Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal Movement; Professor emeritus, Temple University; Professor of Religious Studies, Naropa University

Interviewed by Jennifer Goldman — 2003

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A: ...I've read the questions that you have, and the issue about the intractable, how to think about it, you know. I think that's the strongest part, because once you consider it really intractable, then you can't do anything about it. On the other hand there are some things that currently seem intractable, and so we've got to examine some of that. If you're ready to go ahead I have some thoughts on that.

Q: Sounds great. Why don't we just jump in.

A: Alright. Each issue of conflict usually gets handled as if it was an issue in the cortex, actually, the neocortex, actually. But in reality it's really an issue in the reptilian brain. But we haven't yet found a way to calm down the sympathetic nervous system of the people who are in conflict with each other, and to tell them that they are now in a safe space, and that they don't have to think in terms of aggression of the sense, but that they can go to a hard space that includes the other. Now, how to get to that point is really what the problem is because we want to first explain to people, so that on the cortical level, they'll understand what the problem is. Because unless they understand it and give a certain kind of consent, they aren't going to move. Are we clear on that?

Q: Yes, and I want to clarify the terms that you're using.

A: Please, go ahead.

Q: Okay, when you say the cortical level, you're talking about a certain type of the brain?

A: Correct.

Q: Can you say which part, or...

A: Yeah, the neocortex, I'm talking about. You see, the brainstem, the basic thing, is Jurasic Park. We got that...That's the reptilian, and that is so quickly hardwired. It's the fastest neural thing because it leads us to survival. And so the moment we feel ourselves threatened, the whole body gets into that place where it wants to defend itself, stiffen, you know, and to make sure that the other one not only cannot attack, but that the other one will be obliterated. There is, one the other hand, afterward, the limbic system. And the limbic system is where we eat, drink. It's more closely related to the parasympathetic nervous system, but it's also where we do things in rhythm together, where we dance or celebrate, and so on. And once you get to the place of that celebrative thing...And that's why it's always good for people who are in this situation to cook for each other and to serve each other some food, to share some music, so that there can be that place in which there is limbic agreement before you even go to argue about a conceptual thing. And then I think what happens is that one can ask the question, how do we manage to be able to understand the other person's position and to see what is really negotiable, because it is really, you know, the stuff we hold up our sleeves, which we won't give at the first time in our negotiations. And what is not negotiable, because it would put the other person out of existence. And in the Middle Eastern conflict in Israel, Palestine right now that seems to be the situation, that there is a basic...that the cortex of the people who are negotiating is in the service of the reptilian. And so they can't give anything, because if I look an inch that I give...And that has something to do with presentation of self, you know, because in social psychology we speak of presentation of self. Another way of saying this is losing face. And notice how even in the loss situations each one declares victory. That's their way of saying, I will not be vulnerable, I will not lose face. So even that needs to be interpreted, that if you're going to go for face, there is no way in which we can do that. Because the people bring with themselves into the negotiation what I would call an internalized board of directors and an internalized inner audience. So, for instance, if Abu Mazen has to speak, he realizes that inside of him sits Arafat, and behind him sit the Hamas people, and so on and so forth, so that he never is completely in the present because he's simultaneously talking to the gallery. Does that make sense?

Q: Yeah, it does. He's not present in the moment while he's talking with the other because he's so involved, you're saying, in his head, with the other (???).

A: Right, everything he has to measure against their approval or disapproval. So, I'm saying there is a certain amount of preparation necessary on the part of both people, if they want to enter negotiations, to be able to see their own hardwiring, their structure, their social setting. And that cannot be done when both parties are together, because each one will think that if I give in to understanding what you're saying, then the other guy wins already. So what has to happen is that they talk to each party separately and show them that there is no way out of this labyrinth, except by fully understanding who I am in this negotiation. And I promise that I will not bring the two parties together until I will have them both in the place where they understand what the basic dialogical boundaries are.

Q: So you're talking now from the standpoint of a mediator or a facilitator between two different parties?

