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Baal Shem Zen

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

On July 7, 2020, I left Morrigan’s second birthday party early in order to get to a Zen Peacemaker Gathering near Santa Barbara scheduled to start the next day. Bernie had a way of scheduling things on family days. We had done the first Auschwitz Retreat on a Thanksgiving Weekend.

For Dee and me, that was our first married Thanksgiving. I took off for Poland, leaving her to cook dinner for her parents and my mother. Her friend, Kathy helped her laugh through it. Kathy’s husband was off playing golf with his firefighter buddies. “Would you rather Ken was playing golf?” They had a good laugh.

But on the plane to LA, I wondered, "What the hell was I doing?" Zen practice was important, but we have only one daughter and she has only one birthday a year. The retreat was not that memorable. I would never make this mistake again. Family first.

But Bernie did come up with a new trick. As a teacher, Bernie was always looking for ways to shake us from our accustomed places, our habitual modes. I don’t think the new trick proved to have any legs. I doubt Bernie ever used it again. He was not one toƒ cling to what didn’t really work.

The new challenge was to choose a persona, a kind of alter ego, an alternative set of eyes through which we could view whatever texts we were studying. Bernie organized us in small study groups based on geography so that we could study together after we returned home. I don’t remember what the texts were. I think we met only three times. My choice of persona, however, stays with me. I chose Martin Buber.

Why Martin Buber? I’m only guessing. There’s no way to figure it out. Maybe I was looking for a way to connect my Zen practice to my Jewish roots. There is a story that Roshi Bob Kennedy tells from his early Zen days when he was studying with Yamada Roshi in Japan. Bob was young and not long a Jesuit. Studying Zen in the Catholic Church was still pretty far out in those days, even for a Jesuit. Yamada sensed that Bob was getting nervous. Was he gambling with his faith?

“Don’t worry,” Yamada assured him, “Zen will not turn you into a Buddhist. It will make you a better Catholic.”

Would Zen somehow connect me to my almost non-existent Jewish roots?

It must be that I had already stumbled on The Tales of the Hasidim, Buber’s retelling of the ancient stories. I know I had read I and Thou, the book for which Buber is best known. It had seemed something I ought to read when I was first sticking my toes in the waters of spirituality. But it was the Tales to which I kept returning, the Tales which have been on my night table now for almost 30 years, only occasionally read but almost always there to be picked up and randomly dipped into.

Over the intervening years, Rabbi Don Singer and I became close. Don was a senior student of Bernie’s and received transmission shortly after I arrived in Yonkers. I didn’t see Don often, rarely more than once a year. When Don and Virginia would apartment-sit in Manhattan, Dee and I and Don and Virginia would meet for dinner. Don had co-officiated (with Bernie) at our wedding, and Dee and I have vivid memories of Don and Virginia dancing. When Don danced, you could feel the pulse of the Hasidim. I’m sure we have pictures of them dancing, but I haven’t been able to find them. Perhaps they’re on the wedding video. Who has a machine anymore which can play the formats from the ‘90’s? A VCR?

For a number of months, about ten years ago, Don and I studied together weekly. Did I casually put it out there, “I would love to study with you,” or did he suggest it? I was excited by the opportunity. Was Zen connecting me to my Jewish roots? Maybe I had been telling Don that Buber was my “alter ego.” Don loved Buber.

I, of course, wanted to study the Tales. Don thought I and Thou was the way to go. I deferred to the Rabbi.

Don would wonderfully read paragraphs aloud — his voice was transportive — and then we would discuss them. This was an entirely new way of study for me. In my schooling, readings were always done as homework. Only the discussion took place in class.

For some reason, we stopped meeting before we finished I and Thou. Perhaps I just got too busy with our schools. Maybe I and Thou was just not speaking to me. I didn’t love it the way Don did.

But The Tales of the Hasidim kept calling to me. I have read all the way through Buber’s collection twice. I am more than fascinated by his “Introductions,” his description of his journey as he learns what it means to retell a story.

And I keep dipping into the Tales. From the first reading, they spoke to me, sometimes more directly than the Zen Koan I was working with at the time. Many really are koans. If you ask what they mean, they resist you, push you away. If you open, you can sense the meanings, — there so often seem to be alternative ways to see the story — you can retell the story, but so much is lost if you try to say what it means. I noticed over the last several years that there are stories from the Tales, as there are koans and stories from my father and stories from my life and stories that I have read and jokes that I have heard, that have all been told and retold as part of my teaching.

It occurred to me that a set of Tales might be selected and retold in the style of a koan collection. I began to call this collection Baal Shem Zen. “Would Don want to collaborate with me on this project?” I wondered, but by the time I had finally retired and could see the possibility of actually getting into the project, Don was gone.

I needed a Rabbi to help me. I could see that there was much in the Tales, as much as I was getting from them, that I was missing because I completely lacked the Jewish stuff to provide context. Don was the only Rabbi I knew, but I am finding over and over that when the time for a project is right, the Universe delivers the needed ingredients. I met Rabbi David Curiel through one of the Bernie Memorial Zooms that we put together for the Zen Peacemakers. David has been serving as one of the rabbis at the annual Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreats. At the memorial, David made a reference to the Baal Shem. A bell rang. Roshi Chris Panos made an email introduction, and I invited David to meet on Zoom. He accepted. I was delighted.

At our first meeting, doing my stepping from the 100-foot pole routine, I told him about my “Baal Shem Zen” idea. Would he be interested in collaborating? Sort of like proposing marriage on a first date. I was proposing a book, Baal Shem Zen. I was imagining a subtitle including “the Rabbi and the Roshi,” two views or something like that.

David saw some serendipity in the proposal. He had recently come to the conclusion that he needed to work more collaboratively. He was interested enough to be willing to test the waters. “Let’s see where this Rabbi/Roshi dialogue goes.”

We began to meet, generally every two weeks. We’ve been reading The Tales of the Baal Shem, one of Buber’s earlier efforts at retelling. We don’t prepare. David reads a story. And then we share our reactions and our questions.

David explained that not preparing, coming fresh to the text, was the way of Talmud study. It recalled Don’s way.

Recently, we have just been opening the book, and reading the story on which we alight. It reminds me a bit of the way of the I Ching.

I had been enjoying the study and we had been at it for a while — neither of us had mentioned my original idea of a book — when I decided to step again from my pole. “Any thoughts about the Baal Shem Zen book?” I asked.

“Not the book, but I’m thinking that maybe we could teach a class together.” David had an idea for an online venue that might welcome our Rabbi/Roshi offering, and now we are there.

Registration is now open for Baal Shem Zen, six Thursday evening sessions beginning October 25. Check out the link if you think you might be interested.

I don’t think Bernie ever used his persona trick again. I didn’t think it worked very well.

But here I am 20 years later channeling my inner Martin Buber.

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