Renewal is not Judaism-Lite

This wonderful and inspiring talk of Reb Zalman’s, originally given in the late 1990’s, can be found on the  Yishmiru Daat dvd, available from Aleph Resources.  It paints a picture of Reb Zalman’s role in the shaping of Jewish Renewal in our time.  Enjoy!  Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor.

Renewal Is Not Judaism-Lite
by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Contents

Tamid Echad / Always and Forever One
Not Judaism-Lite
Holocaust Losses
Kumran USA
Religious Environmentalist
The Havurah Movement and the Jewish Catalogue
Jewish Renewal Gains Momentum
My Teachers
Focus: Restoration or Renewal?
Internalizing the Renewal of Judaism
A Renewal Mashal / Analogy
Renewal Is Not Heresy
Building a Future
Somatizing
Loving Jews and Loving All
Intuition
From Empathy to Compassion
Investing in Shaping the God-field
The lamed-vavniker‘s Curriculum
Paradigm Shift
Moral/Faith Development
Soul and Mind Development
Hasidism
Gaia
Eco-Kashrut
Feminism
GLBT
Ger Tzedek, Ger Toshav
Recharging our Souls in Israel
Internationlization of Renewal
A Renewed Halachah
In Conclusion

Tamid Echad / Always and Forever One

(Reb Zalman begins singing his niggun, Tamid Echad / always and forever one.  Click here to hear it.)

I want to share with you today some of my history with what we call Jewish Renewal

Often, when people begin conversations and they want to say “Our community does Judaism like this,” and others say, “Ours does it like that.  Ours is different.”  And I want to say, “No.  Tamid Echad / Always and forever one.” 

That oneness, we will explore a little bit more when we talk about Deep Ecumenism.  {NOTE:  This is a reference to another talk that can be found on the Yishmiru Daat DVD.  Gabbai Seth}  But this oneness goes through history and it goes through Klal Yisroel / all the God wrestlers with whom we feel we share. 

And the commonality also extends beyond human beings:  We share with the birds.  We share with the mammals.  I just read a remarkable book about the chimpanzees who learn how to speak to each other in American Sign Language, and then pass it on to the next generation.  And when I watch the geese and the little goslings down at the lake, they also connect me with the oneness of it all.  That’s a very important part of what Jewish Renewal is. 

Not Judaism-Lite

So I’d like to discuss the ways we are one, but I also want to point out that Jewish Renewal is not Judaism-lite.  [Reb Z Chuckling].  There’s a sense out there of, “If you don’t want to get heavy into Judaism, do Jewish Renewal.”  I think this will be clearer when I share a little bit of Jewish Renewal’s history and my role in it.  There’s an organic integrity that Jewish Renewal has with Judaism in general that goes beyond a “Judaism-Lite”. 

Holocaust Losses

A long, long time ago, in the days when I was still a card-carrying Lubavitcher hasid, I attended a Hillel encampment in Starlight Pennsylvania.  Many of the attendees were students chosen and sent from various Hillel foundations to the week-long gathering.

In the people who came, I saw an enthusiasm that they had, something they brought to the gathering which had an energy to it.  I recognized in it something that was not the European kind of Yiddishkeit that I had very much wanted to reconstitute at a point in time, to bring back to where it had been before.  This energy was different.  These were young men and women with open hearts, with wonderful ideals, but they were pointing in a different direction.

I realized, at that time, that we needed a kind of “Noah’s ark”, taking the know-how that people had once had in the past and preserving these skills of how to be a Jew, the ways in which they had once served God; the ways they celebrated yom tovim / Jewish holidays; the ways the Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Edot haMizrach, Lithuanians, Galizianers, how each of them did it, and each one’s different ways of doing it. 

During this time, I was being influenced by my encounter with Farenheit 451, a book that painted a picture of a time when books were banned, and destroyed, and the people were trying to preserve what was being destroyed.  The people so loved the books that they would learn them by heart.  They would create communities for preservation:  This one was War and Peace, and that one was Anna Karenina.  This one was Charles Dickens, and that one was a book of poetry.  And I thought, “Could we not have such a group that would be a Noah’s Ark for the darche haavoda / the ways of serving God, for the nusach / liturgical modes, the rituals and the chants that we had in each different group?”  

