When Philadelphia P'nai Or's Shabbat-morning Torah-study group gathered to learn Torah on Shabbat Naso (June 2006), something unexpected happened:
As we studied the teachings in Numbers 6 and in the Haftarah about the consecrated role of Nazirite, we found ourselves addressing what happens when a spiritual teacher turns to sexually abusing students and staff subordinates.
The learning was at two levels – in process and in content.
When I lead Torah-study, my usual mode is inter-experiential, in which I "weave" more than I "teach," and wisdom arises from the kahal (grass-roots community) rather than through my imposing my interpretation.
Obviously, this is oceans away from a teacher's literally jumping up and down to drive the kahal "higher," and then using the aura of his "hyper-highness" to – you might say – "jump the bones" of students.
I usually start by selecting a passage (say from the weekly portion) and inviting a group to begin wrestling with it. Almost always, threads of new insight, power, and beauty emerge from the discussion.
I occasionally intervene to weave these threads together, to add a thread from some other text that connects with this one, etc. The result is a collective d’var Torah. By this weaving I have brought something special, but the spiritual energy is in the hands of the kahal, and stays there.
In this interwoven mode, the discussion almost always feels valuable. Sometimes – like yesterday -- it breaks through into what is clearly Mochin d’gadlut, expanded consciousness on the part of the kahal as a whole.
Yesterday I chose from Parashat Naso for the Torah-study group — nine people -- to read both the passage on the special consecration of the Nazir, and the haftarah on the birth of Samson, who was designated by a God-messenger as Nazir from before his birth.
The discussion of what was holy and what was dangerous about the Nazir role took off. The chevra were wrestling with their own experiences of separation from the community to become spiritually “special,” with the impacts on themselves and their family and friends, and with the dangers that are described in the story of Samson (Shimshon, the “blazing sun-like one”).
His Super-hero strength and charisma give him the power to act on sexual hunger and transgression that ruins the very consecration that empowers him. Ultimately, his powers lead to massive death and disaster when he brings down the Philistine temple on his own head and the heads of thousands of Philistines. (The Tanakh seems to treat this as a victory over our enemies the Philistines, but one of the chevra yesterday murmured, “He turns into a suicide bomber.”)
With the Torah and Haftarah texts both before us in direct encounter, an approach we rarely use in either mainstream or “renewing” Judaism, we realized:
According to the Torah’s rules, anyone can choose to become a Nazir for a limited time, abide by its rules, and then give up the status. Samson does not choose, he is made a Nazir for life, and he breaks many rules of community. We asked: What is the Torah teaching us by affirming the Nazir consecration on the one hand and juxtaposing it to Samson?
Samson twists the holy specialness of the Nazir into destruction -- in a way loosely analogous to the experience of a charismatic Torah-teacher who becomes a sexual abuser and ultimately damages those around him and destroys his own consecration. So here is where our explorations became especially connected in content to our recent on-line conversations.
Trying to understand the role of the self, its value, and its danger in these stories, we talked about three versions of “I”: “ani,” the plain everyday unconscious “I”; “ego,” (Latin) the self-obsessed “I”; and “anokhi,” the “I” of expanded consciousness that called the universe together when “Anokhi” spoke at Sinai. Through this Anokhi, every “I” can become not domineering but an awesome holographic fractal fragment of the awesome Whole.
Harmonizing with the Whole, not domineering over it like Samson.
So today, do we throw out not just the Nazir label but the role itself -- in which people can choose to become spiritual adepts -- because that role is risky? Do we try to keep it but set the kinds of strict rules and boundaries that Naso describes? Do we just let go and take our chances on destruction? Do we learn to let our “I” become a Nazir in the sense of becoming a fractal fragment of the universal Anokhi?
If we choose the Anokhi approach, is Ahavah Rabbah ("expansive love”) a crucial part of this? Is there a sacred, boundaried role for sexual energy, for eros, in embodying Ahavah Rabbah? If so, how do we use sacred boundaries to channel that energy into sacred pathways?
(That is what Reb Shefa Gold, for example, is doing as she works with such exquisite care with Shir haShirim, the Song of Songs. For some thoughts of mine on Sex & Spirit, see -- http://www.theshalomcenter.org/node/1118 )
Back to the process of this kind of Torah-study in which charisma, if there is any, sparkles and shimmers in the kahal as a whole, not in the teacher. This process does not collect devotees. It does not, for instance, bring dozens of students flocking to my courses. Just as Reb Miles Krassen expresses with such pain and such openheartedness --
“By ‘real ecstasy,’ I mean transpersonal modes of consciousness that take one out of identification with the conventional personal self and into the higher self (nefesh elohit).
“Yes, this can be taught and was the very basis of early Hasidic teaching, at least insofar as the ‘initiates’ were concerned. Unfortunately although I have been trying to teach this at Elat Chayyim and at Kallot for the last 15 years (and have been studying it for twice as long), not many people seem to be aware of it or to have gotten much out of what I have offered. And, on this I have to do teshuvah.”
I’m not at all sure that Reb Miles should do teshuvah for the fact that “not many” people seem to absorb his deep, thoughtful, uncharismatic teaching. Maybe the rest of us need to be assessing whether we should do teshuvah for not responding more often to that kind of teaching.
And meanwhile, those who do come to learn in this way may learn a deeper wisdom, and in the longer run may give more life to Judaism.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow