Ghostvillage.com author interview
Rabbi Gershon Winkler is the author of a dozen books on Jewish folklore, theology, and mysticism. He’s the co-founder of the Walking Stick Foundation, a non-profit group based in northwestern New Mexico, devoted to recovering aboriginal, earth-honoring spirituality. He’s a renowned scholar and has been called a “stand-up theologian” by the Tallahassee Democrat — you’ll realize it’s a title that fits if you ever get the pleasure to speak with him. Ghostvillage.com interviewed Rabbi Winkler about his latest book, Kabbalah 365: Daily Fruit from the Tree of Life.
You were born the son and grandson of very religious rabbis in Denmark. What made you change course and explore the shamanic and more esoteric roots of Judaism?
Gershon Winkler: Read my book: Travels with the Evil Inclination — it’s all in there. That’s why I wrote it. So people won’t keep asking me this question. At the tail end of the story, I end up moving to the wilderness where my Judaic learning and practice became re-inspired and re-shaped by the experience of living with no neighbors other than trees, rocks, mountains, and skunks. After a while, you begin to realize that God is nondenominational and Creation is replete with mystery camouflaged by foliage and striped stink bombs whose pastime is rummaging through your cabin while you’re bathing below the clifftop in an icy rushing creek with biodegradable soap that smells worse. At that point, you begin to re-examine all those ancient and early-medieval writings about the magic of animals, the mystery of plants, the wonders of rock spirits, and how you can’t truly commune with the Creator unless you also do so in the language of birds and hill tops.
Why did you form the Walking Stick Foundation?
Gershon Winkler: I wanted very much to share this sorely-neglected body of Jewish wisdom that’s gone underground over centuries of censorship and oppression by cultures that hosted my exiled, scattered people. I felt it was time to come out of our closet, just as it is time for Wiccans to come out, and Native Americans who, only in the last three decades, have been allowed to restore their primal ways.
Today the term “Kabbalah” is being thrown around quite a bit — from Hollywood celebrity t-shirts to New Agers who incorporate some of its principles along with many other traditions. What does Kabbalah mean to you?
Gershon Winkler: Gosh, I sure can use some of that dough from those celebrity folks, but I am not willing to commercialize this very ancient and sacred mystery wisdom. Kabbalah is a Hebraic word that literally translates as: “A Receiving.” This implies so much the opposite of what some so-called Kabbalah programs propagate, a particular “system” or some kind of mystical science etched in stone. On the contrary, you are then not receiving but feeding. Receiving means just that, being so open to the magic of the ordinary experiences of being in life, in your body, in your environment, the earth. The teachings are as varied as they are old, varying with each "school," each inspired by an experience or several experiences of being here on this wondrous planet, emanating from being open to receive the gifts of wisdom and depth of Beingness that is available to us all if we leave our ears on and our eyes open. Being visually or audio impaired is no excuse either. Several of our greatest Kabbalists were blind. We never referred to them that way, though; we instead called them “saggei n’ho’ra," which is Aramaic for “Perceiver of the River," referring to the mysterious River of Light, or Fire, referred to often in the Kabbalah. Kabbalah dares us to step beyond the known into the often intimidating realm of the unknown, to see into the unseen, to hear in the flap of a raven’s wings the communication of the raven’s spirit. Kabbalah is the act of being open to possibility, to the realization that nothing is what it seems, and everything is more than it is cracked up to be. Every aboriginal spiritual tradition has this body of wisdom, this way of being, and we just happen to give it this name Kabbalah.
Kabbalah 365 is full of 365 great nuggets for living life. Words of wisdom from wise old sages — some who passed away many centuries ago. What was your biggest challenge in compiling this collection?
Gershon Winkler: Locating hundreds of such teachings with which I’d been familiar from studying many years ago or from oral traditions in which I’d been marinated over the decades. I could have finished the book in a day or two had I simply left out the sources. But it felt extremely important to me to include the sources since most of these teachings would be otherwise met with skepticism by people unfamiliar with the more aboriginal language of Judaism, which would be most people, Jews and non-Jews alike. They would be reading something like, the spirits of animals communicate through the sounds that animals make, or each of the four directions has an animal assigned to it, as well as a color akin to those of the Native Americans, and a spirit as well — and the response would surely be something like “He’s disguising Native American stuff as Jewish.” This is something I am often accused of, until I take out the old Hebrew or Aramaic Jewish texts and actually show the sources. This is what I do in the book and it took a lot of re-examining and going to special Jewish libraries to re-examine old manuscripts or microfilms thereof.
I noticed a very strong nature theme running through a lot of your collection. Do you think modern Judaism is getting too far removed from nature?
Gershon Winkler: Yes, and that is why I wrote this book as well as my earlier book Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism. I wanted to remind my people of their original roots in earth-based spirituality, and how that got swept from under them by the tides of tragic historical circumstances. We are a land people. Over 240 instructions in our Torah had to do with the earth and with animal care. We were once twelve unique tribes, each with a particular animal, plant, or earth totem. And, as both books demonstrate, our ancestors were obsessed with the magic of the earth, the stars, the planets, the animals, and no less the spirits of each; they saw the earth and the planets not as some dead weight floating in space but as living organisms. The 11th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), for example, wrote nonchalantly how the divine consciousness of the stars and planets are greater than that of the human and a little lower than that of the angels. And he wasn’t even considered a Kabbalist.
What is your favorite day from your book?
Gershon Winkler: Day 366. My second favorite is Day 298, a teaching from that rationalist rabbi mentioned before, Moshe ben Maimon, who wrote: “The primary source of confusion in our search for the meaning of the universe as a whole, or even of its parts, is rooted in our mistaken assumption that all of existence is for our sake alone.” I really believe this, that so much of our turmoil, inner and outer, is a result of our glib assumptions that we know anything about this world. We have lost our sense of wonder. These teachings remind us of that. We think in absolutes. The fact is, there are no absolutes. And of this, my friend, I am absolutely certain.
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