system and allows the system to go on battering you. The whole current trend of becoming religiously observant is also part of this. It’s the same search, except that it turns to the source of Judaism – but with the aim of fashioning a tailor-made Judaism for ourselves. It is not Orthodox penitence, acceptance of the burden of the precepts. The search is for the personal connection, the experience.

Instead, Persico advocates a inner commitment to a system that takes into account our individuality and humanism.

Persico discovered the seriousness of religion and by extension of Judaism through his journey to India. In this, he is part of a bigger story of Israelis traveling to India after the army and then returning with an Indian understanding of religion to which they can now understand their own Judaism. Not just secular Jews travel to India but also yeshiva graduates and now even those who give Talmud shiur are traveling to India. For an older book about these journeys, see Elhanan Nir, Me-Hodu ṿe-ʻad kan : hogim Yiśreʼelim kotvim ʻal Hodu ṿe-Yahadut shelahem (2006) [Hebrew] This is a major trend that will further accentuate the difference between American Judaism which generally views itself in Protestant terms, even the Orthodox.

In the last few years, Persico has taken on the role of a liberal clergy by having performed almost fifty weddings for those wanting to avoid the Rabbinate. Yet, Persico still sees himself as secular despite his high level of traditional ritual observance because from his Israeli perspective one is either Orthodox or secular.

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1) What was your religious background and how did you rediscover religion in India?

I grew up in a secular and atheist family in Haifa. Studying in Israel’s secular education system I had almost no contact with traditional Jewish sources except for the Bible. After my compulsory army service, at age 22 (1996-7), I flew to India, traveling the sub-continent for ten months in what can be called the compulsory Israeli trip-after-the-army. I devoted my journey to the investigation of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religion and thought, met with numerous spiritual teachers and pundits, and had also taken up Buddhist Vipassana meditation (that I learned from what were then the annual Bodh-gaya retreats led by Christopher Titmuss), which I practice to this day. It is then that I realized that contrary to what I was convicted of, there is more to existence than crass materialism.

I went through a few transformative experiences, most of them challenging the presumed border between the inner self and the outer world, and initiated what I refer to as an intimate relationship with the divine. Since then I have been to India eight more times, spending more than two cumulative years of my life in the Indian sub-continent. I usually go to Varanasi, where I just hang out and soak up the atmosphere, and to Tiruvannamalai, were I meditate at the Ramana Maharshi Ashram  at the feet of the holy mountain Arunachala. I must have spent months in each place, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit them again and again.

In the past I would also sit and learn from Ramesh Balsekar, a follower of Nisargadatta Maharaj, who himself became a teacher. He died in 2009. I must say also that even though I still practice Vipassana meditation concerning Eastern traditions I feel much closer to Hinduism then to Buddhism today. I am a lot more Bhakti oriented then I was when I started my journey…

Addenda- Here is an account of one of Persico’s experiences in  Tiruvannamalai.

2) How did you rediscover the Jewish tradition of practice, texts, and experiences?

I started being interested in the Jewish tradition simply because it made no sense to me studying translated Sanskrit and Pali texts when I can read ancient religious texts in their original language. Add to that the fact that it was my own mother tongue, and it really seemed absurd not taking a close and serious interest in the Jewish sources.

So I took up any course or program that I could find. I studied with Rabbi Ofek Meir (today the Director of the Israel Rabbinical Program in Jerusalem’s HUC) In a year long course about the Jewish tradition in Haifa, then for two years in the Hevruta Beit Midrash in the Hebrew University with Rabbi Shimon Deutsch. (which really engendered in me a great love for the Talmud), and I also took almost any academic course I could in Jewish Studies all through my BA and MA, studying with gdoylim such as Moshe Halbertal, Moshe Idel and Shalom Rosenberg. That made for a great background in Talmud, Kabbalah, Hasidism and Jewish Thought on which I could further independently build more.

But I came closer to the Jewish tradition for more fundamental reasons. From Buddhism and Advaita I learned how much of an illusion our separate sense of self is. I never believed in an eternal, individual soul (and still don’t), but understanding deeply that there isn’t any inherent separate self, any “little man” inside us, led me to recognition of the important place of society in our individual formation and existence. We are more or less the sum of the influences on us. And indeed, the Buddhist tradition places the Sangha, the community, as equal in importance to the Buddha and the Dharma. Now the Jewish tradition is a tradition of community building, if not nation building. Finding this of tremendous importance, I went through a renewed evaluation of it.

