Dreams: Judaism’s Forgotten Spiritual Practice

Dream work was an established Jewish practice before the modern era. It is now being revived as a means to receive messages from the Divine.

When asked what my main spiritual practice is today, my answer is dream work, the practice of recording one’s dreams and trying to discern their messages. This practice was not part of my life when my spiritual focus was solely Jewish, despite the fact that dreams have been considered a “Divine portal” (my translation of Sha’ar Hashamayim, the way that Jacob describes the place where he dreamed of angels walking up and down a ladder spanning from heaven to earth [Genesis 28:17]) since the earliest recorded Jewish narratives.

When I studied for private Orthodox rabbinic ordination back in my Orthodox feminist days, my studies concentrated on Talmud and halakhah (religious Jewish law). How to live a Jewish life was what was considered most essential for a rabbi-in-training to learn, and this was broken up into two categories: Ethics, which is among humans, and is called bein adam lekhaveiro; and Ritual, which is between humans and The Place (God), and is called bein adam laMakom.

One might have thought that the latter category would include spirituality, creating a relationship with God, but we were told not to seek the reasons for or meaning of rituals, lest we feel that the meaning does not apply to us and therefore not feel obliged to perform the rituals or follow the religious law (halakhah). Judaism in the misnagdish (rationalist) world in which I was raised was about buying into the entire system and obeying all of its rules.

Surrender is, of course, a spiritual practice. But it was so intertwined for me in a human-made (even if Divinely inspired) system of intricate laws and practices that I found it hard to experience it as surrendering to a higher power. I needed a more immediate relationship with the Divine. I needed to experience surrender with my whole raw self and through meaningful ritual that touched me at the very core of my being. I needed a relationship with the Divine that both helped me be at peace with my humanity—my mortality and my longing for Divine connection—and connect with the Divine inside and outside of me even while in my physical body. And I needed spiritual practices that spoke to and acknowledged my unique soul.

If spirituality was addressed at all in that period of my life, it was mostly in the context of prayer. But prayer was set (keva), and while the words did at times touch me deeply, at other times they were offensive to my worldview. Patriarchy. Chosenness. Animal slaughter. These are but some of the themes that often got in the way of my attempts at connection to the Divine through the traditional liturgy. Chanting selected phrases did connect me to The All through prayer. But still, I longed for spiritual practices that were more personal in nature, that helped me feel the Divine presence in my unique, evolving story.

It was not until I explored outside of the Jewish tradition that I discovered what I was looking for. I had never been one to record my dreams. Dreams were something to forget, if they were unpleasant. And if they were pleasant, they were not taken seriously. I do not recall having ever come across the saying of Talmudic sage Rabbi Hisda: “A dream uninterpreted in like a letter not read” (BT Berakhot 55a). What an amazing statement! A letter from whom? From God, of course, sent through the filter of your own unconscious. In other words, a Divine message told in the unique language of your unique soul.

As priest and psychoanalyst John Sanford writes, “Dreams are God’s forgotten language.” In the Bible, dreams are certainly one way that God communicates with humanity. Remember Jacob’s dream of the angels climbing the ladder into the heavens helped him to feel God’s unconditional presence in his life and gave him the faith to continue on his path. Or Joseph’s dreams about his future. Or many of the dream visions of the prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel and others).

In certain strains of Kabbalah and Hasidism, dreams and their interpretation are a means of divine connection—to both the inner Divine spark, and the Divine in others and the universe. Some kabbalists practiced elaborate rituals (involving fasting, mikveh immersion, prayer and meditation) to summon Divine messages in their dreams. The Zohar (1:183a) describes dreams as a form of prophecy—that is, knowledge from a higher source, and as a way to access your innermost “heart thoughts” (hirhurei lev), which I understand to mean your soul’s yearnings, in spiritual terms, or, in psychological language, your unconscious.

