Interview about Reb Dovid Din with Rabbi Eliezer Shore

At the end of the 1970’s and start of the 1980’s there was a moment of Neo- Chassidic counter culture in NYC. The list included Reb Shlomo Carlebach, Reb Zalman, Reb Meir Fund and the Flatbush Minyan, Reb Aryeh Kaplan was teaching at his home in Kensington, and Reb Dovid Zeller formed the Network of Conscious Judaism. There were Ruach Seminar retreats, the Caldron restaurant by Marty Schloss was a frequent hangout, and Rabbi Meir Nissim (Michel) Abehsera gave classes on Torah and macrobiotic diet.  There was also Jeff Obler who had a weekly radio show Yedid Nefesh & a Center for Young Jewish Artists trying to bring all this to a wider audience. Lex Hixon, the universal Sufi of Tribeca ran a  universal Mosque and had a radio show featuring many of the aforementioned teachers on his show. One of the unique teachers of the period was Reb Dovid Din offer of classes in Manhattan & Brooklyn who died at the age of 46 in 1988. (Bear in mind that for other seekers, this era was the NYC of CBGB’s, Patty Smith and the Ramones.)

ruach-din
(Reb Dovid Din)

According to Eliezer Shore, Reb Dovid Din himself had come to Judaism late in life. At first, he had been a student of R. Shlomo Carlebach, living for a while in the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. Afterward, he studied at Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld’s yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv in Far Rockaway. He was also a student and friend of Rabbi Zalman Schachter, though he differed with Reb Zalman regarding Orthodox practice and commitment. After leaving Sh’or Yoshuv, he moved to Boro Park and gathered a small cadre of talmidim around him. There are almost no essays of his that remain. There were, at one point, hundreds or recorded lectures. (A number of his students are attempting to track down any remaining tapes and digitalize them. If anyone has tapes of R. Dovid, they should please be in touch Reb Shore.

Rabbi Eliezer Shore was one of his closest students whose life was transformed by Reb Dovid. Eliezer Shore narrates his life as having grown up in a secular, Jewish home in Great Neck, NY, and attended Sarah Lawrence College majoring in religious studies, and minored in music and the performing arts.  He engaged in an intense spiritual search, which took him to England and Scotland, over mountains and into Zen monasteries, and eventually, to a small cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In 1982, he met Rabbi Dovid Din and became one of R. Din’s closest students for the next four years. Shore obtained Rabbinic Ordination and a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from Bar-Ilan University with a thesis on language  in the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Since then, Shore has taught at numerous institutions around Israel. Most notably, the Rothberg School at Hebrew University.

For many years, Shore wrote articles for Parabola, published by The Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition a not-for-profit organization devoted to spiritual quest and the dissemination and exploration of materials relating to the myths, symbols, rituals, and art of the world’s religious traditions.  Recently, he  collected the best of these pieces, as well as a number of stories that he wrote — both original and retellings — and personally republished them in a single volume, called The Face of the Waters: Chasidic Teachings and Stories for the 21st century.  Available on Amazon and Createspace (20% discount with Code:  TVASZVMW.)

For those who want a few more sample pieces of Shore’s writing, then see his writings page and especially this short account of his spiritual quest and his application of the writings of Rav Zadok Hakohen of Lublin to education. If you like his writings, then buy his book or better yet, hire him as a freelancer for your journal (dont offer less than .40-.50 a word.)

This account of the relationship of Reb Dovid Din and Reb Eliezer Shore is quite a story of spiritual quest and devotion to Reb Din as a saint and Chassidic Zaddik. Shore recounts how Reb Din taught him that “Torah is a spiritual discipline. It is a practice that requires intensity and concentration no less than any other practice or meditation. I saw how he put avodas Hashem over everything; his money, his time, his health. Rather, these other things simply did not take up any authentic space in his life.” Din also taught Shore how to relate to the Haredi world:

Don’t ask from them more than they can give, and don’t give them more than they can take.” In other words, appreciate what the haredi world has to offer in terms of commitment and piety, but don’t ask them to discuss Buddhist philosophy with you! And don’t offer them that either, since they do not necessarily have the tools or interest to deal with it. In other words, don’t lose yourself there, either. Be true to that other part of yourself, and keep it separate

The psychologist Erich Neumann called the Zaddik, following Carl Jung’s terminology, a mana-personality, the archetype of the ideal integrated saint. Yet, Shore’s account shows that Reb Din was not integrated as much as single focused. Reb Din’s mystical fasting is worth comparing to the literature of holy fasting of mystics starting with  the two 1987 books on the topic: Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast as well as Rudolph M. Bell’s Holy Anorexia.

