THE BEST NEWS IN JUDAISM TODAY: JEWISH RENEWAL
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5770
Last year I talked about the four questions we’ll be asked when we meet our Maker. The last question is, “Did you keep faith for the future?” Without hope, we have no purpose or meaning to our lives. This year I’m worried about the morale of our people.
Is there a rabbi in America tonight who has not agonized about what to say about the outrageous and heartbreaking scandals that have occurred this past year in the Jewish community? What would Moses say about a man who enjoyed high esteem in the Jewish community yet who destroyed individuals and institutions within it? How do rabbis become part of a money-laundering scheme that involved selling body parts? Gevalt!
Perhaps the saddest piece of news this year came just a month ago in a poll conducted in 2008 by the American Religious Identification Survey. Since 1990, the number of American Jews who consider themselves religiously observant has dropped by more than 20 percent. Twenty years ago 20 percent of Jews called themselves only “culturally Jewish,” and now the number is 37 percent. We’re talking about Jews who define themselves only by corned beef sandwiches and Woody Allen. Researchers attribute the trend to “the high rate of intermarriage and disaffection from Judaism.”
What’s wrong? Why aren’t we transmitting the frank ecstasy of our ancestors when they sang and danced their love songs to God? Where is the intimacy of the Hasidim whispering their longings to HaShem? Where is the faith that sustained our ancestors for 4000 years?
Seems like we need it more than ever! We should be growing, not shrinking. God forbid, however, that I should add to the woes of the world by frightening and depressing our congregation tonight. I have more than good news, I have great news. While mainstream Judaism may be failing in making its case, that is not the whole story. There is a new dynamic in our ancient tradition that is building the bridge we need to join ageless wisdom with our rapidly changing world, and it’s called Jewish Renewal.
But before we get to that great news, it’s important to remember that Judaism is still here because it’s been elastic enough to grow and learn how to remain potent for each generation. The first great paradigm shift happened two thousand years ago.
The destruction of the Great Temple ended Judaism’s priestly leadership and its practice of animal sacrifices. While many wept and lamented the end of Judaism, a new generation shifted the path to God through prayer, not through death. The prophets made clear that God wanted the good deed more than the sacrifice. 1500 years later, when the tradition became brittle with scholarship, legalisms, and naturally exclusive of all who weren’t learned, the Hasidim, led by the great rebbes, brought us back into balance with their ecstatic worship. They believed that the Holy One created us to be joyful, and they loved God with all their hearts, souls, and might. All Jews were in the club; no educational requirement was necessary. You only needed an open heart that felt life to be a holy gift and a passion to thank the Giver.
Reform Judaism was another major shift, this time in response to the challenges of modernity. Its leaders wanted a dramatic new expression of its practice that fit in with the times. Rabbis began to wear robes like their Christian colleagues, Talmud was banned in some cities, and Kashrut was done away with. A few early reformers even pressed for Shabbat being celebrated on Sunday. The Prophets spoke loudly in this highly rational, non-mystical chapter in Jewish history.
In the early 20th Century, the German philosopher Martin Buber saw a wounding divide between the synagogue and God, and between the needs of the community and the individual. In his book, I and Thou, he described how a relationship between two becomes holy when we see the Divine in one another. When we see each other as objects that either help or harm us, we are not only blind to the holiness within everyone, we miss experiencing God.
Buber challenged traditional practice by declaring that true religious experience has nothing to do with religion. For the tradition to have spiritual relevance, for it to change people’s lives, it would require a dramatic shift of perspective.
Surely the great mystic, political activist, and writer Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had read Buber. Descended from a family of powerful rebbes at the beginning of the twentieth century, he absorbed piety and wonder in his mother’s milk. God suffused every moment of his existence, until he attended the university in Berlin. There he encountered great minds that nevertheless blind to wonder. They were ignorant of transcendence, grace, and miracle.
When he fled to the United States from the Nazis, he found another spiritual challenge. The American synagogues were grand, but they lacked heart and mystery. They were focused on the power of the community and not on the sanctity of the individual. He described the synagogues as suffering from a “tremendous cold.” Where was the ecstatic union he experienced in his father’s shul?
His books that translated his Hasidic vision into a language that spoke to mid-Century American Jews became a shofar that called the Jewish people to embrace the living fire of their ancestors. He offered a model to forge a warmer, more emotionally engaged Judaism.
