It was about four-thirty on a morning in the late spring of 1979 when Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi directed an eager but half-asleep group of Aquarian Minyanites to go outdoors, find a private "alone" space, and listen for a personal revelation as the night slowly turned into day. We had spent Shavuot night--the anniversary of the night before the relevation at Mount Sinai--sharing and studying together. Those of us who were still awake had just impersonated the ten sefirot (basic modes of G-d's creative power) on a living, moving "Tree of Life" (Figure 1). Reb Zalman had chosen me to play the position of Binah (Understanding)--"The Mother of All That Is Alive." I felt honored and shy, and as a mother of three in a group of mostly single adults, I was aware of its appropriateness. I remember little of what Zalman had us do as the sefirot, but I remember distinctly what my body felt like in the position of Binah in relation to the other people. I felt very far from the person who stood in the position of Malkhut (Sovereignty) at the lower end of the tree. My focus seemed to return again and again to the top of the tree, to Keter (Crown), and across from me to Khokhmah (Wisdom). I wanted the crown of inspiration to open to me, to reveal why I was here, in this world, at this time, as a woman, as a Jew, as a "Yehudit."
I welcomed Zalman's suggestion of going off by ourselves. The whole night had involved relating to others. I was eager to go outside. We were at a campsite in the Sierra foothills of California, where rolling meadows with occasional large oak trees give way to pine forests. The air was crisp and refreshing, and although it was still dark, it was possible to locate the trail through the woods to the lower meadow by looking up at the sky and noting the thin strip where the treetops allowed the stars to shine through. How appropriate to follow the stars, I thought, for our campsite was named "Lodestar."
Walking carefully down the steep hill from the dining room where we had spent the night, I soon emerged into the open space of a meadow. But it was too open for the sense of privacy I sought, so I walked across it to the edge of the woods on the far side. Just at the point where the low bushes were changing to tall trees I found some large flat rocks to sit on. I made myself comfortable and looked back toward the east at the forest on the other side of the meadow. The dark outline of the trees against the only slightly less dark sky was barely discernible. And there I sat and listened, and listened and watched, and watched and wondered.
As the sky slowly began to lighten, the outline of the trees became more and more distinct. I began to see shapes that drew my heart out toward them with the beauty of their silhouettes. I found myself saying over and over again, "Hebrew letters, Hebrew letters." Tears started welling up in my eyes as I felt my deep love of Hebrew and the shapes of the letters. It wasn't so much the fact that the trees resembled Hebrew letters as my witnessing distinct shapes emerging from one blackness that struck me with wonder and excitement. Perhaps my playing Binah, the embodiment of understanding that comes from an awareness of distinctions, had heightened my sensitivity to the splendor of the newly emerging world. My body felt warmed by the variety of the ways in which trees interacted with sky, straight pines with curving oaks, gnarled apple trees with bristly thistle bushes. And each of these creations I knew could be named using Hebrew letters whose shapes and sounds would somehow capture its essence. I longed to know those Hebrew letters, to work with them in a way that transmitted to others the extraordinary sense of interconnectedness and aliveness I felt.
I resolved to take up Hebrew calligraphy. I imagined myself writing ketubbot (wedding contracts), certificates of circumcision, documents proclaiming the acquisition of a new name, letters to G-d. But a year later, when I tried calligraphy and found that my body became tense whenever I wrote and when I realistically looked at my life situation with one small child and another on the way, I gave up that dream. Even as I gave it up the call of the Hebrew letters took on a new form.
I remembered that when I first began to teach the twenty repetitive, integrative movements of T'ai Chi Chih in 1978 I had said to myself that there must have been in Temple times twenty-two Hebrew letter movements as healthy and integrative as T'ai Chi. T'ai Chi was the physical embodiment of the three Chinese philosophical traditions of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Its origins could be traced to a mixture of sacred dance, martial arts, and health exercises. Similarly, it seemed logical to believe that the dances of the Temple in Jerusalem would be based on the Alef-Beit, since Jewish tradition teaches that it was through the power of the Hebrew letters that the world was created. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner had written in The Book of Letters: a Mystical Alef-bait: "The OTIYOT [letters] are more than just the signs for sounds. They are symbols whose shape and name, placement in the alphabet, and words they begin put them each at the center of a unique spiritual constellation. They are themselves holy. They are vessels carrying within the light of the Boundless One."
