Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author
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If the Sea of Galilee could speak: Religion after Corona

I didn't go back after our synagogue reopened and found I didn't miss it much. There are other, better ways for me to meet my spiritual needs
Illustration by Meira Ner-David

I am swimming in the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. I feel myself being pulled down, into the depths of the sea, but I am not afraid. I know I will be swallowed by a whale and safe inside its belly until it is time to be spit out on shore.

This is what I dreamt the night after I received my first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. A few days later, when I met with my online dreamwork group, I went back into the dream to understand its message.

I should explain that the method of dreamwork I studied and use in my spiritual accompaniment work with clients and in my own inner work treats each element of the dream as an aspect of the dreamer’s unconscious, holding a message from the dreamer’s higher self for the dreamer’s ego-self.

The way to hear these messages is for the dreamer — since the dream elements are the creation of the dreamer — to embody the dream elements and give them voice. Only the dreamer can unleash the message of the dream.

When my dreamwork partner in the group asked me to speak as the Sea of Galilee, my mixed feelings about coming out of 2020 and this pandemic period emerged. Don’t misunderstand. With the number of COVID-19 cases in Israel rapidly rising and the country going back into lockdown, I know that the pandemic is not over.

Yet, something did shift in me as I felt the needle going into my arm two days before New Year’s Day, knowing that over a thousand people in Israel were being vaccinated daily. Unfortunately, the vaccine will not help my life partner Jacob, as he is on strong immunosuppressant drugs that prevent this vaccine from having an effect; but the more people around him are vaccinated, the better.

Perhaps if we push through this next lockdown while more and more people get vaccinated, there could be an end in sight. I hope.

This past year has been extremely challenging on so many levels, one of which is that Jacob and I are both high risk for COVID-19. Trying to avoid catching the virus with seven children coming and going, trying to balance everyone’s emotional, mental, professional, financial, educational, and health needs, has been confusing and stressful. I am certainly not romanticizing this virus that is leaving so many dead, sick and unable to make ends meet in its wake.

Still, some of my personal challenges of the past year have offered opportunities to stretch in ways I would not have otherwise and to nurture parts of my nature that I had not allowed myself to attend to enough before.

I know not everyone has been able to transfer much of their work online, and I know not everyone has nature outside their door and a naturally-filtered lap lane in their yard. I know I have been relatively fortunate so far during this pandemic. Knowing all of that, I am sharing my experience.

I am not very high-tech, but when forced to Zoom it or lose it, I found Zoom to be an amazing resource for connecting across boundaries of time and space without exhausting my weak disabled body, polluting the environment and being physically absent at home.

I taught a dreamwork course with participants from Israel, Holland, Australia, and the east and west coasts of the US, participated in online courses and events with people from around the world, and continued to meet with clients and colleagues without thinking twice about where they live, except having to coordinate time zones.

This pandemic has challenged me to try new things, face my fear of technology, and surrender to the situation at hand rather than fight it; but it has also given me permission to shamelessly embrace my introverted side. With large gatherings canceled and even smaller ones not advised for someone at high risk, I found myself reveling in the excuse to be a recluse — as much as a mother of seven (with a dog that needs walking) living in a close-knit kibbutz community can be!

When meeting with spiritual accompaniment clients (on Zoom, of course) over the past few weeks, I have invited them to explore their personal losses and gains of 2020. Working this dream of me drowning in the Kinneret about to be swallowed by a whale, I was able to tap into my own feelings about my losses and gains of 2020.

When I spoke as the Sea of Galilee, she expressed her feelings of loss at not having been able this year to host the annual Kinneret Swim, the huge gathering in which thousands come to swim across her (and in which I, the dreamer, a daily swimmer — another one of my spiritual practices — participate each year). She was filled to the brim with last winter’s abundant rains, and ready to receive her annual guests; but the swim was canceled because of COVID-19.

While she mourned this loss, there was something sweet and calming about not having to go through that this year, she said. As much as she appreciated the attention and recognition, the excitement and adrenaline-boost, it was also exhausting and overwhelming. This year’s respite from the event was a relief in some ways, an opportunity to explore a quieter and more introspective state of being. She is not sure she wants to return to hosting those hordes again, she admitted.

From 2016 Kinneret Swim (Eylon Harazi)

Speaking as the Sea of Galilee while 2021 was being ushered in, I was able to tune into and express my own ambivalences about coming out of 2020 with a light at the end of the COVID tunnel in the distance. I am an introvert, yet I love people. But that’s just it. I love people, but not gatherings. I love connecting deeply with another soul, but in a large group or gathering, I find it difficult to connect and feel connected.