A: Yeah.

Q: And have you used that method before?

A: Well, I can't say that I was doing a lot of political or national stuff, but when I've been working with couples in trouble, you know, sometimes even as they're preparing for divorce, to be able to point out to them...for instance, look, you have a common interest that you will not lose, which is the interest in co-parenting. You'll separate on the spousal thin and give each other the freedom. Another question is, how can you both survive? When you get to the lawyers, each lawyer seems to want to say, I want to protect the turf of my client and I want to get the maximal deal for them, which is...For the male they would say sometimes I want you to not give as much alimony or not give as much child support, and if you're going to offer this first, and they'll schlep more from you, you know? So that is the lawyer's way. But if you get to somebody who's a good mediator and creates the arbitration and prepares both parties: can you see that the expenditure of time and energy on your part, how great this will be if you stay in the fighting mode, how the children that you're co-parenting are going to be affected by that for a long time.

Q: So you show them a common interest to help align them around that common interest?

A: Yeah. Let me tell you a little thing that I'm doing for a wedding. At a Jewish wedding you have such a thing that's called veiling the bride, called "badekken" in Yiddish. At the badekken, usually it's being done in public and the bridegroom comes and they all sing and he puts the veil over the bride and so on. Since I've been doing...the last 20 years I've been calling the blood relatives, the immediate blood relatives, it means parents, children in the time of a second marriage, and siblings, of both sides, into a room together with the bride and the groom. And I say to them, look, these people, this is the beginning of their life. Could we make it easier for them by removing heavy karma from them. And so I will ask them to forgive you, because you can't grow up in a family without having unforgiven stuff against your parents and siblings, and I'm going to ask you to forgive them. And you go and meet them one on one, and it's so amazing what happens in that room, you know. The change from social civility to heartfulness becomes very great. Then I ask the bride and the groom to look at each other with the eyes in which they see not only the glory and the beauty in one another, but also to see, you know, the devil and the bitch. And to be able to say, and yes, I will say to this entire spectrum of that person that I want that person to be my spouse. Then when we go to the marriage ceremony, you know, to the canopy, what a difference has happened to the family. And I create also a social situation in which I ask the people who are attending to reconfirm their own marriages and to go to the highest place that they can think of, because we're about to do a social weld that should last for a lifetime, and that I would like this marriage to be hassle-proof. Do you see what I'm getting at?

Q: Yes.

A: There is a setting into which you can produce things that normally...I would say in the normal Hollywood wedding nobody would attempt to go that direction.

Q: Can you say more about some of the ways...How do you set the stage for that kind of transformation to take place, and if you can think about situations, it doesn't need to be on the international or the global scale, but even on the interpersonal scale, how would you recommend to people to...(???)

A: Well, you see, we recently had a situation where a congregation here in Boulder split. The Jewish Renewal Congregation split over their differences about their spiritual leaders, their rabbis. And we went through a whole bunch of processes, and it's so wonderful when you have people who are willing to go to that place. And one of the things that we asked them was to visualize the possibilities that if they would separate, how would they stay harmonious and collaborative with each other. And then to speak out loud about those dreams. And that was an eye opener because instead of thinking who's going to have the resources and the facilities and who's going to own the hardware for the PA system and who's going to have the Tora, etc., you know, a whole different dream developed. So the question is, can people give up...I'm going back to the intractable problem...Can people give up dreams that they hold? And I don't think that they are able to do this immediately without making them explicit. Could you imagine if some Palestinians would say, my present situation is that I will not want to see Israel as a viable state; in fact, I want to drive them all out. And that gets put on the table, against which you can do some reality testing. What would it cost you in your sacrifices, in your children who would be blowing themselves up. What would it cost you in your infrastructure, in the pain and the problems that you would have over it in the future. And so the reality testing against that dream sometimes, I'm not saying always, shatters the dream. There are also some places where you have to take some anchoring and loosen it up. In this case it would be between Islam and Judaism. When people see them again in what's called the triumphalist mode...That's to say that when the messiah comes, when the last (???) comes, he'll point out that our people have been right all along and all the other ones were wrong and they're going to go to hell. Fundamentalists often have that point of view and when you speak of Islamists at this point they often have that point of view. Likely also there're some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem that as long as the others are alive and they have their religion and their lives, that they will spread, etc., nothing else can happen. But making that explicit, you know, makes people...When I hatch this as a dream inside myself and only with my close people who are also dreaming the same dream, then we go into a shared trance about it, and the trance creates action directives that are not going to be helpful. But if I wake people up to the point where I say, would you make explicit what you're dreaming about, first they're ashamed to say it, you know. But after a while something comes out, and when they hear with their ears what their mouths are saying, you know, there tends to be an amelioration of the position, a softening of the position.

