As many of you know, I am dedicated to inter-spiritual dialog.  Not only do I study wisdom teachings from all the world’s spiritual traditions, but I shamelessly practice as many of them as I can, davening to welcome the Jewish Sabbath, chanting the holy names at a Hindu ashram, praying in the historic Catholic Church during the sunrise Spanish Mass, praising Allah in an ecstatic Sufi dance – often all in the same week.

Which is why I was so surprised – at first amused, and later saddened – to hear the rumor on the streets of my small community last week: Mirabai is turning into a fundamentalist.

This bizarre notion seems to have come out of a recent experience in which a Chasidic rabbi gave my sister Amy and me Hebrew names.  Because we asked for them.  Here’s what happened.  This summer, a young Chabad rabbi was sent to our traditionally Hispanic Catholic and Native American community to add his particular brand of traditional Judaism to the growing collection of mostly liberal, non-denominational Jewish resources in town.  Our family was invited to participate in a ceremony in which a hand-lettered Torah (Hebrew Bible) scroll was dedicated and then carried under a chuppah (traditional wedding canopy) and danced through the streets, to be installed in its new ark.  Everyone was invited to buy a letter (for $1) in memory of a deceased loved one, because it is considered to be a mitzvah (blessing, as well as commandment) to participate in the writing of a Torah.

Amy and I bought three letters: one for our father; one for our brother Matty, who died of cancer when we were children; and one for my daughter Jenny, who was killed in a car accident seven years ago.  As we were filling out the form, it asked for our parents’ Hebrew names, and we wrote them down.  Then it asked for our Hebrew names, which we were never given.  By the time our parents had children, they had already rejected organized religion, and so did not participate in the traditional Jewish naming ritual.

When I lamented this lack over snacks at the reception, my friend Azima, who was visiting from England and is a translator of the Persian poet Rumi, said, “Why don’t you ask the rabbi for a name?”

“Good idea,” I said.

“When?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.  One of these days.”

“How about today?” she pressed.  “How about right now?”

And so we did.  The rabbi agreed immediately.  Ours would be the first blessing over the new Torah.  And it would also be the young rabbi’s first naming.

Concerned that it might be difficult to gather a minyan (ten Jewish men) in our small community, the word went out.  The evening of the ceremony (which happened to be the night before Jenny’s birthday, when she would have turned twenty-one), the small storefront shul was packed with people – men and women.  Our family has lived and served in this town for almost forty years.  As soon as people heard that the Starr sisters were being given Hebrew names, they flocked to support us.  It was a very moving ritual, in which my sister’s two teenaged sons were also given Hebrew names.

Moving, yes, and also alien to my secular sensibilities.  The women and men were separated by a partition.  When my I was given my name, I was not there to see it.  Disembodied male voices chanted in Hebrew on my behalf.  And then it was over.  I barely knew that anything had happened.

Yet something in me felt truly changed.  An empty cup inside my heart was filled.  A childhood longing was satisfied.  All in a quiet, and unexpectedly holy way.  It did not bother me that the tradition might be sexist and narrow.  I can easily shift my perspective and view it as ancient and esoteric.  I intentionally suspended my judgment that this twenty-something rabbi who grew up in a very insulated world compares George Bush to a stern but loving father who is willing to risk losing his children’s affection in order to keep them safe, while I am working as hard as I can to get Barack Obama elected so that we may begin to repair some of the horrendous damage our last president has inflicted on this world.  This was not about politics.  It was about embracing the sacred, honoring my heritage, and trying to build another small bridge between faiths and genders and hearts and minds.

I’ve been thinking that the ripple of shock that went through my community may have been partly generated by my transformed appearance that night.  Out of respect for the orthodoxy of that particular tradition, I wore a silk head scarf, which completely concealed my hair, and revealed what struck even me as an intensely Jewish face.  Even my mother didn’t recognize me when she first walked into the temple!

My new Hebrew name is Miriam, sister of Moses, who led her people with drums and tambourines and song through the Narrow Places to the Promised Land.

A few years ago, I was asked to lead a contemplative retreat in the South, using the teachings of the Dark Night of the Soul, by the sixteenth century Christian mystic, John of the Cross, which I had translated from Spanish to English.  I was horrified to discover that my wealthy hosts were not only conservative Christians, but right-wing Republicans.  Over dinner the first night, the husband pontificated about the War on Terror and railed against a pro-choice agenda.  I spent that night thrashing in bed, troubled to my core.  It was going to be a long weekend.

But it didn’t turn out that way.  After a day of sharing the expansive teachings of mystical love, I felt calm and happy.  That evening, we had a beautiful conversation at the dinner table, in which my hosts opened their hearts about the losses in their lives, the children they worried about, the general suffering on this planet.  And the day after that, we went on a boat ride along the bayou, and had a picnic on a little island.  By the time I left, this family felt like family – all differences between us irrelevant.

It won’t take long for my own community to notice that Mirabai is Miriam, yet still Mirabai.  That I am as spiritually promiscuous as always, lying down with any god who will have me.  Because I know it’s all One.  And I’ll take holiness wherever I can find it.