I began to ask G-d, off and on whenever I would remember, to let me channel the twenty-two Hebrew letter movements that must have once been known. During the summer of 1979 I had participated in a "Dance of the Letters" with the women at Moshav Meor Modi'im in Israel. We had done movements and sounds while spelling out words of healing for a woman giving birth at the Moshav. I remembered the movements as being beautiful and flowing, but they did not focus on the actual shapes of the letters. I wanted movements that would bring the shapes to life and that would allow a mover to tap into the infinite energy stored in the very form of the otiyot.
I continued studying Jewish mysticism independently and with whatever teachers would pass through the Bay Area. And I continued to teach T'ai Chi along with supporting texts drawn from Chinese philosophy. After several years of exclaiming to friends how I was repeatedly finding parallels between the Jewish and Chinese texts, I was finally challenged to design a class based on my insights. And so I began to teach a course comparing classical texts from Chinese philosophy and the Jewish mystical tradition. The more I studied, the more I held to my dream of discovering a Jewish movement form comparable to T'ai Chi. I found teachings supporting the centrality of the Alef-Beit for life itself. In his book The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet: The Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Deed and Thought, Rabbi Michael Munk quotes the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Dov Ber: "It is known in Kabbalistic literature that the letters of the Aleph-Beis were created first of all. Thereafter, by use of the letters, the Holy One, Blessed be He, created all the worlds. This is the hidden meaning of the first phrase in the Torah,'In the beginning G-d created Alef Tav'-- that is, G-d's first act was to create the letters from Alef to Tav." Citing the Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation), reputed to have been written by the Patriarch Abraham, Munk explains that the twenty-two sacred letters are "profound, primal spiritual forces" through which G-d articulates G-d's will in Creation. It therefore seemed logical that "personifying" the Hebrew letters in one's body might help a person align his or her will to G-d's will.
Another important focus in my life during the eighties was helping my husband Reuven publish an illustrated Jewish literary magazine,Agada. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, Reuven had decided that the cover of each successive issue of the magazine would depict a letter of the Alef-Beit. He collected quotations about the letters and often chose teachings about particular letters to go on the inside front cover. One of the teachings he picked was the following excerpt from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh's book "I am asleep yet my heart is awake": a chassidic discourse: "The 'letters' of a Jew are the letters of Torah and t'fila (prayer). The Torah letters are the building blocks of the universe. Each of the twenty-two Hebrew letters is a channel connecting the Infinite with the finite. Each is a particular state of contraction of spiritual light and life force. The shape of each letter represents its individual form of transformation of energy into matter.... Every letter which emerges in thought and speech is drawn from the inner essence of the intelligence and emotions of the soul." Rabbi Ginsburgh had gone on to explain that when the Torah letters are combined into words they become "houses" which "receive power to give life even to physical creatures," and for this reason "the inner life of every creature is its Hebrew name."
According to Rabbi Ginsburgh, the letters of t'fila are "upward-bound channels that connect the soul to G-d," and "...by uttering the letters of Torah and t'fila the Jew becomes a partner bound with G-d in the action of creation. While we are in exile, though, we say the words without being able to comprehend their creative power--just as in general we are insensitive to the continuous act of creation, the constant flow of the letters into all beings." The exile to which Rabbi Ginsburgh refers is "the exile of the Jewish soul--the apparent loss of Jewish identity" in modern times, which he likens to a "spiritual exile" in which the soul is asleep and the inner eyes are closed to reality. He notes that we are unable to see "our signs" (ototaynu)--meaning both "signs" in the form of "the supernatural wonders of Divine Providence, which are hidden during exile in the guise of nature," and "signs" in the form of the letters of the alphabet, the letters of Torah and t'fila; we have lost touch with the innate sanctity of the letters and of our lives. This teaching by Rabbi Ginsburgh helped me to see the potential for tikkun olam (repairing the world) in a movement form based on the shapes of the Hebrew letters: it might reawaken the sleeping soul, revitalize our bodies, realign and integrate our inner and outer worlds, restore a sense of sacredness to our speech and actions, and open a channel for conversing with G-d. By nourishing our Jewish identity in a holistic way, it might facilitate a return "home" for many exiled Jewish souls.