Q: And what you're talking about, it strikes me, is happening, it sounds like, on the intellectual level, not just on the emotional.

A: Yeah, but you see, when I begin with that, it's always the intellectual level can work easily, and most of the time people attempt to go directly to the intellectual level without having done the homework, which is on the pre-intellectual level, where (???) and safety and so forth are involved. In some way that has to be handled, and for this reason often moving to a turf that is neutral, like going to Oslo, for instance, made it possible to be able to talk, to go to Camp David, you know. For Sadat and Begin it was a wonderful opportunity because both of them were not at home, and there was already a disconnect happening from their audience and their board of directors, and they were more in an I bow(?) relationship with each other.

Q: Can you say more about the I bow(?) relationship and what that looks like in terms of helping people deal with conflict?

A: Well, as long as I treat the...Let me go back to the Holocaust. As long as I treat other people as if they're objects...In this case it was Jews are Vermin. And so what they used was this kind of a poison that kills vermin. That was, uh, I forgot the name of it...Cyclon B(?). It was that kind of a poison because that's the tool with which you are dealing with people as objects, and then you shovel them into the ovens, and you know. They're no longer seen as people. When they were cutting up bodies and taking body fat to make soap, they would speak of the soap as (???), soap made of the figures, you know. Here you have the object situation again. Now the truth is that it may also have been that on our side there were people thinking about the Goyim, oh come on, there's no use trying to talk to them, they're not human beings. And so when we remove the other person from...even stand as person to person, unmediated, you know, and which we both don't know what the next one is going to do. And I've written something called "An Introduction to Dialogue" or something like this. I can send it to you on e-mail if you want.

Q: That would be great.

A: And there's also the situation of, let's see, on the I bow(?) thing, Booper(?) of course is the one who had spoken about that. But it always means that you look the other person in the face and you see their basic humanity. Let me give you an example how the (???) in Canada used to deal with conflict. Have you heard of them?

Q: No.

A: (???) is a group of Russian people, very much like Mennonites and Amish who didn't want to fight, you know, they were against war. And at times they ran afoul with the Canadian government, and they would herd them together into a courtroom and stuff like that. And then all of a sudden all of them dropped their clothes and they were just standing in their basic humanity. And it made such a difference to judge and jury and to the police and to everybody around there, because it wasn't that they were exhibiting themselves as sexual objects, but they showed themselves in the total vulnerability of who they are. And basically we are people, and we are not uniforms, you know. That's an amazing tool, to get the other people into the I bow(?) connection.

Q: I was remembering back to when I heard you speak at (???) a few weeks ago, and you told a similar story about your meeting with the...I believe it was Catholic or Christian priest in Galilee, and you told the story about how you asked them to pretend that you were all many thousands of years ago...

A: That was at Snowmass, in Colorado. Snowmass is a (???) monastery, and Father Keating and some others, and they're good friends, and from time to time I would take my retreat there. And so when Chavez came, you know, the second Chavez, when they said let's do that again, I said let's do it and this time we play roles. I'll be Joseph of (???) and you'll be the disciples who are coming from Galilee telling me the stories of what the master is doing, you know. And what happened was that both of us could go to a route that was shared, and that made such a difference, and such warmth came out of that, you know? A sense of love and understanding. So, agape, you know?

