When asked in a workshop years ago what my favorite mitzvah, or Jewish ritual practice, was, I answered Shabbat. Then, when asked what my least favorite mitzvah was, I answered Shabbat as well. My answers would change today, but that’s not important. What is important is that my relationship with Shabbat has always been complicated.
Growing up in an Orthodox home, I experienced Shabbat as a day with many restrictions (no driving, writing, creating art, cooking, using money or electricity). We spent the day walking from synagogue to meals and back again. It was a quieter day, but not a freer one. Those 25 hours had a strict and circumscribed structure. When I was a teenager, it was especially challenging — not only because I felt confined spending one of two weekend days in my suburban hometown, but because I struggled with an eating disorder. So, two to three big formal family meals were a source of anxiety.
In short, what was supposed to be the most enjoyable, restful and liberating day of the week was often not that for me at all. So, when I went off to college, I stopped keeping a traditional Shabbat. I did not go to synagogue or to campus Shabbat meals; instead, I went out with friends. I experienced Shabbat with no restrictions, as a day to just have fun, relax and see where my heart took me.
But I began to feel a frightening emptiness in my newfound freedom and returned to traditional Judaism, albeit as an Orthodox feminist. I pushed the boundaries of classical Jewish law on issues related to women’s participation and status, but I did not address deeper spiritual and theological issues I had with Judaism and organized religion in general, which manifested in, among other things, my relationship with Shabbat. I was addressing the injustice in traditional Jewish structures but not deeper issues of how those structures were not meeting my spiritual needs.
It is no wonder, then, that after marrying my life partner, Jacob, and having children, I still had mixed feelings about Shabbat. Jacob and I kept a traditional Shabbat, like that of my childhood. While there was much I appreciated about a quieter day at home and in community, that voice inside me that sought freedom from outwardly imposed structures began to rebel again.
I was born with a form of muscular dystrophy called FSHD. It is a genetic, degenerative disease that starts only in certain muscle groups but then spreads to others throughout the effected person’s life, making them increasingly disabled and eventually causing death, if the person does not die first from other causes. Being diagnosed with this disease at age 16 was shocking and a main factor for why I became anorexic, as I was seeking a false sense of control over my life.
My FSHD was also what pushed me to become an avid swimmer since many forms of movement on dry land are difficult and painful for me. It is only in water that I move freely and without the heavy soreness and stiffness that has become part of inhabiting my God-given body.
For years, I swam every day except Shabbat, as swimming was not something serious pious Jews did on Shabbat. And it was not something people in our community did on Shabbat. This set Shabbat aside as a different day for me. But as my physical condition deteriorated and I realized that Shabbat had become my least favorite day because it did not include swimming, I started walking to the local pool in Jerusalem on Shabbat afternoons.
Then we moved to a kibbutz in northern Israel, where the closest pool in winters (in summers, the kibbutz has an outdoor pool) was 15 kilometers away. At first, Jacob rode me there on our tandem bike, which was its own special ritual, but when I became high-risk pregnant at age 41 with our seventh child, that was no longer a good option. I chose to start driving to the pool on Shabbat.
My inner voice was telling me to swim on Shabbat even if it meant breaking the traditional Sabbath rules, while this outside system was telling me to give up my swim for the greater spiritual good of Shabbat. I did not feel God wanted me to give up my Shabbat swim. What my inner voice was telling me nurtured my spirit, in contrast to what this outer voice — in the form of Rabbinic Jewish Law — was telling me was forbidden. Rather than revert to what felt safe and familiar, I did the inner work to address my spiritual need for external structures to find inner peace, and I let my inner voice win.
Soon I was driving not only to the pool, but I was stopping on the way back to hike or visit friends. Then I started even continuing onward in the opposite direction of my home to do things like visit my son on his army base so he wouldn’t feel alone on Shabbat or driving my younger son to his soccer games.
This experimenting with my Shabbat practice took place in the context of four years of deep interfaith study and inner work at the One Spirit Interfaith-Interspiritual Seminary in its ministry and interspiritual counseling and companioning programs. I explored my personal relationship with Shabbat — what the day was meant to be about, and what I could do in my life to create that kind of experience — even if my idea of a meaningful Shabbat did not always coincide with that of classical Jewish religious sources. But most importantly, I faced my sacred wound of feeling abandoned by a God who was supposed to be fair and keep me safe.