I feared that otherwise, they would be lost.  And I want to tell you something:  A certain species are lost forever when a species dies.  Certain things from our past are being lost forever; and it’s a pity.  For instance, Jews in the Rhineland once had a very special way of serving God with origins back to the time from the early Middle Ages, the time of Reb Yehudah Hechassid of Regensburg.  But it became lost to us because we don’t have a vessel for it.  And the melting pot in Israel mixes up all the different ways, and I wish so deeply that we could somehow keep each one separate so we could preserve the different ways and the context from which they had evolved.  And also I wanted to preserve the different ways each community davven-ed with respect to the impacts on spirituality of the davenner.  And I wanted to save the different ways each had of dealing with our philosophy.  And so Noah’s ark was really necessary, I thought and felt, because with the Holocaust, all these many ways of being Jews had died for us. 

Kumran USA

Around the same time, I was reading about the Dead Sea scrolls.  What I read really excited me.  The people of Kumran had a huge impact on all forms of monasticism in the West, across many religions.  The Desert fathers descended from them and their practices.  So did the monks of Christianity, and even the Dervishes of the Sufi orders.  They seemed such a remarkable group.  There was a “Manual of Discipline” in which they captured the ways they lived.  There was a scroll called “The war of the children of light against the children of darkness.” 

From here, I took the original name of Aleph / The Alliance of Jewish Renewal.  It was first called The Children of Light, B’nai or.   The ancient community of Kumran seemed to embody something that was already a dream and a hope in my heart that we would have a Kumran USA. 

I wrote and published an article about it.  I hoped to get lots of applications from people who would want to be a part of an urban, Jewish, monastic kibbutz; that many people would rush to be with us.  Alas, it didn’t happen.  After the article was published, someone wrote, “It’s a pity you won’t be able to do it.”  Despite my efforts, (I lived in Manitoba; some people came from outside of Mannitoba; there were 20,000 Jews in Winnipeg, but…), there wasn’t enough  critical mass in the kinds of “crazy,” avant-garde people to participate and dedicate themselves to what we were trying to accomplish.  We wanted to deepen our spirituality in the kind of a setting I had read about in the Dead Sea scrolls and in the context of the “New Age” coming through at that time, (and especially in that form which was “in the air”). 

Religious Environmentalist

The thoughts that percolated within me at this time extended into other things I did as well.  I received invitations to come to Jewish Summer Camps, and Jewish Groups.  Little by little, I introduced some of my ideas, until one day I was hired to be a Religious Environmentalist at camps Ramah.  

There was one in Connecticut in particular, where I worked most frequently.  There, we had a talisarium, (it was a time when all kinds of talitot were being sewed by the kids themselves, with grommets put in and tzitzis fastened), and we had a scriptorium, (at the time, I had been spending time with Thomas Merton and some of the Catholic monks, and I had these interactions in mind when I named these as I did), and the campers would sit down in the scriptorium and write mezzuzahs on 3×5 cards.  I created a “hermitage,” giving each child a chance to spend 24 hours there in solitude.  These were remarkable times.

The Havurah Movement and the Jewish Catalogue

I was still working on all these activities, when the time came for the Havurah in Boston.  It was founded by Rabbi Art Green, and I was one of the people who was friend, and somewhat of a mentor to Rabbi Art.  Because of this, I was invited to be on the faculty of an alternative seminary and an alternative synagogue, (both brain children of Rabbi Art), and so I came to Massachusetts during a sabbatical from Manitoba. 

Some of the teachings I gave at the Havurah eventually came into the stream of the Havurah movement.

I was also teaching at Brandeis at that time while taking courses in Near Eastern languages and literatures.  Some of the teachings in the Psychology of Religion class I gave at Brandeis led to a number of people writing papers that eventually became the basis for the first “Jewish Catalogue.”  About the “Jewish Catalogue,” I felt that it had the promise to be the Mishnah for the American Talmud.

So all of these things were leading to a Renewal of Judaism.   

Jewish Renewal Gains Momentum

When the opportunity came for me to leave Winnipeg and to come to Philadelphia, there was a wonderful shift going on at that time.  The axis that had been in Boston before around the Havurah had now moved to Philadelphia; and a number of minyanim started at the Germantown Jewish center. And the home that we had on Emlen street was large enough so that we would have minyanim there; and that’s where we had a number of things that we did as labs for Davenology. 

I would travel on the East Coast and I would travel on the West Coast; so my travels took me from Vancouver to San Diego, on the one side, and from Maine down to Miami on the  other side.  And at various places where I went to do Shabbatons, groups formed themselves to do things of Jewish Renewal Havurot.

My Teachers

I had my teachers and they were all very important.  The Lubavitcher Rebbes, the two of them, Reb Yosef Yitzchak who was my main Rebbe, and after him, Reb Menachem Mendel.  

