Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Strange Land, New World

by Jonathan Shefa

I am the first Jew to live in this cloistered Benedictine monastery. I don't blend. I wear a kippah everywhere I go, and I observe the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays. I'm studying to become a rabbi, and I live here in this remote community of Catholic monks vowed to chastity and obedience.

I didn't come here because of any personal interest in their religious practice. I came here to resolve a question I've been living with for a decade, since spending a year of contemplation in a matchstick hut on a hilltop in the Galilee. A lot of things happened that year, but there are three in particular that have become central features of my life: Shabbat, hitbodedut, and the Yovel. The first two are practices; the third, a quest.

Shabbat is Hebrew for the Sabbath, and I've been keeping it -- no computer, phone, TV, car, or money from Friday sunset to nightfall on Saturday -- ever since. Hitbodedut is an ancient practice of walking out into the fields, the forest, the hills ... wherever you can be alone, and talking out loud -- to God, the source of all being, Allah, whatever you want to call it. It's my central daily ritual; I don't know who I'd be without it. The Yovel is the Jubilee Year, and I first truly noticed it that year in the Galilee. I was immediately taken.

I had spent the previous four years working to end hunger. During that time I encountered no one who had the answers I was looking for. I decided to find my own. Israel -- the land, the region -- had been, in a sense, the source of an idea -- the idea of one God -- that swept the globe. It seemed to me we needed a new idea, not to counter that one but to move us forward as a species, to lead us to change the way we relate to one another so as to move beyond the eminently avoidable crisis of hunger. I decided to go and find out what it was that had given that first idea such legs.

That's when I came upon the Yovel. If you don't remember it from the Bible, the Jubilee Year is the fiftieth year of the economic cycle, when all property and productive resources are meant to be redistributed equally to ensure, among other things, that disparities in wealth do not balloon out of proportion, and to firmly establish economic justice as a core feature of life in the Promised Land. It's God's holy reset button. After spending so much time applying Band-Aids, it was refreshing to come across an approach that was boldly idealistic, that addressed the problem in a fundamental, structural way. Here was the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, wearing its social justice boldly on its sleeve. I wondered how it could be that as a people we can get so caught up in the particulars -- so bent out of shape if someone uses a light switch on the Sabbath or blends linen in a wool garment or, God forbid, enjoys a little bacon -- yet when it comes to something so obviously relevant to this world, so clearly beneficial and spelled out in black and white with no room for misinterpretation, we hardly even acknowledge it, let alone practice it, not once.

So I began to look into it, and I've been doing so ever since, delving deeply into the dimensions, meaning, and practice of this ancient commandment that seemed embedded in my consciousness. At one point, I began working with an Orthodox rabbi to study all of the commentaries and super-commentaries on the section of the Torah dealing with the Jubilee Year. I quickly went from one to three mornings per week. I'd get up at dawn to make my way through the slush and snow so we could pore over the texts. If you knew me, you'd be all too aware that nothing in my life has ever gotten me up at 6:00 am, especially not voluntarily, and certainly not regularly. I was hooked.

I was especially inspired by Nachmanides's interpretation of Leviticus 25:2, which changed my life. Nachmanides (known in Orthodox circles as the Ramban, from Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) remains, nearly 750 years after his death, one of the most authoritative interpreters of the Torah of all time. His commentary is breathtaking, betraying a command of traditional texts that would put any modern scholar to shame. He was a scholar, a doctor, a philosopher and a deeply accomplished kabbalist and Jewish mystic. It would be hard to overstate his influence. In his commentary on Leviticus 25:2, the Ramban, normally quite abstemious with his words, goes on at length to say that he can't actually say what he's about to say, but he'll say what he is permitted, and if you "bend your ear," you may merit comprehension. Here, he refers to the Yovel as the "great secret of secrets of the Torah": a secret he claims, with amazing chutzpah, that Moses himself did not know.

