Two Faiths Nourish the ‘Wisdom of the Heart’
Rabbi Don Singer sips a bowl of tea in the library of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. His dear old dog snores blissfully by his side. Over the rabbi’s shoulder, an austere portrait of Maezumi Roshi, the Zen Center’s late Japanese founder, peers down as if to say affectionately, “What’ll I do with you?”
Singer, a Reform rabbi, is a leading interpreter in the intermingling of Jewish wisdom and Zen Buddhism. Based in Los Angeles, he is founder of the free-floating Shir Hadash congregation, the rabbi of the Zen Community of New York Interfaith Program and a frequent guest teacher at the Zen Center.
Though he hesitates to identify himself as part of a “movement,” Singer acknowledges the burgeoning interest in Jewish contemplative practice. A new generation of Jews is turning inward, seeking a spirituality that was not emphasized in the Reform and Conservative Judaism with which they grew up. On the West Coast, there are two new organizations--Chotmat Halev in Berkeley and Metivta in Los Angeles--dedicated to Jewish meditation.
For decades, Singer has been exploring what he calls “the authentic roots of Judaism,” and what he considers its most radical commandment: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were a stranger in Egypt, and you know the heart of the stranger.”
Recently, adherence to that precept has led Singer to an extraordinary interfaith retreat at the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In his “Tales of the Hasidim,” the philosopher Martin Buber wrote that “the core of Hasidic teachings is the concept of a life of fervor, of exalted joy.” This idea is one embraced by this silver-haired, forgivably absent-minded rabbi, who finds light even in the darkest of places.
Singer cheerfully recounts his formal introduction to Zen.
“Twenty-two years ago, I attended a spiritual retreat called ‘Judaism and the Religions of the East.’ The East walked in,” the rabbi chortles, “and he was from Brooklyn.”
The “man from Brooklyn” was a Zen priest named Bernie Glassman, now Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, abbot of both the Zen Center of Los Angeles and the Zen Community of New York. Glassman, in turn, was a student of Roshi, the Japanese Zen master who in 1967 founded the L.A. Zen Center, now located on South Normandie Avenue.
Glassman and Singer soon began a mutual teaching relationship, exchanging the Zen paradoxes called koans for Bible study and the cryptic tales of Jewish Hasidic masters.
“Studying with Bernie was an intimate sharing of the wisdom of the heart,” says the 62-year-old rabbi. In 1995, Rabbi Singer received Dharma transmission (acknowledgment from a teacher that knowledge has been realized) from Glassman.
Social involvement is a hallmark of Glassman’s Zen order, and Singer has participated wholeheartedly in various projects over the years. He has joined other Zen students for five-day “street retreats” in New York City, sleeping in subways and doorways.
“I was lucky to get a cardboard box last time,” he says without irony.
The head teacher of the Zen Center, Egyoku Nakao, joins Singer in the study. Both she and Singer have recently returned from the second annual “Bearing Witness Retreat” at Auschwitz, organized by Roshi Glassman.
“Bernie calls it a plunge,” explains Nakao, “plunging into a totally different environment. Out of that comes whatever the teachings are that a person receives.”
Singer and Nakao joined 132 other participants from the United States, Israel, Poland and western Europe: children of concentration camp survivors, children of the Wehrmacht and the SS, Catholic priests and nuns, rabbis, Muslim imams.
“We came together to bear witness not just to the evil that occurred, but to bear witness to all these peoples coming together,” Nakao says.
For five days they engaged in formal rituals of atonement and meditation. They conducted religious services on the train tracks that lead into the death camp. They recited the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in five languages. They recited the names of those who went up in smoke.
“ ‘How can you pray in Auschwitz?’ a friend in Los Angeles asked me,” Singer says. “Now I know but before the retreat I could not know.”
Nakao seconds his observation. “One of the basic teachings of this Bearing Witness Retreat is ‘unknowing,’ simply not knowing. The healing comes from knowing that you don’t have to turn away from evil, the darkness.”
“To be intimate with the place,” Singer continues, “a few of us went to the place where the Nazis first did their experiments with gas--they buried ashes there, surrounded by woods. We got there probably around 2 a.m., and a man in our group blew the ancient Hebrew shofar and the sky kind of rang, the birds started to answer. He sounded the shofar again and again. The birds became quiet. And in the distance, there was the constant chugging of a train.”
Singer first visited a death camp at the age of 14, when his father, Los Angeles painter William Earl Singer, took his only son to visit Dachau, and from there to Israel.
“It was the source of what I was as a rabbi, though I didn’t speak much about it,” says Singer.
Many years later, when he entered Poland for the first time, Singer realized the depth of the antipathy toward Polish people many Jews carried with them.
“When I went to Poland for the first time, and met some Polish people, I realized that they had a bum rap. I felt somehow we knew them, we understood them.”
He felt a sense of responsibility to facilitate an emotional exchange between Jews and Poles. “I felt we should get closer to them, and it was mutual, you see. And that was the great joy of this trip.”
“The spirit of the retreat is really to see others as yourself,” Nakao says. “And once that happens, you can’t help but feel responsible. You see that any separation between people can have very dire consequences. The fact is, any person, anyone who was different, who was ‘other,’ who did not fit the idea of what the Nazis believed should exist, was murdered.
“It’s frightening to see what that separating out leads to. In Zen we say ‘a hair’s breadth of separation, and Heaven and Earth are split apart.’ ”
Singer interjects with a line from the Talmud: “Three fingers separate us from Heaven.” He demonstrates, placing three fingers over his eyes.
Yet for all the grimness with which they have recently been in contact, on this clear December morning the rabbi and the Zen teacher both radiate an aura of calm and joy. Their dialogue is frequently punctuated with laughter. Nakao offers Singer a memento of their time at Auschwitz: on rice paper she has drawn in ancient script form the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and pasted around it oak leaves taken from trees growing on the grounds of the concentration camp. Singer is visibly moved. This is a new translation of the kaddish, by Los Angeles poet Peter Levitt together with Rabbi Singer, and among its stanzas is this haunting one:
Though we bless, and praise, and beautify and offer up your name
Name That is Holy, Blessed One
Still you remain beyond the reach of our praise, our song,
Beyond the reach of all consolation. Beyond! Beyond!
And say, Yes. Amen.
Last spring, Nakao invited Singer to celebrate Shabbat on Friday nights at the Zen Center. (There is also an annual spring Christian/Buddhist retreat at the Zen Center led by Father Robert Jinsen Kennedy.)
In October, Nakao invited Singer and his Shir Hadash congregation to hold Jewish high holiday services in the Zen Center’s garden and meditation hall. Singer encouraged the 100 or so congregants to experience Zen sitting practice, as a way to “experience silence and know themselves.” Salsa music and party sounds from nearby apartments mixed with the piercing call of the shofar.
Singer and Nakao are among those who feel that these two disciplines--Buddhism and Judaism--can nourish each other when practiced side by side.
Not all members of the Zen Center, however, were initially pleased that their teacher had invited a rabbi to lead services there.
“I had two members leave. They told me there were too many priests and rabbis around here,” Nakao laughs. “We talk so much about the ‘oneness,’ but the fact is, we need to learn how to deal with our differences. . . . In a country like ours, where people come from such mixed backgrounds, we don’t think we can be so big as to contain it all. But we can.”
And it’s not just in L.A. that the Jewish-Buddhist dialogue is occurring. In San Francisco, Rabbi Alan Lew of Congregation Beth Shalom leads Jewish-Buddhist retreats with his friend Norman Fischer, the Jewish abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Lew has written: “Many Jews are attracted to the intellectual rigor of Buddhism. Buddhism makes almost perfect sense. The problem is that life doesn’t make nearly as much sense as Buddhism does and our Buddhist friends feel very nourished by the irrational joy of Jewish prayer, and even by the warmth of our considerable Jewish angst.”
Singer explains a fundamental connection between the two traditions: “Zen sitting practice helps you to know yourself. As Bernie says, you ‘just sit.’ To ‘know the heart of the stranger,’ the core Jewish commandment, means not to make a stranger of yourself, to become intimate with your own heart.”
Toward that end, Singer is now planning a meditation retreat in Israel next spring.
Singer dreams of Israelis and Palestinians sitting side by side, learning to understand “the heart of the stranger.”
“The best Hebrew translation of the Zen concept of ‘enlightenment,’ says the gentle rabbi, “is ‘shalom.’ ”