The Dreams of a Baal Teshuvah by Dr. Sanford Drob
Volume 2 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1988 | Tishrei, 5749)
The Jewish tradition, has had what one may best describe as a ?cautious fascination? with the phenomena of dreams. Joseph, both the master dreamer and dream interpreter of the biblical age, provides the paradigm for the belief that both dreams and their interpretation are akin to prophecy. Daniel, whose career very much parallels that of Joseph, also achieves prophecy in his dream interpretations, and the prophet (Joel 3.1) looks forward to a time when the gift of prophetic dreams will be vouchsafed to all, young and old.
The Rabbis, however, had a more cautious view of the phenomenon of dreaming. While R. Hanina hen Isaac (Genesis Rabbah. 17:15)described dreams a ?variety of prophecy?, we find, according to R. Jonathan (Berakhot 55b) that in dreams a man is shown only his own thoughts, and according to R. Meir that dreams are of no consequence at all. The Talmud, while it does speculate at some length on the meaning of dreams, adds a note of skepticism in recording that Rabbi Baanah took the same dream to 24 interpreters in Jerusalem and received a different interpretation from each (Berakhot 55a,b). One such dream interpreter, Bar Hedya, the Talmud records, gave a good interpretation to those who paid him and a bad interpretation to those who did not.
Later Jewish tradition is divided quite evenly between rationalists, such as Maimonides who downplayed the prophetic significance of dreams and mystics who held that they could be a window into things divine. The Zohar, for example,holds that while the dreams of the wicked derive from the forces of ?impurity?, the dreams of the righteous contain visions, elements of which are derived from higher worlds.
On balance we find that the Jewish tradition maintains a generally more moderate view of the nature and value of dreams. Thus R. Jonathan, who was generally skeptical, held that there were indeed some dreams which were fulfilled, and the Zohar held that in dreams there is always, even for the most righteous of souls, an admixture of falsity with truth.
In our own era Sigmund Freud discussed the dreams of Joseph and Pharoah as examples of dreams which are interpreted symbolically and where the manifest dream is believed to disclose a future series of events that are encoded in the dream content. Freud himself proposed a different method of interpretation, one in which the contents of a dream are broken down into their component parts and are each understood in relation to the dreamers' own life circumstances and the associations he makes with respect to them. The interpretation then reconstructs a latent dream thought which reveals the meaning of the dream as a reflection of the dreamers' wish or desire.
Freud, of course, rejected the notion that dreams can be truly prophetic. They are prophetic only insofar as they reveal to the dreamer his or own unconscious desires, and hence provide him with insight into what might otherwise be his future, unconsciously determined, actions. Thus for Freud, as for the rationalist, Maimonides, a person apprehends in dreams only those things which have made an impression on him in the past. If his dreams are prophetic, it is only because he has organized these past impressions and arrived at an unconscious understanding of his, and perhaps others?, motives for action.
We should not, however, take the Freudian view as a reason for losing interest in the religious significance of our dream life. For even if we adopt the view that dreams have access only to material derived from the dreamer's own experience, the way in which this material is perceived, organized and presented by the ?dream work? may still be of profound religious significance for the dreamer. In this light we should note that even for Freud the psychic reality of dreams is one in which the laws of time and space are suspended and in which the laws of will, thought and desire are substituted in their place. It is a reality, which is indeed very similar to the ?higher worlds? which the Kabbalists describe as being a-temporal, non-material, and dominated by the Godly traits of Action, Thought and Will. It is this psychic reality, according to Jung, Fromm and others, which is the source of religious experience even for contemporary man.
Dreams must, as our tradition tells us, he interpreted very cautiously. This means, in our place and time, that the religious significance of a dream must be limited to its significance for the dreamer himself. Anyone, of course, who claims that his dreams have religious significance for others is making a claim of prophecy and is more likely to be taken to be mentally disturbed than he is to be taken seriously. Yet, with they caveat in mind we might begin exploring the analysis of dreams from a Jewish religious point of view. To this end I will present and discuss three dreams of a man I worked with, a baal teshuvah, who was at the time struggling with the nature and intensity of his own religious commitment. The dreams took place over a three year period. I have altered some of the dreams' details in order to protect the dreamers confidentiality.
The dreamer brings his father, his grandfather and his mother's older brother, Izzie, to a serviceat the Reform synagogue the dreamer had been attending. Midway into the service he realizes how upsetting the organ music and the lack of yarmulkes and tallessim would be to them. He tries handing out yarmulkes to his relatives, hoping his grandfather would take a large one, like the one he used to wear when the dreamer was a child, but the grandfather passes on the offer. The dreamer thinks to himself: ?This service won't raise the dead?, for at that moment he realized that both his grandfather and Uncle Izzie were long since deceased. He concludes: ?Only a true chazan, real davening could do that?.
