Let me tell you a story about Rabbi Gershon Winkler, who regularly travels from his home in Cuba, N.M. to lead worship for Har Shalom, a Jewish congregation in the Missoula area. I don’t know if this story is true, and frankly I was too chicken to ask the Rabbi during our recent conversation about the upcoming Jewish High Holy Days and his relationship with Har Shalom.
It seems that Rabbi Winkler was having a conversation one day with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, a well-respected spiritual leader and teacher of religion at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo. Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi is a recognized leader of a recent movement in Judaism known as “Jewish Renewal,” which attempts to make Judaism relevant to those who have difficulty wading through the religion’s many codes to access the deep beauty and spirituality embedded in the Judaism.
Since he’s getting up there in years, Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi apparently pleaded with Rabbi Winkler to consider assuming a leadership position within Jewish Renewal after the elder Rabbi passes from this world.
“Rabbi,” said Rabbi Winkler, “the only movement I believe in is the bowel movement.”
At first, this might seem like a flip remark coming from a spiritual guide such as a Rabbi. But this anecdote illustrates not only Rabbi Winkler’s earthy sense of humor, but also the high esteem in which he is held by many of those associated with efforts to renew the ancient religion of Judaism.
Like many spiritual practices, Judaism has many schools of thought. Orthodox Jews are strict in their adherence to Jewish laws and customs as interpreted through their particular cultural and religious lens. In the United States, many Jews belong to “Conservative” or “Reform” congregations, both of which incorporate both Hebrew and English into their services in order to make Judaism more accessible.
Although Rabbi Winkler studied under Orthodox teachers in Israel, he adheres to no particular school of Judaism, preferring instead to glean spiritual pearls of wisdom from Judaism’s rich archives of writings and teachings. One of Rabbi Winkler’s books, The Way of the Boundary Crosser: An Introduction to Jewish Flexidoxy, explores the idea that Judaism is a vibrant and spiritually alive religion that at heart is much more concerned with facilitating a genuine and individual experience of the divine than it is with strict adherence to religious rules and precepts.
“In the army, they have basic training,” explains Rabbi Winkler. “It’s all about rules and regulations, discipline and structure. After you’re done with basic training, some folks become like those guys on ‘M.A.S.H.’ and are relaxed, while others stay strict to the rules they’ve learned. It’s the same with anything new that people get into. There’s an excitement about the new and also a sense of anxiety. You’re worried about doing it just right. Some people relax after a while like I did, and others stay strict.”
With the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) beginning this week at sundown on Sept. 17 and 26, respectively, Rabbi Winkler suggests that this time of year is about celebrating death and the role that it plays in facilitating the rebirth that occurs in the spring.
“The High Holy Day period is a time for letting go and falling, drifting in the wind to the place from where you came, whether you’re a leaf, an acorn or a person,” writes Rabbi Winkler in Boundary Crosser. “It is a time of going inside and preparing yourself for fresh seeding, and of clearing away all the weeds that block your view of the bigger picture.”
The importance of forgiveness that is stressed on Yom Kippur is based on the transformative nature of this activity. If you can forgive yourself and others for the ways you have been mistreated in the past year, this is the first step in developing more healthy relationships for the future. According to Rabbi Winkler, the deeply spiritual and transformative aspects of Judaism are not only for Jews, but for people in many different traditions.
“He’s coming from a place where he is firmly grounded within the tradition. He’s very knowledgeable about Talmudic study,” says Paul Rosen, president of congregation Har Shalom. “From that place, he breaks with the orthodox emphasis on sticking to the rules. He encourages people to come to a genuine and deep experience of their spirituality. I think it’s because of his interaction with other spiritual traditions that he believes in the possibility of a deep spiritual life for everybody. Judaism is just one approach. But he doesn’t believe anybody has a monopoly on the truth.”
During his four-plus years of leading services and teachings for Har Shalom—literally “mountain of peace”—Rabbi Winkler has gained many fans and admirers. He has also alienated a few members of the congregation who think that he is too irreverent, that he laughs too much, or tells too many stories.
“I had a teacher in Israel who told me, ‘If the entire community likes you, you’re not doing your job,’” says Winkler. “When you come to a community and bring your own crazy ways, you’re often not invited back again because people like to keep things as they have been. I’ve brought lots of challenging rituals and teachings and I didn’t expect to last more than a season.” Instead, Rabbi Winkler’s quirky approach has engaged many more Missoula-area Jews than he’s alienated, and he has developed a great relationship with Har Shalom.
“It’s turned out to be a far better relationship than I’d ever imagined a relationship with a congregation could be in a place as eclectic as Missoula,” says Winkler. “It’s been a very great challenge to not compromise what’s important to me as a Rabbi, to meet the desires of people whose spiritual needs are so different from one another.”
Rabbi Gershon Winkler is an excellent student of the “Flexidoxy” that he teaches, and is able to treat each member of Har Shalom just as he does each moment in this precious life: with a genuine openness, great love, and a rich sense of humor.
Rabbi Gerson Winkler leads High Holy Day services in the sanctuary of the University Congregational Church at 405 University Avenue. For more information call 523-5671.