Poems from a Zen Rabbi: a book review

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is no ordinary poet. A student of Zen Buddhism and Hasidim, he was challenged to become a ‘Zen rabbi’ in 1973. He got ordained as a Reformed rabbi (1981) and served a congregation for twenty years. Today, he writes, leads retreats, and co-directs One River Wisdom School. Much of the poetry in Accidental Grace: Poetry, Prayers and Psalms was birthed for liturgical use in the congregation of Beth Or (in Miami)but is accessible to people across religious traditions.

As I thumbed through this book, my first question was “What the heck is a Zen rabbi?” This is a curious blending of religious traditions, to say the least! Shapiro writes:

At first I thought a Zen rabbi was a rabbi who wrapped a tallit/prayer shawl around the Buddha: making Buddhism kosher by finding ways to read Buddhism into Jewish text and tradition. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t quite right. As it turns out, a Zen Rabbi is a rabbi who isn’t all that concerned with being a rabbi or a Jew. A Zen rabbi is a rabbi who, if she met Buddha on the road, wouldn’t kill him, but would take him out for bagels and lox. A Zen rabbi is a rabbi who thinks that God is reality manifesting as everything, the way an ocean manifests waves.  (p. x,  from the introduction).

Shapiro blends traditions, sounding Jewish one moment, the next like an Eastern mystic.   His source material remains the Hebrew scriptures and extant writings (‘everything has a hook in traditional Jewish texts,’ xi); yet he deconstructs much of this, sending it through his ‘Zen shredder.’ He rages against text and tradition but speaks reverently of the ineffable God who cannot be named.

Shapiro’s poems (proper) are bordered by his treatment of two types of texts from the Ketuvim(the writings in the Jewish Tanakh). He begins with the Psalms, offering poetic paraphrases and meditation on twenty psalms. The word “God” doesn’t always appear in these Psalms and there is no version of the tetragrammaton (YHWH). Shapiro  most often refers to God  as “You,” with occasional titles like, “Holy One of Being” and “Ground of all ground”(Ps. 90,  p.14). References to “Israel” and “Zion” are excised from most of his rephrasings. The exception, is Psalm 137, which describes the Jewish experience of their exile in Babylon. Here Shapiro says with the Psalmist, “I sat down by the rivers of Babylon. . .”and “If, I forget you, O Jerusalem. . .”(22). But he modifies the psalm’s baby-killing conclusion to read, “Please, God, silence the vengefulness within me/that justifies battering the babies of my enemies/on the rocks of their city until their bodies dissolve in pools of blood and fat”(23). He pays homage to the psalms, but also critiques, and rewrites them to reflect his own understanding of the God described in the text.

In the final section of this book, Shapiro presents a parabolic and dramatic retelling of the book of Job. His first act describes the wager between God and Satan and the havoc this wreaks on Job. The second act presents Job’s argument with his three friends about the cause of his suffering. Act three appears in two scenes: scene one has God appear in a sandstorm; scene two describe an aftermath conversation between Job, Satan and God. Shapiro touches on the ambiguities and absurdities in the Job narrative, offering a humorous, if irreverent conclusion.

The poems in the middle of the book vary. Some reflect on particular scriptures or liturgical settings. Some talk about spirituality: Sabbath, Torah, the Holocaust, pain, death, joy. Some poems are prayers to God, while others describe the divine in significant and mundane moments of life. There are poems which rage, and poems that praise.

When a Christian publishing house (Paraclete Press) puts out a book of poetry from a ‘Zen Rabbi,’  it is worth taking notice. It is not every day these traditions converge amicably without something of their particularity being sacrificed. I am a convinced Christian and no relativiser of the world’s religious traditions, but I can appreciate insights from other traditions. I found myself appreciative of Shapiro’s playfulness with Scripture and his imaging of the God “beyond imaging.” Many of his poems on the spiritual life are quite moving. I loved his description of the Spirit, and how we don’t just “breathe,” but “are breathed” (Attending, 36).  At some points, his spirituality was too vague for my tastes, but overall, I appreciated this collection. I give this four stars.

Note: I recieved this book from Paraclete press in exchange for my honest review.

 

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