Then we built a heated, naturally filtered swimming lane in our yard so I no longer needed to drive to the pool. But by then, I had made driving a viable option for Shabbat. There was no going back. It was clear that driving on Shabbat was no longer about swimming; it was about spending my Shabbat as the spirit moved me, in a way that fed my Shabbat soul. Especially living with a degenerative and debilitating chronic illness, I felt life was giving me enough challenges and restrictions. I did not need to manufacture them. Life was its own learning curve in mortality and meaning-making.
Making driving part of my Shabbat was a big leap for me, as it meant letting go of the formal religious structures with which I had been raised. It also meant trusting in true freedom, which had been a scary thought for me when I was younger. But I was wiser now and had done inner work to deal with my fear of surrendering to the mystery. In fact, I understood that my struggles with Shabbat were a microcosm of my spiritual struggles in general. No wonder, given the mixed feelings I had been having about the day for as long as I could remember.
It was the battle inside me between the part of me that craved answers, structure and a feeling of safety, and the part that wanted freedom, mystery and adventure. Both these sides made me into the seeker I was. It came down to my search for meaning. The question was: Could there be meaning in the mystery? Could the meaning be that there are no answers? That was a terrifying notion, but it felt true.
Life is not fair. The unknown can be meaningful, even if it is unpredictable, unjust and chaotic. In fact, that is Life. That is God. YHWH. I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. That is Shabbat. And that is my life’s work: learning to surrender to THAT. As I write in this excerpt from my new memoir, Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi’s Soul Journey:
ONE RARE SHABBATwhen Mishael had no soccer game, I went to prayer services on the kibbutz. It was sweet to be in synagogue again with Jacob, wrapped in my Rumi tallit, singing familiar prayers in community, harmonizing and chanting and hearing the weekly Torah portion. But I wanted some alone time with God.
With the afternoon before me and no obligation to drive to soccer, I decided to head to one of my favorite spots near my home. Few people I knew were aware of it: a silent monastery in the forest at the edge of a hilltop Jewish settlement. The combination of walking in nature and sitting alone in a sanctuary in silence was just what I needed.
In the 1960s, a Catholic monk came from Holland and settled in those woods after digging a well and building a cabin. He was joined by another Catholic monk from the U.S. They lived there together in silence and prayer.
When both men knew they were nearing the end of their lives, they called in a group of Carmelite nuns to take their place and continue praying. There are now nine nuns who live at the monastery in silence, praying for peace. I am glad. We can certainly use all the prayers we can get.
I slowed down and signaled a right turn. The silence was beckoning.
When I arrived at the edge of the forest, I parked my car and got out. The last time I had been here was for Christmas midnight mass a few months before. Then the view had been of lights from the surrounding villages. Now the view was of rectangular fields in different shades of green, the national water reservoir, and mountains and the Sea of Galilee in the distance.
A flock of birds returning from their southward migration passed overhead. Their chirping sounded so near, it was as if they were passing by my ear. The ground, the air, the sky — everything was waking up to spring.
As I walked, I repeated in a whisper a chant from a Christian mystic I had learned in seminary: “Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am. Be still and know. Be still. Be.” I thought about how I am God. How we all are not only created in the image of God, as I was taught in my Jewish upbringing, but that we are God. We are all Spirit. We, like Jesus, are both human and Divine. Spirit is in each of us and in all aspects of the Universe.
As I had learned in my Buddhist studies, when we give ourselves over to What Is, to What Will Always Be, to this something that is greater than ourselves, it is not about worshipping or paying homage; it is about letting ourselves flow into this greater force without resistance. Or at least trying to.
Living in peace with oneself and the Universe is about surrendering to the mystery of simply being a mortal human in an imperfect world, surrendering to the flow of life called, in the Muslim faith tradition, by 99 names. This idea of 99, I assume, is a stand-in for the idea of endless and numberless, like the Kabbalistic concept of “Ein Sof.” The un-nameable. The mystery.
When we remember Divine love for us and all beings, when we remember the interconnectedness of ALL and what it means to truly be at peace with what is — something the Talmud teaches us we knew in utero but forgot upon birth — that is when we are truly living in spiritual alignment.
That, for me, was the challenge of Shabbat, I now knew. To try and touch that place, to remember it like a forgotten piece of myself — as in the Sufi tradition — at least in various moments throughout my life. In the Jewish tradition, this is a weekly practice, setting aside an entire day for this purpose, as well as three times a day throughout the week, and when we immerse ourselves fully in living waters.
