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Breath Medicine

Marc SolowayFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

Listening to this talk is really about reminding us how important it is to listen to everyone’s talk; to hear compassionately even the voice that expresses an opinion that is offensive to you.  When we look into the eyes of another human being, when we feel their heart, how can we not hear their words?

I am rabbi in Boulder, Colorado.  I am the chair of Hazon’s Rabbinical Advisory Board.  I am a member of both a Jewish chicken and goat milking co-op.  I love hearing people’s stories and telling my own.  I was twice co-chair of Limmud and a founder of Limmud in Colorado.

Breath Medicine. (takes breath, exhales deeply) Breath Medicine. Breath Medicine – not a form of healing that it might sound like that one may get from a meditative, mindful exercise in breathing but breath medicine, as I learnt this term, is a term for what happens to us when we open ourselves to hear the stories of the other. When we open ourselves to hear the stories of another tribe, of another religion, of another culture, of someone whose views are so very different from our own. I first learnt the concept in an apartment in Denver Colorado drinking tea and eating cheese with someone called Dr Tink Tinker. Tink Tinker is a Native American tribal leader of the Osage nation based in Oklahoma, and also a teacher of Geology in a university called Iliff. Breath Medicine. I feel like I have been so enriched and grown in so many ways by the stories I have heard through the encounters I have had over the last few years and I am going to share a few of them with you tonight. Ah there he is, Dr Tink Tinker! I’ve already introduced you to him – from Tink Tinker I learned the power of sacred space. I learned that every single plant, every tree, every animal, every human being is our relative and I also learned that when it comes to tribal ceremony, when it comes to the ceremony, the tribe has exclusive roots at that sacred space. Dr Tink Tinker. Breath Medicine. This is Shireen Alaraj. She’s a Palestinian activist living in Walaje just outside Bethlehem in the West Bank. I had the opportunity to meet Shireen and other Palestinians when I was on an Encounter tour a couple of years ago, and we went to Shireen’s home. And as I listened to her story, what I learned from her was a painful narrative of loss and of separation. A narrative so very, very different to my own, that it changed me and changed my world view. Breath Medicine. Last year I had the opportunity, with a delegation of Rabbis to visit Ghana with the American Jewish World Service and in Ghana I met one of the most inspiring individuals I have ever met in my life. James Kofi Annan. James Kofi Annan, at the age of six years old, was sold into child slavery and in unbelievable and brutal conditions and against all possible odds he never lost hope, he managed to escape, he gave himself an education and then he dedicated his life and his work to creating a foundation called Challenging Heights, which saves and rescues and rehabilitates children in a similar plight to his own, giving them hope, and giving them education. From James Kofi Annan I re- learned the deep importance of education and I learned the power of hope. Breath medicine. Five months ago a Shul moved in next to my Shul, a Shul called Kehillat Eish Kodesh, and this is its Rabbi called Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder, he is literally the Rabbi of the Shul next door – the Shul next door, the Shul next door. Through deep respect for one another and deep desire to know one another and hear one another’s stories, we have become really good friends and we have committed ourselves to working on a unqiue project, a project that has literally taken down some of the old and dangerous fences and boundaries that divide us, and actually built some new ones. Because just a few weeks ago Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder and I completed Boulder’s first Eruv which encloses two Synagogues and my house (laughter), and every single Shabbat two very different Jewish communities become one, celebrating together, honouring each other, stealing food from each other’s Kiddushes (laughter) – ours is always better than theirs, although they say the opposite! Breath medicine. Kind of sounds like Limmud I guess. Living in America throughout this last cycle of elections was disturbing to say the least. Six billion dollars were spent on that election campaign, and most of that money was spent, to demonising the other and in some cases telling unspeakable lies. Six billion dollars. This particular picture was taken after the second of three live presidential debates. By all accounts President Obama won that debate, but what does that really mean in this context? Breath Medicine? In the Rabbinic tradition the intense disagreements and arguments of the schools of Shammai and the schools of Hillel are really crazy. They almost never agree on anything and they’re committed to disagree with each other and yet the Talmud tells us “Eilu v’eilu divrei elokim chaim” The Talmud tells us “They both speak truth, they both speak words of a true God”. Both speak truth, they both speak truth, and yet the Halacha, the law almost always goes according to the school of Hillel. Why? Because says the Talmud, that Hillel were kindly and modest, and they always studied the views of Shammai before they studied their own and they had the humility to quote the stories of the school of Shammai before they quoted their own. Breath Medicine, real deep breath medicine. One of my teachers Rabbi Irwin Kuhler says that in order for real deep civil discourse to happen we have to be willing, we have to be able to hear the partial truth in the view with which we most disagree, in the view of the person we might choose to define as other, in the view that may offend our very soul. A partial truth; a breath medicine. It doesn’t mean we have to lose our own identity and merge into the other but it does mean we have to be open to hearing that truth, the Divrei Hayim Elokim, the words of a living God that may be contained in that other. What would the world really be like if we were able to do that, if we were willing to do that, if we were able to put aside our own ego and needs, our own need to be right, to be sure of our being right. If we were able to do that, to listen with love and compassion to the view of the other, then perhaps we really will understand what Breath Medicine means. Our need to be right, very often makes the other person wrong, it doesn’t just make them an other, it makes them ‘The other’, ‘The enemy’. If we are able to see the partial truth in the words of everyone that we encounter then perhaps through our sharing, and through our listening and through our openness we can bring a healing redemptive balm into this world, that we might call breath medicine. Thank you.

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