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The Shaman blows the Shofar

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

The Hasidic approach to the religious experience aims at empirical realization. I use empirical in its classic meaning basing my knowledge of the religious experience on direct observation and experiment. As an empiricist, I recognize the validity of non-Jewish religious experience, so over the years I’ve explored other religions, as well as other methods for enhancing spiritual growth. These forays have provided me with validation for my own religion.

A few years ago, in Calgary, Canada, I participated in a symposium on mysticism, with spokesmen for several other traditions. Among us was a medicine man from the Blood Indian Reservation, Brother Rufus Goodstriker. We were all put up at a modern plastic motel, a place which didn’t seem to hold much promise for a group of mystics. But the setting was glorious-to the east, the Canadian prairie stretched for miles; and to the west, the Canadian Rockies soared into the sky.

When I woke up the first morning and began preparing to say my prayers, I remembered where I was and decided to go up to the roof. So I took my tallis (prayer shawl), t’fillin (phylacteries-small black boxes, containing prayer parchments that are worn on the left arm and forehead during morning prayers), and a shofar (hollowed ram’s horn) and rode the elevator up to the top floor. I found the door to the roof and pushed against it slowly in case it made a lot of noise or touched off an alarm. But it made just a slight noise; I closed it softly behind me.

The sky was still dark in the west, but in the east there were streaks of light. The roof was a forest of air conditioners, vent pipes, and chimneys, but I found myself a comer facing the east and began to get into my prayers.

After a few minutes. I heard the door open again and Brother Rufus stepped out onto the roof. He too had a small bundle under his arm. We acknowledged each other’s presence with wordless nods. He also took up a position facing east and began to perform his morning ritual.

First he took out a prayer blanket which reminded me of my tabs. Then he lit a small charcoal fire offered some incense, and made a burnt offering of a pinch of meal or floor. Facing the east with his arms raised in the air, he swayed back and forth, chanting in a language I did not understand. But I did not have to understand the language to know that he was calling to God. At the moment of sunrise, he placed a small whist to his lips and blew a sharp note in every direction.

I continued my own prayers and concluded by blowing my shofar. Then I wrapped up my things and saw that Brother Rufus was doing the same. He approached me and asked in a gentle, direct way, “May I please see your instruments? If I were at home I would have had a sweat lodge this morning to be ritually clean before I touch them. Here at tills place all I could have was a shower. Is that all right?”

I told him it was and unwrapped my things. He looked at the t’fillin. “Ah, rawhide,” he said. Then he handled them and noticed they were sewn together with natural gut, not with machine-made thread. He nodded to let me know he understood the significance of using gut, a natural material with an animal’s power, instead of cotton or nylon.

Then he carefully examined the knots in the t’fillin, ran his fingertips over them, and said with respect, “Noble knots.” Next he shook the t’fillin and heard something move. “What is inside the black box’?” he asked. I told him there was a piece of parchment on which was written God’s name and other holy words. He nodded and I saw respect on his face. I knew that he understood my prayer instruments and my prayers.

Then he looked at my brightly striped tallis and thought it was beautiful. He loved the colors, which bore some resemblance to thecolors of his own prayer blanket. He examined the tzitzis (the knotted fringes at the comers of tans and saw the five double knots and the windings l blue thread that create a very specific design. “What’s the message?” he asked, revealing to me that he also understood that such designs are not random, but deliberate.

After a few moments, he picked up the shofar and looked it over. “Ram’s hom,” he commented. “We use a whistle made from an eagle bone. May I blow it?”

He blew a few loud notes through the ram’s horn, handed it back, and simply said, “Of course, it’s much better than cow.

For a moment I thought, “Better for what?” But Brother Rufus was a medicine man. He knew that you blow animal bones to blow the demons away, to clear the air, to connect with God, to bring about change, to say to the sleeping soul, “Hey, there, wake up! Pay attention!”

At every step of his examination of my sacred prayer tools, Brother Rufus asked the right questions. He was in tune with the technology of religious artifacts and he understood them. He, coming from a very different world, approached my religious instruments as if they were not so different from his own, and he affirmed each one.

My response reminded me of the common element of all religion, the inner experience which transcends external variations and differences. As Reb Nachman of Bratzlav said, “The Holy Spirit shouts forth from the tales of the gentiles, too.”

I do not believe that anyone has the exclusive franchise on the Truth. What we have is a good approximation, for Jews, of how to get there. Ultimately, each person creates a way that fits his own situation. While there are differences between Jewish and non-Jewish approaches to mysticism in specific methods, observances, and rituals, there are no differences in the impact of the experiences themselves. When it comes to what I call the “heart stuff,” all approaches overlap.