The upper room at Algiers teahouse is one of my favorite spots in the greater Boston area: high wooden ceilings, curved windows, and arched doorways. On this Friday morning there only a few other customers nestled into corners with their books or laptops. Everyone seems intent on their work.
This is where I meet Rabbi David Ingber for a conversation about the work upon which he is intent: shaping an integral and integrated Judaism, one that speaks to the body, the heart, the mind, the soul, and the ineffability that transcends all of these. Ingber is animated and energetic as a teacher, as a leader of davenen, and as a conversationalist. When his enthusiasm flashes, it’s as though a light has been turned on. And it doesn’t take much to get him (or keep him) talking; I get the sense that this story – and these passions – have been simmering for a long time.
Ingber's journey has taken him from a Modern Orthodox childhood to a Jewish Renewal rabbinate, along pendulum swings into the life of the body and the life of the mind, and then into the desire to integrate both.
His style has been critiqued-notably in a Jewschool review of his current congregation, Romemu - for sustaining a kind of hierarchy between rabbi and seeker. Ingber has considerable charisma, which may be both an asset and a drawback. An asset for those who find his expansiveness welcoming; a drawback because it opens him to accusations of being too “top-down.”
Like many leaders, he may err on the side of gevurah, maintaining boundaries that may feel too strict to experienced daveners who don’t need or want instruction. Our conversation suggests he’s already fine-tuning in response to Jewschool’s critique. But arguably more important than how he leads davenen is his awareness of the need to ground charisma and energy in clear boundaries off the bimah.
Ingber’s struggle to seek new forms out of the old with humility seems sincere to me. And having studied at one point with Mordechai (Marc) Gafni – who recently fled Israel after the latest in a twenty year line of accusations of abusive behavior with women students ignored by scores of respected Jewish spiritual leaders – Ingber (who asked not to discuss his former teacher) is challenged to be sensitive to balancing a craving for a living Judaism with the demands of practicing responsible forms of engagement. Full of passion, knowledge, and new ideas, Ingber is certainly one Jewish teacher to watch.
Rachel Barenblat : Tell me about your background. Where are you from, what was your upbringing, what religious milieu did you grow up in?
David Ingber: I grew up on Long Island, one of four children in a Modern Orthodox household. We went to shul on Friday nights-we hated going, but we went! We did kiddush, hamotzi, zemiros after the meal. Though we’d watch TV on Friday nights after dinner, play basketball and sports on Saturday afternoon.
I went to a yeshiva day school, then to Ramaz. It was an ambitious kind of place: wealthy community, highly competitive. It was struggling with the balance between being a private school and being a yeshiva.
I was an athlete, a jock, the class clown. Intensely lifting weights. I played hockey, and I wanted to be the best goalie ever. That’s how I survived high school: I got attention by being a great athlete, though on the inside I was very lonely. Wounded.
RB: Sometimes I think it’s a wonder any of us survive high school.
DI: After that I went to Israel for the year. It was part of the ethos. When I got there, I was crazy about bodybuilding-and within three months I was fasting twice a week, learning sixteen hours a day.
RB: The fanaticism that had gone into the weightlifting went there instead.
DI: Exactly. I wanted to catch up on my Jewish learning, to be the best at it. I spent the next year there; I went to YU for a semester; and eventually I wound up at a yeshiva called Chaim Berlin in Flatbush, the lineage of which can be directly traced to Lithuania. It’s a majestic yeshiva, very opulent.
But by the end of that time, I was so outside of my body and my aliveness. Part of it was the speed of the immersion, and part was the nature of Orthodoxy-of all orthodoxies. There’s a harshness that models a dysfunctional family structure.
One of the important parts of growth is being able to see your parents as fallible human beings who did the best they could. But that kind of Judaism doesn’t allow you to imagine that anyone who came before you-who was “greater” than you-could be wrong. It’s like growing up in a family where you can’t think, feel, hear, or speak your own experience. It’s a setup for disempowerment. You can’t even hate your oppressors; you’re not internally free.
So I left the frum world. I’d been seriously depressed, and none of it was working. I needed to heal myself, to come back to some place of happiness. I weaned myself out of Orthodoxy.
RB: I think a lot of us go through a kind of pendulum swing, a shift away from one thing and into something very different before we can reach a place of synthesis. For you, that was the shift away from Orthodoxy. How did you manage it?
