SKSM Symposium

The Starr King School for the Ministry’s first ever Symposium,  “Living in the Differences: Counter-Oppressive, Multi-Religious The( )logies in the 21st Century” took place on August 21-23, 2012  Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi was the honored guest teacher and received an honorary doctorate from Starr King at the closing ceremonies.

The Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson, Minister – First Parish Church – Beverly, MA attended the Symposium.  Here is his reflection:

I had the opportunity to attend Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi’s series of lectures in Oakland, CA as part of Starr King School for the Ministry’s first annual Symposium. Reb Zalman gave three formal talks in three days, with a fourth address that evening as part of a worship service during which he received an honorary doctorate in sacred theology from Starr King School. (SKSM is one of only two explicitly Unitarian Universalist theological schools in the United States, and has been preparing students for the Unitarian Universalist ministry and progressive religious leadership within and beyond UUism for more than 100 years. The school is located in Berkeley, CA.)

The response to the event was tremendous, to a degree that I think constituted a very welcome surprise to the Starr King folks organizing it. This free event ‘sold out’ – registration had to be closed somewhere north of 500 people even after venues had been shifted to try to accommodate as many people as possible. The spirit in the room, throughout the proceedings, I would describe as electric. There were people in attendance throughout from Sufi and other Muslim, Renewal and other Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and other spiritually progressive communities from all over the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. We were a blessed mixture of practices, traditions and identities, praying and singing and chanting and sometimes dancing together with words in English, Hebrew and Arabic. You can view some photographs and hear some of the songs we sang in this video montage of the event put together by the school:

I personally found Reb Zalman’s words to be moving, challenging, and far ranging. He touched on ideas from theoretical physics, psychotherapy, 20th century pop music, his extensive personal experience and life story, tales from Christian and Muslim sources and, of course, a deep knowledge of Torah and Talmud, sometimes reciting verses from memory and translating them for us into English. I cannot crystallize Reb Zalman’s talks into a short description and do his wise presence any justice, but I will offer you a few gleanings from my notes:

The central question which Reb Zalman began from and returned to throughout the three days was, “What is the cosmology that our mother the Earth would want us to have so that she can heal?” From what I understood, the Rabbi’s answer to this would include: an orientation of cooperation rather than domination, the end to religious triumphalism (the idea that one faith is superior to all or any other faiths, and should eventually replace all of them), the idea that we are each a cell in the larger body of the world, and just as cells must work together for the good of the body, so to must we. As Reb Zalman observed, a cell that works only for itself is a cancer cell. Zalman also used a body metaphor in talking about humanity’s different religious traditions: for someone to say, “I am a Jew, or a Buddhist or a Christian, and that is the best thing to be and all other people should be the same as I am,” would be like the liver trying to take over the whole body and make the whole thing one big liver. Importantly, Reb Zalman underlined that the movement towards such an outlook, such a cosmology as this, cannot happen on the left side of the brain alone – it must include both hemispheres of the brain, both the center of reason and the center of intuition. These two sides must be brought into harmony.

One personal story he related struck my heart particularly deeply. He spoke the minyan that gathered for him after his father died (a version of this story is recounted in the book, the Jew and the Lotus). Most of the Jewish friends who came to pray with him were practicing Buddhists. There is a point in the liturgy that reads “for they bow down to emptiness and void, and we bow down to the King of Kings.” Triumphalism; us vs. them; look how great we is and how dumb they are. But in that moment, praying with that group of people, the meaning of the words seemed to transform. Nothingness is a central concept in Buddhism, and all these Buddhist Jews had come together to help their friend mourn the loss of his father. Now the words seemed to say, “they bow down to emptiness and void, and we bow down to the King of Kings” and both of those acts are pathways to holiness. Even if we do not have exactly the same thing in mind as we bow, we still may bow together.

Another central theme of Reb Zalmans set of addresses was the critical importance of the specific and the practical, rather than the abstract, in religion. He advocated the idea that prayer has to be experienced rather than taught by rote. His advice was to find someone with a meaningful, satisfying prayer practice and pray alongside them until you resonate with what they’re doing – not that you should spend the rest of your life mimicking the words and actions they do as they pray, but so that you can come to feel the feeling of it, and find your own practice from there. He also offered that prayer and meditative practice is most effective, in his estimation, when you have something particular to focus on: some image of G-d, or even of a saint or an ancestor; something with characteristics. To his understanding, when people try to wash away all the details and color from their images of the divine, they end up praying to what he called the “oblong blur”. Again in his estimation, this does not lead to a spiritually satisfying worship experience. We are sensory beings, and our understanding of the holy needs to come in through the senses, rather than remaining highly abstract and theoretical.

(This was perhaps the most challenging element of Reb Zalman’s remarks for me personally. Like many UUs I come from the wing of our movement that generally thinks of the divine as an abstract concept: Love, the Spirit of Life, etc. But after thinking about this for a while, my reading of his words – and I want to be clear that it’s my reading and not necessarily his intended meaning – is that the important thing is to have images (or sounds, etc) to hold onto in moments of prayer and reflection. Not that these not to conform to any particular preexistent image of G-d. So if I pray with my sincere hope for healing for a friend in the hospital, I could picture their face. If I pray out of my need for strength in the face of adversity, I might picture my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder.)

The entire conference was recorded (both audio and video) professionally. If you are interested in ordering some or all of the available recordings, you can find out how to do so here:

In Faith,
Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson