Thinking through the Metaphors of Deep Ecumenism: A Dialogue

By Arthur Green and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Rabbi Arthur Green is one of the preeminent authorities on Jewish spirituality, mysticism, and Hasidism today. A student of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Green has taught Jewish mysticism, Hasidism, and theology to several generations of students at the University of Pennsylvania, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Brandeis University, and Hebrew College, where he is currently Rector of the Rabbinical School. Some of his recent books include: Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow and Radical Judaism. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, better known as Reb Zalman, was one of the world’s foremost teachers of Jewish mysticism and Hasidism, as well as the father of the Jewish Renewal and Spiritual Eldering movements, and one of the pioneers of ecumenical dialogue. A student of the 6th and 7th Lubavitcher Rebbes, Schachter-Shalomi went on to teach Hasidism and Kabbalah, as well as Psychology of Religion, at the University of Manitoba, Temple University, and Naropa University. Some of his last books include: Geologist of the Soul and Foundations of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism. Reb Zalman passed on in July of 2014. 

In this dialogue, the root metaphors of ecumenical discourse are discussed by two modern masters of the Jewish tradition like a page of Talmud, l’shem shamayim, 'for the sake of heaven.' The dialogue was excerpted from a longer conversation that took place in Reb Zalman’s home in Boulder, Colorado on August 19th, 2001. It was originally transcribed by Ivan and Temima Ickovits and later edited for inclusion in an early issue of Spectrum: A Journal of Renewal Spirituality (Volume 3, Number 2, Summer-Fall, 2007).

— N.M-Y., editor

ZALMAN SCHACHTER-SHALOMI: Is the earth alive? Once, it was considered idolatry to ascribe consciousness to the earth and the stars. Now we talk about 'vibrations' and 'energy,' and it is more acceptable to say that they are consciousness. We can even speak of a galactic consciousness, or a solar consciousness.

This is why I feel a connection to the traditional Melekh Ha’Olam, the 'World Sovereign' description of God, because this is a Gaian God with whom I can have a connection. With a Solar God, in a manner of speaking, the distance is too great; it takes the Sun approximately 250 million years to make one circuit around the galaxy, and my experience has little to do with that galactic time-scale. But when I say, Melekh Ha’Olam, speaking with the Gaian-consciousness of the Global Brain, I can say that every religion is like a vital organ of the planet, and we need to have all the religions. This moves us away from the triumphalist[1] point of view to one that is organismic. 

Then comes the question, “How does the Universal Mind want to be addressed?” It needs personas (partzufim), metaphors, and forms through which we can get to the uniqueness of the Universal Mind, and these are what we find in the different religious traditions. If it appears as a woman, looking like Mary, the mother of Jesus, we might not feel that this is appropriate for us as Jews. But how should the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) appear to the imagination? We need to have it in a form that the heart can recognize. This is what I make of the sentence, dibrah Torah bil’shon b’nei adam, it comes as it has to come to each individual awareness. 

When other Jews criticize my acceptance of non-Jewish spiritual traditions, I ask them, “Do you believe in God’s special Providence (hashgahah pratit)?” And if they do, then I ask, “Do you think God was asleep when Jesus was born? Or when the Buddha was born?” If God’s Providence is true and we believe in 'general souls' (neshamot klaliyot), then how else can we see such souls as Jesus and the Buddha, except as general souls through which the Divine-flow (shefa’) comes through to people?

 ARTHUR GREEN: We are very close on this issue, though I think I want the religions to be seen as 'garments' (levushim) rather than 'organs,' because I want to say that “the One is one and whole in itself.” It is seen in different vessels as It addresses Itself to different civilizations. Garments clothe the body, but organs are part of the body, dividing God, as it were.

I think every mountain, every tree, and every flower is a garment (levush) for the One. We believe in biological diversity, in cultural diversity, and spiritual diversity, because the planet needs to recover the spiritual truth that has been lost in the modern world. And for this healing, we need to preserve all the diversity we can; but I think I am still more comfortable with the language of garments than the organism.

