Spirituality, Religion, and the Lessons of the Holocaust: An Interview with Rabbi David Zeller

Today I’m posting an extended excerpt from a fascinating interview I conducted with the late Rabbi David Zeller, so I’ll keep my intro especially short: Rabbi Zeller, a transpersonal psychologist, was a beautiful spiritual teacher. I highly recommend his book The Soul of the Story, a collection of stories describing his experiences with teachers from many religious and spiritual traditions around the globe. David’s deep and varied meetings and learnings — from Jewish rabbis, Indian sadhus, Taoists, Buddhists, American Indians, a Shinto priest, Alan Watts, Carlos Castaneda, Ram Dass, Kennett Roshi, and the Mother — ultimately led him to greater appreciation of his Jewish heritage and Judaism itself. Learn more about David at www.davidzeller.org.

Rabbi David Zeller
Rabbi David Zeller

Ray Hemachandra: Rabbi, do you think the world’s varied religious traditions complement each other, all adding to the richness of human life, or do they compete for truth?

Rabbi David Zeller: Boy, you go right to the core, huh?

I would say that, unfortunately, it really depends on which people and which particular tradition we’re talking to and about.

From my own perspective, all of the world’s traditions are organs or systems — parts of the body — of humankind.

A very important principle from kabbalah, from Jewish mysticism, would say that if God creates the human being in his image, well, we could also say that the whole world is mapped out in the image of God, and all parts are part of God.

So, in the best of all possible worlds, each tradition is vital to the health, to the wholeness, of the total system.

If we take that model and just apply it to our own health, we have people who are healthy and their organs are working wonderfully and cooperatively. And, sadly enough, occasionally we have an organ that breaks through its boundaries and tries to overtake even other organs.

So, if my liver can convince the rest of my organs that being a liver is where it’s really at, and everyone should become a liver, well, in the medical- biological system, we call that cancer. To me, this is the problem.

There are people in all of the wide variety of world traditions, religious and spiritual, who are clearly aware that we are part of this greater whole and that our working together and harmonizing are vital to the health of the body of humankind.

And there are those who have no regard for this and insist “This is the ultimate one,” “We are the answer,” and so on.

From this derives most of the illnesses of our beloved planet.

Ray: Many people who reject organized religions embrace the idea of a personal spirituality. I wonder, Rabbi, do you distinguish between spirituality and religion?

Does spirituality reside within organized religions? Or does it do so only when an individual chooses to look for it there? Is the distinction real or spurious?

David: Let’s start in this way: Religion, at its best, embraces and is ultimately one of the finest vessels for that whole human-and-beyond spirituality. So, to me, the two together make the finest combination.

I have many friends and relatives who I would say are very spiritual people, and they are not particularly religious, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and American Indians.

I don’t feel that people choosing not to be religious is wrong, but I think they’re missing something. I think a spirituality without the religious framework sometimes can get too loose. The religion without the spirituality can be too rigid and shut down, and spirituality without religion can sometimes be like water without a container to hold it in. It just spills out.

I believe very much in holistic health, but I also embrace much of traditional Western medicine. They have the diagnostics and various things that can be very helpful. So, ideally, I try and tread as much as I can in both worlds for my maximum health.

I have found in my own life and search that when I was able to put the religion and spirituality together in a way that the religion was not strangling or suffocating me, the exact opposite became true — religion became that alchemical vessel in which I could pour my spirituality and it could really cook.

I find something similar psychologically, in confronting the ego. It’s easy to say, “I’ll do what I want when it feels good to me.” In Judaism, we have Shabbat. A person might say, “I’ll do Shabbat when I feel like it. I’ll go into Shabbat when I’m ready. I’m not going to be bound because the clock says when the sun goes down this and that need to happen.”

But, aside from religious concerns, isn’t that also an ego issue and a control issue? Maybe there is something about submitting and saying, “You know what? Whether I like it or not, I have to let go now.”

Shabbat is an example of what I call that alchemical vessel. I may have to struggle with certain boundaries imposed, but I do it in as fully spiritual, as alive, as conscious, as joyous a way as possible.

