On the holiday of Shavuot, Jews around the world ‘gather again at Sinai’ to receive the Torah anew.
The mountain – according to the Torah itself smoking like a furnace and accompanied by thunder, lightning and terrific noise – is perhaps Judaism’s most enduring image of divine revelation.
Not only does this imply that the transmission of God’s message is blatant, unmissable, and unique in history; it also explicitly suggests that revelation is a ‘top-down’ process, something that descends from on high. Moses, the one, extra-special prophet capable of receiving this Torah – the rest of the people are assembled, but warned to keep a safe distance; they may look, but not touch – must literally climb up to a high point and stay there, the lofty mountain-peak apparently the meeting place of heaven (God’s domain) and earth (ours).
I mention all this because Rabbi Jill Hammer’s new book Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams calls us to radically re-examine this paradigm for divine revelation. What she offers us instead is an immediacy of encounter with Spirit, an encounter which is ongoing, universal, and powerfully accessible: in the words of the Quran, a God that is “closer than your own jugular vein”. (Quran 50:16)
This is the possibility opened to us by the dream world, in particular when in our dreams we can access what Hammer calls ‘the Place.’ In Hebrew ‘the place’ is ‘haMakom,’ a classical rabbinic term for God (i.e., the Ground of all being) and in this, as throughout Undertorah, Rabbi Hammer’s scholarship and deep knowledge of Jewish text is evident both in and between the lines. In amongst quotations from Jung, David Abram, and a rich selection of contemporary poets, healers, scholars, and specialists in dreamwork, we thus find tantalizing tidbits of Jewish lore about dreaming drawn from the Bible, Talmud, liturgy, and kabbalah.
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Undertorah is fun to read, filled as it is with vivid first-person dream accounts, both the author’s and those of dozens of others she interviewed while gestating the book. These dreams provide extraordinary images of encounter, which in each case Rabbi Hammer unpacks for the reader, offering suggestions for how the dream might be understood.
However, this is far more than a book about individual dreams and what they might tell us about the dreamer’s personal psychology or experiences.
Rather, Undertorah shows us how our dreams encapsulate powerful and universal spiritual themes – and indeed give us rather more direct access to the Source itself. This, Rabbi Hammer writes, is why “we might call the dreamworld the Undertorah – a deep well of truth that lies hidden and bubbles up from beneath, shifting our notions of divinity and prophecy”.
In contrast to our mountain-myth in which one older male is selected to be the sole conduit for revelation, Undertorah’s approach is not only universalist, but profoundly egalitarian. As Hammer explains,
“Dreams are part of the human spiritual faculty – that is, part of the innate human faculty to perceive ourselves as part of something larger…Usually we think we are separate from that ‘natural world’, but when we dream, it is as if someone has opened a back door through which we can circumvent our ordinary isolated consciousness and touch the life force of which we are a part.”
Dreaming, as Hammer makes clear, is also a collective or social activity. On a literal level, we know that having a friend, counselor, or group with whom we discuss our dreams strengthens our dream life immeasurably. Thus along with sound practical suggestions in each chapter advising the reader on how they might “work” their dreams on their own or one-on-one, Hammer also provides a valuable step-by-step guide for convening a dream group as the book’s final section. Undertorah represents a philosophy, but more than that, it is a resource.
Beyond the merely practical aspects, though, Rabbi Hammer emphasizes the fundamentally “communal nature of dreams” – that is, that dreaming is a collective social resource. In many traditional cultures people make a practice of sharing their dreams, knowing that the revelation received by one person may be of great use and relevance to others. “Dreams … show us solutions for the small and large problems we live with but don’t know how to address”, she writes. This is all the more true when the health of the community is itself at stake, and the earth is enduring such stress. Hammer quotes Jungian psychologist Meredith Sabini’s perspective that, “Were we living in a viable traditional culture during a time of upheaval such as our own, we would be gathering regularly to hear and discuss dreams… Dreaming itself is a natural resource, abundant and self-renewing”. “The earth is often sending us messages that show us how to heal.”
The author curates the dreams she discusses into several chapters. Topics include direct experience of the Place, and temples and sacred spaces visited in the dream world; ancestral healing through dreams; elements like water, wind, and fire as portals for divine presence; nightmares; sacred union; and dreams of death and rebirth.
Despite the lofty nature of these themes, the tone throughout is grounded and humble. Although (besides being a scholar and a gifted teacher) Hammer is clearly a formidable dreamer herself, and one with a great deal of expertise and insight in understanding the truths that dreams convey, her analysis and advice are always put gently, thoughtfully, and with a tone of suggestion rather than certainty. As is appropriate for this ‘bottom-up’ Torah she seeks to support, not to dictate. Like the unfolding functions of the natural world, this Torah is not only emergent, rooted in the shared subconscious, but also communally ‘owned’.
Not only does Undertorah have an undergirding egalitarian and powerfully universalist belief–namely, that the Presence (the Place) we each visit in the dream world is the very same Presence that everyone else visits–it is also a touchingly personal work. The author lets us in on some profoundly personal elements of her being–not just her own extraordinary dreams, but their meaning in her life as she finds self-love, accompanies her father’s death, and faces other challenges and experiences in her family.
Most striking, though, is the sense of her tender intimacy with the Divine, which Hammer finds everywhere in the world, seeking our presence as we sleep. This intimacy is not rarefied but sensuous – “less a Torah of words and concepts than it is a Torah of feeling, shape, and color. It is an embodied Torah, and it commands us not because of any imposed authority, but because of the intimacy of its message”.
One final image that the word ‘Undertorah’ summons for me, though it is not mentioned in the book, is from a legend about the revelation at Sinai that is found in the Talmud.
In this wonderfully strange and dream-like scene, the sages picture the mountain lifted and suspended above the heads of the people. Although originally construed as a threatening image, a Chabad chassidic teaching effects a powerful transformation, ‘re-reading the dream’ so the suspended mountain is instead the chuppah under which God and Israel will be married; the Torah is the ring.For anyone seeking more intimacy with the Presence in their waking and sleeping world, for anyone seeking a way to be deeply moved by the bubbling up of a Torah from the wells of the collective unconscious, Undertorah is a must.