DI: A big piece was, I hadn’t watched television in five years, and I started watching TV! And one day while I was watching PBS, I saw this guy John Bradshaw, who wrote a book called Healing the Shame that Binds You. It blew me away. I had to go do that work.
I spent a month in California, immersed in that. I think of it as the beginning of my life. When I came back to New York, I met a guy named Abe, and I worked with him twice a week on…building the self, on breathing, on boundaries. It was like my first introduction to my body.
The real work was reclaiming myself. At that point, I’d left Judaism behind. I would cry about it a lot, I still had all my sefarim, but I couldn’t go near them. I had post-traumatic God disorder. I would go near my tefillin and have an anxiety attack.
I played ice hockey twenty hours a week. Along the way I trained in shiatsu and gyrotonic, got involved in yoga, eventually Chinese martial arts, astrology. On some level I was waiting, biding my time, to see whether I was ready to come back to Judaism. There was a sense that I’d seen a glimpse of God and now I was chained to that. I was an agunah to God…I hadn’t got my get.
Eventually I got sick of waiting tables. I went to rabbinic school for a week, but I had PTGD again, I couldn’t do it. So I went to Israel and taught gyrotonic. I took two books with me: Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, and Rav Kook’s Orot Ha-Teshuvah. I was intent on making sense of both of them.
RB: That’s quite a pair of texts. What a great encapsulation of the tension you were wrestling with. What allowed you to resolve the tension?
DI: In the end, it was a decision I had to make. I decided to take the chance on Judaism. If I didn’t, I would never know.
I returned to New York and enrolled at Chovevei Torah, but I hated it. In Abe’s apartment I could sit on the floor and find out what it was to be alive, but to become a rabbi I had to sit in a stuffy room studying Sanhedrin? That’s what the Jewish people need? I struggled for two years.
I wanted to be the prodigal son, to return and buy into the belief that everything was written by God, but when I came back to Orthodoxy I found myself saying no. It was possible, ultimately, to say no to those authority structures without being oppositional. I could choose healthier models and still be a part of the Jewish people.
And then I met Reb Zalman. He awakened in me that sense that it’s good to be alive. He spoke a language that resonates so deeply for me. That’s been the best part of the last few years.
RB: So fast-forward for me to what you’re doing now.
DI: I spent two years at Elat Chayyim as the rabbi-in-residence, and then last March we founded Romemu.
RB: Tell me more about that. How did that unfold?
DI: We started out last March. Now we’re a 501(c)3, we have a board, an advisory board, a website, 2500 people on the email list. We’re meeting now at a church on corner of 114th and Broadway.
RB: I still have a copy of the email I was sent inviting me to the inaugural Shabbat at Romemu last March. I’m really struck by this description of the community: 'It gives you space to move your body. It opens your heart. It stimulates your mind. It lets your sacred spirit unfold. It’s the start of something transformative.'
RB: These four ideas-moving the body, opening of the heart, stimulation of the mind, unfolding of the spirit-map neatly to the four worlds of assiyah, yetzirah, beriah, and atzilut. How does the four worlds model play into this work?
DI:Actually, I would say the foundational motif of Romemu is not the four worlds, but the five freedoms. I took Virginia Satir’s notion of five freedoms, and applied it to davening. Five’s a great number: five are the books in the chumash, five levels of soul, five letters of Romemu.
To be in your body is the world of assiyah, the soul-level of nefesh. So we offer multiple modes of sitting and standing, so people can take care of their bodies. I’d like to have bouncy-balls for people to sit on too. What matters is, there’s freedom for all bodies to be in our services.
The next level is the freedom to be in your voice, which parallels the world of yetzirah, ruach, what you might call the ‘freedom to throat!’ To express yourself, to speak your truth, to join us regardless of what it is that you believe in. If you breathe, you’re welcome.
The next freedom is the world of briyah, the soul-level of neshama: freedom to think. We’re a congregation that tries to support both rational and postrational thinking-the rational and beyond! We haven’t jettisoned our rational faculties in order to leap into the mystical.
The fourth freedom is freedom to have silence. The soul-level of chaya, the world of atzilut. We promote as much ecstasy, and as much silence, as we can. The transformative elements happen between the prayers. It’s the white fire, you know?