Q: What is agape?

A: Greek word for shared group love. It's not eros, but it's saying in this group we feel safe, we love one another, and we understand each other, you know, and we can be vulnerable to each other.

Q: So what you just mentioned are a couple of things...safety, love, understanding, and vulnerability.

A: Uh hm, but all this will need some preparation. Have you ever talked to a marked person?

Q: No.

A: Well, let me see if I can find you a phone number for him. Mark Gerzon is a remarkable person. He has written a book about the house divided, which deals with six different groups in America who can't talk to each other because they don't understand who the others are. And he goes sympathetically into each of the groups. See if you can get hold of the book because it's going to be very helpful to you. If you haven't heard of him it's a good sign, because he is not the kind of person that says look, I'm the great mediator, you know. He's a mediator and he brings people together. He was the one who was leading people in the retreat in which republicans and democrats came with their families, and it was a wonderful thing, because he kept pointing out, you know, you cannot work with...if the democrats and the republicans have separate dressing rooms, you know. So they never take off their clothes. They don't have the experience, for instance, that athletes have, you know, when they go and change clothes. What do you call that room?

Q: The locker room?

A: The locker room, right. And so he pointed out that if there is some conviviality then you can see the other one as a human being so much easier.

Q: I was also struck by the story that you were telling about asking people to pretend that they're someone else. And I'm wondering, did that just strike you that that would be...kind of it just struck you in the moment to ask them to pretend that they were people from the past, or is that part of a larger theory that...(???)

A: No, you see, I've been doing...Let me tell you. I've been doing some of these things that I call the social software for softening up situations. I'm going to try a piece with you now, okay?

Q: Okay.

A: I'm opening a sentence which I will not finish. You will finish the sentence and then you will say the next sentence, but only half of the sentence, so I have to finish it. Ready?

Q: Ready.

A: Trying to get people to see each other, we...

Q: Trying to get people to see each other, we...?

A: Yeah, and you continue.

Q: Okay, we ask them to tell their story and ask the other side to listen.

A: Good, and now start the next sentence.

Q: Okay...And this helps people understand the other side because...

A: ...they have a feeling for who the people are and not only a concept. When we move from the place of concept to the place of feeling, we...

Q: We understand the other at a different level, at a deeper level.

A: Continue. New sentence.

Q: Okay...And it's at that deeper level that real transformation in relationship can take place.

A: No, but you finished the sentence. You've got to start one that I can finish. Go on.

Q: Okay...And it's at that feeling level that...

A: ...we enter our bodies and our total physique and we begin to think organismically rather than conceptually. That provides us with a field in which...

Q: ...the energetic forces that we can't see and we can't touch can connect.

A: Now take a look. Right now in this thing, I have such a joy doing this with you, it feels like we are hugging, you know. This is one of the things that I do with people...a lot of dyadic stuff so that they can get into the I bow(?) function.

Q: Are there other...I mean that was...I agree with you...very fascinating and a different kind of process, and I can see how it would bring people into more of an I bow(?) relationship, because they're kind of playing with the other person in a way. Are there other examples that you can...?

A: Well, I tell you what. I'm getting tired, you know. I did the best I could with you at this point. If you have some other specifics, good. And if you want to talk some more, but other processes is one that when I feel a little bit stronger I'd be glad to do that.

Q: Okay, well I do have some more questions.

A: Raise them and I'll make short answers.

Q: Okay, if you could use a metaphor or an image to describe the kinds of conflict situations, the enduring or intractable conflict situations that we're talking about, what metaphors or images would you use and why would you use them.

A: Well it's really a struggle into death, you know. Both of us cannot leave this battlefield alive. That's the image here. Even the old jousting was as long you sit on the horse and I haven't pushed you off it, you know, I will still be in danger. So many of the win-lose things that are in aesthetics and in plays and movies and in life are just that way.