It’s that kind of interaction between the religious and the spiritual I seek.

Ray: Non-Jews who explore alternative paths are more likely to investigate kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, rather than what they see as traditional, mainstream Judaism, aren’t they?

David: Yes, definitely.

Ray: And perhaps that likelihood is because of the perceptual difference between religion and spirituality?

David: Yes.

Ray: Rabbi, what are such spiritual seekers missing out on when they bypass mainstream Judaism? And can you understand kabbalah deeply without engaging Judaism more broadly?

David: There is a universal kabbalah that has some very important maps — maps of being, maps of consciousness, maps of Godliness. These maps are very beneficial and very important, and I think all people can learn from them. You don’t have to be a Jew to study kabbalah.

On the other hand, Huston Smith, who wrote the classic book on comparative religions, The World’s Religions, and studied in depth all the traditions, at some point said something like, “Gee, all of my teachers that I learned from, they all practice their tradition very deeply. They didn’t study all traditions. And out of that depth they would come out with the most universal understandings. I need to really go into something deeply.”

Smith talked about the cut-flower syndrome. We say, “Oh, I love this Buddhist meditation.” Or “I love this Hindu chanting” or “I love this Jewish thing” or “I love this Christian thing.” We see this beautiful rose, and we cut it and put it in a vase. But, he said, the problem is we’ve cut it off from its roots.

He said the full power of a Buddhist practice is going to come when you are completely plugged into the totality of the Buddhist system, and likewise with all the different religions. So, the real power of kabbalah is going to flow when you are plugged into the full Jewish system.

I am not a great kabbalistic master by any stretch of the imagination. I teach kabbalah to many people who are not Jewish, and I teach to many Jews who are not religious, and I will continue to teach them what I know of kabbalah.

Yet, I will say to people that one of the deepest ways to access the spirituality is to start observing the Jewish holidays that take in the cycles of the day, the week, the month, and the year.

We have practices of prayer three times a day tuned into the ragas of morning, afternoon, and evening. We have this cycle every week of the Shabbat — of moving toward it, going into it, and then coming out of it. So many things are implied with living a life revolving around this weekly cycle of entering into the timeless dimension of Shabbat.

We have our moon cycles. Every month we have various things we do that tune into the recognition of the new moon and other things that affect our ritual and our prayer.

We have the cycle of the holidays through the year. We have the cycle of ceremonies in a lifetime, from birth and bar and bat mitzvah to marriage and so on. All of these cycles create the totality.

But, again, the issue of the religious and the spiritual: We can do a spiritual thing. The question is: Is it planted as deeply, rooted as much, as it can be?

I can’t really answer that authoritatively. I guess I should. If I’m a good rabbi, I have to say, “Yes, you must do this.”

But I can only say, from an almost romantic place in my heart, I believe if a relationship is going to work, you really have to give it everything that you have.

Ray: What does Judaism have to teach first and foremost? What is its most basic spiritual lesson? And what are its core ideas?

David: Well, I remember my teacher Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once said, “You know, our goal is not to make the whole world Jewish. Our goal is to let the whole world know there really is one God.”

So, it comes back to this idea that there is an over-all, unifying consciousness-being-loving-intention in the universe. I would say that is one of the primary special things about Judaism.

Like many other people, we are not missionary. Our self-esteem isn’t based on whether we can convince everybody to be like us. We just want to serve God in the way that we were put here to serve God.

You know, I learned that from American Indians. I have learned that from many people who have said, “We have our particular path.”

I also think that in Judaism, in particular, we are the guardians of sacred time. It is our particular commandment, which is a bad translation of the word mitzvah, which really means “that which joins you to.” It’s like these are actions we do that make us one with God.

There are people all over the world who meditate. I wish Jews would meditate more! Yet we have a particular, actual mitzvah, saying, “I enjoin you, I command you, you must take time out.”

I think that puts us in a special relationship with how to negotiate between temporal day-to-day life and that spiritual, eternal dimension. It’s our Chronicles of Narnia. How do you negotiate beyond the limitations of this world of time and space and discover there is this whole other realm? I think that’s very much one of our contributions.