For those who want to know more about Reb Din, there was a 1984 interview with Reb Din himself by Howard Jay Rubin On the cover is a picture of Reb Dovid together with Reb Eliezer. More recently, there was an article by Shaul Magid of his own reminiscences of Reb Dovid Din, which is definitely worth comparing to this account There are also radio interviews with Reb Dovid Din from the Lex Hixon Show In the Spirit available for purchase.

Reb Dovid’s yarhzeit is next week 25 Tammuz. In commemoration, Reb Eliezer will give an online class: “The Fluid Soul: Everyday encounters as a setting for enlightenment. A class on Hasidut in memory of Rabbi Dovid Din”. The class will be this Sunday, at 12pm EST. They can watch it on Facebook Live: https://www.facebook.com/eliezershore or participate by signing into Zoom by computer or by phone. Here is the link info: https://zoom.us/j/176930764
Or iPhone one-tap (US Toll): +16465588656,800218559#

I never met Reb Dovid Din nor attended any of his teachings, although I knew he was teaching since he came up in conversations. However, Reb Din was studying mysticism at Fordham University at the time of his death. When I arrived at Fordham the following year form my doctoral studies, the other students in the mysticism program asked: Am I also like the Rabbi Dovid not looking at women by staring at the floor instead? According to them, he was working on a dissertation connecting esoteric Christianity to Kabbalah as having a common essence.

(Update- Yes, Reb Dovid’s son is Shulem Deen. It does not play a role in this blog post. So, I originally left it out. However, I am compelled to add the connection in this updated note since a swarming number of people, more than I thought, felt an urgent need to contact me in their belief that they were informing me about that point.)

One final note before the spiritual journey of this interview. Notice that during those years the goal of outreach Judaism was to give spiritually and compete with the other spiritual teachers. Unlike later decades, where the goal was to offer a good lifestyle, family values and communal heritage. The goal was for ultimate meaning in life, not conservative moral order. This was looking for a path of spiritual discipline, not the current self-indulgence and isolationism of American Neo-Chassidus. For those who want more first person accounts of the era, see David Zeller’s The Soul of the Story: Meetings With Remarkable People  who presents a story that includes his meetings with Gurus and Swamis, and the classic Ellen Willis essay about her brother, Next Year in Jerusalem.

ruach1
(Front row of teachers from right to left: Dovid Din, David Zeller, Shlomo Carelbach, Meir Fund. Back row, man without jacket behind Fund is Eliezer Shore.)

Interview with Rabbi Eliezer Shore about Reb Dovid Din

  1. How did you met Reb Dovid?

I met R. Dovid in the spring of 1982. I was a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York, taking a course in Philosophy of Religion. I was at that point majoring in Eastern Religions. Throughout the semester, we met various religious figures – Buddhists, Christian Monks, Sufis. One night, we traveled into Manhattan to hear a famous Rabbi speak at a synagogue in New York. It turned out to be R. Zalman Schachter. I had never heard of R. Zalman before, or even had any particular interest in Judaism as a spiritual path. My parents are both Jewish – my mother is a Holocaust survivor – but they both abandoned any religious affiliation they had after moving to America, and my connection to Judaism was little more than nominal. I had been searching for spirituality for several years – since I was twenty – and practiced Buddhist meditation, martial arts, wilderness survival. I was studying Japanese and had plans on traveling to Japan or entering an American Buddhist monastery after graduation.  However, it was also around this time that I felt an unusual stirring in me toward a relationship-based form of spirituality, what I understand today as a shift from a non-theistic to a theistic view of G-d.All of this was still very latent, and it was actually R. Zalman that evening who opened the first door.

