2016-06-30
I'm just recovering from last night's seder, a mammoth six-hour event with 250 guests. The setting was spectacular, here in the foothills of the Himalayas. When I stepped outside for evening prayers, the moon was a big white matzah in the sky, and you could see the white peaks of the Himalayas. For me, they are beautiful, but for the Tibetan refugees who live here in exile, the other side of those peaks are a lost home.

Passover on Beliefnet
  • Johanna Skilling on the lessons she learned at an interfaith seder.
  • Arthur Hertzberg on the lessons of his parents' seder.
  • PLUS: Find more features, music, and the interactive seder plate in Beliefnet's Passover section. My friend Azriel Cohen, who lives in Jerusalem, started a project he calls "Tent of Light" (in Hebrew, it's Ohr Olam, "Light of the World"). He comes from a haredi (so-called ultra-Orthodox) Jewish background, and his dream is to bring the Jewish people together under one tent.

    After he read my book "The Jew in the Lotus," he decided to check out Dharamsala himself. Dharamsala is full of Jewish travelers. Some are "dharma" people, seeking Buddhist teachings here and in other parts of India, practicing meditation on retreats, and generally opening up in this extraordinary land so rich with spiritual practice. There are many Israelis here, usually young people traveling after their military service, seeking an exotic and inexpensive adventure. I was amazed to see how many signs and posters in Dharamsala are in Hebrew.

    Azriel's Tent of Light is a place where Jews who have been opened up by other spiritual traditions can taste some of the deeper teachings of their own. In addition to the seder, it features several weeks of classes and lectures about Jewish spirituality, this year led by Mimi Feigelson, a wonderful storyteller and teacher from Jerusalem, and me. Helping us out from Capetown is "Uncle Steve" Barnett, who uses rhythm, clapping, and drumming to bring together people from different cultures. That helps a lot because our Jewish "puja" (as the Hindus call any ceremony) has been attracting interest not only from Jews but from a representative sample of the entire planet.

    I have a long connection with this idea of doing a seder here. Back in 1990, Rabbi Zalman Schachter had proposed teaching the Tibetans how to do a seder. (The word means "order," and a seder is a meal with a definite order of eating and speaking, all designed to recall the wondrous liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egypt long ago.)


    Passover on Beliefnet
  • Johanna Skilling on the lessons she learned at an interfaith seder.
  • Arthur Hertzberg on the lessons of his parents' seder.

    PLUS: Find more features, music, and the interactive seder plate in Beliefnet's Passover section.
  • Back then, the Dalai Lama had asked for Jewish secrets of survival during our long years of exile from our homeland. The seder was one answer. The rabbis created the seder as we know it after the Second Temple was destroyed. They centered it on commandments in the Torah, but they also borrowed the form of the Greek Symposium, a special meal or banquet, such as the one described in Plato's "Symposium."

    Zalman wanted to pass the favor along to the Tibetans. Now that they are living in exile--some 150,000 in India, Europe, and the U.S.--perhaps they too could use a home ritual in which family members recall the spiritual values of their tradition and pass them along to children.

    In 1996, I came to Dharamsala and fulfilled Zalman's idea by doing a seder with Jewish and Tibetan Buddhist teachers. But Azriel Cohen has taken the idea to a whole new level. My seder was small, intense, and in many ways a profound sharing of Jewish and Tibetan views of freedom. But Azriel Cohen's seder was a massive gathering of the tribes--not only Jewish tribes but also curious travelers from around the world.

    It was far from a typical seder. At the beginning, we had introductions in English and Hebrew--the languages of the majority of the folks--as well as greetings in Russian. Then a saddhu, a wandering Hindu mendicant, named Shiva introduced himself, his dreadlocks falling down to his heels.

    The seder itself followed the usual order of the service. My favorite part was the Four Questions, in which the youngest child in the room asks questions about the meal, leading to the narration of the Passover story.

    Jazzy, a brilliant 11-year-old here with her parents from Los Angeles, dedicated her moment to Gendun, a Tibetan boy who will also be 11 next week. The Chinese authorities have held Gendun under house arrest since 1995; his "crime" is that the Dalai Lama identified him as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, overt the objections of Chinese authorities, who sought to name their own choice.

    Passover on Beliefnet
  • Johanna Skilling on the lessons she learned at an interfaith seder.
  • Arthur Hertzberg on the lessons of his parents' seder.

    PLUS: Find more features, music, and the interactive seder plate in Beliefnet's Passover section.
  • When Jazzy made the connection between Gendun and the seder--and wished that he, too, would be free soon--I noticed the faces of three or four Tibetan guests. They were delighted and moved. And as one of them told the story of his own escape from Tibet, his story was punctuated by the seder story in a magical echo. He would describe cooking over a fire, and then we would describe matzahs being baked in haste over a fire. The resonance was so obvious.

    Ohr Olam has many purposes: to expose Jewish spiritual seekers to the power of their own tradition but also to create the possibility of sharing our seder with other people. My own twist on that is the Seders for Tibet project, which has been going since 1997, where Jews dedicate their seders to the cause of Tibetan freedom.

    In general, the seder illustrates a new openness of celebration of our beautiful Jewish tradition. By sharing our rituals with others, we are learning how to live Jewishly in a new, more open global context. That's why, for instance, a certain delegation of 15 travelers from the Bay Area were here. They are using meditation, chanting, and Jewish mysticism as part of their Jewish practice--and they brought that energy with them here.

    The power and beauty of the seder is a true secret of Jewish survival. It was great to share it with others, but in fact, we were only doing ourselves a favor. This seder was spirited, exuberant, generous, and brilliant. If last night was good for other people, that's wonderful. But for sure, it was a blessing for the Jewish soul.

    Next year in Dharamsala!

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