RB: Right, the idea that Torah is written in black fire on white fire.
DI: Davening is the same way. The black fire is the letters, the white fire is what happens when the words have stopped and we’re hanging in that space. In-between is where redemption happens, which is why we put a mezuzah there. We honor the liminal space between.
And the fifth freedom, the highest one, the world of adam kadmon and yechidah, is the freedom to commit. The primordial ‘yes’. God didn’t create the world until God said ‘I want.’ Desire is the first movement in going from the pre-world to the world. The freedom to say, 'I will.'
RB: Who comes to Romemu? Who’s a part of this community as it’s shaping itself now?
DI: People from age 20 up to late 60s, half of whom come from outside NY. Most of the people are not affiliated. We draw a diverse crowd. From those who are formerly-Orthodox, to liberal Orthodox, to hippies, to suits-the whole gamut. People who are seeking a more spiritual davening, a more intimate and alive davening.
RB: What kinds of critique have you received at Romemu?
DI: There was a Jewschool post that offered mixed reviews…
RB: I think I remember that. They liked the energy, but had some issues with your leadership style.
DI: They said it was too 'top-down.' It bothered them that I was on a raised platform, things like that. That was hard for me to hear, but we’ve tried to take it to heart.
RB: One of the threads I’m hearing here is a kind of integration of worlds. Your own background includes a lot of heady intellectual stuff-and also the practice of tai chi, yoga, pilates, and gyrotonic, which are embodied and physical. When you talk about Romemu, I hear that you want to integrate the world of the body with the world of the mind-and with the heart and spirit, too.
DI: It’s a real need, but it’s not one that people are necessarily aware of until it’s already being satisfied. Tova Hartman once said leaders don’t respond to needs – they help people realize they have them.
In some [prayer] places, the music may be great, but my head closes. In other places, the intellectual stuff feels great, but the cadence of the speaker is so fast, the room energy so quick, that I can’t really drop in. When you’ve been an explorer, tasted these different tastes, the question becomes, 'How can I bring it all together? Inspire the brain and make you think; inspire the heart and make it soften; soften the body so it can receive joy; and connect with that place that’s beyond all of those?'
RB: That’s a tall order.
DI: [Laughing] Yeah, it is. But I think within the next fifty years it won’t be possible to go to a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Orthodox place without beginning with a niggun, or having some silence. We’re learning to put it all together.
RB: Putting it all together-that’s a theme for you. What other shifts would you like to see, or to help create, in the years to come?
DI: We need a Judaism that’s a synthesis of halakhic and aggadic. Halakha informs aggada, and the other way around. We imagine that we can take aggada out, extract it from the Talmudic sea and make a little continent out of those islands. Or we imagine we can have halakha alone, and say aggada doesn’t need to be learned in the same way. That sets up a hierarchy, and that’s a mistake. There are massive category errors taking place in these conversations. We’re not spiritual brains in a jar; we need to ground our feelings and beliefs in practice.
Our generation has a hard time with authority. In some ways it’s a healthy response to religious authoritarianism, but now we find ourselves in a postmodern age where autonomy is the highest value, and we’re struggling to articulate what could possibly be the nature of an obligation. What could possibly ground a Jewish life?
For me it’s about having a spiritual practice. To know, ‘I’ve given myself over to this discipline, and I have as my goal the opening of my heart. I trust that my heart will open more, the more I give myself to the practice.’
If Judaism is an organism, as Reb Zalman has argued, and organisms tend toward higher integration and unification, the organism naturally wants to include more and more. It will hurt when it’s not whole.
RB: How does Jewish Renewal fit into all of this, for you?
DI: As long as it continues to say that each one of the denominations has a truth statement that needs to be honored, Renewal is the center point on which the dreidel spins.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could provide all of these communities with a Judaism that honors the body, heart, mind, and spirit, on premodern, modern, and postmodern levels? We need an integral Judaism.
Sometimes I think the organized Jewish community doesn’t have faith in Judaism. They scream [about continuity], because they don’t really believe it. But if they really believed, they could whisper it, and trust that people would hear. We have to have courage, and trust that Judaism won’t die. People gravitate toward that which is alive. We can be so very alive.
Rachel Barenblat is a Contributing Editor to Zeek.