Rabbi Benjamin Gorelick - The Mushroom Rabbi
I am a seeker…
The thing I remember most from my childhood – I was raised Conservadox Jewish, splitting my time between Albuquerque and Chama, NM – was the deep sense of ‘together’ I was raised in. We were a part of a small community that lived together, went to school together, prayed together, ate together, had chicken-pox parties together, became Bar and Bat Mitzvah together… You get the idea. There was always a beautiful balancing act between the ‘you’ – the sovereign self – the us – the community of which you were an integral, inescapable part – and the universe – the knowing that our separation from each other, from G-d, was just a useful illusion. (It is only in the illusion of separation that you can feel communion with another.)
I like to describe my childhood as the time when the line between self and community and G-d was very blurry.
I left home when I was 17 and moved to Alaska, a place where I could simultaneously indulge my love for climbing and the mountains while also getting my degree(s) at university.
But my religious upbringing felt incompatible with the real world. I left home with a sense that, somehow, life was fair. If you do good, good things will happen to you, and if you do bad, bad things will happen to you.
But life doesn’t really work that way, and I didn’t know what to do with that. A few distinct, unfair moments + a Philosophy 101 class pushed me toward leaving Judaism behind, where I instead turned my eye toward ‘objective truth’. I gobbled up Nietzsche, Kafka, and Camus, and dived fully into the mountains – a place where you cannot lie, because nature is relentlessly unforgiving of hubris.
A few years later, my partner and I founded a 4 year college for Mountain Guides with a simple theory: If you take people into the mountains for 4 years, they will have gained all the technical skills necessary to be a rock-solid Mountain Guide. Instead, the skills that you need to train and assess for are the human skills: a deep understanding of self, empathy, communication, knowing your and others’ limits, as well as two dozen character traits, such as creativity, curiosity, honesty, humility, hope, prudence, and spirituality.
When looking for a curriculum to train and assess these things, I reached back into my past, to an old Kabbalistic structure called Mussar (rough translation: The Feeling Path). With some work, and in collaboration with the FAA, who faced a similar problem (Pilots can all fly planes, Mountain Guides can all ski and climb, but you certainly want to know how both groups are going to respond, in a human sense, under pressure), we reskinned this old Jewish thing as something secular and sent it out into the world.
It was wildly successful.
As I was preparing to leave the college in 2016, I knew that I still wanted to work with people in a place where they’d be willing to be introspective, to grow and thrive and explore. The only place I could imagine that would even be a possibility was religion. So I went to seminary.
Initially, seminary was a heartbreaking experience. I thought it would be the place you go to learn to foster connection to self, to community, and to drop into communion with G-d. It was not. It was law school for 4000 year old laws that I felt no particular connection to. And I would have dropped out, except I also realized that, in order to do what I wanted to do in the Jewish/religious space, I needed a deep grounding in halakhah, Jewish law.
About 2 years into Rabbi School, I rediscovered Kabbalah. The way I like to describe Kabbalah is this: If traditional religion is an exploration of connection to G-d through head space: structure, rule-following, and understanding; Kabbalah is an exploration of connection to G-d through heart space: through emotions and movement and ‘grok’ing.
Put simply, Kabbalah is an invitation to feel, emotionally, our fullest selves and to explore how our feeling states connect us to ourselves, each other, and the divine.
This felt right to me, something like the spiritual home I’d been aching for. I dived headfirst into my exploration of the mystical.
What struck me were the pathways that Kabbalah, a thousands-year-old tradition, gave us to explore the depths of our connection:
- Ecstatic sound and movement
- Sacred (psychedelic) sacrament
- Immersion in nature and art and beauty
At the time, the only one I had experience with was nature (17 years as a Mountain Guide certainly qualifies as ‘immersion in nature’…).
Two months later, I had my first experience with mushrooms, and that experience changed everything. It was the first time I’d ‘felt’ G-d, felt oneness and life as it is ‘behind the scenes’. I went back to all my Rabbi friends and asked them if they’d experienced anything similar. I was mostly met with blank stares.
And that’s how I got to running my first sacrament ceremony for a group of Rabbis and cantors and Jewish educators.
Three years later, here we are. A Kabbalistic, Jewish congregation filled with seekers from all backgrounds and walks of life. I’m truly, truly blessed to be able to walk this path with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.