This dream, in which the dreamers deceased relatives make an appearance, marked the beginning of the dreamer's return to traditional Judaism. The dreamer himself interpreted it as an expression of his desire to make a genuine connection with his roots, with the religious traditions of his grandfather. It also marked his realization that this could not be accomplished in a synagogue so removed from tradition that it accompanied prayer with organ music and was without yarmulkes and tallessim.
The dreamer is on vacation somewhere in ?middle America?. He is with his wife and they walk into a luncheonette on ?Main Street? to have a coke. The restaurant isn't kosher so the dreamer takes off his yarmulke before they walk inside, so there is nothing to identify him as a Jew. Suddenly, a group of chasidim, with black coats, hats and payot, come excitedly into the restaurant ?like a breath of fresh air?. One of them, a tall, powerful looking man in his late 40's, looks vaguely familiar. He says something to the dreamer in a deep, clear, American voice. The dreamer's wife whispers to him that this man is Leonard Cohen, the folksinger/troubadour who had a hit song, ?Suzanne?, in the 1960's, which made reference to Jesus Christ. Cohen is now the leader of a chasidic rock group. The group begins playing some loud music at the back of the luncheonette, but when the dreamer comes near them he realizes that only two of them are actually singing and playing musical instruments. The rest of the music is recorded and being played back on tape.
This is a very complex dream, only a few of the details of which can be
discussed here. The dreamer came to understand this dream as both an expression
of and a message about, his conflict over being both an American and (by now)
an observant Jew. The luncheonette on ?Main Street? in
The dreamer is in the neighborhood in which he grew up as a child. Someone is building structures all over and around the community. Mammoth structures through the town, structures that are ?totally unstoppable.? A, very rich and powerful woman had simply moved in with her construction company and began digging foundations and erecting ever higher and more complicated structures in the town park. She said that the community had forgotten that under federal law, everything, even the park was fair game for her to build on. It was as if an entire city was being created on top of the places he had loved as a child. ?Even our homes?, he described, ?had been taken from us and done over.? When they were returned to us they were attached to one another like condominiums, and while the homes were now more modem and efficient there was no light or air coming into them.? The dreamer states that he tried to live in this new house but it was something he could not get comfortable with.
This dream was dreamed a full three years after the previous one, at a time after the dreamer had become an observant-orthodox Jew: During this period he had begun to come down from the ?high? which many baalei teshuvah experience in their first years of Jewish commitment and was now beginning to have doubts that perhaps he had gone too far in rejecting his old non-religious side in favor of a totally Jewish lifestyle. Still, he felt very guilty about these doubts and could barely express them. They are nonetheless at the core of his dream, though distorted by the dream work in a manner which was not immediately apparent to him. However, the dreamer's associations revealed that the structures being built over his old neighborhood represented the structure of Jewish law which had come to dominate his own life and which superseded his old style of living. The dreamer, an unmarried man in his 30's had begun dating a non-orthodox (but Jewish) woman and was for the first time confronted by the challenge of those Jewish laws regulating the relationships between man and woman prior to marriage. The dream has many layers of meaning but in one of them the rich and powerful woman represents the dreamer's anxiety concerning laws pertaining to women. Partly as a result of these anxieties Judaism had recently become a great burden to him, one that he ultimately felt was suffocating his personality. This is symbolized by the lack of light and air coming into his (now reconstructed) childhood home.
I include this third dream to illustrate two important points. The first is that not all dreams with a Jewish religious significance will have Judaism as their manifest content: the second, is that not all dreams with a religious theme will express the dreamers desire to come closer to Judaism. I shudder at the thought of what a non-religious therapist would have done with Dream III. Certainly, the dreamer was at that time unconsciously ready to abandon halakha altogether. However, by working this dream through in an accepting but Jewish context the dreamer was ultimately able to remain a committed; observant Jew.
Our dreams are a window into our innermost strivings, hopes, anxieties and fears. At times, they can be a source of religious inspiration and an impetus to Jewish commitment. At other times, they may reflect a religious doubt or presage a possible turning away from Torah. In all instances we can only benefit from their careful and cautious examination. If wefail to do so we may not only miss an inspiration but also fail to work through an important philosophical or psychological issue pertaining to our religious life.