The Meaning of Dreams, Whether in the Dark or the Stark Light of Day


Dreams permeate the book of Genesis. From Jacob's nighttime visions of God to his son Joseph's use of dream interpretation in the service of pharaoh in Egypt, the Bible's first book captures the potential transformative power — and, at times, the paralyzing anxiety — brought about by the powerful images that inhabit, and often haunt, a mind at rest.

Yet the remainder of the Torah — indeed, the entire scope of Jewish tradition — remains deeply ambivalent about the nature and role of dreams, according to Rodger Kamenetz, author of the newly published The History of Last Night's Dream.

In that book and at a Dec. 13 talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia — an event co-sponsored by the Kehillah of Center City — the English and religious-studies professor at Louisiana State University asserted that the remainder of the Bible either contains scant references to dreams or takes a far more circumspect view of their value.

In short, he claimed that as the Jewish religious tradition emphasized the word at the expense of the image — part of the campaign to root out idol worship — dreams have largely been considered something either ignored or feared.

And, he added, that's been a loss to all who seek greater spiritual and inner awareness.

"Below the surface of our dream is a hidden depth," he explained. "In dreams, we can recover our hidden lives. We can use dreams to change ourselves from the inside. Most dreams are about a struggle."

Kamenetz is, of course, best known for his 1994 book The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicled a meeting of Jewish leaders with none other than the Dalai Lama in India and helped coin the term JUBU (which has also come to be spelled BuJew). The book examined the lives of Jews who, in varying degrees, incorporated elements of Eastern rituals into their religious practice.

"The Jew and the Lotus spoke to a generation of Jewish religious-seekers," noted Rabbi Leonard Gordon, religious leader of Germantown Jewish Centre, in his introduction of the speaker.

Kamenetz explained that his encounter with the visual Buddhist tradition led to his interest in dreams and daytime visualization techniques. The new book is partly a personal journey describing his work with dream teachers — including an 87-year-old mystic in Jerusalem — and partly a history of dream interpretation from Genesis to Freud.

Freud Got It Wrong
It's nearly impossible to discuss the role of dreams in Western thought without mentioning Sigmund Freud and his much-debated book, The Interpretation of Dreams. In his talk, Kamenetz said that Freud got it all wrong.

"Freud, the ancient rabbis, the church fathers — they all taught that dreams are messages that need to be decoded," said Kamenetz, adding that rather than trying to solve a puzzle, people should surrender to dream images and experience them on a more visceral level.

He also noted in his book that present-day psychiatry has gotten away from the notion of interpreting dreams.

The shift takes place in Genesis itself, began Kamenetz. Early on, Jacob and Joseph simply accept their dreams. Later on, dreams start to produce great anxiety and must be explained away, noted the author.

"Couldn't we be given a dream that would show us the essence of who we are?" posed Kamenetz.

But where does this all lead? What, exactly, is Kamenetz proposing that people do?

"I want people to bring more imagination to their religious experience," he said in an interview following his talk and book-signing. "People who are looking to find a deeper connection to God can find that through dreams."

But how?

"In terms of working with dreams, it's difficult to do it by yourself. You need a teacher," replied Kamenetz, who didn't exactly go on to answer how to locate such a person. "Anyone can write down their dreams and share them with people who love you."



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