Another great thing about the Jewish tradition that I found is its groundedness. It is very down to earth, not only in that it gives importance to the body and its actions, but in a very fundamental way that it seeks divine work in the here and now, in this world. It does not picture the ideal in another world, somewhere “out there” or “above”, but in this one. This for me helped get over a very common spiritual trap, when seekers take this world (material existence, the body, the mind, etc’) as an obstacle on the path to the divine, instead of seeing it as the most perfect manifestation of the divine.

For these two reasons (but not only them) I came to greatly appreciate the Jewish tradition, and to develop a feeling of responsibility towards it. I felt there is something here that needs to be preserved, nurtured and developed. I took to studying it (yes, Talmud, Halakha, philosophy) and practicing it (I would call myself “Masorti” in my observance).

3) Why do you think there needs to be sangha- a practice based in community?

I believe a sangha is essential of course, and a sangha for the non-orthodox is divided into two levels. The first is simply the nation, and by that I don’t mean the ethnic collective but the body politic of the nation state that one is part of. This is your larger community in which you have to act, on which you have to influence and which you have to support and better. This means that you can’t hide in a closed community like the Haredim. You must be a part of the time and place you live in. you must be a part of the general, common, day to day society, experience the same problems and work together for the mutual good. I try to do my part as an activist and an intellectual in Israel.

The second level is the closer, more like-minded community, which, I admit, for the non-orthodox in Israel is harder to establish. There are of course many non-orthodox communities, but they lack the matter-of-factness that comes from a mutual commitment to a defined traditional structure.

I am a part of the Hartman institute, and for me that is a sangha I am a part of, and I of course have my circle of friends. But the Jewish renewal in Israel will indeed have to learn to create communities. It already does so here and there, but not enough. By the way, here is where the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel can help – by giving the foundations and structure needed for community building for the non-orthodox.

4) You currently perform Jewish weddings in Israel. Is that legal? Why do people come to you?

I perform Jewish weddings as part of my activism for freedom of religion in Israel. The law here restricts the prerogative to conduct weddings to the Chief Rabbinate. As such, Jews cannot marry non-Jews, and those disqualified for marriage (psulay chitun) such as mamzerim and kohanim with divorcees. There are also a few hundred thousand not-Jews-according-to-Halakha that came to Israel via the Law of Return that cannot marry in their own state. It’s a tremendous grievance. Of course, many others simply don’t want an orthodox Rabbi under their chuppah. Me and my friends in Havaya organization (an organization that performs non-orthodox life-cycle events without payment) , as well as the Reform and Conservative movements, give them another option.

The weddings that I conduct do not register in Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the couples by law are only Common Law married. They are also, if halakhicly valid (not all couples care or want that of course) against the law can be punishable by up to two years in prison. This ludicrous law will never be enforced, but it shows you the level of hysteria the Chief Rabbinate is in. And indeed, the numbers and percentage of weddings out of the Chief Rabbinate are constantly growing.

The changes almost always requested concern the role of the bride. In the wedding that I perform, the bride gives the groom a ring and also says something to the groom, before or after he does. Also the Ketubah is usually changes- no kinyan, or buying of the woman, and there must be mutual, shared commitments and aspirations for the future.

Some couples also have a problem with the “Im Eshkachech” Jerusalem part at the end of the chupah. With all these we work in a dialogical way. We don’t want to make up a whole new chupah up. But we do want to stand under a chupah and conduct a marriage that speaks to us, that is meaningful to us, that does not insult our intelligence or our values. It’s always a work in progress and always a sort of compromise, because for most of those getting married the tradition is also important.

5) Do you see yourself as a form of liberal clergy?

Yes, I do. I do not call myself a Rabbi, but that is in part my function in my society. Basically we see all over the Western world the move from denominations memberhood to non-identification (aka, “the rise of the Nones”). Most of the people who refuse to identify with any organized denomination are far from being atheist and still need “clergy” for different functions. The clergy thus is also best when non-denominational, and really “charismatic” in character. I believe Max Weber would have been pleased with the turn to the charismatic.

[AB- Max Weber actually thought charismatic and Romantic religion was dangerous. If the rational  bureaucracy becomes sterile or if it loses sight of the ultimate end, Weber advocated a return to local rational organization.]

6) With all this religion, why do you see yourself as secular? What is a secular Jewish identity?

I see myself as a religious Jew. But since I don’t have a religious authority other then myself, I would say that in a very important way I am secular, secularity being less the dropping of belief and praxis and more the transference of different fields of power and knowledge from religious institutions to non-religious ones.

