Sheila Peltz Weinberg

Sheila Peltz

American Congregational Rabbi, Peace and Justice Advocate, Co-Founder of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in NYC, Spiritual Director to Rabbis, Cantors and Educators, Hillel Director

Author Quotes

There is a way to appreciate covenant and to apply the exigencies of this moment in history if one doesn?t believe in a supernatural God. Covenant is relationship. It is a recognition and acceptance of our mutuality and our interdependence. Entering into a covenant means we enter a relationship with another and from then on we realize that what we do has an impact on that other. We are not isolated individuals. We are agents of causes that can have wholesome or unwholesome consequences. Covenant lifts up the nature of our relationships. It calls us toward the intention of purifying the nature of our thoughts, words, and actions so that we might create less harm and more wellbeing in the world. Though our consumer culture often works against developing such relationships, they are central to Jewish values and law.

Another core Jewish principle is the principle of freedom. We celebrate it in Passover, getting out of Egypt. We ask ourselves: ?How do we become free moment to moment in order to be a model to others?? Mitzrayim means ?narrow,? referring to Egypt, to coming out of the narrow place of slavery, into freedom.

We need to deepen our capacity for equanimity, compassion, wisdom, faith and connection to one another amid change. What brings value? What is value? What is of value in our world today? These crises invite us to explore habits of consumption and to investigate what it means to be satisfied and happy. Satisfaction doesn?t come from compulsive consumption and manipulation. Current crises offer a spiritual opportunity to learn this. Unfortunately there are many who will suffer. Many of those will be the poor, the children and the unprotected. We need to call upon wisdom and clarity to help the weakest among us. Here we are going right back to the Biblical teaching.

Another fundamental Jewish idea is of turning or returning, called Teshuvah. The high holy days, this time of the year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, have that theme. We come back to our attention, our own sense of being worthy or being beloved or in God?s presence. Coming back to attention is meditation practice. It describes how the mind moves away from attention and needs to be brought back. It is natural to turn away. How can we cultivate the willingness, the desire to turn us back to attention?

We recognize that we are in a covenant. We are in a committed relationship with life itself. We are devoted to expanding this relationship. We see the consequences of greed and hatred. We are committed on the inside and the outside, on the psycho-spiritual level and the social-structural level to reduce suffering. That is our covenant.

As we train in chesed within the context of community, we necessarily give up habits of selfishness, blame, and shame. We cultivate chesed toward community members, our family, friends, and ourselves. But this is not enough. We need to heed the urgency that bubbles up within and resounds in the tradition to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have to move outside what we know is our comfort zone. Chesed requires activism to create more just social structures. It requires tzedakah (charity) and sharing of resources. Love requires contemplating what we?ll leave as our legacy to the next generation.

What happens when this is difficult, when loving oneself eludes our ability, when we want to connect to ?God,? but for one of a million human reasons we cannot? Here is my best answer: We try to bring compassion, presence, and patience to our sense of loss, to the disconnection, to the absence of love. We become present for each other in this way. We support those who need our courage or clarity when we can, knowing that a time may come when we will need that steadfast love and quiet attention.

I understand ?covenant? as traditional Jewish language for interdependence, responsibility, and the fact that our actions have consequences. ?Covenant? is a way of saying that our lives have meaning as we develop our capacity to care for one another and for the earth. A renewed sense of covenant may be an exit strategy from an over-individualistic and materialist culture. It may also be an antidote to despair and apathy.

If people who want to make change lack awareness, they can cause side effects that aren?t desirable. Developing our own inner wisdom increases our capacity to see cause and effect, have patience, have more harmony and wisdom in human relationships, and be open to new ways of doing things. There is an Einstein quote about not being able to solve a problem with the mindset that created it.

In biblical times, Jews achieved purpose by joining together to actualize certain principles and ideals. They believed that those ideals and words came from the mouth or will of a divine being. But if we do not imagine such a divine being, what motivates our joining together? What inspires our commitment to one another?s care and the care of the earth we hold in common? What allows for the renunciation of personal comfort and private gratification that this necessarily entails? What is as powerful a motivation as the will of God?

In order to act with clarity and wisdom and caring, we need to train our hearts. This is the point of the spiritual life. This is the point of the many forms of spiritual practice arrayed before us as Jews.