Dreams have long been a means of spiritual connection for some pretty serious Jews who were so inclined, yet somehow this practice has become obsolete in mainstream Judaism. It is unfortunate that it was not until I looked outside of Jewish spirituality, during my training as a spiritual director at the One Spirit Interfaith-Interspiritual Seminary, that I was introduced to dream work. I was in awe as my teacher that day helped a woman unpack her dream before my eyes. I felt Spirit in the room speaking through this woman, and to this woman through the images and elements of her own dream. It was a profound experience, and I was thirsty for more.

I started working my own dreams with dream-work specialist Judith Schafman, and I discovered a spiritual tool that had been beneath my pillow for my whole life without my knowing it. Judith’s main approach is to understand the dream as a window to the soul. Each element of the dream is an element of the dreamer’s unconscious. Through working my dreams with Judith, I was able to hear my soul’s voice and understand what God wanted for me at that stage in my life. There are other types of dreams as well—prophetic dreams, visitation dreams. And sometimes, a dream can be various types at once.

For example, this is the first dream I worked with Judith:

I am the officiating rabbi at a ceremony at the mikveh where I work at Kibbutz Hannaton. It is the conversion of a baby, long awaited. Her two fathers are escorting her, behind me, to the mikveh with a large group of beaming, excited family and friends. The grandmothers are carrying the baby like a precious family heirloom. This is a grandchild they thought they would never have. I sense their mix of fear and pride. We approach the immersion pool, me ahead of the pack. “Is there really water in there?” one grandfather asks. “Of course, there is,” I say. And then I look inside the mikveh pool. I blink my eyes and look again. This man is correct. There is no water in the mikveh! I convince the family to get something to eat and come back later, after I refill the mikveh. But when we come back to the mikveh building, water is pouring out of the windows, the door. It’s flowing down the path, overflowing into the whole kibbutz. It’s flooding the place. People are being lifted and carried away.

On first read, this dream could be understood simply as a reflection of my anxiety about what could go wrong when I officiate at a conversion immersion ceremony. After all, I actually had arrived at the mikveh once for a conversion ceremony only to find the immersion pool empty. But when I worked the dream with Judith, she had me speak from the voice of the water. She asked me where I went, why I came back and why I was now overflowing the mikveh walls. This dream, on a deeper level, was really about my own feelings of spiritual confinement, as well as my desire to expand my spiritual life and service.

It turns out this dream also was a prophetic one, as a few months later, I arrived at the mikveh with a group who had come to learn about and experience mikveh, only to find it had overflowed, and the water was seeping out from under the door and flowing down the path leading up to the building. I understood this experience to be a sign, an affirmation of the message of my dream.

If I had not worked the dream and heard its message, I would not have received this affirmation from the universe that I was on the right path. This affirmation was an important one, given the voices around me in my life that were telling me otherwise—that my unconventional path was a mistake. Yet my soul, and Spirit, had another message for me that I would not have heard if not for my working of that dream.

As the author of the Zohar says (invoking Rabbi Hisdah):

A dream not interpreted will be manifest in the world, but the dreamer will not know it…all that is to be in the world is revealed to us…but if we do not access it, it will remain in the cosmos and pass us by.[fn]This is my liberal translation of the Zohar’s words on 183b of the same section cited above.[/fn]

Since then, I have had many profound dreams that have helped me change course, affirm my path or give me a new perspective. For example, after a friend of mine passed from the material world, I had this dream:

I am on the way to her funeral but get lost along the way. I am anxious that I will miss her funeral. I notice a big slide and decide to slide down the slide, hoping it will bring me to the funeral. I am just about to slide down the slide when I realize it is leading into endless space. I wake up, afraid that I almost slid down that slide.

When I worked this dream, I understood my fear about sliding down the slide to be an expression of my fear of death.[fn]A fear that is aligned with my waking conscious state, my ego, which the Zohar considers the part of the dream that is kazav, or “false.” It is the opposite of emet, which is the truthful part of the dream that we are meant to be attuned to when trying to discern the message of the dream.[/fn] The slide told me not to be afraid; that she is a slide into the mystery, but that it is not my time yet to make the trip. And then my friend who had passed spoke (through me) and said that when it is my time to make the trip, I will have as smooth a slide, or as meaningful and timely a transition into death, as she did.

