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The following is one of my favorite stories about spiritual growth. R. Zalman Schachter Shalomi shares one of his early religious experiences that began his rethinking in relationship to his spirituality. This story is found in multiple volumes of his writing and was republished online here.
In 1955, after years of intensive seminary study and service in various Orthodox Jewish congregations in New England, I began to feel the need for a broader education and a wider range of experience. Up to this point, my entire religious education had taken place within the Jewish world, and it was beginning to feel somewhat narrow. I also had a sense that I could be doing more with my life, and so, with the permission of my rebbe, I enrolled in Boston University to study pastoral psychology and the psychology of religion. But of greater importance for my later life was my meeting with the Rev. Howard Thurman, who was then Dean of Marsh Chapel at the University.
At the time, I was living in New Bedford, Mass., which was then a two-hour drive from Boston. And since it was winter, I had to be on my way under a dark sky, too early to say the morning prayers. So I would leave at 5 o’clock in the morning in order to arrive there at 7, leaving me an hour to pray and have a bit of breakfast before my first class at 8.
Once I was there, the problem was to find a suitable place for a Jew to pray. The Hillel student organization building was still closed at that hour; the only building open that early was the chapel, but this presented a dilemma. The main chapel upstairs was full of statues of Jesus and the Evangelists. As an Orthodox Jew, I simply wasn’t comfortable praying there. Downstairs was a smaller, more intimate chapel for meditation, but there I was likewise inhibited by a big brass cross on the altar. Having no other option, I chose a public room called the Daniel Marsh Memorabilia Room in the same building. There I found myself a corner facing east, toward Jerusalem, and began to pray.
One morning, after I had been doing this for a while, and just after completing my prayers, a middle-aged black man came into the room and said in a casual way: “I’ve seen you here several times. Wouldn’t you like to say your prayers in the small chapel?”
I shrugged my shoulders, not knowing what to say. The man was so unpretentious that I thought he might have been the janitor. And his offer was so forthcoming that I did not want to hurt his feelings, but how could I explain that I couldn’t pray in the chapel because of the cross on the altar?
After a moment of looking at me earnestly, he said: “Why don’t you stop by the chapel tomorrow morning and take a look? Maybe you’d be comfortable saying your prayers there.”
The next morning I was curious and went to look into the little chapel. There I found two candles burning in brass candleholders, and no sign of the big brass cross! The large, ornate Bible was open to the Book of Psalms, Psalm 139: “Whither shall I flee from Thy presence.” From then on, I understood that I was at liberty to move the cross and say my morning prayers in the chapel. Afterward, I would always put the cross back and turn the pages to Psalm 100, the “thank you” psalm.
Trusting the Holy Spirit
Sometime after this, I read an announcement about a new course in Spiritual Disciplines and Resources, which would include “labs” for spiritual exercises to be taught by the Dean of the Chapel. The course intrigued me, but I was apprehensive about taking it. The Dean of the Chapel was also a minister, and I worried that he might feel obliged to try and convert me. So, after giving it some thought, I made an appointment to speak with him about my concerns.
When I walked into the office, the friendly black man from the chapel was sitting behind the desk, none other than Dean Thurman himself. He smiled and offered me a chair and mug of coffee. I felt a little ashamed of my initial assumption; I should have understood from our first encounter that this was a man to be trusted, but still I was hesitant.
“Dean Thurman,” I said, “I would like to take your course, but I don’t know if my ‘anchor chains’ are long enough.”
He put his coffee mug down on his desk and began to examine his hands. Slowly, he turned them over and over. I noticed that the backsides were very dark, while his palms were very light. He looked at them slowly as if considering the light and dark sides of an argument. This lasted only a few minutes, I’m certain, but it felt like hours to me. He did this with such a calm certainty that he seemed to possess great power. Moreover, he had this prominent bump on his forehead (above and between his eyes) and I could swear that it was about to open and reveal the “third eye.” Finally, he spoke: “Don’t you trust the ru’ah hakodesh?”
I was stunned. He had used the Hebrew for the Holy Spirit, something I had not expected from a Gentile. And in so doing, he brought that question home to me in a powerful way. I began to tremble and rushed out of his office without answering him.
For the next three weeks, I was tormented by that question: Did I indeed trust the ru’ah hakodesh, trust it enough to have faith in my identity as a Jew? Or was I holding back, fearful of testing my belief in an encounter with another religion, unnerved by the prospect of trusting my soul to a non-Jew? If I was fearful, did it mean that I didn’t truly believe? Finally, I realized that his question could have only one answer. “Don’t you trust the ru’ah hakodesh?” Dean Thurman had asked. I had to answer, “Yes, I do,” and so I signed up for his course.
It was marvelous and tremendously impactful, especially his use of “labs.” In the labs, we experimented with various spiritual exercises, which frequently took the form of guided meditations. In one exercise, we were instructed to translate an experience from one sense to another. We would read a psalm several times, then listen to a piece by Bach to “hear the meaning of the psalm in the sounds of the music.” Another exercise was to “see music as an abstract design moving through space.” In these ways, our senses were released from their usual, narrow constraints and freed to tune into the Cosmos, to touch God.
People seldom have those primary experiences in religion referred to by William James, Aldous Huxley and others. But without this firsthand knowledge, the study of religion is impoverished. Such primary experiences allow the student to understand what is being taught. The use of experiential labs is now part of my own method; in fact, I have found that they turn out to be extremely important in the spiritual growth of many individuals.
In my exchanges with Dean Thurman and the other members of the class, I learned an important lesson that is still at the center of my thinking: Judaism and all the other western religions are suffering from having become over-verbalized and under-experienced. Someone else’s description of ecstasy or spiritual at-one-ness, given second- or third-hand, is simply not enough; we need — and want to have — these experiences for ourselves. And I want to make it possible for other people to have them. That is part of what a living, breathing religion is about, and that I learned from Dean Thurman.
This column is an excerpt from ‘My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.’