I am a rabbi, albeit not a communal rabbi. My rabbinic work is not at a synagogue, but rather at a mikveh immersion pool (a highly intimate experience) or working one-on-one with spiritual accompaniment clients. My most nourishing, profound and illuminating spiritual work has not happened while in synagogue, but, rather, in water, in the woods, at the top of a mountain, in relationship with another human (and sometimes even a non-human) being, or while dreaming and working those dreams.

Before the COVID pandemic, I did attend my community’s prayer services regularly, and I enjoyed singing and checking in with friends, but this year has crystalized for me more than ever the difference between spiritual work and social gathering, and how relying on the latter to do your inner work is using religion to bypass true spirituality – which cannot be disconnected from psychology and cannot happen without spending time alone with your soul.

When Israel went into the first lockdown, I substituted Jewish Sabbath morning services with long walks in the nature surrounding our home; and instead of evening services, I swam in our outdoor pool and then came inside to welcome the Sabbath by singing the prayers with my family. When the community synagogue re-opened, albeit with masks, I opted out. I decided to forego gatherings that did not feel urgent to me personally — even with masks — for as long as the virus was a threat.

I write all of this understanding full well that for some, gathering in prayer is a spiritual or social necessity. But since for me it isn’t, I decided not to risk contracting the virus in order to pray in a communal setting. And I found that I did not miss it so much. I found that my spiritual needs were being met by gathering and meeting online and being out in nature alone or one-on-one.

In other words, without the convention of synagogue worship to fall back upon, I found ways to fulfill myself spiritually that suited my own personal needs more than communal prayer and communal normative practices did.

Again, I understand I am not representative of all spiritual types. But as someone who grew up in a strong Orthodox Jewish community where it was clear what the RIGHT way to practice religiously was, it has been a long road towards understanding what my own personal spiritual needs are and how to meet them. And this pandemic has been another step along that journey.

In sharing these sentiments, it is not my intention to undermine the hard and devoted work of my clergy colleagues (I have two ordinations, one as a rabbi and one as an interfaith-interspiritual minister). But I do think we should look carefully at what can be learned from the changes that religious communal life has had to make during this time. Let us not squander this invitation to keep people with different spiritual and personality types, and different physical and psychological needs and limitations, in mind when moving forward if/when things do open up again one day.

I assume I am not the only one who, as a result of this pandemic, has allowed themself to imagine continuing life without regular communal worship. Or at least without communal worship as central to their life as it was before the pandemic. I wonder if people will think twice before returning full-on to religious sanctuaries – not only because of a heightened awareness of how gathering can spread viruses, which will never cease to be a threat even once there is a vaccine for this one, but also because they had a taste of a spiritual life outside of these religious spaces.

While for some, who cannot wait to get back to their religious houses of worship, this may have been a huge and painful challenge, for others, a closed sanctuary door may have been a liberating opening for choosing an altered route on their spiritual journey. For some, this may mean choosing to meet with alternative groups in smaller settings or working with a spiritual director one-on-one; for others it may mean continuing with a lot of their online work. For others it may mean a combination of all of the above, and more.

As I look forward, I wonder if we are on the cusp of a major transition in the religious world towards more individualized and individually-focused spiritual expression and experience. Judaism, which has undergone a series of changes throughout its long history, is a good example of how adapting to the times is not only a practical necessity, but can also be seen as an integral part of what some consider, celebrate and cherish as its radical vision and redemptive theology.

According to Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi’s “Paradigm Shift” theology, as I understand, interpret and apply it, Judaism evolves organically with cultural cosmic paradigms that change over time. And while this happens organically, there is an event that cements the actual transition from one paradigm to another.

Based on a Ha­sidic understanding of the Kabbalistic work Sefer Yetzirah, there are actually three stages Judaism as a microcosm of humanity must go through, along with the rest of society, in order to reach a repaired world and a mature concept of a God that defies all definition and containment and that connects rather than divides.

The first stage, or paradigm, was Olam (literally “world” but here connoting space), which began with Revelation at Sinai (when Judaism, at least mythologically, began) and marked a shift from idol worship to sacrificial worship. As Maimonides maintains in his Guide for the Perplexed Part III, Ch. 32, animal sacrifices were meant only for a certain time and place, as a way to wean the people off of material worship by limiting it only to worshipping the One God rather than a variety of gods and divine representations.

The Israelites at the time of Revelation were unable to grasp the notion of a God that permeates all, even themselves, of a divine presence in the world that is not located in a specific place outside of themselves. They could not believe that they as individuals-created-in-God’s-Image could experience the divine without containing it in a statue or through the mediation of another human being.

As Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz explains: “The general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in temples containing images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole creation, that God did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these modes of worship; for to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of humans, who generally cling to that which they are accustomed. For this reason, God allowed the Israelites to continue accessing the divine through a medium, namely sacrifice in a Temple, but this was rather a means not an end in itself.”