As for secular Jewish identity, I think that at this time it is in a deep crisis. In the states we see that it is very hard to remain a Jew (not ethnically, but culturally, which I think is much more important) without engagement in any denomination, let alone any synagogue/beit midrash centered community. In Israel the collapse of the old Secular Zionist paradigm brought with it the collapse of that paradigm’s “Jew”, meaning the distinct Jewish identity that it espoused.

The Jewish renaissance (described in the last interview) which Israel has experienced for the last two decades is an expression of the renewed search by secular Jews for a Jewish identity to replace the old, crumbling, Secular Zionist one. This make for the great spectrum of Jewish expressions that we see now in Israel, of which I am part of, of course.

7)  Why do you think that this new identity will be based on New Age, Kabbalah, meditation and personal experience?

It will not wholly be based on them. This new Jewish identity is simply very diversified. It is individualistic in principle, and as such likes to tailor-make its Jewish suit, so to speak. Naturally, for many the materials used will be from the New Age expressions of the tradition, such as Neo-Hasidism, Neo-Kabbalah, new Jewish spiritual paths like Yemima (sometines called “Conscious Thinking”, a spiritual path based on the instructions of Yamima Avital (1929-1999), which combines psychological insights with Kabbalistic language), etc’. But for many this identity will be more intellectual and cultural in character, taking from pluralistic Talmud study, Piyut singing and such. Still for others the new Jewish identity, and this we see a lot in Israel lately, is simply an ethnocentric, tribal position, based on the narrowest and least demanding conditions for being Jewish, and displayed by hyper-nationalism, racism and xenophobia. But the New Age translations of Jewish traditions are certainly popular, and satisfy the need for an individual, experiential, connection to the tradition.

8) What is your emphasis on autonomy and authenticity? What do you
apply the quest for authenticity also to the followers of Yitzhak Ginzburgh, hill top youth and Haredi Breslovers? More, importantly, what can secular Israeli learn from them?

Well, first, they apply it to themselves. They use the word “authentic” to characterize their Judaism. Of course, there is no surprise here in my opinion, because as I said in the first part of this interview, we are today at a time were the Western would in engrossed more then ever before in the inner world, finding in it sources of meaning, authority and identity.

What I did in one of my articles on Ginzburgh’s followers and the hilltop youth was to try to show that the roots of their attitude are found in the Romantic movement, and in particular in German Romanticism. Like many today, they also seek an inner experiential validation for their identity, and want very much to be “true to themselves”. Now the Jewish tradition is not really about being true to yourself, but being true to your covenant with God. So they are in a point of tension with their presumed orthodoxy.

Shlomo Fischer has written a few articles about the violence (against Palestinians of course) that is inherent to these groups, and I tried to explain the violence as a way to solve the deep seated divergence between adherence to our inner urges and compliance to heteronomic tradition. What I suggest is that these groups realize the authenticity of their intimate selves by externalizing their most passionate feelings as religio-nationalist violence. This not only allows them to stay within Halachic boundaries but actually enforces the Halacha, as the Halachic restrictions are the very standards by which the division between Jew and Gentile is created, and thus lay the necessary ground for these passions and acts.

In a similar way Breslovers seek inner validation for their religion.I don’t think that on this point the secular Israeli has a lot to learn from these groups, simply because like them, she is also seeking authenticity, and I don’t think their solutions are very good.

9) How has Israel moved from a democracy to an ethnocracy?

The state is nearing the point of becoming a full fledged ethnocracy. Of course, the State of Israel has always been a home for the Jewish people, so many say that it has always been an ethnocracy, but we have to remember that is all streams of Zionism, left and right, there was a prominent liberal-democratic vain. Both Jabotinski and Begin on one side, and Weisman and Ben Gurion on the other, insisted on equal right to all citizens, and indeed understood that that is the only way to insure the legitimacy of the new state.

Really, it has to be noted that democracies do not form by accident. It takes a lot of effort. And that effort was taken. And a liberal democracy was formed. The problem today is that the said liberal vain is waning, and citizenship is replaced by ethnicity as the fundamental building block of the state, as the basic criterion for deciding who gets privileges. Naturally, in a situation like this, when there is a majority of ethnic Jews, other ethnic groups will suffer. All this is coated with layers of Jewish symbolism and imagery, and the Halacha is recruited in order to justify discrimination and racism, so it might seem like Israel is turning into a theocracy, but really there is much more nationalism, ethnocentrism, triumphalism and simple xenophobia then religion here.

10) How is Israel no longer seen as an exemplar society?