The idea of Shabbatis to give us space to be at peace with what is and surrender to the unknown. The Sabbath is a full day of surrender. Why else would it be recommended on Shabbatto sleep and have sex? These are the two ways we come closest to dying while living. Sex with the beloved, a spiritual practice requiring complete trust and exposure with another human. And sleep with the soul, a spiritual practice requiring complete trust and exposure with God.
But the rabbis, who were only human after all, were, perhaps, uncomfortable with this posture. With their abundance of rules for the day, they were, like I had done in my own life, filling up this scary open space with attempts at trying to know the unknowable, control the chaos and put boundaries on the endless “Ein Sof.”
In Islam, it is five times a day that we try to reach this place of Shabbat. In Sufism, this is especially stressed in the ecstatic twirling and chanting in the zikher (which means “to remember”) service. In Buddhism and Hinduism, it is through daily meditation that we can touch this place in ourselves.
But as with Judaism, in all these traditions, if the end goal is forgotten, if the striving for inner peace is replaced with the easier goal of feeling a false sense of control by insisting on such rigid restrictions and regulations, religious ritual can turn into an idol. Boundaries, rules, instructions and structure can all be helpful, but they can also be harmful if abused.
This is what I had come to this convent to not only understand intellectually, but to feel inside me on this Sabbath day. The essence of Shabbat, the posture of surrender.
I reached a sign asking those passing by the convent to respect the nuns’ silence. I started chanting instead inside my head. I reached another sign explaining how and why the convent was founded. The sign was written in three languages: English, Hebrew and Arabic. I knew the nuns spoke many more. They were from France, England, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Korea and maybe more countries, too. These signs were written for visitors. The nuns knew why they were there.
As I passed the convent sanctuary, the door opened and out came a nun. She was dressed in a gray and white frock, showing only her wrinkled face and soft blue eyes.
It’s not unusual for women to cover up in these parts, as there are traditional Muslim villages nearby and some Orthodox Jewish settlements as well. I’d done it, too, before I began the process of introducing more freedom into my life. I did not judge her, and I did not see judgment at my uncovered hair, jeans and tank top in this nun’s eyes. We were both making our own choices, trusting our inner voices to tell us what is right for us.
“Shalom,” the nun said. I was startled by her speaking at all, let alone in Hebrew.
“It is OK if I speak to you?” I asked in English, sensing her Hebrew was not as fluent as her English.
“You are allowed to speak?”
“We speak to greet visitors. That is part of our mission. It is not about being allowed. We do this out of choice. We are choosing to devote our lives to God our Father, and to Jesus, who gave His life for us. And to the Holy Spirit. Each one of us has chosen a life of devotion and contemplation. It brings us inner peace, and we hope contributes to bringing peace to the region, to the world.”
This woman exuded inner peace. I wanted a piece of it. “May I go down into the sanctuary?” I asked. “Is there anyone there now? I would like to sit in silence.”
“There is no one there now. I too was sitting in silence. You are welcome to go,” she said. “The Holy Spirit hears all prayers.” She bowed her head and hurried off, leaving the door open.
I made my way slowly down the stone steps that led into this cave of a church. It was, literally, a cave. A thick rope hung along the wall to serve as a railing. The pews were wooden benches. The pulpit was a stone altar-like structure with a dove hanging above, to represent the Holy Spirit free from the bondage of the material world. Depictions of Jesus and Mary decorated the room.
It was a simple sanctuary, basic yet beautiful. By coming here, I had seeped through the bars of my self-inflicted cage. I felt free and alive. No one knew I was here but God.
I looked up at the crucifix on the altar. This symbol, usually evoking for me the weight of humanity’s suffering, felt liberating this time, especially as I contemplated the dove hanging above the altar. Perhaps that was the idea of the Resurrection, of Jesus leaving his body and rising again. Suffering is part of life, but it is not our reason for being alive. Growth is our reason for being alive — that moment of leaving our cocoon and becoming a butterfly.
I sat and closed my eyes. I chanted to myself. On this Shabbatday sitting in a church in the middle of a forest in Galilee, I was still, and I knew that I am God.
Shabbat is not only a day in the week for me. It is a way of being. This is Shabbat, the Sabbath of my soul. I was exactly where I needed to be. And that was here with me. Here with God.