It goes back to Genesis: God created one human being, who was male and female. That means ultimately all of us are interconnected. That there is one God means we are all connected. Individual well-being depends on the greater well-being of everyone. There is no separation. This is a call for inclusion. Jews see it as including the weaker, the marginal, the orphans, the stranger. We were slaves in Egypt. Our task is not to replicate Egyptian power. We are free so we can operate differently, and not replicate slavery. Judaism is a complex, ongoing civilization, in which there is more than one view. Judaism is a religion of interpretation. We believe interpretation is part of the unfolding of creation and Divine creativity. Our interpretive tradition draws a connection between spirituality and social justice.

Judaism is mindful; mindfulness is also Jewish. That?s how I think of it and that?s the way we teach it.

On a more global scale, contemporary physics, ecology, climate change, and advancing globalism support a notion of how we are deeply interconnected. Indeed, covenant, relationship, and consequence are the truth of our lives. The idea of a separate, autonomous self is more and more revealed as a delusion.

Shabbat, or Sabbath, is a kind of retreat. During a Sabbath you do not engage with your environment in order to change it. Shabbat means literally to sit or to cease. When you sit or cease, you become present to the created world. We are so busy creating more, trying to survive and reach goals during the week.

So those are some examples of what you might call ?Jewish mindfulness.? Judaism is mindful; mindfulness is also Jewish. That?s how I think of it and that?s the way we teach it.

Spiritual practice, be it meditation, prayer, Torah study, or other traditional mitzvot, is meant to align us with something greater than the fears and traumas that make us reactive and defensive. We engage in these practices in communities, such as minyanim, meditation groups, chevrutot, or study partnerships. The relationships we develop through these practices are based on a desire for connection, spiritual growth, and our ability to deeply listen to one another.

Still, how do we move from theory to practice? What will drive the effort? We may have hints in the word ?chesed,? which has the connotation of covenantal love, the loving kindness that comes in a mutual, committed relationship. In biblical terms, this may be the divine protection and care humans receive or the caring we offer to those who are needy and troubled. In any case, covenant needs to be rooted in love. In spiritual practice, we bring honesty and compassion to the rising and passing of all sensations, thoughts, and feelings. We learn how to see through the deluded ideas and mind states that block our capacity to feel connected and to attend to the other and to ourselves. We grow in humility, generosity, and gratitude. We expand our ability to love another by loving ourselves.

That?s the way it is when it snows and then rains on top of the snow and the rain freezes. And then the snow melts underneath and you go crunch when you walk as the thin layer of ice cracks underneath. And that?s the way it is when the skinny branches of the saplings that were just planted last week turn into crystal sticks. And that?s the way it is when the hardiest of the oak tree?s leaves, brown and tough, still hang on, not ready to yield like the old ladies and an occasional man, who sit waiting, with my mother, brown and tough, in the parlor, where she lives. And that?s the way it is when I fill up with sadness, fear, hurt, sick of being human and then the river overflows and it is quiet again.

Dear God,
Open the blocked passageways to you,
The congealed places.

Roll away the heavy stone from the well as your servant Jacob
did when he beheld his beloved Rachel

Help us open the doors of trust that have been jammed with hurt and rejection.

As you open the blossoms in spring,
Even as you open the heavens in storm.
open us – to feel your great, awesome, wonderful presence.

The kinds of spiritual practices we can undertake are limitless. However, ultimately the form is less important than these factors: the commitment to practice, the ability to keep returning to the intention, the attitude one brings to the uncontrollable and the ability to transfer the benefits of the practice into how we live our lives, how we relate to ourselves and others, how free we become to embody the values and ideals we embrace in our minds, how we deal with temptations of all sorts. In other words we practice to live with the wisdom and compassion, which we already possess. We practice to actualize the pure soul, which God has planted with us.

Saying that spiritual practices train our minds, shape our consciousness and mold our character can sum this up. We undertake spiritual practice in order to change in some way, even if it is only a change of perspective. In more traditional language we undertake spiritual practices because they bring us closer to God’s will.
How does this work?

Spiritual practices including meditation (whether the object of attention is set at the breath, bodily sensations, a visualization, a mantra, a prayer or at floating open attention), and mitzvoth like Shabbat, Kashrut, and Torah study, and conscious non-harming speech share a similar technology.

One commits to a particular action as the focus of one’s energy, attention, time, and behavior. One articulates this intention. Then one waits. Soon, the obstacles appear. In a sitting meditation practice we may intend to follow each in breath and each out breath. No sooner do we begin then thoughts rush in or we find ourselves nodding sleepily or in a state of anxiety regarding the pain in our knee or lower back. Or we have decided to observe the Sabbath and an invitation comes our way that is irresistible. Or we promise ourselves to observe kashruth and a strong desire arises to taste the forbidden. Often rationalizing thoughts obscuring the clarity of the original intention surround these temptations.

The training occurs in the next step, the step of renunciation or returning. We see the temptation. We acknowledge it in a non-judgmental and non-personal way realizing that we are seeing forgetfulness in the human mind. As we bring attention to the temptation we see that it has no substance. Each time we do this, the ability to choose is strengthened. Each time we return from distraction or obstacle, the power of habit and unconsciousness is weakened. In this process we begin to see the nature of our minds and the nature of reality itself. We increase our ability to pay attention. And what do we begin to notice? We observe the arising and passing away of thoughts, sensations, sounds, desires, feelings, and moods just as daylight passes and evening comes. We see the consequences of various forms of contraction in the mind or body like fear, desire, suppression, judgment, anger, and aggression. We see the consequences of various forms of expansion like, trust, ease, relaxation, acceptance, generosity and gratitude.

Questions abound in our teaching and learning. Questions abound in our effort to establish and clarify a vocabulary that we can use to communicate with each other and to commune with the resources of the past. What is meditation? What is mindfulness? What is spiritual practice? What is prayer? What are mitzvoth? What is authentically Jewish and what is not? And, of course, what is the relationship between any of these things and the others.

There are two fundamental ways to approach these questions. The first is “What do we do?” and the second is “Why do we do it?” I find the “what” question a question that opens into multiplicity and the “why” question one that leads to unity. In other words, there are multiple forms of meditation, prayer and spiritual practice but ultimately they tend toward the same or similar aims. We may use different language to describe these aims, but I would suggest that they are different ways to speak about the same thing.

What are we speaking about? What do we hope will be accomplished by spiritual practice? Here is a list of aims or intentions that may be all pointing at the same center.

Establishing and expanding our relationship with God.
Expanding our awareness, becoming more awake in our lives.
Expanding into a higher consciousness, perspective, understanding.
Living with Divine qualities of openheartedness, compassion, patience, tolerance, loving kindness, generosity, humility, trust, reverence, gratitude, etc. (middot).
Expanding our ability to receive and give love from Divine and human sources – Ahavah Rabah through V’ahavta.
Experiencing and acting from integration, unity, wholeness- of body, mind, emotions, spirit, of inner and outer, of different dimensions of existence, of the seeker and the sought.
Understanding the relationship between acting wholesomely and a sense of being part of the Whole.
Living with more ability to make choices that conform with our intentions.
Being more responsive in relation to oneself and others, rather than acting out of habit and reactivity
Being more peaceful not because one is withdrawn or indifferent but because one has an understanding of what contributes to aggression and violence and what alleviates it.
Having a perspective that is more able to include the different dimensions of existence including the unpleasant, the different, the weak, the uncertain, the fleeting.
Understanding the relationship between suffering and the self that is craving a thing, an experience or a state of being.
The ability to live with joy and praise.
The transformation from being a slave of Pharaoh, controlled by unconscious inner and outer forces and a servant of God, one who is able to be in relationship with the Eternal unfolding of existence from moment to moment.
Being less self centered and more other centered, not in order to manipulate others but out of a true identification and sense of commonality.
All of the above is to the end of being part of a holy community and a redeemed world.

Reflection on what we seek to remember in practice, developing the capacity to see which stories serve to develop wholesome qualities and reduce suffering. The center of the talk is a tour through the Jewish year, interpreting each holiday as a form of retreat practice and the opportunity to awaken and develop heart qualities.

I resonate so much with the Garrison Institute approach. Your board member Rabbi Rachel Cowan and I also work with Jewish social justice activists, collaborating with Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSF). JFSF is active in several areas, community organizing especially. Many activists have wonderful intentions and are so passionate. They often tend not to take good care of themselves. Anger can be self-consuming. We believe that helping them take better care of themselves, to work with their own passion and anger and to have greater self-awareness will contribute to their good work. By giving them skills and helping them deepen awareness, we are inviting them to cultivate spiritual practice, even if they are not “religious” people.

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Sheila Peltz
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American Congregational Rabbi, Peace and Justice Advocate, Co-Founder of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in NYC, Spiritual Director to Rabbis, Cantors and Educators, Hillel Director