I don’t recall the details of his lecture, but I believe he was speaking about the importance of approaching prayer as a personal expression. He illustrated this with an exercise. He told the entire audience to rise and put their feet together “as if” they believed in G-d. Then he told us to hold our hands “as if” we believed in G-d. And then he said to us “Now, if you believed in G-d, what would you say.” At that moment, I found myself praying for the very first time. It was a powerful experience. However, as much as I appreciated the exercise, I wasn’t particularly drawn to R. Zalman’s form of presentation, which was a bit to showy for me.

After R. Zalman finished, another Rabbi stood up. He was tall and thin, had long peyot, wore a long hasidic coat and a round flat hat, in the style of Yerushalmi hasidim. But when he spoke, it was with an Oxford English. He eloquently explained why he disagreed with R. Zalman, why prayer is not merely a matter of self-expression, but a discipline that one must follow, like any spiritual practice. That the words of prayer in the prayerbook pull a person out of themselves and put the focus elsewhere – on G-d, not on the self. His voice was rich and sonorous, he gestured gracefully as he spoke, and there was an air of holiness around him. This was Rabbi Dovid Din, and meeting him that night was certainly one of the turning points in my life.

There is a saying among spiritual seekers: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” and I do not think it could have been more true. I was in total shock when I saw him; for I heard from him everything I had been looking for in Eastern religions, though in the garb of an Orthodox Jew, with G-d at the center of presentation. I was mesmerized.

After the lecture, I went up to him to ask him a question, and from close up, he was even more frightening. R. Dovid was a true ascetic, and it reflected in his gaunt face, his threadbare clothing, his unkempt peyot. At the same time, the light that emanated from his face and eyes was astounding. I was certainly not the first to be drawn to him. R. Dovid was a magnet for spiritually seeking young men and women. Thus, when I approached him my question, he knew that he had a “live one” on the hook, and was not going to let me get away so easily. Even when he turned to address someone else, he made sure that he kept his hand on my shoulder, so that I didn’t run away. (I should note that over the next year, as I slowly became observant, I wanted to run away many times, but was unable.) Afterward, he invited me to his weekly class on 21st Street in Manhattan.

Actually, I did not reconnect with him until the next Fall – he went to Israel for the summer, and I continued on my Buddhist trajectory, working as a camp counselor at Japanese summer camp in the Catskills. Actually, even when I started attending his classes, I was still investigating various Buddhist monasteries around the States. It was not until things came to a critical turning point that I changed my direction. But that is another story.

2) How did you become his student?

It is an interesting story how I became his student. As I mentioned previously, I first met him on a class trip. I took his phone number and even called him for a meeting some weeks afterward. However, he was not available then, and soon after, he and his family traveled to Israel for the summer, so he wasn’t available at all.

Even though I was very impressed by him and wanted to keep up the contact, I was still deeply involved in Eastern religions, both in terms of practice and study. In fact, in the month after I graduated college, I spent the first week doing sesshin (an eight-hour a day meditation retreat) at the Zen Community of New York , run by Bernie Glassman Roshi. Afterward, I spent a week in Washington DC at a martial arts center practicing Kung Fu), and then a week learning wilderness survival in the New Jersey pine barrens, with Tom Brown – a famous survivalist. After that, I worked the entire summer as a camp counselor in a camp for Japanese children in the Catskills. I was studying Japanese at the time, and was one of the only American counselors there.

It was during that summer that I decided that I would enter a Buddhist monastery full time when summer was over. When I returned to my parents’ house, I contacted several Buddhist monasteries around the US. At the same time, I started attending R. Dovid’s weekly classes, and speaking with him privately. One day, in early autumn, I received a letter from the Zen Mountain Monastery in Woodstock, NY, inviting me to join their program. I could meditate half a day, work in their food shop in Woodstock half a day, get room and board and even $100 a month. Paradise! What more could I ask for?

The same day I received that letter, I went to R. Dovid’s class. After class, he called me over: “Eliezer,” he said. “I know that you want to get out of your parents’ house and immerse yourself in a fully spiritual environment. Well, we are opening an outreach center in Manhattan, called ‘Sha’arei Orah: Gates of Light,” where we will be giving weekly classes, communal meals, etc. We need someone to live there and be the caretaker. Maybe you would like to do it.”

I was in shock. In one day, I received two invitations to deepen my spiritual practice and commitment. One, from the path I had been following for several years, and the other, from a new path offered to me by R. Dovid. I didn’t know what to do. I went up to the monastery for a couple of days and found it a beautiful place, but when all was said and done, I realized that I couldn’t follow that path, that I had to return to New York to become Reb Dovid’s disciple. I even discussed it with the monastery head – John Daido Roshi – and he was very encouraging. “Follow the path of your heart,” he told me.

Reb Dovid knew of my visit to the monastery, and when I returned to New York and told him that I had decided to commit myself to being his student, he gave a knowing smile. I imagine he knew that he had me the entire time.

Ironically, the offer to live in the New York Center never materialized. Soon after, we learned that it was forbidden for anyone to live in the building – which was an old synagogue – due to zoning laws. So that offer never actually panned out. However, at that point, I had already decided on my path, and wasn’t going to change it.

I should also point that I didn’t automatically become Torah observant at this point. The prospect actually terrified me, and I fought it fiercely. I rented an apartment in Queens, and maintained some distance from Reb Dovid’s community. Many times, I felt that I had to run away, though I never could. There was a deeper force pulling me in, which I could not deny. Eventually, after about half a year of struggle, I took on Torah observance and moved into the apartment next to the Din family, and became Reb Dovid’s secretary and assistant. I lived there for the next three years, until I moved to Israel.

3)  What did you learn about the Spiritual Path from him?

This is a difficult question. On the one hand, he changed my life in myriad, unthinkable way. On the other hand, it was a long time ago, and much of what I learned has now become integrated in my life in a way that I am no longer as aware of it as when it was new. It’s also become combined with things I have subsequently learned, so that I’m not sure what comes from him, and what I added on my own later. In addition, I am no longer the same person I was back then. My drive for spirituality and devekut has mellowed. I’m not on fire for it, as I once was, and as I remember R. Dovid to be.

But let me find something… The obvious thing is that he brought me close to Judaism, to Torah observance, “under the wings of the Shechinah.”

More specifically, I learned from him that the Torah is a spiritual discipline. It is a practice that requires intensity and concentration no less than any other practice or meditation. I saw this in R. Dovid’s own life, and, like many other things I learned from him, it wasn’t only a verbal communication, but the result of real teacher-student apprenticeship. I saw how he put avodas Hashem over everything; his money, his time, his health. And yet, it wasn’t like there was a contest between these things, or any tension. Rather, these other things simply did not take up any authentic space in his life. I’ll mention something that Shaul Magid, who was a student of his before I came around, experienced (and wrote about in an article). He was traveling with Reb Dovid somewhere by plane. Dovid used to pray for a very long time. It turned out that because of Reb Dovid’s lengthy prayers, they missed the plane. However, Dovid didn’t flinch at all. He didn’t even show any regret. It was like nothing had happened. Because, after all, how could one compare catching a plane to praying to G-d. The latter expresses one’s commitment to ultimate reality, while the former is just a transient event. On another occasion, I once saw Reb Dovid put himself in a life-threatening situation, all in order not to transgress a Jewish custom – not even a halacha! This is how he approached every religious act – Torah study, charity, mitzvot. It’s the idea that serving G-d is more important than everything – than life itself. Obviously, this wasn’t always so easy for his family, but it was extremely inspiring for his students.

On another note, I also learned from him how to navigate in the haredi world. On the one hand, he taught us to deeply appreciate the haredi world for its strong points. We prayed each Shabbat at a Hungarian synagogue – Krasna hasidim – sort of an offshoot of Satmar. The congregation were simple, pious and deeply committed Jews. This appreciation of the average haredi individual, whether they are hasidim or litvaks, working people or learners, has stayed with me until today. There was never any criticism of “Oh, well, they are too religious, or not worldly enough, or too backward.” I think that this also connects to the earlier point – of putting G-d in the center. When serving G-d is at the center, then one doesn’t fault other individuals for not being worldly. Worldliness is one path to serving G-d, appropriate for some people, but simple faith is a path that everyone can travel, and should be appreciated.

At the same time, he taught me not to forget myself. Not to try to fit in or reduce my own past and values to some rather constricted haredi model, as I have seen many ba’alei teshuva try to do – at least at the beginning, until it usually backfires on them. (The truth is, I did this too, but much later, in a different context.) I recall R. Dovid telling me a statement that kept me in good stay for many years. When I first started going to yeshiva in Israel, he said: “Don’t ask from them more than they can give, and don’t give them more than they can handle.” In other words, appreciate what the haredi world has to offer in terms of commitment and piety, but don’t ask them to discuss Buddhist philosophy with you! And don’t offer them that either, since they do not necessarily have the tools or interest to deal with it. In other words, don’t lose yourself there, either. Be true to that other part of yourself, and keep it separate.

I think that above and beyond any of these things, the main thing I learned from him was not in the realm of content – one teaching or another – but of context. What it’s like being in a deep, loving relationship with a spiritual mentor – the idea that two souls can join in absolute commitment to the pursuit of something that transcends both of them. I know that in other religious traditions, Christian monasticism, for instance, total devotion to the spiritual mentor becomes an avenue to the total devotion to G-d, and I felt something like that here. I can imagine that people get scared when they hear the terms “total devotion” and “selfless service” of another individual. It sounds like a cult, and I’m sure that cult leaders can manipulate these feelings. But when it works, as I felt that it did for me, one’s life become framed within a context of humility, service, love, giving and selflessness.

I learned many things from R. Dovid. The path to G-d through silence, introspection, honesty, compassion, deep listening to oneself and others, selfless service, love, giving, patience. All of these things have made me who I am today.

4) Can you describe one of his classes?

  1. Dovid’s classes were brilliant. He was a masterful teacher. His oratory style was slow, clear, delivered in an Oxford English and with a rich vocabulary. At the same time, he told personal stories and humorous anecdotes. He was a keen perceiver of human foibles, and would often jokingly discuss traits and actions we all take that are less than enlightened – always including himself in the description. I recall that he would weave myriad points into his classes, discussing an issue philosophically, psychologically, historically, and ultimately, he would tie it all together by showing the Kabbalistic root of the issue, which brought the discussion to an entirely new depth and shed light on all the previous elements together.
  2. Dovid gave several weekly classes – as well as occasional lectures here and there in different forums. When I first started attending, he was giving one class a week at a synagogue on 21st Street in Manhattan. Soon afterward, he opened an outreach center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, called Sha’arei Orah – Gates of Light, where he taught several nights a week, and hosted all sorts of events. That lasted for about two years, until the center closed down. Afterward, he began teaching in the Village, downtown. His classes were attended by spiritual seekers of every religion, and not just Jews – people of all ages and denominations.

He had, however, a core group of close students, such as myself, who lived near him in Brooklyn. Several of us rented an apartment right next door to his, in Boro Park. These were young men and women who had committed themselves to Orthodox practice. At one point, he started giving us private classes on a deeper level than what he was teaching in public. Many of these classes, as best as I remember them, were deep analysis of fundamental issues in life and Judaism: What is the enlightened consciousness, what is the deepest purpose of the Torah, what is a human being? I remember coming out of these classes totally blown-away.

I don’t recall any specific path of study appointed by Reb Dovid. I learned a lot of hasidut, went to yeshiva half a day and studied Talmud. In addition, I worked my way through all the mainstream seforim – Chumash, Tanach, Midrashim, etc. Reb Dovid was always studying, which was a big inspiration to us. Reb Dovid studied a lot of Breslov hasidut. He wasn’t a Breslover, but was very close to R. Nachman (in personality too, it seems). If people needed to label him, he would say he was a Breslover, but it was only nominal.

5) What did you discuss with him?

One of the most powerful things that drew me to Reb Dovid, and which I remember vividly until today, was the fact that he was a genuine mystic – in the sense of someone who is having a direct, experience of G-d. It was simply awe inspiring to be around him, especially when he prayed. He would go into a sort of trance. His eyes would roll up into his head half-way and go completely blank, losing all light and life, as though his consciousness had retreated from the empirical world and was totally absorbed inwardly, in some immense and mysterious space. In Hasidic terms, he was in a state of total self-annulment. Then, when he would come out of prayer, there would be a sparkling light emanating from his eyes, as though he had just emerged like water from a crystal-clear spring. Furthermore, he was not only a master of entering deep states of self-annihilation, he was brilliant enough to understand and explain what such states of consciousness meant – for the individual, and for the cosmos, for G-d.