The essence, in a way? I always like to tell people — Jews, even more so than non-Jews, because we forget ourselves, or never knew, what the roots of some of our tradition are — I always say that our first label was with Abraham 4,000 years ago. He was called a Hebrew, and in Hebrew the word really means, “He was crossing over.”

Not just that he crossed over the river from one place to another, but he saw that in life we have to go beyond where we are. We have to see beyond the outer appearance of things. Things look separate, outer, superficial, material, but there is a unifying, Godly life force that unites, that gives existence to everything.

What it really means to be a Hebrew is to be someone committed to this constant journey to keep crossing over.

Then later on, we became called Jews from Abraham’s great-grandchildren. One of them carried the name Jehuda. Of all the tribes, that was the one that in the long run became the identity for all of the Hebrew people, all the children of Israel.

The name Jehuda, why we’re called Jews, means to give thanks. I think that’s one of the real core essences of being a Jew.

I’m an observant Jew, so I keep as many of the commandments as I can, but to me the essence is to be a Jehudi. We carry this name which means to give thanks.

What does it mean to give thanks? It means I have to be conscious about and I have to acknowledge that there is someone to thank. Whether that is my friend, my spouse, my partner, my child, my parent; whether it is God; whether it is the beauty of the tree that I am sitting under or walking by, it means to have an attitude that reminds me I am not the center of the universe. There are others around me, and there is the all-encompassing one.

Constantly lifting my awareness to really have the highest attitude of thanksgiving and of gratitude is an essential thing.

The other thing very deep in Judaism is really seeing God in everyone and everything always. It is a primary verse from Psalms: “I see God before me always.”

That is understood in the mystical tradition to mean not just, “I’m thinking of God all the time. I’m so holy that I have God in my mind and God is in front of me always,” but, no, “I see God equally in everyone and in every thing that is before me, that even is opposite me, that even is against me in a way.”

Can I see God equally in everything? I feel that is a major challenge and an ideal that Judaism strives for, because that is the gateway to compassion — to caring deeply and passionately for all life. Caring not just for Jews, not just for people, not just for this or that, but caring for all of life throughout the whole universe.

The Psalms reflect praise of the sun and the moon and the stars, and we really extend that out as far as our mind allows us to.

I guess you’re discovering that I answer questions way too long. (Laughs.) Sorry to put you through my meanderings and wanderings as I try and answer these questions as much in the present as I can.

Some of my mother's mother's family in 1914
Ray Hemachandra’s maternal grandmother (left), some of her sisters, and her mother (right) in 1914

Ray: Rabbi, fewer and fewer survivors of the Shoah remain alive to testify.

David: Yes.

Ray: Your grandparents died in the Holocaust, as did many members of my family. Your father — miraculously, and you tell this story in your book — left a camp due to your mother’s efforts.

The phrase “never forget” carried such weight for generations, but is humanity now forgetting? Anti-Semitism clearly is on the rise in parts of the world, including in Europe, the seat of the Holocaust. Horrific genocidal slaughters take place, and the world too often seemingly does nothing.

First, what does it mean to remember the Holocaust? Second, is humanity remembering? And, finally, in the context of this interview between us, what are the spiritual lessons of the Holocaust?

David: Wow — OK.

I think that on the largest scale the real importance of remembering is in order to comprehend the capacity that the human being has to forget all love and all compassion and to enter into the deepest places of cruelty.

It’s important to remember that the Holocaust happened not 3,000 years ago, or 2,000 years ago, or in some primitive or paganistic place. It happened in one of the most civilized places in the history of the world, with the most civilized and cultured music, art, and religion.

We have to remember that it happens in our own home. Amidst our own day-to-day, seemingly wonderful lives, full of values and so on, come moments of hatred and of violence. It’s very, very real.

In the 1950s, Denis de Rougemont wrote a book called The Devil’s Share. He said that if we think in defeating the Nazi armies we have defeated evil, we are in for a tremendous problem in the years to come, because we haven’t begun to look within ourselves at the root of evil — a root that exists within everyone.

Jung said the same thing in his own way. Until human beings begin to confront the shadow, the evil, this dark side within ourselves, we will never begin to approach a place where we can eradicate these feelings in order to foster love and coexistence.