This is the secret I have been pursuing ever since, and it led me here, to this band of Catholic hermits in the forest. Not, as I say, because they're Catholic. I came here specifically for two things: time and space. I wanted to cut out all distractions, to focus all my energies on figuring out just what the Yovel means, and what I'm supposed to do about this secret that has marked itself so indelibly on my soul.

In considering this move, I expected to pore over books, consider commentaries, and build an argument, theory, or plan. Over time I realized that when the Ramban wrote that he couldn't say what he was about to say, his statement wasn't hyperbole, it was literal. According to Jewish tradition, Moses wrote the entire Torah from beginning to end. Whether or not that's factually accurate is unimportant; the idea is expressive of a spiritual, rather than a material truth. To say that there is something within the Torah that Moses didn't understand is a big deal. It means there was something that he, as holy stenographer, was called to transcribe but not transmit. It means that there is something God wanted us to know and do for which Moses and his generation were not ready; God knew that someday, somehow a generation would be ready. This is no simple secret. What I discovered was it wasn't enough for me to bend my ear -- I had to bend my heart, my soul, my self.

I had come to the right place, and my few months' sojourn in the forest wound up lasting two and a half years. It's impossible for me to fully describe my journey here, but it's fair to say that it's the furthest I've ever traveled while staying in one place. These two years have been extraordinary. They began with a serious outpouring. Within the first six months I recorded well over a hundred hours of ideas as I wandered about the property.

The hermitage rests on about a thousand acres of redwood, oak, maple, and eucalyptus forest. Deer use the cloister as a safe haven. The ocean spreads below our hilltop in infinite witness, while the stars press so close the Milky Way seems like low-hanging clouds, rather than a band of distant light. I walk the trails as if on stage before eternity -- the universe present, watching, listening, here.

In those first months I was alight, charged with possibility. The silence, space, and freedom from un-chosen demands on my time uncovered a wellspring that lay hidden within me, and I poured myself out. This uncovering process didn't end after the initial honeymoon -- it deepened. Life became, in a way, an ongoing meditation. Soon after my arrival, I moved into an old silver trailer on the edge of the forest. It's cozy, with blond wood-paneled walls and large bay windows looking through the woods toward a creek bed at the base of the hill. When I'm not wandering the property talking to God, this place is my fishbowl, where there's only so far I can go before coming up against the edges of my self. Here, I am constantly confronted with my state of mind; there's no escape, and little distraction. I bought front row seats to the life of Jonathan and there's simply no intermission.

We have no living monastic tradition in Judaism. I had to come here to find this. I've always known, on some level, that this would happen. Even twenty years ago, when I was just entering university, I remember asking my girlfriend, "How would you feel if I took six months to live at a monastery?" I wound up practicing Zen for years, and even spent a fair amount of time on retreat at Zen monasteries. But at this stage of my life I chose to come here, to a Benedictine monastery that holds no spiritual resonance for me at all save the monasticism itself. Since there's no mold within my own tradition into which I can pour myself, I came here to create my own.

The choice to come here, and to stay, hasn't been easy. At first, the solitude would often transmute into loneliness. But the biggest cost has been the time away from my own people, from a community that shares the same way of relating to the divine and imagining the future. Community is an essential feature of Jewish life, and for me this is especially the case when it comes to learning, envisioning, and inspiring together. I've missed that.

Yet I recognize that this was entirely necessary. A central part of the uncovering process has been a profound stripping away of the voices and identities I no longer need, a paring away of inherited notions of who I am. I've taken Occam's razor to my self. For this, distance has been essential, especially distance from those who most directly shaped my sense of identity -- such as my father, who as I was growing up told me again and again that I could do anything I wanted, and then, as soon as my choices became clear, told me over and over, "You can't do that." This schizophrenic approach has helped to foster deeply warring factions within me -- on the one hand, unbounded hope and aspiration; on the other, paralytic doubt.