And I also would go and be with the Bobover Rebbe whom I loved and his way of davenning, his way of having a tisch

The main teachings came to me from chabad, because they were not only what you should think, but also how you should davven:  There was a lot of practical advice in how to go about doing it.  And learning from my Rebbes and encountering with them was the material from which I wrote my book, The Encounter, later on renamed Spiritual Intimacy.  It was based upon my doctorate from Hebrew Union College, (by the way, this was also part of the message of tamid echad and Jewish Renewal, because in my getting smicha from Lubavitch and a doctorate from Hebrew Union College, the work spans such a distance). 

I also had some non-Jewish “Rebbes”, and Howard Thurman of Boston University was very, very important and influential to me.  He also taught and mentored Martin Luther King.  Howard Thurman was a great, great human being. 

Another person, who was an important mentor to me was Gerald Heard, a friend of Alduos Huxley.  He wrote a book called The Five Ages of Man in which he talked about how we humans moved through history and the development of consciousness.  And he pointed out that this is applicable to the development of the individual person:  So there it was similar to the notion that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in the fact that we could use his map for the individual and her or his consciousness-development.  Heard also seeded within me what was eventually to become my later work of Spiritual Eldering {cf., From Age-ing to Sage-ing}.

Focus: Restoration or Renewal?

Over time, the question arose within me of how long I would continue to work for restoration.  I mentioned above about the Noah’s ark.  At that time, I felt that unless we could restore things to the way they had been before the holocaust, we would not be able to succeed in reviving our Jewish life.  But at some point, I made a switch inside from being Restorationist to being Renewalist.

I had been invited by Richard L. Rubenstein, who was then Hillel director at the University of Note in Pittsburgh.  There, I was to give a talk, and a whole bunch of chabadnikers came and watched me work. 

And at the first part of the session, I talked over the heads of the kids there at Hillel, to the chabadnikers.  During the break, I went and consulted with myself:  “Riboynishe olam:  I’m not doing the right thing.  I’m trying to impress the people in the ‘choir,’ as it were; I’m preaching to them, instead of trying to communicate with the students.  What do I need to communicate to the students?  Certainly not Restoration.”  They were not the kind of people who needed to go back to before the Holocaust.  I had to take it from there on. 

It was then, at this moment, that the divide, if I could say so, the continental divide between Restoration and Renewal occurred. 

Now I’m not saying that Restoration isn’t necessary.  The Restoration people have done a fantastic amount.  For example, when I look at what the ArtScroll people have produced, I am so excited by that.  They have made available so many of the treasures of the past for us.  It is really necessary.  So I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be doing what they are doing.

But I felt that there was also a necessity that while they were doing restoration, we needed to do renewal.  And they go together. 

Internalizing the Renewal of Judaism

It was at that time that I spoke about “jewing” as a verb:   I jew, you jew, he/she/it jews.

There was a question that had often been raised:  People looking to increase Jewish practice would ask, “Who is a good Jew?”  The question wasn’t effective in this regard.  I pointed out that a better question, a more effective one was, “How often does one jew?”  One who jews more frequently becomes the greater jewer.  And the questions: “With what intensity does one jew?”  And, “With what frequency does one jew?”  “Over which range of life does one jew?”   And, “With what intentionality?”

So a whole new way of thinking about the process of being Jewish came.  This was, in fact, the foundation of my thinking that later on comes out as the psycho-halachic process, {Cf., Reb Zalman’s book, Integral Halachah}.

A Renewal Mashal

There is an image that I got from Howard Thurman that helped me a great deal.  Once, I visited Muir Woods.  I saw there a cross-section cut from an amazing Redwood.  In it, one could see 2000 years in the rings.  It was remarkable. 

It really helped me to focus on the function of the growing-edge idea.  Each year the growing-edge of this one becomes the next ring the following year and a new growing-edge comes.   I realized that Renewal is like a growing-edge and restoration is like the rings.  The tree cannot stand without having the wood of the rings of the past.  Additionally, it cannot  live if it doesn’t have the growing edge.  It is through the growing edge that the juices come up.  This is why with Renewal, every year, a new growing edge has to come making the next ring then possible and continuing the tradition. 

Renewal Is Not Heresy

So Renewal is not heresy was one of the things that I pointed out, [because it is essential for the Jewish survival.]  {Cf., Reb Zalman’s “Renewal Is Judaism Now”}

Building a Future

Then, realizing that our task deals with shaping a future, (that we are the futurists, if you will, of this Judaic tradition), the question became, “How do we produce the saints that are necessary for next millennium,” (as in the teaching that says that we have to have 36 righteous people, “bodisatras“, if you will, lamed vavnikers)?  What would the curriculum be that would produce lamed-vavnikers

It was a very important question, because it wasn’t enough to teach them the traditions of the past, [which are more] like wooden things; it was also formation:  Taking the individual and creating someone who is transcending the limits of the past.  And it had to do with enlarging the scope of what the body can do.

