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Dreaming with Rodger Kamenetz

"A dream provides an exact tincture of the soul…to wake us from a faint-hearted life." So writes Rodger Kamenetz in The History of Last Night’s Dream.

Kamenetz is probably best known as the poet who accompanied a diverse group of rabbis to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama. He chronicled that journey in The Jew in the Lotus (1994), which both confirmed and strengthened the emerging communal crossover between Judaism and Buddhism. (Full disclosure: that book set me on my path toward the rabbinate.) Since then he’s written other books exploring Judaism in a variety of ways, but nothing as groundbreaking as The Jew in the Lotus –until now.

Kamenetz is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Louisiana State University, where he also founded the MFA in creative writing program. He’s also a poet and, now, a dream therapist. His latest book is simultaneously as thoughtful and cogent as one would expect from a college professor–and as far-out as one would expect from a mystic and a poet. This book challenges the reader not only to think about dreams in a new way, but in so doing to relate to her- or himself anew.

For Kamenetz, dreams are a point of connection with the Infinite. Jewish tradition has mistrusted them, sought to pin them down and diminish their uncanny power, since antiquity. But if we can find a new way of relating to our dreams, he says, they may offer us a direct connection with God.-Rachel Barenblat

ZEEK: I imagine since The History of Last Night’s Dream came out, you’ve had many opportunities to distill the book in words. How do you describe this latest addition to your oeuvre?

KAMENETZ: I see it as an attempt to understand the role of imagination in religious life. An exploration of how powerful the dream is for religious experience and a lament over the loss of that power in our contemporary religious life.

ZEEK: What’s the trajectory that brought you to this work?

KAMENETZ: I’ve always been interested in dreams, as a poet and as a writer. Dreams played an important role in my life–I discovered my voice as a Jewish poet through my connection with my gradfather, and after his death he appeared to me in a dream, which turned into a poem called "Curve of the Earth." In retrospect, that dream seems to confirm that I was on the right track.

And then "Terra Infirma" is built around a dream I had after my mother’s death. In both of those cases–in the case of "Curve of the Earth" and the sense of connection beyond this life that that implies, and in terms of "Terra Infirma"–dreams have been important to me. If dreams of the dead are such powerful experiences for us–and they’re very difficult to dismiss–there must be something to dreams.

ZEEK: "Curve of the Earth" feels so real to me. There’s something in that experience [dreams of the dead] that I think we can all relate to.

KAMENETZ: There was an actual dream; there’s no art to it whatsoever! Being lazy, I thought the idea that you could get a poem from a dream seemed like a great possibility.

ZEEK: I think there’s a deep connection between poems and dreams. We relate to both of them in a way that’s not purely intellectual.

KAMENETZ: We’ve lost an understanding of something people once knew: if we’re talking about the human soul, what are we talking about if not imagination? So when we’re talking about people who write or paint, creative thinkers who we call inspired, we’re talking about the realm of the soul. And the unconscious, the psyche, dreams. Our religious discourse is so impoverished if people don’t refer to the imagination, it’s all intellect, it’s all in a book.

ZEEK: You write that "[t]o the mystics, the Torah is a dream and every character in it is you." What a beautiful way to bring this way of relating to images into the way we relate to our central text.

KAMENETZ: I would say that the authors of the Zohar clearly had a huge experience in the imaginal realm through dreaming or active imagination. They didn’t read Torah as stories or laws; they understood that those were the outer garment. But the naked body of Torah was something underneath which they found in the text through using imagination. Their experience of dreams informed their reading.

And on the other hand, if we don’t have a rich or deep experience of dreams, then our reading of Torah will be superficial. It’s like eating the bread wrapper instead of the bread.

In Zohar it says, you could just eat grains of wheat if you want to nourish yourself! But wouldn’t a fine pastry be a little better? There’s also a Torah that’s more like a rich pastry.

ZEEK: And the pastry’s made out of the same raw ingredients! That’s what makes the metaphor great.

KAMENETZ: Right! If it’s just wheat, why not nibble on raw kernels —

ZEEK: Because you’re missing something.

KAMENETZ: You’re missing the soulfulness of it. We explore dreams to explore the soul.

ZEEK: I heard you speak about this material a few years ago, and one of the questions you asked was, "How could the tradition that gave us the dream of the ladder end up essentially ‘phobic’ about the revelation dream?" Can you recap your answer for Zeek?

KAMENETZ: The Joseph sequence [in Genesis] tells us that dreams provoke a reaction. Joseph dreams, and his brothers and father have a strong angry reaction. Why do people get angry in that story? Because they’re afraid. And we see that later on too, that the butler and the baker are terribly anxious and afraid when they dream. And we see Pharaoh anxious, too. So dreams provoke different emotions, and fear underlies them all. The history of that fear is intertwined with the history of interpretation. And that’s a thread that’s run through the history of dream interpretation.

In the case of the rabbis, speaking broadly–in Brakhot 55b there are many opinions, but the takeaway is that the main focus is on dream amelioration. We have that ceremony of hatavat chalom, "making the dream good," which is still practiced by some. That tells me that the concern there is not with the revelation power of the dream but with the anxiety provoked by the dream.

ZEEK: There’s kind of a band-aid impulse here, not wanting to look at what’s behind the fear.

KAMENETZ: I have empathy for the rabbis who promoted this. They’re concerned for ordinary people, who they may have felt couldn’t handle a psychic exploration. But we live in a time where perhaps that approach could be revisited, because people are more sophisticated psychologically and more able to handle these explorations. We’re exposed to so much more in the way of information and imagery. Of course, the concern is that people will go nuts.

ZEEK. It’s a kind of shvirat ha-kelim, in the Lurianic sense–a breaking of the vessels.

KAMENETZ: Of course, the vessel includes the psyche and the mind. Luria was such an incredible dreamer. It’s said that every night he visited the heavenly academy and received Torah there. He was familiar with this process. And I think the account of his dreaming informed his books.

ZEEK: You write, of Marc Bregman, "I wanted to know and he wanted me to feel." I suspect that’s a familiar tension for many of us, maybe especially within Judaism, which is so deeply a tradition of the book. Intellect is comfortable, but that’s not where he wanted you to be.

KAMENETZ: For someone like me, so oriented toward explanation–he showed me I wasn’t really ready for the journey. I wasn’t ready to risk changing my consciousness. I wanted it all explained. I was like the baker or the butler in prison [in the Joseph story]. "Tell me what it means!" But I think the dream comes to get you out of prison.

ZEEK: It’s a real leap of faith, to listen to the call that says (in Rilke’s words) "you must change your life."

KAMENETZ: It requires the ability to be disgusted with yourself. If you’re always satisfied, then there’s no reason to change. Dreams have a way of pointing to the cracks, the places in you that are not well put together. That’s the source of the fear and anxiety. The exposure. The initial news from dreams for most people is not good.

ZEEK: Even if you know the cracks are "where the light gets in," if you will, it’s hard to be okay with that.

KAMENETZ: Right, and we tend to paper over with our pieties. We jump back to the light without experiencing the terror of the crack. We don’t want to face our fear. That’s the issue. The most terrifying dream that I can remember–one of them, anyway–was simply being in a room and looking for the door out and not seeing a door. Going with my hands over the walls, around the room, knowing there must be a door, and not being able to find one. It was a simple dream! But the depth of terror was huge.

ZEEK: For me it’s always that I can’t see. I’ve become blind.

KAMENETZ: If dreams can show you fears, then they can teach you courage. I work with dream clients now, and for many people the scary dream is simply that someone else is driving the car. For some people they’re in the backseat and no one’s driving the car! But if you can reach the point where you’re in the backseat and no one’s driving and you’re okay with that, then you’re really getting somewhere.

ZEEK: Suddenly the whole road opens up!

KAMENETZ: And then you understand that God’s driving the car. We talk a good game, but what does it really feel like to really live that? To say, it’s not up to me?

ZEEK: We need a practice of perennially reminding ourselves. Because we forget. That we’re not driving the car.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely. This is mostly what Marc Bregman calls first-stage work, but eventually people do have these very powerful experiences with the archetypes that he takes and I take to be partzufim. Not precisely in the Lurianic sense, but–not dissimilar. These are faces of God, and we encounter images that are relationships. Which I think is really important.

This goes back to a teaching of Reb Zalman’s which I cite early in the book [that many people conceptualize God as an oblong blur]–how do you pray to an oblong blur? How do you have an emotional connection to God if all imagery is banished? Or if all imagery is contested. It’s almost become politically incorrect to talk about God the father–we feel we have to immediately add "and also God the mother," there’s a kind of politics to the nomenclature, which–as is typical to political correctness–overlooks the actual emotional experience of people in their inner lives.

ZEEK: I think of the prayer "Avinu Malkeinu," and my own journey from saying it without thinking, to pushing back aainst it, to reintegrating the father and king imagery into my understanding of God.

KAMENETZ: What the dreamwork seems to point to is, if a problem in your relationship to your mother or to your father is the primary manifestation of your pathology, you’re not going to get anywhere on a spiritual level until you work through the problem at the psychological level. Instead of running away from Avinu Malkeinu because it’s seen as a patriarchal imposition and political statement, both men and women need to work through their feelings about their fathers.

ZEEK: I’d like to dip into The Jew in the Lotus. In chapter 7 of that book, Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi talks with the Dalai Lama about angels. It seems to me that the reactions of the various rabbis in the room speak volumes about the range of ways in which we’ve responded to images and metaphors, which are very much the language of dreams. Are you getting the same range of responses to the dream work Zalman got to the dream work?

RK: I don’t think that book would exist if it weren’t for that moment. In that one moment we peeked into the power of yetzirah, before moving back into assiyah, where I usually live. [That’s a reference to a kabbalistic understanding of reality. – RB]

ZEEK: Where we all usually live!

RK: I thought of it then in terms of poetry; yetzirah is the realm of poetry and of angels. The higher world gets reflected into our imagination and then down into the sensual world. So absolutely, that moment–yes, that was pivotal.

How this book’s been received…there are some people in the Jewish world who’ve been very moved by it, and others I think have not engaged. I have a feeling the book will slowly creep up on people over time. But I do think the book calls for a re-examination of Judaism in terms of the role of the imagination and the role of dreams, and people are responding to that.

We need to take our dreams seriously as part of the life of the soul. The very word "soul"–I was challenged on that by one interviewer who said, "you talk about God the Father, isn’t that Christian?" I said, "I have two words for you: ‘avinu malkeinu!’" But his point is, most Jews don’t have an experience of God the Father per se. Maybe they see the words in the prayerbook, but it’s not real relationship. Whereas if you look back in Talmud, it was commonplace. It comes from a deep experience. To exile it and say it only belongs to Christianity–something’s gone wrong here.

ZEEK: I continue to hope that this is a time when we’re opening doors we weren’t ready to open before.

KAMENETZ: Raba said, in the time of the hiding of God’s face–what Nachman calls the double hiding–maybe God will speak to us in dreams. It’s a minority opinion, but it’s there.

Artwork by Barry Donaldson, all rights reserved.

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