Open Orthodoxy

Where Open Orthodoxy Ends: Your final destination for open review of fringe Orthodox Judaism. If you have comments, send them to

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Native American Judaism

Rabbi Gershon Winkler is a controversial figure who is the founder of the Walking Stick Foundation which is “dedicated to the restoration and preservation of aboriginal Jewish spirituality, occasionally sharing events with teachers indigenous to Native American and other earth-honoring traditions.” In an article titled Times of transition, written a little over a year ago by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduate Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, there are parallel themes. Rabbi Kleinberg has presented many controversial views in his writings, however this has to be one of the strangest things to originate from Kleinberg: He discusses his experiences at a Native American "bar mitzvah".

When Kleinberg refers to the “bar mitzvah boy” I am not completely sure whether Kleinberg is referring to a Native American lad or an actual Jewish bar mitzvah boy partaking in a Native American ritual. It appears that Kleinberg is referring to a Native American boy as the “bar mitzvah boy”. My cognitive dissonance may be due to the fact that I am hesitant to believe the more idiotic of the two asinine options - that Kleinberg would repeatedly refer to a coming-of-age Native American male as a "bar mitzvah boy" and bizarrely integrate Jewish motifs such as the "young warrior" was prepared for the "day he would be called to the Torah and join his tribe alongside his elders." Regardless, it’s stuff like this that delegitimizes Open Orthodoxy, and makes others wonder what YCT's criteria for smicha (rabbinical ordination) is. Here’s the article:
Anyone that has ever been to a shvitz will know how cleansing it can be to sit in a room at extreme temperatures. One of my fondest memories from living in New York City was making my too-infrequent visits to the Russian/Turkish Bath House on 10th Street in Manhattan. And so, I recently jumped at the opportunity to experience a Southwestern-style shvitz.

The difference here was that I was not only cleansed from the inside out, but I was also replenished with a spirit of connectedness from the outside in.

It was my great honor to attend a "warrior initiation" ceremony for a young man about to join his elders as a bar mitzvah.

The ritual we shared began with a Native American prayer-chant accompanied by the rhythmic beating of a drum. The song, although in a foreign language, directed my senses to what was to follow.

Following the chant, 12 men and two not-yet-men (the bar mitzvah boy was accompanied by his younger cousin) got onto their hands and knees and crawled, one after the other, into the cramped hut. The diameter of the hut was no more than 15 feet and was no greater than five feet at its highest point. Just as the Mishna describes how the courtyard of the Temple expanded, as it were, on Yom Kippur to allow for the people to bow down during the service, so too, as the ritual continued and the intensity grew, it seemed as if the hut was expanding around us.

The ceremony consisted of four separate rounds inside the small willow-ribbed hut commonly known as a sweat lodge. In the first round, there were seven "stones," or coals, brought in to heat the enclosure. In each subsequent round, another seven were introduced in the ritual manner, totaling 28 stones by the fourth round. As each round got hotter, so too the intensity of the experience increased.

For the next two or more hours, I participated in one of the most moving and meaningful rite-of-passage ceremonies I have ever experienced. Once inside, the doorway closed, enveloping us in darkness, the smell of herbs rose from the pit in the center and the temperature increased. Each of us shared with the bar mitzvah some insight from our own journeys in life and offered with it a blessing for his.

I listened to a grandfather's sense of connection to a grandson named after his own deceased father; a stranger's blessing of wisdom and meaning in life; and a father's tears of joy and hope for his son's future.

As well as prayers and blessings for our "warrior," we also offered prayers for loved ones in need of healing and for a world in need of fixing. And with the passing of each of the four rounds, we concluded with a traditional Hebrew song, or a Native American chant or a good, old bluegrass sing-a-long.

By day's end, after the sun had dropped below the horizon - appropriately drawing our attention to times of transition and transformation - we crawled back out of that hut not only cleansed, but also spiritually replenished by our experiences with each other and by the knowledge that we had appropriately prepared our young "warrior" for the day he would be called to the Torah and join his tribe alongside his elders.