Q: My next question, which I think you may have already answered, so if you feel that you've already answered it feel free to pass...

A: Go ahead.

Q: ...is the question about an ideal world. In an ideal world what do you believe needs to happen to deal with these enduring conflict situations?

A: Well, the first thing I want to say is, most of the time when we talk about the ideal world, we see life and the social process arrested forever. Do you know what I'm saying?

Q: It's not so clear.

A: If there is going to be a metabolic realationship that will have ups and downs, movement and so on and so forth, friction is not bad. And every once in a while a paradigm has to collapse in order that the new paradigm can arise. I'll give you an example. In Islam, it's still about the year six hundred and something, you know? And as long as they're going to stay in that paradigm alone, it's going to be very hard to talk to people who are in the 21st century. It's a strange thing when I say it this way, you know. Another such situation is that when the founding fathers of this country were setting up the Constitution and the government, they were doing what I would say is the latest paradigm shift stuff available to them in their day. They were also people who were very high degree of consciousness, as you can see from the Masonic symbol still on the dollar bill. They were all master masons. So as they raised themselves to this high place, working with the reality maps of that time, they came out with that cosmology with a wonderful government. That cosmology has become obsolete at this point and we are still trying to run institutions as though the cosmology has not changed. So it is really necessary for the institutions to also not work. Right now we see that the institution of presidency as it is right now does not work. We see that the institution of congress as it is right now does not work, that the electoral college is horse and buggy stuff from a long, long time ago, when you couldn't get from Boston to Philadelphia on the same day. You see what I'm getting at?

Q: Right.

A: So therefore if I'm saying in the future that we will eliminate all conflict, that means that we'll eliminate all life, and I can't imagine that. The only thing that I can see is that in the future when we have conflict we'll be able to look at the shadow side of the conflict. Another example: We build hospitals, how wonderful that is to help people. But if you start looking at the shadow side of the hospitals, and assessing the cost of that, the (???) diseases that people can get in the hospital, the malpractice problems that may pop up...That's the shadow cost of all the medical profession in the hospitals. There are shadow costs in running governments. There are shadow costs in interpersonal relationships, and as long as the shadow side is projected on the other and not seen as one's own shadow, I don't think that there's going to be a way of dealing with conflict in a better way. So therefore I envision in the future a situation where when people come to the table to resolve conflict, they will bring their shadow side as long as their good side. I'll give you an example. Enron and all these people who were taking debits and fixing them as if they were credits. So they gave themselves a very fine face, as it were, you know. And I see in the government today the same situation is true, that the things that are debits on the part of the government are being presented as if they were positive virtues. So we'll never get to be able to deal with things until we look at the shadow side of that. And here's where we have to go to Jung and where we have to go to the shamanic people to be able to manifest the shadow to us so that we can see them. In the past we called them devils, you know, but they're not other people's devils. When you say devil you always project it on somebody else. In our situation we have to be able to say, this is my shadow. I'll show you mine, you show me yours. And I think that's what's happening in negotiations at this point, that nobody wants to show their shadow. They show themselves only in the light part, and whatever is their shadow they project on the other.

Q: Now how do people show...You may have said this and I'm trying to follow the path that you're drawing...

A: How do you get to know your shadow, you mean? Well, I think you cannot get to know your shadow in the presence of your enemy. You really will have to be in a safe space with your own people, and in a way that you look for...You have to rise to a higher level of consciousness so that you don't reside in the consciousness of where I am in the light and everything else is in the dark and I don't want to know about it. In Sanskrit there's a term called Avidya. It means not wanting to know, not knowing, you know. (???) not knowing. And that sense of I don't want to know what my dark side is, and I know that you have a dark side because I can see it. So, you know I can't...A lot of the stuff that I'm telling you is cogitation and armchair thinking, you know. And at this point in my life, where I don't have the energy to say let me go and get into the place where I will work in human laboratories with that. But I've been doing some of those laboratory things in things having to do with consciousness.