Somatizing

At that time I read a book by Michael Murphy, called Jacob Atabat in which he talks about a man who has transcended what we normally think of as limits of the body of a human being. 

Loving Jews and Loving All

I felt it was necessary to move love from ahavat yisroel / loving Jews to a larger context, ahavat habriot / loving all.

I was recognizing the range of ways ones talks of love:  There is filia which is liking, e.g. “I like ice cream.”  There is eros, which is the erotic feelings that we have.  There is agape, the love that we have for our hevra / members of a community and our havurah / the fellowship or community.  (An example of agape:  It is something many of us experience every time we come to a place like Elat Chayim, a place where one feels there is great celebration.  We feel like we love everybody who is there and we feel really lucky to belong.)  Finally, there is another kind of love that is much more generous still, and it’s called charis, the love of the stranger, the ahavah rabbah that’s willing to give out love unconditionally to others.

Intuition

And as far as thinking was concerned, it was really important to move from linear thinking to being able to hold paradox in mind and to recognize that each stage of being is embedded in another stage of being that is the matrix for it. 

And that led not only to understanding how our mind needs to work, but to the development of intuition. 

Intuition is not based on reasons that I get from the outside, it is in-tuition, the “tuition” that happens inside of my soul.  So while, for instance, many seminaries would not want to have to deal with intuition (they wanted people who are learned in texts), for us, intuition was very, very crucial. 

From Empathy to Compassion

Then, it was also important to learn how to move from empathy to compassion.  It’s easier to have empathy than to have compassion.  Compassion is a much larger thing.

Investing in Shaping the God-field

And then taking responsibility for the God-field.  This needs a lot more talk, but basically it means the following:  If I want God to be real for me, I have to make a certain investment.  The more energy I put into that field, (you build it, they will come), the more of us who invest in the God field, the more God presence there will be in our lives.

The lamed-vavniker‘s Curriculum

So I helped identify the curriculum for the lamed-vavniker of the future and ask that we build it, a curriculum of enlarging the scope of the body, getting to charis, being able to handle paradoxical thinking, developing intuition, moving from empathy to compassion and shaping the God field.   These are the kinds of things that the lamed-vavnikers need to learn.  So the fallout in thinking about what lamed-vavnikers need to learn helped me shape things in Jewish Renewal.

Paradigm Shift

There is also the understanding that the reality maps keep on changing.  I cannot stay in the reality map of the past.  I have to move to the current cosmology that is emerging; and if I try to keep my religion hooked to a cosmology that we have passed, what happens is that I’m left in the past. 

Renewal is asking this kind of question:  What is the emerging cosmology, and how do we bring the teachings of our tradition so that they could weld with that cosmology? 

Moral/Faith Development

Learning about Kohlberg and moral development, and Fowler and faith development, was important here. 

People begin on lower levels, (Maimonedes, [had] already put this out way, before Kohlberg).  First you want physical reward and physical punishment before you do something, until finally, you do the intrinsic stuff.  And each time you go higher and higher, and [the question is] how do you get to go higher, because you’re dealing with difficult moral dilemmas and you’re not trying to find easy ways out. 

And Fowler, who studied with Kohlberg, came up with faith development too.  First, faith development deals in early stages:  “I trust that what I’ve been told by good people is so,” and “I trust in the omnipotence of those people and the omniscience of them,” until finally it gets to the place that I learn to have a faith amidst a lack of data, when I really don’t know, “I don’t have all the evidence that things are so, and still I have faith.”  That’s a level of development.

Soul and Mind Development

The other thing that I found out was that the Kabbalah was always ahead, and that we need to be involved with the Kabbalah, because without Kabbalah, davennen is really difficult.  It has something to do with the fact that it provides a container in the mind so we can hold onto that which the soul teaches, which, otherwise, will soon evaporate.  In moments of great, great holy insights when we later ask ourselves, “What happened to that insight?  Where’d it go,” all we are left with is an impression that we were elated and that we had known something, but we didn’t know it now any more. 

The reason for this is that the mind didn’t have the means to wrap itself around what the soul had known. 

So it’s really important to study Kabbalah, and to study mysticism, so that when the soul has experiences, the mind can wrap itself around it and it can remember. 