SCHACHTER-SHALOMI: I understand your point, but the problem with garments as opposed to organs arises around the question of the collaboration organs have with each other; there is inter-dependence with organs.

When I have dealt with health problems in the past, I really began to understand that the kidneys and lungs share a connection—that the kidneys and the heart share a connection, and that each one influences the other to find a balance for the whole.  There is a book by Sherwin Nuland, called How We Die, in which he says, it is a mistake to say that someone died from a 'heart attack,' because the rest of the organs had to give consent to that as well. That is to say, they were all getting fatigued in the process.

It used to be that people would say, 'she' or 'he died of old age.' But now, because the medical profession wants to find the 'culprit,' we no longer acknowledge that the organism as a whole begins to shut down. Nuland writes that the mutual influence of the inner organs is important. So when I look at the organismic understanding of things, it is better to me than the flatland democracy, with no distinctions and hierarchy. Some people say, 'everything is the same,' but it isn’t. With the organism, we have distinction and inter-dependence.

GREEN: I understand that “your intent is desirable,” as it says in the Kuzari, but what of the question of the supernatural origins of the traditions? I want to say something that goes like this:

There is the One Universal Being, a line of life present in all things, undergoing the whole evolutionary process, struggling to manifest itself, seeking to be known. It is a Creature seeking a garment for Itself, one which can ultimately have self-awareness, that can ultimately stretch its mind to be aware of this greater Whole. This One Brain manifesting all of our brains, manifesting all of our cultures, needs of us, calls upon us, to know It, to recognize It. And we, as people and cultures, then create all the forms. We create all the forms through which It is known, whether those forms are the Eucharist, the shalosh regalim, the chakras, the language of metaphysicians, or the language of Buddhist angelology; whatever these forms are, we create them. We create them in response to an inner call from the One, which says, “Know Me!” 

If you say, “organs,” you are making them more part of the One, rather than the human response to that inner call, and this is why I still prefer 'garments' to  'organs.'  I do like the inter-dependence of the organic relationship, but you seem to be saying they are essential revelations, rather than human responses.

SCHACHTER-SHALOMI: No, this isn’t the way of it for me. The first cells are called stem-cells. Stem-cells are generic cells that can become particular cells when the body needs them to do a unique task. Now, when I look at the Earth, I see that species are interacting in this same way. What is it that salmon spawn eat? What is it that comes from the old fish that has died? Everything has to become everything else! I see this as an organic issue, and this is the reason that I feel strongly about the specificity of organs. 

If I say it is a garment among other garments, it loses some value. But if you say it is a 'vital organ,' then they are not something one can divest easily. This is why I want to counter triumphalism by saying, if the heart were to say, ‘the whole body can exist by the heart alone,’ without the kidneys, without the lungs, then it is obvious, isn’t it, that the body is going to die! That is why I want to make the total inter-dependence more palpable.

GREEN: Which tradition do you want to make 'the heart,' and which one 'the kidneys'? 

SCHACHTER-SHALOMI: Each tradition always wants to claim the heart.

GREEN: Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari makes someone else the kidneys; it’s not much of a concession.  

SCHACHTER-SHALOMI: Yes, and when I was reading Emanuel Swedenborg,[2] I found that he has a Maximus Homo, a primordial human corresponding to Adam Kadmon. But, unfortunately, the Jews are the rump, the back-side. People will designate as they will. 

GREEN: Are you sure that these are all vital? Let’s choose a tradition other than our own. Let’s suppose that Zoroastrianism and the Parsis disappear; too many of them become middle class, they move West, intermarry, and their tradition disappears. Is the body of the Universe, the mind of God, going to get sick because of that? I don’t think so. It will survive. Certainly, It would be diminished because of that. We are poorer for not having Dodo birds, and I regret that the Universe doesn’t have them, but the Universe has made itself new garments and has gone on; they have planted what they needed to plant into the civilizations of the world, and I don’t think there is a vital organ missing. 