Q: In getting people to a higher level of consciousness?

A: Yeah. I think...Because I cannot look at conflict on the place where the conflict is happening.

Q: So you're looking at it on a different level completely.

A: Yeah, you look at it from above, you know. When I ask the...Let me say one more thing and then I've got to stop because I'm getting really tired...But that's the key situation, okay? It has to do with Gaia. There is a situation where I'm very clear that I'm not acting for myself. And when I realize that, that I am a cell, a living cell of the global organism, from that point of view I can realize that the people who are saying on the other side that, I don't want to be an integral part of the planet. I want my people and my turf to eat everything else up. What you get is, that's how a cancer cell behaves. It has thrown off the discipline of being part of a whole organism. So I think, you know Mark Gerzon and I are trying to get a popular book together, which in my mind I call the Catechism for Gaian Initiation. If I see myself as a living cell of a living planet, that creates a whole different set of ethical norms than the ones that I find when I'm speaking from the Patriot Act. One of my friends, Susan Sacs(?), coined the term "matriots," and she said instead of being patriots we have to be matriots.

Q: Meaning...?

A: Meaning caring for the planet, rather than caring for the country. Once that notion sits, and we can see that each one looks at the other one as an infection. One of the things that I've been teaching...You may have heard me say that the (???), that every religion is a vital organ of the planet, and we need them to be in the best of health.

Q: Yes, I remember.

A: I think that there is something to that, you know?

Q: I agree. For sure.

A: So that goes into the mental preparation that's necessary to be able to say, take a look, so much devastation is going on with bombs and with turning houses into rubble and so on and so forth, where we only see that if I can get rid of those objects, you know, the object people who are my enemies, then I'll have a good life. And if you see this from what does the Earth want, the Earth would not want olive groves to be destroyed. The Earth would not want water resources to be abused. The Earth would not want sewage to go into the Mediterranean. Once I get to the place of saying...For instance, the whole Middle East is now like a human being who's dehydrated. And when I get dehydrated I get very angry. You know, I'm burning. And that's what's happening there. If we were to get some desalination projects together to be able to take the fantastic abundance of sea water and make it potable for people, you know, the Sahara could bloom again, and we could grow all kinds of crops there, and we would look at how cutting down the forest of Brazil and so on and so for forth...and here in the United States the clear-cutting and so on gets us into a place where Earth has emphysema. This is why I feel it's so important for people to really understand the biological, the organsmic model of things.

Q: The biological and organismic model mirrors what's going on?

A: No, it's the best reality map on which to construe what's going on. You see at one point we saw Earth and the planet as a machine and the body as a machine. That was what we saw when we looked like the card(?), you know. Did you ever see a movie called Mind War?

Q: No.

A: Take it out. It's going to help very much in understanding the organismic point of view. The planet is not a thing that's made of pieces of legos. It is all interconnected, and it is all organic. And I think once...I don't think that at this point...Oh, I'm getting tired, but I'm also getting excited over this thing, you know. If you could imagine that we could take all the members of congress and the people in the executive portion and the legislative branch, and have them see Earth alive. Then the understanding of what is free trade and not forced trade, you know. The other day there was something on the news that we were forcing the people in Singapore to allow chewing gum because of free trade. And you hear that, and you see that that's the kind of newspeak of 1984. We're forcing people who want to keep their environment clean to accept stuff that our manufacturers want to push. I mean, I could go into the whole business of the tobacco business and Beau Powell(?), where the places where we put our dangerous, poisonous plants in other people's backyards, and so on. All this comes, you know...The people who are running business at this point are looking at the quarterly bottom line, and that's how a cancer cell goes. And if you were to ask the Native American people, they would tell you you have to look at things that effect us seven generations from here. You find it at the core of every religion that taking care of the Earth is a divine mandate. Anyway, enough. End of the sermon.