I have met and seen many holy people and tzaddikim since being a student of R. Dovid’s, and I have seen some examples of ecstatic prayer — I once saw the Amshinover Rebbe pray the Amidah, and his entire body shook like electricity was pulsing through it. However, I have never seen anyone who seems to go to that place where R. Dovid used to go to.  He used to tell us that when one learns how to enter these states of consciousness, it could be done as easily as flicking a switch. When I once asked him, “What are you doing when you go to that other place?” he replied, “I’m removing the distinction between me and G-d.”

In the four years I was with him, I accompanied him to several interfaith gatherings, where there were teachers from other religious traditions, as well as recognized and accomplished mystics (Christian contemplatives, Buddhist teachers). None of them seemed to come close to R. Dovid in the depth of his experience, not to mention his brilliance and piety, his eloquence and his poetry. More than once, I saw spiritual teachers from other traditions approaching him and asking to learn from him. Everyone understood that this was a human being whose consciousness was not rooted in this world, but rooted in G-d, was for me absolutely awe inspiring.

6) How long did you study with him?

Altogether, I studied with Dovid for about four years. When I was 27, I accompanied him to an interfaith conference in France, and from there, to Israel for the summer. The plan was for me to study in a yeshiva for a few months, and then return with him to New York, where we were going to open a Jewish retreat center in the Catskill Mountains. I was going to be the caretaker during the week, and Reb Dovid and his family would come up on weekends to hold meditative and silent retreats. However, it didn’t exactly work out that way. I became enchanted by Jerusalem and extended my stay through the holidays, and then extended it again, and then again. In the end, I remained in Jerusalem for two years straight, and during that time, Reb Dovid became sick and passed away. He was only forty-seven years old.

In retrospect, however, I think it had become time for me to move on. I had actually gained all that I could from Reb Dovid’s teachings, and needed to devote myself to full time yeshiva study. Unfortunately, I never learned those meditative techniques for achieving devekut that he wanted to teach me, but I manage to absorb his overall approach to Torah, which has been with me ever since.

I’ve also had the good fortune to be connected to other great chasidic teachers – R. Yaakov Meir Schechter of Breslov, R. Tzvi Meir Zilbergberg, R. Mordechai Zilber of Stutchin, R. Yochanan Shochet of Lutzk. However, as I mentioned above, I never met anyone like Reb Dovid, nor have I ever since had such an intense teacher-pupil relationship. I imagine that in many ways, I am carrying on his work, trying to bring the teachings of authentic Jewish mysticism out beyond the border of the Orthodox community. When I teach classes in Jewish mysticism to the young people at Hebrew U., I feel like I am speaking to myself forty years ago, and I recall the impression that Reb Dovid made on me back then. It’s very fulfilling.

7) Did you feel that you live up to his teachings?

There are two areas that I do not feel that I have lived up to Reb Dovid’s accomplishments. For instance, his absolute commitment to the smallest iota of halacha and ritual observance – to the point that he was ready to die for it. For the many years that I was single (I married at age 37), I was certainly strict in halacha. However, after marriage, I found it impractical, and did not want to burden my wife and family. I recall making a conscious decision not to be strict with them, which resulted in an overall lenient approach in my life.

The second area is in the contemplative dimension. I have never been able to go to that place of self-annihilation that I believe Reb Dovid went to. That was a unique, and perhaps unparalleled aspect of his soul. I do feel, at times, that I know which side of the room the “light switch” is on, and I have even dimmed the lights a couple of times, but I’ve never learned to flick the switch off completely, as he was able to.

I think of Reb Dovid often, and miss him each time I do. Everyone who ever met him was touched by his personality, and those of us who were fortunate enough to be his students were transformed forever. I am in loose touch with some of his old students, and we speak about his influence over our lives with a freshness that has not been dimmed by the thirty years since his passing. He was truly a unique individual.

 

 

Advertisements

Comments are closed.