SCHACHTER-SHALOMI: The psychologist Alfred Adler wrote about how the body compensates. If you have only one kidney, you can still do quite a lot. Even without a gall bladder, you can still survive. That is true. But, I still feel that there is a contribution that gets lost. I want to say, 'As a Jew, I need to be a Jew, because I am making a contribution, not only for myself, but also for the planet.' The better a Jew I am, the better the contribution I make. The better a Catholic Christian is, the better contribution she or he makes. But then, I don’t speak about garments that you can take off or put on. That is why I like organs.

 GREEN: The difference is essential.



1. Triumphalism is the belief that one’s own spiritual tradition will 'triumph' in the end, all other traditions being proven false.

2. A Christian mystic and scientist known for his great works, Heaven and Hell and the Arcana Coelestia.

Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey Dialogue

Sreedevi Bringi, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Father Alan Hartway, Stephen Hatch, Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez, and Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, hosted by Roland Cohen

The sixth and final event of the 2014 Awake in the World Conference was an interreligious dialogue (hosted by the Shambhala Mountain Center and Naropa University on October 24th, 2014) in which six representatives of different religious paths engaged in dialogue on "Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey."

The Snowmass Conference and the True Heart of Dialogue

Netanel Miles-Yépez

The 2nd Snowmass Conference at Ananda Ashram in La Crescenta, CA, 1985. Front Row: Swami Buddhananda, unknown observer, Gayatri Devi, Pema Chodron, Tania Lentov Back Row: unknown observer, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Gerald Red Elk, Imam Bilal Hyde, Fr. George Timko, Fr. Thomas Keating OCSO. Photo by Roger La Borde.

The 2nd Snowmass Conference at Ananda Ashram in La Crescenta, CA, 1985. Front Row: Swami Buddhananda, unknown observer, Gayatri Devi, Pema Chodron, Tania Lentov Back Row: unknown observer, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Gerald Red Elk, Imam Bilal Hyde, Fr. George Timko, Fr. Thomas Keating OCSO. Photo by Roger La Borde.

There is a common misconception of what interreligious dialogue is supposed to be about. Often, assuming the subject to be 'comparative religion,' the well-intentioned participants prepare in advance, looking for similarities and differences in their traditions, hoping to find arcane bits of information with which to make an impression on the other. But this is to miss the point . . . albeit subtly. For the subject is not really 'religion' at all, but a relationship based on dialogue. It is not that it is wrong to prepare for a dialogue, but that it is a mistake to think that a dialogue between, say, two representatives of different religious traditions is really about two religions, rather than the relationship of two individuals with different religious commitments. Though a subtle distinction, it was precisely this emphasis on relationship that made the dialogue of the Snowmass Interreligious Conference (usually, the Snowmass Conference) a unique and inspiring phenomenon in the world of religion for over twenty years.

The now famous Snowmass Conference was originally the idea of Father Thomas Keating, one of the pioneers of interfaith dialogue in the Christian tradition and the co-founder of the highly influential Centering Prayer movement. Having resigned as abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey (a Cistercian Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts) in 1981, Father Thomas took up residence at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. Officially retired, he began to devote his time to the dialogue work he loved.

In 1983, he was invited to participate in a series Buddhist-Christian dialogues at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, that would ultimately change his whole approach to dialogue. During these sessions, Father Thomas noticed something interesting:

. . . I noticed that we, the dialoguers, weren’t speaking to one another so much as we were addressing the audience. But, on the two occasions when the conveners succeeded in bringing us together a day before the conference, we got on very well and actually got to talk to one another as peers, albeit all too briefly. So I asked myself, what would happen if the whole point was just to get together and talk, without an audience? And what if it was broader than just a Buddhist–Christian dialogue?[1]

The next year, after collecting a host of recommendations, he issued invitations to a select group of individuals. Among the attendees of the first Snowmass Conference retreat at St. Benedict’s Monastery were: Thomas Keating, Pema Chodron, Douglas Steere, Gayatri Devi, Gerald Red Elk, Rami Shapiro, Bernie Glassman, and Bilal Hyde. It was as impressive a roster as any public interreligious dialogue had ever had before, except that this dialogue was to take place far from any cameras or eager spectators in an isolated little monastery in the Rocky Mountains.

