Judaism is a great storehouse of treasures. And it is a vital, dynamic, living conversation that spans the globe and the centuries. Every generation inherits the accumulation of text, music, commentary, law, custom, recipes and secret wisdom. And it is the responsibility of each generation to fully receive, re-interpret, add to the treasure and pass it on in a form that is more relevant and more alive to our present-day challenges. The challenge of this moment is to live from a deep knowledge of Unity consciousness; to know that we are One Being, and that being that we are is Divine. The challenge of this moment is to put love at the center.
I was once asked to lead High Holy Day services at a large mindfulness retreat that was to be taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher whose reputation for gentleness and wisdom drew hundreds of followers. The retreat was scheduled during the Jewish holidays, and the organizers thought there might be some Jews at the retreat who would benefit from the presence of a rabbi. In preparing for the retreat, I wrote to Thich Nhat Hanh to explain what we would be doing at his gathering, and I sent him a few books about Judaism so that he’d have a better understanding of the importance that these days held for his Jewish students.
At the opening session, he welcomed the Jews who would be celebrating their holy days at the retreat. In a tone that was both incisive and tender, he said, “It is my understanding that the purpose of all Jewish practice is to live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence … and that is mindfulness.”
He understood that to stand in God’s presence means to stand outside the whirlwinds of change, anchored in the stillness of center, shining out the fullness of our own presence, attentive to the truth of this moment. From that still center, from that open-hearted awareness, the choice between life and death, blessing and curse at last becomes clear. Until we can stand before the Great Mystery in a state of calm, alert clarity, all the layers of distraction, turbulence and conditioning will rob from us the freedom of choice. And so as we rise to the challenge of choosing Life, we must learn to stand before God, or as Thich Nhat Hanh explained, “to live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence.”
Rabbi Art Green says:
To stand in God’s presence is to live a life shaped by love. It requires an open heart, one that is able to receive the love of God that pours into us in each moment of our existence, and one that knows how to take in that blessing, that gift of love, and reshape it into a love for those around us, both within the human community and extending to the full fellowship of God’s creatures, amid whom His presence dwells. There is no response to the love of God other than that of sharing it, acting with love toward God’s creation. (Judaism as a Path of Love)
I call on the treasures of my inheritance to guide me towards an experience of standing in God’s presence, and then I let that experience shape my life and direct me in the ways of love and justice.
For me, putting love at the center has meant returning to a central mystical text of our tradition that is called “The Song of Songs,” or “The Song of Solomon.” It is my daily practice to take the words of this song and search for a way to live them. I do this through study, chant, dance, sacred conversation and a deep process of inquiry.
The true centrality of “The Song of Songs” to Judaism was expressed in the following story from Talmud. When it came time to decide which of the ancient books would become part of the canon for Israel, there was a big argument about this beloved text. There was vociferous opposition to its inclusion. Nowhere in it does the name of God appear; its words were sung in every tavern; it glorifies the sexual love between a man and woman who were clearly not married; and it celebrates nature and the pleasures of the body.
Yet when Rabbi Akiva who was a great sage of his generation stood up to speak, everyone listened.
“The whole Torah is Holy,” says Rabbi Akiva, “but The Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” By saying it was the Holy of Holies, Rabbi Akiva was instructing us to put love at the center. The Holy of Holies lies at the center of the Holy Temple. It is the place where God speaks to us, the place where we speak to God, the place where we experience Unity Consciousness. Akiva also said that, “Had the Torah not been given, we could live our lives by the Song of Songs.”
The Torah commands that you must love God “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” You are commanded to “love the stranger” and “to love your neighbor as yourself.” And you are asked to receive God’s love in the form of Torah, community, history and the wonders of nature. These commandments about love are at the heart of Torah. They constitute, at the same time, the most simple and the most complicated challenge of living a holy life.
The path of love — of rising to the challenge of learning to love and be loved — is the most rigorous spiritual path there is. Stepping onto the path of love, I am faced with every resistance, every illusion, every obstacle to self-realization. The great work is suddenly laid out before me in startling detail. In the words of the song: “I was asleep but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking.”
The song sings to all whose hearts lie awake, waiting to be roused by God, our true love, who is knocking, who calls us to become ourselves and to be connected in sacred union with all of Creation and with the Source of All. God is knocking with the reality of each moment. The truth of this moment is distorted when desire compels me to reach out for what’s next and thus miss what is right in front of me, or when I am so preoccupied with the past or my ideas about what should be that I miss what is. My initiation onto this path of love requires that I wake up and stay present to the truth that is before me, to the miraculous garden of my ongoing rebirth. It requires that I open my heart to the “Other.” It demands that I acknowledge every obstacle to love’s fulfillment. Those obstacles are the defenses that the false self has built out of layers of fear and out of the illusion of separateness from God and Creation.
“The Song of Songs” urges us to go outside, search out the wildflowers, listen for the message of the dove and the nightingale, learn from the gazelle and the wild stag. My initiation onto the Path of Love moves me beyond mere comfort and convenience and leads me to the wisdom and grace that are in nature. Only then can I discover that same wild grace in my own body. Through the song I am invited to fully inhabit my body, explore its capacity for pleasure and feel its attunement with the rhythms and cycles of nature.
The truth of my spiritual life is that I encounter the Divine Mystery most clearly in these three ways: through my body and its expanding senses, through nature and its dramatic and miraculous beauty and through intimacy with another. “The Song of Songs” provides me with a language to talk about these three ways of encounter. Its language connects me with my ancestors who opened the same doors, walked the same path and were initiated into the mysteries of Love. With them I can sing to the One, “Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! Your sweet loving is better than wine.”
A few years ago, I divided the text into 52 parshiot, connecting them to the Torah parshiot. So each week has a short parashah — one, two or three lines with commentary, a practice or two and a bridge to Torah. I spend the whole week immersed in that parashah, asking the question: “How do I live by this?” More than 800 people have signed up to receive this weekly email, and I’ve been working with two “Love Groups” — people who have made a commitment to meet with me every week for three years to apply the teachings of love to our lives. It has been very rich. To learn more about “Love at the Center,” go to: