Rabbi Leah Novick
Pathfinder of Jewish Renewal Movement, USA
“In the light of Jewish religious principles, religion as a means, not as a hindrance, to social and political peace and mutual tolerance.”
“There is an old Jewish story about a man who was a skeptic who came to a Jewish Saint named Rabbi Akiva, who lived about 2,000 years ago. This Rabbi Akiva was so brilliant and famous that he had 26,000 advanced students. This would be like Amma having 26,000 brahmacharis and brahmacharinis—who knows, may happen! This skeptic asked a question that he thought would be impossible to answer. He stood outside the rabbi’s door and said, ‘I want you to teach me the entire Torah, the whole Old Testament of the Bible, while I stand here on one foot.’ “Akiva, without a single moments hesitation replied, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself; that,’ he said, ‘is the whole Torah and everything else is commentary.’
“Can you imagine how radical that was? We Jews revere Torah. It contains our laws, our history, our legends, and we study it constantly for new insights. And we are taught that its wisdom is eternal.
“And yet, the Saint had no hesitation in saying that unless we care for and accept others as equals to ourselves we will have missed the point in all the sacred literature.
“You have heard from many wonderful speakers, and you can see all of our traditions have beautiful teachings of justice and compassion.The problem is that we as people, as followers, fall short in applying them. It is for this reason that our teachers, from the Great Prophet Moses on down, constantly reminded us that we started as slaves and that when we welcome the visitor and take care of the stranger at our own table then we have the opportunity of experiencing the divine presence. And I believe that teaching on hospitality goes through Islam and through Hinduism. It’s common to all of us.
“When my people, the ancient Israelites, became a nation, our kings, wanting to express devotion, built a great temple, where we brought offerings on behalf of all the nations. Especially in our fall harvest holidays, we did the equivalent of puja [ritualistic worship] for 70 nations. And then our Prophets rose and they confronted us and said we were putting too much emphasis on ceremony, and they said what God wanted from us was to care for the poor and hungry, the widows and the orphans.
“We lost our temples, we lost our land, and so our Sages had to create practices that could be done anywhere. So we have daily prayers for the peace of the world. And our mystics, our Kabbalists, taught that the divine presence is everywhere. And they emphasized that all human beings are sparks of the divine light and that the Shekhina, the Holy Spirit, rests on the rocks, the plants, the animals, as well as us humans.
“All beings in our tradition, but particularly human beings, can enter the world to come. It is our good deeds that count and not which group we belong to.
“I sight just a few of these teachings because there is much wisdom in tradition and wonderful insights from the scriptures. Unfortunately, these are not the mainstay of the majority of people in the modern world. The challenge in contemporary life is renewing spirituality. For without the inner life, the teachings do not permeate, and people remain consumed with the material level.
“And so here we are: humanity is still in turmoil, and we have been asked to address this question of how religions can break the cycle that breeds hatred and violence. Because the earth is in crisis, I believe we are being called to recognise each religion as a vital organ of the planet, a limb of the cosmic gaya. We are here together as lovers of God to pray as one for the health of the planet, so that God-realization can take place on this earth, and we must teach tolerance by embodying it. And that’s what we are here in Cochin to do.
“Ten years ago, my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, who is the master teacher of the Jewish Renewal Movement, talked with me about how we could do more to bring peace in the Middle East. Feeling that our own efforts were not sufficient and that we needed to expand our peer circle, we sent letters to Amma and to the Dalai Lama and to other Great Beings, asking them to join us in prayer and fasting during these fall holidays of Roshashana and Yom Kipor. So, when Mother created this gathering in Cochin, I felt that our letters and our prayers had finally been answered and that our dreams of a great prayer convocation were coming true. For this year, Amma’s birthday—this Saturday—falls on Roshashana, the Jewish New Year. We consider Roshashana the birthday of the world, and we see that Mother has already come forward to give Her wisdom and Her love internationally and unconditionally. And I believe that this is because She knows that it’s time to make our mediation and our prayers universal. Mother accepts everyone, even Westerners like me who have not spent years in contemplative settings. She inspires us to open our hearts to new ways of being and doing seva [selfless service] together.
“For many of us, we come from traditions that will require that we overcome the past. Some of us have traditions that mistrusted outsiders, some of us come from traditions that excluded women from leadership. And what better place to begin than Cochin? Cochin has welcomed the Jewish people here since ancient times and provided a social climate where Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jains and Jews have lived together peacefully for thousands of years. So it is a great joy and great privilege to be here to celebrate, to sing the names of God in all languages and to be able to pray for the whole world and the whole cosmos.
“In closing, I would like to quote an 18th century prayer from Rabbi Nachtman of Bratzlav. Unfortunately, the issues are still with us and the prayer is still alive. He says, “May it be Your will, Lord, to annul wars and the shedding of blood and to extend a peace—great and wonderous—to the universe. May all residents of earth recognise and know the innermost truth—that we are not come into this world for quarrel and division, not for hatred and jealousy, conflict and bloodshed. But we are come into this world to recognize and know God, who is blessed forever.’