In November 1987, Reb Zalman was again the catalyst for my soul discovering its purpose in this lifetime, for he created a sacred space within which the channel opened for me to receive the movements I had dreamed of for so long. Over eight years after my hearing the call of the Hebrew letters at Lodestar, I attended the first Mystery School weekend at Fellowship Farm near Philadelphia. In preparation for the Mystery School I had spent the previous weekend writing my spiritual autobiography. Looking back at the patterns in my life and writing close to a hundred pages of my soul's story was both exhausting and deeply cleansing. I felt "caught up" and ready for the next step. Then, on Saturday night after Havdalah, I received my first "ot adena" (graceful letter).
In an exercise early in the evening Reb Zalman had us play the "rebbe" for each other, and I was profoundly moved by the experience. Now it was time to play, to sing, and to dance. Eve Ilsen sang song after song, some in Yiddish, some in Hebrew, some in Ladino. I found myself reaching up toward the ceiling at an angle, "grabbing a piece of the infinite" with my fingers, closing my fingertips together in a budlike gesture as I drew my wrist first back toward my forehead and then down to my shoulder, then reaching up again. After playing with this motion repetitively, first with one hand and then with the other, I realized that I was forming a Yud (Figure 2). I soon found myself pointing one toe toward the floor, a little forward and to the side, while I brought the backs of my hands together and allowed my fingertips to fold first inward and then upward is a somersaulting movement until they were stretched above my head pointing to the heavens. As I stepped forward and brought my hands down on the sides in a circular movement resembling a breaststroke, I realized with a flash of joy that I had just moved in and out of a Lamed (Figure 3). I repeated the movement over and over again, and when I found myself bending over slightly as I brought the backs of my hands together and then unfolding my body with an undulating roll as I reached upward, I was reminded of the full-flowing Yemenite step which I had learned from Margolit Oved many years before. At that time I had felt that the basic Yemenite undulation movement was the closest thing to T'ai Chi in Judaism because it integrated the body vertically. Soon the Lamed began to change and I started stepping forward fully onto one foot until the back toe of my other foot rolled over; at the same time I brought the backs of my hands together and let them unfold upward with an undulating roll until my wrists rested at my forehead with my thumbs together and my fingertips pointing forward so that they were above the toes of my forward foot. Now I was the Gimel (Figure 4). I rocked back, bringing my hands down by a path similar to the one through which they had traveled upward, and repeated the movements over and over again, first on one side, then on the other. I began to feel tingling in my fingertips as I often would when I did T'ai Chi. I got a little giddy. The letters were coming through!
The Alef came next with a wonderful alternating pattern of extending outward in all directions and then coming back to a centered vertical alignment as I lowered my hands in front of my chest. I kept my hands crossed at the wrists with fingertips directed upward until they swept down and then outward again into the full expansion of the next Alef (Figure 5). Each time my hands came down in front of my body I felt as if I were returning to oneness from the place of multiplicity. My body posture reminded me of the numerical value of Alef as "one," which in the Kabbalistic tradition often signified the "perfect unity"--"The Mysterious One, Incomparable, Unknown and Unknowable." Each time my arms were outstretched and my head tilted in line with the upward extended arm, I was reminded that Alef also signifies a "thousand." As I gazed under my arm, I experienced the sensation of looking down upon the multiple dimensions of a newly created world, as if I were the Alef that came before the Bet of Bereshit--"In the beginning...." In fact, the next letter movement to come through me was the Bet. Then came the Dalet, as a turning movement that reminded me of Egyptian hieroglyphs (Figure 6).
Six otiyot came through that night. Before I went to bed I wrote descriptions of them in my journal and then sat down to study the Torah portion for the next week. As I read the Hebrew I found that the letters forming each word wanted to tell their story to me. Each letter seemed to come with a phrase, or sometimes even a full sentence, to explain its connection to the next letter and to expand the meaning of the word as a whole. I became very excited. I sensed I had tapped into a reservoir of understanding that would at once nourish and delight my soul for a long time.
The next step came as the result of an "act of G-d"--so declared by United Airlines the next evening. I had left the retreat early Sunday afternoon to catch my return flight to Oakland from Newark Airport. I had heard that there were severe snowstorms in the Rockies, and, as I waited in line at the counter to check in for my flight, I heard that planes were not being allowed to fly out of Denver, the connecting city for my flight home. It looked as if I was going to have a long wait at the airport. Then, with only one person left in line in front of me, the clerk reported that management had declared the snowstorm an "act of G-d" and all passengers would be given accommodations at the nearby deluxe hotel until the morning. So there I was, with an entire evening to spend alone in a spacious hotel suite away from the pulls and tugs of my usual life at home.
