New Ideas from a Jewish Dreamer

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Rodger Kamenetz

In 1994, Rodger Kamenetz helped shift the spiritual center of liberal Judaism. His book The Jew in the Lotus combined the chronicle of a delegation of Jews visiting the Dalai Lama with an investigation into the possibilities for meditative mysticism in a Jewish context. The avid curiosity it provoked helped launch a thousand Kabbalah classes. Kamenetz's follow-up, Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Jewish Mystical Masters, won the National Jewish Book Award. But his latest offering, The History of Last Night's Dream, diverges in content and tone. TIME's David Van Biema wondered whether he was straying from his fan base.

TIME: This is even further from institutional Judaism than the last two: it explores a way of looking at dreams that involves elements of the divine but, as you put it, has "no fixed ceremonies, no creeds or beliefs." How Jewish do you remain? Are you doomed forever to push the envelope of the faith?

Kamenetz: I don't think I'm pushing the envelope so much as re-opening it. Historically, the rabbis are split on the question of dreams. None of them denied their power. A majority emphasized the anxiety and fear a dream produces, and a minority stressed their prophetic potential. There's a very mainstream saying, "A dream ignored is like a letter unopened." Meanwhile, I just gave a talk at the local Jewish Community Center, and the place was packed. So thus far, they love it. And I absolutely remain Jewish.

TIME: You write that Judaism isn't alone in an ambivalence to dream work.

Kamenetz: The dreams of Jacob or Joseph in the Bible are unmediated religious experience, and both Judaism and Christianity preserved mystical dream traditions. But direct religious experience is threatening to organized religion, which often mediates it with a rabbi or priest. Mainstream rabbis essentially closed the book on dreams by the sixth century, and Church fathers established that only certain saints have the discernment to determine which dreams are from God. The dream is exiled.

TIME: Your book describes your introduction to, and then immersion in, a new kind of dream interpretation. Only it's not really dream interpretation, is it, at least in the classic Freudian sense?

Kamenetz: Freud "interpreted" dreams by treating them as intellectual riddles whose details, once processed through free association, exposed hidden wishes. But the method I learned from Marc Bregman, a teacher in Vermont, uses the feeling in the dream to guide you. You identify a dream's strongest feeling — or what should be the strongest — what Bregman calls its "belly-button." And you consciously revisit it several times in the course of your waking day.

TIME: What do you mean "should be" the strongest feeling? Can you give an example?

Kamenetz: Many people start out numb to it. I now teach Bregmans method myself. A client told me she had dreamed she was chained in the basement and chatting with Bob Barker, the game show host, when her son came down the steps. She gives him a little kiss on his cheek and he leaves. The belly button was being chained up in your own basement, but she wasn't able to feel it. I said to her, "Gee, you were chained in your basement. When your son came downstairs, why didn't you ask him to let you go?" For homework, I asked her to revisit that image.

TIME: What happens from there?

Kamenetz: Your dreams change. Initially the belly-buttons help establish the dreamer's predicament — the situation you are trapped in or held back by. Over time, a character appears in the dream I call the Opposition, the essence of your destructive or self-destructive behavior. A child or children begin to show up, who are your own essence, or your soul. Eventually the dreamer develops what Bregman would call an "allergy" to the Opposition, and as it fades, adult male or female figures appear called archetypes, or the animus and anima. A very powerful, beautiful, profound and loving relationship develops between the child and the archetypes. Some people also dream an even more powerful male figure called the father.

TIME: Some of this vocabulary sounds familiar. Is this Jungian analysis?

Kamenetz: Carl Jung, in the years after he split from Freud, developed an adventurous dreamwork, but he eventually abandoned it because he thought it might lead some people to psychosis. Bregman follows in Jung's original spirit, but there are big differences and Bregman avoids the pitfalls Jung worried about.

TIME: And it affects your waking life?

Kamenetz: We've found that if you change the way you behave in a dream, you can change the way you behave awake, making better choices as you begin to recreate the kind of relationships that evolve in your dreams. In my case, one aspect was learning how to be a student. I've been teaching for 27 years, and do you know how hard it is to shift from thinking you're the teacher in every damn moment to realizing that you can be the student? That came out of my dreamwork, and students have come up to me and said, "Gee, you're a much better teacher."

TIME: This seems very new-age.

Kamenetz: Yeah and the New Age folks complain I'm too intellectual. I don't think that the theological vocabulary is as important as the experience. We don't want to get hung up on, "Wait, if I experience this, does it mean I need a new religion?" Dreams are at the foundation of all religions and I find the work done by Bregman and his group, North of Eden, bears a remarkable similarity to some ideas in the Kabbalah, which honors dreams. Many of the Christians involved are comfortable with the idea of the animus as Christ or the Father as God.

TIME: Your best known books might be called participatory spiritual journalism. You were a searcher but you maintained a certain objective distance from the material. But you describe your own experiences as an apprentice teacher of Bregman's method and talk of "we" rather than "they." Given this shift, do you think you could go back to writing the other kind of book again?

Kamenetz: No. I couldn't. You'd have to say, "He finally found something. God knows, he was looking long enough."