Naturally, on the first day the group talked about the unique nature of this meeting. Everyone understood the significance of meeting in private, but many were still unsure of how to go about the dialogue in this atmosphere. What were they to talk about? And at what level of exchange were they expected to speak?

Father Thomas knew that if this was going to be successful, it would have to be based on intimacy. But this was a group of strangers. It was obvious that they needed to tell their stories to one another first; comparative religion would have to wait. “This was the reason we were disinclined to have any observers at the Snowmass Conference,” Father Thomas told me, “because what was developing was a kind of friendship that enabled us to feel comfortable and safe enough to share, to disclose to each other, what our own spiritual journey was like . . . You usually won’t tell your secrets to somebody unless you’re friends or until you know that person. So the idea of getting acquainted and being at ease in private was a primary goal.”[2]

But even if the space was safe enough in terms of privacy, there was still one question in the back of their minds: should the conversations be recorded? It was clear that this was an historic meeting and some wondered if they had an obligation to record the sessions:

When the question was raised, “Do we want to tape some of this?” Grandfather Gerald Red Elk said, “No, that would not be good, because then we would be hesitant about people back home hearing what we say. This is intimate stuff, and I think we should not share it outside the group. If the wisdom needs to be heard, it will be heard.” That won the favor of everyone, and we’ve never taped a conference . . .[3]

Thus began one of the oldest and longest-running interreligious dialogues in the world, and certainly one of the most unique. Over the years, word leaked-out about this unusual cabal, and with it came many invitations to hold their dialogue in a public setting. On the occasions that they acquiesced (mostly in the early years) it was an unmitigated disappointment for all of them. The public loved it, but the members felt that something was missing. So they declined any further invitations and went back to what they loved best, an intimate dialogue among friends.

This they continued for 20 years, weathering changes in membership, sickness, deaths, and the increasing fame of some of their members. In 2004, acknowledging their 20th anniversary, they began to wonder if perhaps they had served their purpose and considered calling a close to the Snowmass Conference. But talk of “the end” seemed to give a new energy to the dialogue that year, and they took up an old question: should we not share something of what we have learned? For, by now there was an accumulated wisdom in the group. It was not that their answers were new, but that there were subtleties to them, real-world wisdom born of experience in the trenches of interreligious dialogue. It is always the simple things that are the hardest to understand and do.

In the end, they decided that they would publish a few memories and a series of aphorisms on what had made their dialogue work over the years in a commemorative pamphlet. Since I was acquainted with four of the ten members, it was suggested that I help them to shape just such a document. I agreed without much deliberation. But when I looked at their collection of “Points of Uniqueness,” I immediately thought that their idea of a pamphlet was too humble; there was something here to be shared with a much wider audience in a small book.

So I interviewed all of the members to learn not what they had talked about, but how they had talked about it. What made it work? What were the bumps in the road? And how did they deal with them? As much as people may have wanted to hear the details of what was undoubtedly a wonderful discussion of religion (me included), this was not what people needed to hear (nor was it in the spirit of the group’s original intention).

Thus, our book, The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue (2006) is primarily a book about dialogue. I have reconstructed some of the notes from the first conference in it and give the Snowmass Conference “Points of Agreement,” thoughts on “Spiritual Authority and Ethics,” and “Points of Uniqueness.” But as wonderful as these pieces are, they are merely the by-product of a profound relationship. The Snowmass Conference members learned to appreciate one another as individuals, and how different religions inform and enrich the experience of an individual, and this is what we can learn from them as we continue to explore the same territory.


[1] Miles-Yepez, Netanel (ed.). The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue. New York: Lantern Books, 2006: p.3
[2] Ibid, p.34
[3] Ibid, p.16