Rabbi Shefa Gold
Photo courtesy Shefa Gold
If you go
Who: Rabbi Shefa Gold, accompanied by drummer Akiva the Believer
What: Chanting and discussing her new book, In the Fever of Love: An Illumination of the Song of Songs
Where: Bnai Keshet, Montclair
When: Thursday, May 21, 7:30 p.m.
Suggested donation: $10
Information: Call 973-746-4889
May 14, 2009
Rabbi Shefa Gold, a leader in the ALEPH Jewish Renewal movement and a self-described “mystic activist,” calls New Jersey a “narrow place.”
The New Mexico resident, who runs C-DEEP, the Center for Devotional, Energy, and Ecstatic Practice and has produced 10 CDs of Jewish chants, acknowledged that growing up in Paramus in a Conservative congregation was not exactly conducive to the kind of spirituality she practices today.
She grew up there, she said, “at a time when women weren’t counted in the minyan. It was kind of a hard struggle to find my place in a Judaism that felt really narrow. I’m not saying everyone in New Jersey is like that, but my experience has been that it’s more of a struggle.
“I’m hoping people in New Jersey can understand what I’m saying about this,” she said. “I’ve had mixed experiences.”
New Jerseyans will have a stab at understanding her message on Thursday, May 21, when Gold will be the guest speaker at Bnai Keshet in Montclair. She will discuss her new book, In the Fever of Love: An Illumination of the Song of Songs (Ben Yehuda Press), which offers a new translation and personal commentary in the form of poetic expansion on the text.
Gold does not shy away from blunt statements about traditional practices of Judaism. She dismisses them as overly “intellectual” and explains her choice to eschew scholarly commentary for personal poetry, saying, “I’m not sure the world needed another one of those commentaries, so I did something else.”
Gold holds ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. She is coming to Bnai Keshet in part to support two of her chanting students who are also members of the Reconstructionist congregation, Beth Sandweiss and Melissa Schaffer, who lead a chanting group at the synagogue.
NJJN spoke with Gold by telephone from her New Mexico home for a brief interview, in which she offered insight into her spiritual practice and her attachment to the Song of Songs. What follows is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
NJJN: You call yourself “a passionate mystic activist” in the introduction to your new book, In the Fever of Love. What is a “mystic activist”?
Gold: My idea about religion in general is that the religious impulse begins in the mystical experience, meaning a direct encounter with the mystery of life, and from out of that encounter with God — who is sort of embedded in this world — a religious impulse grows…. The activist part says if we would really live in the light of those experiences, that is the way to change the world.
NJJN: What is devotional, energy, and ecstatic practice?
Gold: It’s a way for me to describe the way I work in Judaism. Devotional means I come from the place of love — that’s the center of my practice. I want to become more loving and more able to receive love every day.
Energy means I experience life as energy and I want to be able to open up a sense of energy flowing through me, and that energy is divine energy, God energy. So often in my own practice I’m looking to see where is that energy blocked, how is it not flowing, and how do I open up those flows? I do that often through the practice of chanting. Chanting takes a sacred phrase from liturgy or scripture and uses repetition, rhythm, melody, and harmony to open up my own heart to inspire us to see the deeper meaning in the text and to let its power transform us in some way.
Ecstatic practice is the practice of expanding our consciousness through spiritual practice…so that we have access to different states of consciousness in our lives.
NJJN: What attracted you to the Song of Songs, the subject of your new book?
Gold: Rabbi Akiva said that all of the writings of Torah are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies, meaning that it stands at the center. He said that had the Torah not been given, we could live our lives by the Song of Songs. So I was very intrigued by this idea, what would it mean to live by the Song of Songs.
NJJN: Why did you undertake a new translation of Song of Songs?
Gold: Whenever I encounter a text, I always want to do it in the original language, and then I see that everyone’s translation is a personal encounter with the text. I studied at least 10 different translations. I sat with all of them and tried to understand why they translated these words in a certain way…. Every translation is colored by the life experience of the person who is doing the translation. I felt called to make this new translation.
NJJN: The new commentary provides insight into the text through your own poetic reinterpretation of the original. Why did you decide to use this format?
Gold: In my commentary, I was using the words of Shir Hashirim [Song of Songs] to step into the center of my own heart and speak to God, the beloved, from that place and also be addressed by God the beloved.
‘The wide perspective’
(Editor’s note: The original text in translation appears in bold, followed by Gold’s commentary.)
I rose to open to my love,
My hands dripping myrrh,
My fingers flowing myrrh,
On the doorbolt.
I must rise, to open.
I rise from my couch.
I rise above my petty concerns,
I take the wide perspective and lift
above all entanglements.
Only then can I open to Love.
My hands “dripping myrrh” are a sure sign
that dry hesitation has been transformed
into the passion
that is necessary for me to finally act.
From In the Fever of Love: An Illumination of the Song of Songs (Ben Yehuda Press)