Living in my fishbowl, grappling with my own fears and doubts full-time, I came face to face with how deeply embedded they are. I came to see that fear is a core feature of the ego itself: it's the fuel that keeps the ego going. Fear isn't just something that strikes now and again; it is built into the system, a kind of energetic white noise that helps perpetuate the illusion of separateness and keeps me from living here, now, in total equanimous surrender to what is. As one teacher of mine recently put it, "fear is the glue that binds the ego together." This, I discovered, is one of the hidden lessons of Eden. The story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the Torah's symbolic representation of what's holding our species back from living in a world of peace, freedom, and justice, where we share the earth's bounty as beloveds, rather than hoarding it as enemies. It's an attempt, in spiritual terms, to capture the central ongoing error of humanity. The first thing that Adam says to God after eating from the tree is, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I am afraid." This isn't a statement of passing emotional distress; it's Adam conveying to God the nature of the shift, what it was now like to be alive, to be human. The world we see around us -- the world still plagued by war, poverty, and ecological destruction -- is a world based in that fear. Though it's hard to characterize exactly what the object of that fear is, one way might be to say it's a fear that everything isn't just as it's supposed to be, and that things will not be okay just as they are. The result of this fear is the impulse to control, either literally through action, or psychologically through repetitions of the past and ongoing mental projections of the future in our minds.

The opposite of this fear is trust. And this, it turns out, is one of the deeper secrets of the Yovel: it's an economics of trust. The Yovel seems impossible from where we stand because it is impossible from where we stand. It's meant to be that way. It stands as the antithesis to a world based in fear. Unlike mixing wool and linen or holding the cheese on that burger, the Yovel is not a commandment that can be performed by rote. To fulfill the Yovel -- to let go of our own narrow self-interest to such an extent that we could actually start over and share this planet -- requires nothing short of evolution. To fulfill the Yovel requires taking the next step in our journey as humanity: spiritual transformation. The reason we've never kept it is that we've never been ready.

This radically antithetical quality has made my task here all the more challenging, since my objective has been not only to understand the Yovel, but also to explore what steps we might take to bring it into reality; my true aim is to bridge the spiritual and the practical. Indeed, almost every time I talk with someone about the Yovel, one of the first questions they ask is: "How? What are people actually supposed to do?" Responding to this has been especially perplexing since the deeper wisdom of the Yovel suggests that the remedy to the ills we see on this earth can be much better characterized not by what we need to do, but by what we need to stop doing. Keeping the Yovel requires not simply doing things differently, but being different.

But how do we do that? How do we start the process of stopping?

The culmination of my efforts thus far is Global Sabbath -- a movement, organization, and campaign designed with the aim of helping humanity move toward manifesting the deeper principles of the Yovel in this world.

The Yovel is the ultimate expression of a system. The system begins with the cycle of weekly Sabbaths: on every seventh day we briefly step back from the world, let go of control, and experience a taste of peace. It's a weekly spiritual retreat. The next stage of the system is the Sabbatical Year, during which the outward (and correspondingly inward) practices of the Sabbath find even sharper expression. The Torah's vision of the Sabbatical Year is one where every seventh year food becomes free and the earth is allowed to rest completely, where debt is released and servitude is nullified. In the agricultural world of the Torah, this means a year dedicated entirely to pursuits of the spirit, for everyone. After seven cycles of seven years, the system culminates in the Yovel, when everything goes back to the beginning.

This entire system of Sabbaths can be seen as a training program, in which we develop, day by day and year by year, the spiritual muscles and stamina necessary to engage in ever more advanced expressions of spiritual development -- within ourselves and in relation to one another and the earth -- personally, politically, economically, and socially.

I founded Global Sabbath with the aim of capturing this system's inherent emphases on orientation, direction, and taking things step by step. Our first major campaign will be to organize a global day of rest for humanity, the earth, and all its creatures: a day of rest from violence, hunger, and destruction of the natural world. Why only one day? The Talmud teaches us that if humanity were to experience one day of true Sabbath, it would change the course of history, that it would be the beginning of a new world. Tasting our true potential, all together -- knowing that around the globe people are experiencing peace, that the earth is receiving its due rest and that we are sharing this world -- would shift something within us, giving us a new sense of what is possible, our true capacity. We'd come to realize that if we can do it for one day, we can do it for two; and if we can do it for two, we can do it for good.