Nothing much changed in Judaism, however, until the late sixties, when a new generation, spiritually awakened by the political and social movements of the time, went searching for transcendence. They found it in the revolutionary voices of Buber and Heschel that offered them a Judaism that they could claim. They saw how it could be a sacred vessel in which to contain the cosmic energy generating the shift of consciousness occurring in America.
Never doubt the influence of a few committed individuals, and especially one man, Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, who loved the tradition and burned to offer its gift. His name is synonymous with Jewish Renewal, and like many reformers, his roots run very deep. Born into an illustrious rabbinic family, he fled Nazi Vienna for Canada in the thirties as a teenager, and became a rabbi in the Chabad movement. It was there he met a generation thirsting for meaning and a greater purpose.
But Chabad was too evangelical and narrow. Its teachings on homosexuality, women, and the rest of the world were exclusive at best, or downright offensive and immoral. In his search for a passionate yet ethical practice, Reb Zalman became friends with spiritual leaders of many traditions, and he learned new ways to connect to the holy from Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. No doubt, they too, including the Dalai Lama, learned from him.
Reb Zalman’s message was simple: “It’s all about love, Yidn! We’re here to learn to love.” You didn’t hear many rabbis using the L word back then. Havurot, small communities without rabbis became the laboratories of love for the new forms of worship emerging in Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman modeled joyful behavior through his natural cheerfulness and his playful, occasionally audacious use of pop tunes in the liturgy, the most memorable to me being Adon Olam to Amazing Grace at TBS.
When Reb Zalman led a service with a wordless melody from his childhood, his yiddishkeit and his wisdom brought a generation back not only to their grandparents but to their essence. They learned what it was to feel their Judaism, not just think it. Through him, they found a path that gave their lives joy, sustenance, meaning, and purpose.
Forty years later Reb Zalman’s dream has become ALEPH: An Alliance for Jewish Renewal. It is a one-stop shop for Jewish spirituality. It’s an ordaining academy, a community of spiritual leaders, and a federation of communities that call themselves Renewal, just to mention a few of its activities. Every two years they hold Kallah, a Jewish camp of learning and prayer for adults and children of all ages and denominations. It draws 1000 people of all ages and denominations.
Some say Jewish Renewal isn’t a movement but an attitude. Its followers want to reclaim the essence of our tradition. Some call it the “juice”, Karen Milstein’s perfect word to describe the feeling of being more alive, connected, and present in one’s life.
Perhaps what marks Renewal as unique is the style of its services. Since they are aimed at the heart, not just the head, music is a key alchemical element. Singing that calls us to join in and even clap and dance shifts the energy within us. Surely animal sacrifices shifted the energy, and now we are finding new ways to reach the same place of love and awe.
Within Renewal we find evidence of other traditions. Exotic musical instruments heard in Sufi prayers may help uncover the essence of a prayer. Chanting one verse from our voluminous scripture comes from Eastern traditions, as does meditation, and both are active renewal practices. Borrowing isn’t new. Jews have always lived in two worlds and have been influenced by neighboring societies.
We also find much more variation among renewal communities in their practices. There is no chosen prayer book for all its affiliated congregations. Many of its leaders are charismatic and talented musicians who are natural performers.
Despite my lifelong search for a Judaism that spoke to my whole being, I didn’t jump on the renewal bandwagon quickly. I once attended a Kol Nidre service at a Renewal community and wasn’t handed a prayer book but two pages with songs–I needed a little more heft of that old time religion! At the same time, I loved the joy and intensity of the service.
Yafa Chase, a rabbinical student with ALEPH and with HaMakom from the beginning, finally convinced me to attend one of their conferences. I was radically amazed. We had opportunity to pray traditionally or innovatively every day, and we studied challenging Hebrew texts together. ALEPH was not new-age, forgive me, Santa Fe spirituality, but a true paradigm shift. I met kindred spirits from all denominations, reunited with fellow seminarians, bought many CD’s of soul music, and returned with a new sense of belonging.
That being said, one of the blessings of HaMakom is that no one quite knows how to categorize it. I’ve heard HaMakom described in many ways around town–Reconstructionist, perhaps? Egalitarian Orthodox? Feminist? Renewal? It doesn’t matter to us as long as you feel at home. We like being a laboratory and in formation, and we like knowing that we’re part of the future of Judaism in our experimentation.
I’m grateful for Jewish Renewal and all that it has given the entire Jewish community. May it continue to renew our days as it shows us how, in the 21st Century, to draw closer to God, to discover our godliness, to feel kinship with our ancient family, and more love for one another.