From my perch in Kathmandu, I see a lot of wandering Jews. Most, especially the younger ones, are Israelis. Older wanderers are a fascinating group as well: They include Jews enraptured by Tibetan Buddhism as well as individuals who have come here to work for human rights or social justice organizations or the United Nations. There are also, of course, the refugees from the hippie sixties who landed here at one point — when Katmandu was the last stop on “the Magic Bus” that made its way from London, via Iran, Afghanistan, and India, to Nepal in a cloud of smoke — and never left. Many are wayfarers and seekers of enlightenment; some are contemporary versions of the itinerant beggars whom Isaac Bashevis Singer and other Yiddish writers describe wandering through Eastern Europe from shtetl to shtetl. One Jew whom almost everyone meets if they spend time in Kathmandu or the Indian Himalayan towns of Dharamsala or Rishikesh is Amram, the son of Holocaust survivors, who has been seeking a cure for a chronic, progressive disease in every non-Western form of medicine, from Aryuvedic herbs through shamanic psychic surgery.
A substantial number of young Israelis come as seekers, too. Although my evidence is anecdotal, the number of Israelis attending ten-day silent meditation retreats (Vippassana) and workshops on Tibetan Buddhism is disproportionately higher than that of seekers who are Jewish Nobel Prize winners or hedge-fund managers. Jewish restlessness and spiritual searching has been well documented since we emerged from the ghetto after the European Enlightenment, and even more so since World War II.
What is the source of Jewish seeking and restlessness? Is it, as some have asserted, a symptom of the breakdown of an organic Jewish community and culture that for so long held its members close? Or have challenges to a religious belief and practice — the temptations of modern life, the welcoming doors of host societies, or the availability of scientific and historical knowledge — contributed to the breakdown? Is the Jewish heart, attempting to overcome loss, pursuant of meaning and belonging as a heat-seeking missile is to its target — forever looking for a home for its owner’s uprooted mind and soul?
I identify with the notion of reshimu (impression), that trace imprint implanted somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness of a once thick Jewish matrix of spiritual, intellectual, and communal meaning, but experienced now mainly as a sense of loss. But I would also like to suggest another, more historiosophical interpretation of contemporary Jewish wandering.
Rabbi Zadok HaKohen, an influential and prolific Hasidic thinker and rebbe (1823-1900) taught that the souls of each generation of Jews comprise the oral Torah of that time period. I understand this to mean that the predilections, longings, and aspirations of each generation of Jews are a true and valid lens through which the Torah manifests — and that this soul-lens, in some way, expresses — an evolutonary path. What are the contours of this path? One hint may be found in the the Tikune Zohar, a 13th-century seminal and subversive collection of 70 kabbalistic meditations on the first two words of Torah, “Breishit bara.” We learn, for example, that the Torah, as it has been traditionally passed on, has been shaped and influenced by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; thus, it is concerned with holiness as separation. We learn to divide and separate kosher from un-kosher, permissible from forbidden, pure from impure. But in the future, as we lean toward messianic redemption, the Torah, influenced by the Tree of Life will be revealed, and instead of separations, holiness and serving God, will involve unifications — bringing together the heavens and the earth, the inner and the outer, the immanent and the transcendent.
The Baal Shem Tov, the father of the Hasidic movement, finds a proof-text for this kind of work in the passage from Proverbs 3:6: “In all His ways, know him!” and he takes the concept of “ways” in a literal sense as well. Sometimes, we must set out on a road trip, the Baal Shem Tov says, and, sometimes, we must experience new and divergent aspects of reality in order to create unifications.
Perhaps the Jewish restlessness of the past 200 years, and the Israeli restlessness that is part of it, can be seen in terms of HaKohen’s teaching, as “the oral Torah of the generation.” It just may be a prelude or a foreshadowing of the messianic transformation that Judaism is undergoing, from separations to unifications. And the wanderers, the herbalists, the shamanists, the JewBu’s, and even the revolutionaries, along with the young people who come to work in the rural villages perched on the sides of the hills that loop toward the high Himalayas, are the vanguard and pioneers able to draw out from unsettlement a longing to integrate the human experience and raise it toward the transcendent One.email print