Remember, to me, means all of that. And, yes, for us as Jewish people, it means remember that this was done to a particular people because of their particular religious beliefs.

Those are the issues that the Holocaust brings up. It was in a modern time in civilized, cultured society. And it turned upon a people who never tried to dominate the world, never tried to force their way on anyone. They just said, “Just leave us to do our own thing.”

Because of the number of people murdered, it was so important. That’s not to say there haven’t been horrible things done to others. Things that America, in its development, did to the Indians. Things that happened to the Armenian people. That happened in Rwanda. That happened long before the Holocaust to people other people thought were primitives and things that happened afterward.

We always have a justification. And we have to remember that, for most of it, the whole world stood by because it was only the Jews. Like, it was only some blacks in Africa.

So, remember! Remember that you can actually stand by and allow something to happen and somehow say, “That’s OK,” or, “It’s not so bad,” or, “Well, who are they anyway?”

The issue today: Have people remembered?

No. They really haven’t.

Did we learn anything from the Holocaust?

Basically, almost nothing. (Long pause.)

Which isn’t to say there aren’t people who learned tremendously from it. The Holocaust changed their lives and made them more compassionate and caring. They are on those watchdog committees and organizations. They try to recognize when it’s happening to other people around the world and where it’s still continuing to happen in various ways to Jews.

But overall, it seems that so much is forgotten. We have not begun to confront the cruelty, the anger, the darkness in our own soul, and so it will continue to come out in these very harmful and hateful and destructive and murderous ways.

Ray: You live in Israel now. I’m 40 years old, and in North America, it seems to me, in each decade even the pretense of remembering the Holocaust seems to recede. It disappears from the language and the conversation more and more.

David: Yes.

Ray: While acknowledging that sad state of affairs, Rabbi, what spiritual lessons should we learn from the Shoah?

David: (Long pause and deep breath.)

The hardest thing, in a way, is that first and foremost we have to say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand.”

We can come up with a thousand theories to explain how could it happen, why did it happen, how could people do this, how could they act like this, how could they have been so lied to that they actually think they’re not dealing with humans, that it’s only animals.

All of that experience does need to humble us tremendously — us being all of humanity. It almost is incomprehensible that something like this can happen. But we now know it can.

And then it’s very important, as hard as it is, to somehow say that this is part of God’s plan.

Not that, “Ah, God was punishing them for this or that,” even though people will look for cause and effect. Rather, this was a major, cosmic production that we will never fully understand.

How could God put on such a play on the world’s stage with such suffering and such cruelty? Somewhere, you have to say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand. And I have to somewhere hold onto and believe that God is in all this.”

But, again, it’s a very dangerous line.

Because then we say, well, so the people were meant to die to bring people to this. And what happened to other people in Rwanda, to these people here or those people there — all meant to happen. It’s all God, or it’s all karma, so everything is just fine.

No, that’s not the point. The point is still to say, “I don’t understand.”

I can see that there is hunger in the world. And someone might say, “Obviously, that’s God’s will.”

Well, it might be that it is God’s will that there is hunger in order to bring me to a place of doing everything I can do to eradicate hunger.

So, do we thank God for hunger? Do we say it’s so good that we have poor people who we can give to? It’s a very, very fine line.

I think that the Holocaust should never let us sleep complacently that we understand God and that we understand our human nature that God planted and buried in us and hid from us.

Ray: In your “Essay on the Tree of Life,” you write:

Perhaps more than anything else, surviving the experience of the Holocaust left the heart teachings of Judaism forgotten and almost inaccessible.

Like the high priest who couldn’t serve God in the Holy Temple if he had come in contact with death, because death darkens, saddens, or angers us, and in that frame of mind one can’t serve God with truth, light, and joy, similarly we today, having been touched by six million dead, can’t serve God in our teaching and learning.

The words come out, the information is passed on or over, but the light, the truth, and the joy within are lost. Our greatest task today is purifying ourselves to serve God, truth, and joy, once again. To rediscover, regain, and restore access to our soul and to God.

