When I first met Brother Al, deep ecumenism is not what we set out to achieve. We just wanted to play music.
I had recently received s’micha as a maggid from Yitzhak Buxbaum in Brooklyn. I was blending stories and midrash into the Shabbat services I was leading at a number of Reform shuls around town, and performing a one-man show of chasidic stories, songs and teachings at as many venues as I could book. My hope for interfaith work was mostly about getting myself invited to multi-faith gatherings where I could inject a bit of fun and intrigue (through storytelling and music) into what was usually a panel-discussion format of rabbis, pastors and imams. I was not having much luck. Everyone had heard of a rabbi — maggid, not so much!
Brother Al Mascia, OFM, was living in downtown Detroit, involved in outreach to the homeless and disadvantaged. OFM stands for Order of Friars Minor — the oldest, and main branch of friars known as Franciscans. He wears a brown habit with a rope belt, and tries to live as closely as possible to the spirit and letter of the rule written by Francis of Assisi over 800 years ago. He also plays guitar (and a variety of other instruments), tells stories and writes ballads about the people he meets on the street, and about how to make this world a more loving and spirit-filled place. At that time, he was visiting suburban Catholic parishes throughout metro Detroit, playing music and selling bags of organic, fair-trade coffee, relying on those sales, and other donations, to help fund his mission downtown.
We met through a mutual friend at my wife’s church, played music in our sukkah, and shared our personal stories. It occurred to us fairly early in the relationship that the two of us were uniquely suited to present programs to multi-faith groups. Since music was the glue that initially bound us together, it seemed natural that we rehearse our material, write some new songs, get a couple more musicians and put on concerts. We came up with Song and Spirit as the name of the band and, honestly, our only aim at the beginning was to play together on stage and present audiences with an alternative to the academic forums that had become interfaith dialogue. We played Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman and Bob Marley tunes, some of Brother Al’s street ballads, some nigunim that I wrote. I told chasidic stories. We played at a few local shuls and churches.
Eventually, Brother Al, (my wife) Mary and I began to develop an idea of something more than just a band, something bigger than just appearing side-by-side — Jewish and Catholic — and entertaining folks. We began to sketch the contours of what would become the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace, a place to promote interfaith dialogue, cooperation and outreach through creative expression — using music, stories, worship, community art projects, gardening, etc. to bring people of disparate faith traditions together in conversation, fellowship and service to others.
In many ways, this was the outgrowth and tangible expression of the conversations Brother Al and I were having already. We each had the advantage of being well-educated in our own faiths’ practices and rituals, and yet neither of us had chosen a fundamentalist path.
As a Franciscan Catholic, Brother Al knew what official Church doctrine was, but he was ultimately responsible only to the interpretation of that doctrine as held by his Franciscan Order (one of the more liberal branches of Roman Catholicism), an Order that also prizes interfaith relations. I had left my Orthodox Jewish roots in my teens and, by 2011, I had embraced R. Zalman’s vision of neo-Hasidism as the most authentic version of Judaism available in the 21st century, and the vehicle by which I could most comfortably and effectively work toward spreading yiddishkeit to the world. So we were primed to find connections, to discover meaning in each other’s practices that made sense deep down. And we were both eager to let each topic morph into the next as we looked for new language and idioms to explain what we felt so strongly about.
Brother Al liked the idea that helping others could be expressed as tzedakah — justice, righteousness — and not merely caritas, compassion. I suggested that it was bigger than just individual people — that tikkun olam implied helping to make repairs to a broken world — repairs that only we can do; and he agreed but, even so, each individual in need mattered tremendously. The reason service to others is tzedakah is because we’re required to see the image of God in every one of these people who are suffering. That which you do for the least of my brothers…
“So it’s top-down and bottom-up all at the same time,” I said. “ We repair the world specifically by helping each individual in need.”
“Right,” said Brother Al. “And not because it give us satisfaction, although it does. We do it because we’re told to see the face of God in everyone.
“The Hindus say, namaste — ‘the divine in me recognizes the divine in you.’
“Yes. it’s more than just providing food — it’s a deep respect for each soul,” he said, “so helping one person in need is repairing the world.”
“You save one soul, it’s as if you saved the entire world.”
And so on.
I can’t really say where one topic ends and another begins with Brother Al and myself, nor am I very clear on which conversation we had when. But over time, we find that we keep circling back to similar places, until we begin to recognize certain universal themes — themes worth developing and presenting as a class or program. Take zachor. I told him that, Jewishly, this idea of remembrance appears again and again. We’re reminded to zachor — to remember the going out from Egypt, to remember to treat the stranger with respect, because we were once strangers. On Pesach, we’re reminded to regard this as not having happened merely to our ancestors — each Jew is to consider him or herself as having been personally redeemed from Egypt. This is happening now. And Brother Al tells me of the concept of anamnesis, of past events not just being remembered, but recapitulated in the now.
“Happening again and again?” I ask him.
“No,” he says. “Happening still. They never stop occurring.”
So being redeemed from Egypt every day — continually being freed from the mitzrayim of our lives, the constrictions that threaten us, the narrowness of thought — is exactly the same process as Jesus saying, Do this in remembrance of me — i.e., take this bread and wine as a zikaron, and then I am alive and with you, redeeming you right now. Not again, but still. Part of the mystery of the Eucharist is thus echoed in matan torah — an ever-occurring, ongoing event. Receiving communion becomes analogous to kabbalat shabbat — neither are experiences that we can make happen, but a receiving for which we prepare ourselves.
All this, in turn, focuses our attention on the nature of time. Zachor takes us to the way the Hebrew and Aramaic language see time, and consequently how the biblical mind saw time — before the Greeks got hold of it. The Greeks saw time as a line extending from past to future with ourselves existing outside of it — we occupy just one particular point on the line at any given moment. The ancients Hebrews saw their beginnings moving ahead of them and carrying them along, with the future following behind — one long ever-moving caravan. That kind of organically growing time gives us room to be an ongoing part of the unfolding itself, and implicitly connects us to all the other events on the timeline. This is similar to what we now know from quantum physics — there is no strict inside or outside, and all observation affects what is observed. Expanding and contracting. Divine energy — God’s presence as dynamic and forever changing — breathing. Which takes us to spiritus. And ruach. And souls inter-mingling like the wind.
This is how Brother Al and I discuss spirituality — one idea reminding us of another — bringing in references from our own traditions and experiences and seeing where it takes us.
To be continued in part 2.