I would say the most significant political and moral challenge facing the Jewish State can be expressed by the question how to be faithful to the founding Zionist principle of building a model society in Israel, while forming a modus vivendi with the Palestinian people. Here is the point of tension: historically, classical Zionism, both socialist and revisionist, set to built in the Promised Land not only a safe haven for the Jews all over the world, but an exemplary society. A modern and secular interpretation of the traditional “Light onto the Nations”, the Jewish state was meant to be democratic, egalitarian, gracious and just. The ways in which to reach this ideal were debated, but the vision was clear in essence: the Jewish modern political body would be both a national home for the Jewish people, the expression of their right to self rule and self determination, and the envy and the inspiration of the world.

As we near the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Judea and Samaria, the chance of erecting a border on the 1967 “Green Line”, between the State of Israel and a Palestinian political entity is growing minute, and ever smaller. Whether resisting the founding of an independent Palestinian state comes out of religious views and aspirations, whether it comes out of security concerns, or whether the Palestinians themselves don’t in fact want it, the reality that is taking shape discloses a situation in which between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea about six million Jews are ruling over about six million Palestinians, of which only about two million are citizens holding equal rights.

This situation, in any way it enfolds, spells the end of the Zionist vision. If it remains as it is, it holds the termination of the hope of building in Israel a model society, for no country in which a large minority is denied equal rights in this day and age can be called a Light onto the Nations. On the other hand, if all the Palestinians are given equal rights, the reality of an independent Jewish state is lost, and the Jewish people’s right to self rule and self determination is denied. Thus, even before speaking about any security threats and economic forecasts, a modus vivendi between the Jewish and the Palestinian people that is reached on the basis of the current demographic and political reality expresses the end of the Zionist principle of building a model society.

11) How does Israel regain humanistic values?

The occupation must end. How? Well, basically, the two state solution. Unless we end the forced control of millions of non-citizens there is no hope for a moral Jewish state.

One idea I heard, which for me carries hope, is the idea of a Jewish-Palestinian confederation. In this political alternative there will be two independent states between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, but the border between them will be open, and no individual will be forced to leave his or her home. Both peoples will receive their right to self determination, while the mutual historical and religious yearnings for the whole land will not be denied. Jews and Palestinians will live wherever they wish, but be citizens only of one state. Of course, many questions still remain: how many military forces will exist here? What about the question on Palestinian refugees? What to do with the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif? But I think the direction proposed here is a positive one.

12) Why do you think the future will be the way you described as spirituality when most people are concerned with business, finance, hard technology and reading Globes? Are you not a minority opinion?

I never said we are headed for a spiritual heaven, no… I am a minority view by being a sort of a spiritual seeker.

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(Dont forget to look at his blog.)

Addenda- From Persico’s Maariv article on the problem and need of gurus

Spiritual teachers who gather pupils around them have existed in the Oriental religions for thousands of years, and for a thousand or more in Judaism and Islam. What’s different these days is that while in the past those teachers functioned within a constant, well-known context – that is to say, within a certain spiritual tradition – today there is often no normative framework in which gurus and their acolytes operate. The guru institution has been removed from its traditional context (“traditional” here in more than one meaning) and implanted into conditions foreign to its nature.

This should not be taken lightly. Instead of being surrounded by a system of checks and balances that can limit and stabilize him, the Western spiritual teacher in essence develops his spiritual path on his own, and therefore does not enjoy the benefit of previous generations’ experience, nor is his will bound by traditional laws and restrictions. If in the past the guru would ask the student to yield to his will on the authority of a tradition of which he was but a link, today’s guru asks his disciples to submit to him alone, and solely to his own authority. Instead of joining a veteran spiritual heritage that has withstood the test of time, today’s student binds himself to one person, original and perhaps special, but not necessarily very intelligent or responsible, and in more miserble cases merely a charlatan. Who will question his every whim? His conscience, one would hope, but sometimes he lacks one, or the spine to obey it, and the consequences can be dire.

What we see here is the magnification of the well-known problem of contemporary spirituality. Alongside the freedom to take different ideas and practices from various traditions and mold the spiritual path best suited to the individual, and alongside the personal discipline which spiritual seeking without a set tradition requires, there are the drawbacks deriving from inexperience and a lack of boundaries.

And yet, a wholesale rejection of the guru institution is a solution not only devoid of real probability, but also speaks of a simplicity and lack of understanding. Spiritual teachers exist not only, as detractors would have it, because people like to surrender their freedom or fear loneliness. The spiritual teacher exists because this institution does indeed help us discover new things about ourselves.

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