I experienced a prophetic dream when my son, who was away at a 10-day summer camp, came to my bedside in a dream and told me that he had escaped from the camp—that he was miserable there, but I should not tell anyone, that it should be our secret. The next day, I indeed heard from him that he was not happy there and wanted to come home. I had thought he was having a good time until then, but now, when he asked me to come get him, I did. I understood my dream to be an affirmation of my parental instinct to hear his cry and answer his call.

These are but a few examples of many profound dreams I have worked and helped others to work over these past few years, after I decided to train with Judith to become a dream worker myself. (I only record my own dreams here so as to respect the sacredness and intimacy of the dreams of others.) Using dream work as one of the tools I can offer as a spiritual director, I have been privileged to help people access their higher and deeper selves. I invite all of my directees to keep a dream journal while we are working together, and when someone brings a dream to a session, I trust in Spirit (and my training and experience in dream work) to guide us.

Again and again, I have been amazed at what emerges when people are given the sacred space to unpack their own dreams. It is magical to facilitate and behold. I have had the privilege of witnessing people speak from their own dream images and be in awe of what gems these images have to share. I can truly feel the presence of Spirit in the space between us when this happens.

For me, God is not something outside of us, but rather, that innermost essential individual truth that I call the soul. Our soul can then connect us to Spirit—the Divine that exists in all Creation. But our soul is our own unique manifestation of the Divine in the universe, and it is this that we can access in our dreams. That is why no one can interpret our dreams for us. As Joseph says in Genesis 41:16 when he is asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams: “Not I, but God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” A dream specialist can help us reveal the messages of our dreams, but no one can understand our dreams without our help. Only the dreamer can access the deep messages of his or her own dreams.

When we sleep, we are best able to access our soul. All of the other voices that influence our daily thinking (whether they be our own socialized voice or other societal voices) do not disappear. They, too, can be found in one’s dream voices and images, and can even be the dominant voice in one’s dreams. But if one knows how to work a dream by giving voice the other elements that appear, one can hear the soul speaking.

As you can see, the dreamscape is a complex and powerful one. It can tell us so much about what is going on beneath the surface of our psyche and beyond the bounds of the linear, rational world in which we live our daily lives. Accessing the dreamscape is an ancient spiritual practice that goes back to our biblical ancestors and was preserved by the mystics of our tradition. With the rise of spiritual direction in the Jewish world, the time is ripe to revive this powerful spiritual tool.  

2 Responses

  1. Greetings, Rabbi Haviva I have enjoyed reading about your journey and your thoughts on dream play. I already do ‘dream interpretation’ professionally using a technique taught by Rachel Pollack, of blessed memory, that uses Tarot. Of course, everything is done with the dreamer and we get some wonderful results. I am an ordained Kohenet and am now taking Jill Hammer’s ‘Jewish Dreamwork’ course for a second time. A girlfriend who has been studying Kabbalah for some years will join me in taking Roger Kamenetz’s course on Natural Dreamwork that is offered on the Shift Network. I am hungry for learning more and doing more in this wonderful realm. Also I long to participate in an active dreamwork community and prefer a Jewish orientation . Several times we have attempted this in the Kohenet community but for various reasons it has fizzled. (I was always the most active dreamer.) Do you have any recommendations for me? Blessings on your life and your mission. Tamar bat Sara

  2. Hello Rabbi Haviva. I am so happy that I can across your article. I have felt Jewish all my life. I have been thinking of conversion for over 6 years. I have put if off because I am a teacher in Northern reserves and the conversion process would not be possible without a rabbi and synagogue. I have been sweeping aside my spiritual and religious inner voice. Last night I dreamt that there was a Hasidic rabbi I believe next to me praying on me and saying words that I did not clearly understand. What does this dream mean? What should I make our of this dream?

    Thank you for your wonderful words!

    Vicky from Northern Canada

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