This first paradigm, Olam, existed for as long as there was a Temple in which to worship. The event that marked the end of this paradigm and the shift into the next one, was the destruc­tion of the Second Temple (the space where God was felt to be located). Shanah (literally “year” but here connoting time) then took over as the dominant paradigm, which is when time-oriented rituals became the locus of tapping into divine energy. Instead of Temple sacrifices, we offer our time up to God.

Shabbat, which has been described by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as replacing the Temple with a sanctuary in time, is the best example of this. It is the day each week when we stop running by clock time, when we stop doing, and instead simply be. We give up our need to control time and instead surrender to it. As Heschel writes: “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man. God is not in things of space, but in moments of time.”

Paradigm Shift theology maintains that we are now shifting away from that paradigm, into Nefesh (which can be translated as “soul” or “mind” but connotes humanity). Today it is not in Space or Time that we find the divine, but rather inside each and every one of God’s creations, and thus in everyone and everything. There is no place where there is no divine energy, and therefore there is no place or time in which that divine energy is stronger or more present.

We are in the age of human rights, human dignity and self-fulfillment, which is why cer­tain Jewish concepts and practices that are either space-oriented (since we never did fully leave space-bound worship behind, as we transferred Temple worship to smaller houses of worship, yet another way of gradually weaning us off of our need to contain the divine) or time-oriented may no longer work for some of us. When we practice them, we may experience dissonance. They are part of a paradigm that is becoming obsolete.

I have been aware of paradigm-shift theology for years and have felt it resonate with me personally, but I am now convinced of its cosmic significance. With this pandemic, I have felt the shift happening before my eyes. I have witnessed people moving to online worship that evades both time zones and spatial boundaries, choosing what speaks most to their individual souls rather than what is conveniently located in their physical domain. As gathering in large groups became a hazard, we were asked to rely more on our own inner resources and feel into what our souls truly crave.

I have heard many people describe lockdown as one long Shabbat. Imagine if Shabbat were no longer limited to a specific 25-hour time each week, but if it were a concept or state we were invited to incorporate into our very being, no matter what time or day. A sense of inner peace we were asked to cultivate as we walked through every minute of our lives, rather than compartmentalize into a specific time or place. Once we are past Olam and Shanah, we move inward, to Nefesh, and then begin to experience the divine in ways the Israelites at Sinai were not yet ready to embrace.

I believe this is what the Rabbis were getting at when they spoke of their vision for a repaired World-to-Come as a time that will be “all Shabbat”. And perhaps after Nefesh, another paradigm will await the Universe, one that does not even include humans at all. Especially if global warming is not curtailed.

In her book, Expanding the Palace of Torah, Dr. Tamar Ross describes Revelation as a cumulative process with historical moments when these continual and smaller progressive divine revelations take place. Revelations that can even overturn traditions and practices from the past. But only when we are ready to receive these revelations collectively as a society. She writes that this approach “grants religious significance to the events of history and the development of the human spirit.”

I wonder if this pandemic is the event that will push us over the edge from Shanah into Nefesh, from space-and-time-bound worship into human-centered spiritual practice.

There is a Jewish custom to do a full body mikveh immersion at the start of the Jewish new year. The Sea of Galilee swim, which is held each year at that time, has been my mikveh immersion ritual to rebirth myself into the Jewish new year. Before each swim, I had the personal custom of taking stock of the past year and setting intentions for the year to come.

After all, the Sea of Galilee is one big mikveh, and mikveh is the Jewish ritual to mark major life transitions while, at the same time, touching that deep part of ourselves that is constant, that is our purest essence, that does not change. Imagine the journey as a spiral; we come closer to our core as we move forward with each evolution.

It is no wonder I dreamt of the Sea of Galilee – that mythic body of water, where Jesus performed the miracle of Feeding the Multitude – and being rebirthed from the belly of a whale – evoking Jonah the reluctant Israelite prophet – the night after receiving my COVID vaccine, marking, I hope, the beginning of humanity’s emergence from this devastating pandemic.

Water, especially this body of water, has witnessed so much history, and it will continue to do so far longer than even humanity is guaranteed to exist. We are in a period of global transition – with the birth pains that go with it.

Although I do not know what awaits us when we emerge from this birth canal, I would like to believe that it will be a reality more whole, more peaceful, more interconnected, and more respectful of the unique divine spark in every individual soul, than any reality we have experienced before.

It is frightening to be at the cusp of change with no image of how our new reality will look. But, as the whale in my dream expressed when it was her turn to speak: Do not be afraid of the unknown, for you must be swallowed up and spend time in the belly of the whale before you can be spit out and reborn.

Illustration by Meira Ner-David

In the words of John O’Donohue from his blessing “At the End of the Year”, which I shared with my clients before asking them to reflect on 2020:

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. She is currently working on a novel and a third spiritual memoir, and her latest book, Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2020. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.
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