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Judaism, Catholicism, and Wicca

An Interview with Jim Haber

Jim Haber was raised Jewish, and in his twenties found Reclaiming-style Paganism and got involved in a Catholic Worker soup kitchen. RQ talked with him about what he finds in each practice, and how the three work together for him.

What did it mean to you to be raised Jewish?

Chanukah parties and special days off school; missing sports for Hebrew school. We were observant for Reform Jews, but we didn't keep a Kosher kitchen or anything. We had a special Shabbat dinner on Fridays. We blessed the candles, wine and bread. I went to Sunday school, became a Bar Mitzvah, learned a lot of stories, celebrated holidays, went to Synagogue about once a month, learned some songs. I didn't do much of the camps or Jewish youth groups.

Was it a spiritual experience for you?

It was more a culture and a history. Although some of the melodies were stirring emotionally, I wouldn't say I felt an ecstatic relationship to the practice.

Do you now?

Well, some of what I've always gotten with circles and magic, I've found in Jewish practice and teachings too. For a while, I thought Judaism was spiritually dead, but I just wasn't aware.

What drew you to Reclaiming?

I was really drawn to this more egalitarian practice. It is so participatory. It's not about preaching, it's created together, with guidance. I also liked the in-the-street sort of activism that's part of the faith. I first met Reclaiming folks while stopping missile tests at Vandenberg Air Force Base. I moved to San Francisco in 1985, falling in with spiritually inclined, process-oriented, anarchist activists. I took Reclaiming classes and really liked making ritual at demonstrations.

What led you back to Judaism?

I didn't go for (Reclaiming) initiation, but I knew about the process where people give you challenges. So I thought, what are some challenges that I should give myself? One of them was to find in Judaism some of what I began to realize was in all things. If there is a basis of love in the teachings — despite how it's been practiced over the years — that's the fundamental truth, if you're open to it.

Knowing it must be there, it wasn't hard to find. I was really inspired by the Jewish Renewal movement. There's a lot of it here in the Bay Area. It's very spiritually alive. There is actually a long tradition of meditation in Judaism, and much of it looks kind of like Buddhism. And it's not just a revisionist movement. Some of these traditions we draw on are really old. Hebrews were a tribal, nomadic people (before the Temple was built). The name means "border crosser."

There's been a lot of leeway for people to create their own ritual, their own prayers. The Jewish faith has a cycle through the year that is similar to the Wiccan way we go through the year and each season has its point of reflection.

You also live and work in a Catholic Worker community. What's the connection for you?

I'm not a Catholic; therefore I'm a "little c" catholic worker. The cw is a service-oriented, social justice movement started in 1933 by Catholics who created a faith-based response to the Depression, militarism, and the politics of greed. Believe me, you want to be at a demonstration with catholic workers, and you want to break bread with them. "The only solution is love in community," said founder Dorothy Day. And catholic workers practice what they preach.

I wanted to localize my politics, and I'd heard about the soup kitchen. I've been there since 1986, full-time since 1993.

I was an anarchist, not a catholic worker. Later it gained a spiritual dimension for me and I became both. Dorothy Day also said, "When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist." Today, they call us terrorists.

Many of the ethics and values I hold now are the best of Christian teachings. They derive from Jesus preaching the best of Torah and the prophets. Reclaiming and other faiths work for much the same good. I see "gentle personalism" (seeing a divine essence in each person and the works of mercy (as in Matthew 25 or Isaiah 58) reflected in Reclaiming.

I feel like Reclaiming Pagan types are very judgmental against these religions. Some of us have been wounded by teachers or priests or whoever, so it's understandable. But there's also Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Sister Helen Prejean, and Dietrich Bonhoffer.

I regained faith in Judaism, and it feeds me. I know that it exists in Catholicism. I've seen it. Of course, Catholics have hurt Jews, and Witches —

— and Catholics —

— and Catholics. I don't think any faith is free of abuse, and the bigger the institution the worse the hurt and offense. But when we make jokes about "those other faiths," or can't go there, I feel pain. It's an opportunity for growth, a chance for reconciliation! It's a blessing! Still, we're not obligated to complete every task, we just have to keep trying; so I forgive myself when I hold resentments, knowing full well that it's better to let go.

There's much to be gained for the world if we reconcile, somewhat at least, with faiths that we left. Extreme forgiveness is really important to me.

What's the common thread of your involvements?

Universality and paradox. The divine is both immanent and transcendant.

Works in this world charge up the divine. The Goddess needs us to care about the world. Kabbalistically, there is an ascending and descending of energy. God needs us to care. Catholicism has the Mystical Body of Christ of which everyone is a part.

I feel open to teachings from wherever. But I also know it's really important for me to feel at home with my birth-faith.

Both Judaism and Christianity are word-oriented, in the sense that both have sacred writings on which their faiths are based. Reclaiming is different, in basing our faith and practice on a relationship to the Earth. Does this enter into your relationships?

Judaism is certainly based on the power of words. Hebrew is amazing, and even the space between the words is holy.

In Jewish practice, though, there is also much singing of wordless melodies (called "Nigguns"). If a song has Hebrew words, but the people singing don't understand them, it's like a Niggun. The melody can still be very powerful.

At a Reclaiming ritual, if I feel open but unmoved, it's often because the invoker or meditation leader is trying too hard with the words. They want to be poetic. In Wicca we move energy with will, but it has to flow freely. We could work with silence more.

Earlier you mentioned "ecstasy." How does that relate to your three practices?

I get ecstasy from some of the Jewish Renewal songs; at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley the energy blows right through the roof. When I spin like a dervish I get out of myself. At a (Catholic) funeral one time, during the litany of the saints, I was just bawling, breaking down. And I felt like, I don't want to feel this in a church. But I also felt like just letting it go. Ecstasy is the point where I can feel that ritual is working. In a spiral dance, looking in everyone's eyes, I just open up, holy self to holy other. We are all one, even as we are each one; one big holy whole.

Something I look for in a spiritual practice is that "tingling" sense — something that I don't know how or why I'm moved. It feels like a gift from the cosmos. It confirms my sense that there is something greater than ourselves, something ineffable. We can't really define the divine. You can't pin it down.

God is everything and nothing. That space between everything, and everything also. That's very Kabbalistic, and some might say very Buddhist. It's universal — or at least world-wide. I thrive on seeing those connections.

I think that's where peacemaking will ultimately come from, Peacemakers thoroughout the centuries have been saying these things.

RQ interview by George Franklin