I found that passage very powerful. It gets at the beginning of our conversation, too, about spirituality — the light within religion — and how after the Holocaust, for many, religion became form rather than substance.

So, again, the question arises: How do we get back to the substance?

David: Yes, that is the ultimate goal. I think that religion — true religion and true spirituality — needs to clear continually the clouded, dirty window of our mind that continually is going to places of judgment, of difference, of other, of separation, of blame, of superiority — of all these things.

It is deep, deep work that penetrates through the darkness and helps us to find that Godly life force within us and to see it equally in everyone around us.

We need to come back around to that and just hope and pray that we can go beyond our complacent ego. The ego can so fool us into thinking we are doing whatever we want to think we are doing.

Again, like I said before, I am not putting the ego down. But when that mask takes over and everything becomes masks-manship, we just come full circle.

What is the work we have to do individually, in our families, in our communities, and in the world to recognize the differences of people, religions, and cultures and to honor them and foster them to reach that place of unity in diversity that is both the foundation of the health of our individual body and the health of the body of humankind?

I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I produced some 30 years ago. It said, “Put the elf back in self,” which is, again, my sense of humor regarding trying to see something else within.

I think now we have to try and put the kind back in humankind. We really have to put every ounce of our effort and strength and very life force into becoming more kind, loving, and caring to ourselves, to everyone around us, and to God.

We have to really begin to try and feel God’s love and God’s kindness for all of creation and for all sentient beings.

Ray: I want to ask you questions similar to ones I recently asked Sakyong Mipham, the leader of Shambhala Buddhism, and ask them now about Judaism:

What is the most common misconception about Judaism among non-Jews? And what is the most common misconception about Judaism among Jews?

David: I would say among both Jews and non-Jews there is a tremendous misunderstanding about what keeps getting put on us as the chosen people. It’s tremendously misunderstood by Jews and non-Jews alike.

The way I understand it is, yes, we’re chosen by God to do the particular thing that God has chosen us to do. And you — whoever the you is — have been chosen to do the particular thing you have been chosen to do, again going back to that model of all parts of the body of humankind.

People say that we make ourselves different, and that gets interpreted as better, when all it is is different. As my kidneys are different from my lungs are different from my liver is different from my heart and so on.

Yet the world points the finger at us as trying to be exclusive and goes out to do whatever against us. It’s many of the other world religions that are saying, “This is the only way, and everybody has got to become like us.” So, then, why are you pointing the finger at the Jews, when we’re not insisting anyone be like us?

We’re saying, “This is what we have to do for our part of maintaining the balance of the totality of humankind.” We’re just hoping everybody else will get about the business of doing their thing.

That’s a big misconception, I think: that with chosenness people think we somehow cut ourselves off or think that we’re “better than.” Chosenness just is saying we have this work to do.

Ray: What are your best hopes for this time in the world, Rabbi?

David: For me, my plea as a Jew to the world, my plea to everyone, as my American Indian and other teachers from different traditions have said, please let us all go about doing the work that we’re here to do for the betterment of all of life.

We need to help each other to feel good about who we are and what our traditions are, so we can discover the real essence and truth and the very highest and finest of what those teachings are.

If the world would empower Jews to be the best Jews possible, and if the world would empower Christians to be the very best and the essence of what Christianity is, and of what Islam is, and of the many large, well-identified traditions and the smaller traditions — the large billions of numbers of people in certain traditions and the very small and delicate numbers in others — if we could just empower people to find and walk their sacred path and their sacred tradition, if we could just reveal that hidden essence, it would be the greatest service to all of us.

We only benefit ourselves by strengthening the other.

This approach by the world also is what we desperately need ourselves as the Jewish people, who have been through such opposition. We hope we can contribute to others finding their way and finding the beauty, the pride, the essence, the praise, and, most importantly, the compassion and thankfulness that we all need to manifest more and more.

Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment or offering a Like, and I encourage you to share the link to this interview. I also invite you to read other excerpts from my interview with Rabbi Zeller … 

… and to read and enjoy other interview excerpts with leading spiritual teachers posted on this blog. Here are links to just a few of them:

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