I decided to ask for the other Hebrew letter movements. And each time I asked, I received a movement. What does a Hay feel like? And my body would move into the form of a Hay and out again, in again and out again, in repetitive, flowing movements, very similar in spirit to the twenty repetitive T'ai Chi Chih movements I had been teaching for over nine years. I soon had forms for all the letters, including the final letters. I wrote descriptions of each one as I learned it.
By the time I was finally on the plane home, I found myself flowing with words--English words. Poems and parables and little jewel-like insights began to flood my consciousness. I wrote during the entire flight back to the Bay Area. At the time, I called what I was writing: "Fragments of Yehudit's Scroll (for Zalman)--The Second Level of T'ai Chi Chai (Supreme Ultimate Life)." I considered the first level of "T'ai Chi Chai" or "The Dance of Ruach HaHayyim" to be the "rhythmic integration" of the Hebrew Letter Movements themselves. Ideally, the second level would be the verbalizing and sharing of the truths revealed by the first level. When I arrived home I felt as if I had opened a Pandora's Box of creativity which I was extremely reluctant to turn away from, but which the demands of my everyday life required I close, at least temporarily. I felt that I now knew why my soul had come into this body, why I had been given the opportunities and tests that I had. I also sensed that I needed to refine and strengthen my vessel still more, to let the Hebrew Letter Movements "cook" internally for a long period of time before I began systematically testing their energy flow so that I could share them with large numbers of people. For me they seemed to be gateways to infinite possibilities for learning and growth, but I wanted to be sure that they were also healthy channels for increasing awareness.
Reb Zalman was again to play a role, although somewhat indirectly, in bringing the Hebrew Letter Movements into the public realm. It was the call for proposals for the 1989 P'nai Or Kallah that pushed me to test each of the original letter movements and revise them as necessary, to give the movements a formal name--Otiyot Khayyot (Living Letters)--and to commit myself to a date for an introductory workshop. And it was Reb Zalman who helped me to expand the movements by asking: "Do you also have movements for the vowels, the nikudot?" Very shortly after he asked the question, the nikudot movements "came through." So by the 1989 Kallah I had an entire form of independent, flowing repetitive movements for all the block Hebrew letter shapes and for the nikudot. I had begun to play with word dances formed by moving my body in and out of consecutive shapes. Sometimes I moved silently; sometimes I sounded the letters as I moved in and out of their shapes. Sometimes I sounded out entire words as I spelled them with my body. When I added the nikudot to my word-spellings, I experienced deep resonances as I extended my breath while I sounded and moved at the same time.
In August 1991 I was to complete a circle on the spiral I had started in June 1979. At the Joys of Jewishing Summer Encampment I was honored by my community as an Eshet Hazon (Woman of Vision) and given the name "Ot Adena." The ceremony planned by the community to so honor me took place at Lodestar, in the meadow between the rocks where I had sat that Shavuot morning long ago and the trees whose silhouettes had called out to me so clearly, "Hebrew letters, Hebrew letters." The rocks on which I had sat turned out to be no ordinary rocks. They had deep bowl-shaped cavities, for the native peoples of the area had used them for centuries to grind their grain. I had settled myself in an ancient kitchen and awakened to an ancient dream.
When Rabbi Abraham Abulafia wrote in Otzar Eden HaGanuz about the power of the Hebrew letters, he cited a reference from Isaiah which referred to "the letters that will come" (Isaiah 44:7). I do not know if I was taught or if I just imagined that this passage was the basis of the teaching that just before the time of Meshiach (the Messiah) the Hebrew letters would come to center stage again in a new and vibrant form. With the publication of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's translation and commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh's The Hebrew Letters: Channels of Creative Consciousness, and Matityahu Glazerson's Letters of Fire: Mystical Insights into the Hebrew Language, the incredible depth and power of the Hebrew letters were being recognized by an ever-increasing number of people. Abulafia had seen the letters as providing "the closest way to truly know G-d," a "key to open the fifty gates of wisdom," a channel for "the divine influx, which could bring [a person's] mind from potential to action." My experience with practicing, sharing, and teaching the Hebrew Letter Movements--Otiyot Khayyot Meviot Khayyut (Living Letters Bringing Forth Life Energy) as I now call them--has given me hope that Isaiah's dream of a Messianic time of peace can actually become a reality. In the peacefulness and the sense of balance and centeredness which the Hebrew Letter Movements bring to many people I see an integrated path for healing and renewal of both body and soul. The movements have also provided many students with a point of renewed connection to their Jewish roots and their personal spiritual task. For example, one student wrote to me that, after doing the repetitive Hebrew Letter Movements for the letters in his name and then creating a word dance with those letters, he had experienced a profound new understanding of his Hebrew name and how it fitted the life path he had chosen: "Through your otiyot you helped me do some healing work with my name and my legacy. The movements gave me a physical signature of an identity that I began to discover at the kallah.... Yehudit, the process of doing your movements of the letters gave me a physical knowledge of the significance of the person inside me to whom I was finally opening up. It was like an initiation, a sealing of my legacy, my identity into my very physicality."