In practicing what it's like to be our highest selves for one day, we'd also develop a much more intimate understanding of what it will actually take to live in a world of peace, freedom, and justice. I can't say exactly how it will unfold, but a central emphasis of Global Sabbath will be on personal responsibility, globalized. It is increasingly clear that we cannot rely on our political leaders to create the world we'd like to see. If we want the world to change, we must change -- we cannot wait for someone else to do it for us. Global Sabbath is designed to help us take the necessary steps to change together.

Once we've organized one day of rest, in alignment with the wisdom of the Yovel we will organize opportunities for all of humanity to experience ever-deepening expressions of our potential. Is Global Sabbath even possible? I have no idea, but I take comfort in the words of an old Hassidic Rebbe: "Ask not if a thing is possible. Ask only if it is necessary."

From a Torah perspective, it would be difficult to argue that anything is more necessary than manifesting the deeper lessons of the Yovel in our world. Keeping the Yovel, and the system of Sabbaths leading up to it, is set down as the Torah's precondition for meriting life in the Holy Land. It's the clause that was added to the second covenant after the first tablets were destroyed during the fiasco of the Golden Calf at Sinai. It became our part of the bargain. Without the Yovel, there'd be no Torah at all, and it's made clear that should we fail in our responsibility, the earth will "vomit" us out. It seems apparent that the planet is now suffering from serious nausea.

The Golden Calf was built out of fear. Tradition tells us that Moses had told the people he would be back from the mountaintop in forty days, but they got confused; on the fortieth day they couldn't figure out if he had meant to count from the day on which he said it, or the first day of his absence. And on that thin pedestal of doubt, the Calf was built. It seems the same with us today. We live in an abundant world, where there's more than enough to go around if we share, yet our deep-seated fear and our doubts about what might happen if we were to let go of control lead us to choose a world of scarcity instead.

The philosopher John Rawls suggested that a just society should be designed from behind a "veil of ignorance." He meant we should choose the way our society will work without knowing where we might find ourselves within it; we choose which system to follow knowing we could be anybody. Looking at the world today, where a few have so much while the remainder get shafted, would anyone reasonably, from behind a veil of ignorance, choose to keep things as they are? To do so would be to all but guarantee you've chosen a life of hardship. The Yovel, on the other hand, seems a lot closer to the kind of system we might choose without knowing which card we might draw.

I'm a different man than when I first came here. Though my journey from fear to trust is not over, there is one thing I've learned beyond a shadow of a doubt: Our true potential as human beings so outstrips the way we live day-to-day, it's as if we have the capacity to become different beings altogether. We have everything we need to live in a world of peace, freedom, justice, and abundance. One of the core teachings permeating the Torah is free choice. A central expression of this is the way we choose the times; the celebration of festivals, when they fall, is not set by God, but by us. The same is true of the Yovel. Today, possibly more than ever in history, we have the tools to choose a new way. To do so, the great challenge is to move from fear to trust. Though this may sound pretty straightforward, the reason the secret of the Yovel cannot be spoken is it's not about simply understanding this conceptually; rather, it's about knowing it, about cultivating a trust so complete all fears and doubts give way. To truly grasp the secret of the Yovel is to glimpse another world. This is why the Yovel is a precondition for living in the Promised Land -- were we to transform ourselves to the extent necessary to choose it, to develop a trust that unshakable, then we'd look around to find we're already there.

Though recently defrocked, Jonathan still considers himself a Jewish monk. He now lives in Jerusalem, where he continues to work on Global Sabbath. He holds degrees from McGill and Harvard. Visit

Source Citation: Shefa, Jonathan. 2010. Strange Land, New World. Tikkun 25(6): 59

tags: Eco-Spirituality, Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Judaism, Rethinking Religion  
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