God is A Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism, by Rabbi David A. Cooper
My first exposure to Judaism, other than through the osmosis of growing up with a Jewish family in a Jewish neighborhood, was through the Hebrew school I attended at our neighborhood Modern Orthodox synagogue. From around age 7 through one year after my Bar Mitzvah, I dutifully attended two two-hour sessions on weekdays after regular school, and one two hour session on Sunday mornings. One year before Bar Mitzvah, separate tutoring with the cantor was added, to learn the full 2 1/2 hour Saturday morning service, which was led by the Bar Mitzvah, and the Haftorah for that week. Bar Mitzvah students were also required to attend Saturday morning services. A few select advanced students also had one year of additional training on Saturday afternoons with the Rabbi in his study to learn their Torah portions, not only by rote memory, as we learned the Haftorah, but also to actually learn the chanting trope. We also studied the Rashi commentary of the Torah with the Rabbi during these sessions. Afterwards, we attended Havdalah services, and after that, everyone who went to the Havdalah service stayed on for what I have since been told was a brief semblance of a “Third Meal”, whereby we sat around a big table, drank wine or grape juice, ate a little challah with salt, and anyone could ask the Rabbi any questions. So although this was a long way from the traditional cheder of the shtetls in the old country, it was still a fairly thorough Jewish education. Although in retrospect, I have a great appreciation and fondness for the memories from those times, especially the many colorful characters and personalities of my schoolmates, at the time, I pretty much hated and resented Hebrew School. It was more school after my regular school day, and it took away from other after school opportunities, most significantly, Little League. But the sessions with the Rabbi, with a few of us crammed into his study, and the Havdalah and Third Meal following it were always sort of special. I have particularly fond memories of those times. I actually continued on with those sessions for around a year after my Bar Mitzvah, until I prevailed upon my parents to beg out of those sessions. We had moved a decent drive away from the synagogue, which used to be a one block walk from our first house, so my parents didn’t mind no longer having to drive me there and pick me up.
During the turmoil and rebelliousness of my teenage years in the tumultuous 60’s, I came to the conclusion, not lightly, and with a great deal of trepidation, that I was an atheist, rejecting the childhood notions of God inculcated in Hebrew school. To my jaw-dropping amazement, my unflappable Rabbi calmly explained to me that I could still be a good Jew, even if I was an atheist. He was a great believer in persistence.
My interest in Judaism nevertheless waned, with my next exposure being as part of a required course on Comparative Religion in my freshman year of college. Nothing much caught my attention with that, other than my introduction to Martin Buber and his I and Thou. Nevertheless, I was much more enthralled with the introduction to the religions of the East provided by that course. My further college studies of Eastern spirituality and the beginning of my yoga meditation practice opened me up to reconsider Western religion from the new perspective provided by the East, and I studied the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. During my 20’s and 30’s, I retained some passing interest in Western mysticism, but my primary focus remained with Eastern spirituality, particularly Indian yoga. I attempted at times to re-explore and re-connect with Judaism, as it was the religion of my birth, but without much success. I knew that if I ever was going to reconnect in a meaningful way, it would probably be through the mysticism of Kabala, but whenever I would pick up a book on the subject, it just seemed way too involved, complicated, and intimidating.
However, through my studies and practice of yoga meditation, I kept getting persistent little messages that I needed to re-examine Judaism, so in my late 40’s, I resolved one more time to see what I could do about it. I again sought out sources for Kabala, and discovered the Karin Kabalah Center in Atlanta. Even though it’s orientation is from the Western Christian Esoteric Tradition, it still has a basis in Jewish Kabala, so I took the intensive and thorough basic course of study lasting 2 1/2 years, covering a text of around 1,600 pages, with homework and daily exercises, in addition to weekly classes. It was a fascinating course of study that involved not only intellectual components, but more significantly experiential components, mostly in the form of guided meditations performed on a daily basis, intended for inner transformation. After completing that course, I continued to be encouraged to further explore Jewish sources. Around this time, a friend of mine sent me The Kabalah Deck by Edward Hoffman as a birthday present. Although I wasn’t that interested in the deck itself, it was accompanied by a little booklet that contained a bibliography. Some of the books in that bibliography caught my attention, one being the subject of this book review.
I know this was a long-winded introduction to the stated subject, but I felt it helpful to provide the background context for the circumstances leading up to my discovering and reading this book, God is a Verb, by Rabbi David Cooper. It will always have a special place in my heart because it is the first book on Judaism that I read to begin my serious adult study after a very lengthy hiatus of relative disinterest. It was very inspiring and captivating, and opened up a wealth of other avenues that have kept me engaged ever since. Rabbi Cooper is one of many modern authors on Jewish mysticism who has been influenced by Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, the grandfather of this strain of modern Jewish mystical thought, encompassed in a movement he founded called Jewish Renewal. Schacter-Shalomi was trained and ordained within the Lubavitcher Hasidic tradition, but eventually broke away from it to embrace a broader view and vision of mystical Judaism that appeals to many who would otherwise be unattracted to more traditional Judaism. God is a Verb is an excellent and accessible introduction to this perspective. It breathes life and meaning into traditionally boring and tedious subjects. It resurrects long-neglected meditative and mystical traditions that were traditionally reserved for a select few under a cloak of secrecy. I highly recommend it as a good book for anyone interested in this subject matter, as it provides an excellent introduction and overview to lay a foundation for further exploration.