The Hebrew Letter Movements have taken on a life of their own. New variations come through periodically. A friend of mine, Henry Ezekiel Adams, who is a master martial artist and healer, worked with me to uncover what we call Ruach HaLev: the Internal Art and Heart of Fire Dancing, a Kabbalistic Meditation/Healing/Martial Art founded by Henry and based on Netivot Etz Chayyim (Hidden Paths of the Tree of Life) and the Netivot Alef-Beit (Mysterious Paths of the Hebrew Letters). Ruach HaLev includes interactive drills and sensitivity drills, as well as applications of a variety of Hebrew Letter Movement forms in a martial arts context. It extends also to healing meditations based on the Hebrew letters. Henry continues to channel the primal energies of the letters in new forms and to find healing applications for them.
Meanwhile I have been experimenting with integrating the Hebrew Letter Movements into the prayer service. For example, on the High Holy Days for 5754 (1993), I led the congregation in the repetitive movements for the letters of the Divine Name as transitions between the various parts of the service. In order to focus our kavannah (intentionality) toward unification and wholeness, each time we moved in and out of the shapes of the letters we also chanted "L'Shaym Yehud Kud'sha B'rikh Hu U'sh'khintay" (For the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed One and the Presence of the One). We did the lower Hay before the prayers concerning the body, the Vav before the songs of thanks and praise, the upper Hay before the Bar'khu, and the Yud before the Amidah. Then we combined in a consecutive sequence the movements for Yud, Hay, Vav, Hay in a Name Dance before the Torah reading. On Rosh Hashanah, as preparation for the shofar blowing, I led the congregation through the movements and sounds of the nikudot in the Kabbalistic order corresponding to the sefirot from Keter to Malkhut. The response to the movements within the context of the service was extremely heartening.
As I continue to experience with my friends and students the combination of playfulness and creativity, of balance and integration of body, heart, mind, and spirit which the Hebrew Letter Movements inspire, I am reminded of the words of the prophet Ezekiel when he was given a vision of the revitalization of the dry bones of the house of Israel (Ezekiel 36:37-37:17):
G-d said to me, "Son of Adam, can these bones live?" I answered, "O G-d, Lord, You know."
Again G-d said to me, "Prophesy over these bones. Say to them: O dry bones, hear G-d's word. This is what G-d the Lord says to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath [ruach] to enter you, and you will live. I will lay sinews on you, cause flesh to come upon you, cover you with skin, and put breath [ruach] in you, and you will live; and you will know that I am G-d."
...Then G-d said to me, "Son of Adam, these bones are the entire house of Yisra'el. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.' Therefore prophesy and say to them, This is what G-d the Lord says: Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Yisra'el...I will put My spirit [Ruchi] within you, and you will live; I will place you in your own land; then you will know that I G-d have spoken it, and done it, says G-d."
I see in these verses a vision of the period of history through which I have lived. After the Holocaust the world witnessed the rising of G-d's people from the graves of Eastern Europe and their return to their own land. I now hope to do my part in bringing the Breath of G-d back into the Body Yisra'el, for, after all, I was once told that my name, Yehudit (Yud Hay Vav Dalet Yud Tav), signifies "one who channels G-d's Name (Yud Hay Vav Hay) through the door of this world (Dalet) until the end of time, the time of Meshiach (Tav)."
List of illustrations
Note: A version of this article was published as "Hebrew Letters That Bring Forth Life Energy" in The Fifty-Eighth Century: A Jewish Renewal Sourcebook, edited by Shohama Wiener. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996.