The other thing that’s necessary with Kabbalah is to learn to stretch the mind with respect to time:  Adon olam asher molach b’terem kol yetzir nivrah / God was king before there was ever a universe.  So first, I stretch my mind to way beyond the Big Bang and the eternity that was before the Big Bang and this is where God was king.  Next, Adonay melech / God is king.  L’et naasah b’cheftzo kol:  From the Big Bang to the last Black Hole, stretching my mind, I get to the place of where God is king; this is all God’s present.  Finally, v’acharey kichlot hakol, livado yimloch nora / And when it’s all over, after the last black hole, going on for eternity, this is where God, again, is king.  And when one begins to think of how amazing that mind-stretch can be, one doesn’t have a small God, one doesn’t have a little teddy bear God; it just gets so much vaster.  

So that’s the debt that we have in Jewish Renewal to Kabbalah: To stretch our mind and to stretch our souls.

Hasidism

And then comes Hasidism and our debt to Hasidism.  The Baal Shem Tov [taught that] simple people have access to God too.  One doesn’t have to be a great learner.  The second generation of Hasidism was the Maggid of Mezritch, who was teaching his people, and each one of his disciples kept his individuality, remaining an individual for himself.  In the third generation of Hasidism there was chabad and Reb Levi Yitzchak, Reb Schneur Zalman, Reb Zushe, Reb Elimelech:  Great people.  Each one has given us some teachings that nourish us today.  And then comes Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, this remarkable person who died young, but who knew about youth and who knew about God evolving too.  And then there were the teachers of Pshiske and the Izhbitzer and so much of what comes into Jewish Renewal had been already spoken of before.  Then there is the teacher of Piasetzno (Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira), and Reb Arele Roth, and Hillel Zeitlin, and the Slonimer Rebbe, and Chabad again. 

All these things are nourishing the thought that comes into the philosophy of Jewish Renewal.  {See DVD “Transmitting the Blessing:  Reb Zalman’s Valedictory to the 11th ALEPH Kallah, Available from Aleph, in which Reb Zalman describes his visit to the grave sites of the Chassidic Rebbes and the message each Rebbe brings to Jewish Renewal as a direct descendant in this lineage.}

Gaia

Now there is something else that happened:  Earth was seen from Outer Space.  That image has been beamed all over the place.  Such an amazing shift of mind occurs when we no longer see the boundaries between countries, but we see a living planet and we recognize that we’re intrinsic to the planet. 

Eco-Kashrut

And that leads us to the notions of eco-kosher and social action and justice and fairness:  The recognition of what we need to do in tikkun olam

We, and the United States energy hogs, eating up so much energy,  and not returning enough to the planet. 

I so pray, at this point, that the people who are in the government today and the WTO’s (World Trade Organization) and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), etc., that they begin to honor our mother the planet, that they don’t foul the nest and whatever it is that we can do in Jewish Renewal to align ourselves with the people who are for the preservation of our habitat and our species on the planet, it is necessary. 

Therefore, it is really important that we move to eco-kosher.  It’s not enough to be Kosher; you also have to be Kosher ecologically. 

Feminism

And then feminism came into picture, the recognition that women know things that somehow men, for all our knowledge, don’t quite have unless we develop the feminine part in ourselves. 

GLBT

And out of Jewish Renewal came the outreach to gays and lesbians, recognizing their share in our life and that they are intrinsic to us, and that creating distance between us on the level of sexual orientation was not the way to do it.  How wonderful it was at the first Kallah when we called them all up to the torah together and made space in our community. 

Ger Tzedek, Ger Toshav

And intermarrieds are also welcome in Jewish Renewal.  The point when a mother raises a child Jewish and she herself is not and she creates a household, should she not be able to stand at the bar mitzvah of her son; at the bat mitzvah of her daughter?  So we make a place for the intermarrieds. 

And then, there are lots of people who have come from other gardens, as it were.  They have grown in yoga and in meditation, etc. and you can’t send such people back to square one and learn Alef-Beis, when they have had some holy experiences.  So making room for them is part of Jewish Renewal. 

Then, there are a number of people who are, as Jean Houston calls them, “Psycho-Semitic” people.  (I like that pun from psychosomatic, to psycho-semitic).  There are some people who feel so Jewish and they want to hang out with us.  They don’t need to convert.  But they are the category that we find in tehilim of yirat hashem, those who are the God fearers who have join with us to say, “Ki l’olam chasdo“. 

And then, of course, there are the recycled souls, the people who went out in the holocaust and came back with a deep intention:  “We need to fix it.”  “We need to repair it.”  “The world cannot be a world in which there can be genocide, in which there can be holocaust.”  So there are some of them who went into spirituality and some of them who went into tikkun olam. 

I’m rushing through all this “laundry list” but I want you to hear about how each one of these things is like part of the genome of Jewish Renewal. 

Recharging our Souls in Israel

And now let me talk about Israel:  Israel is very important for our souls, (the country I mean, and the State).  It’s like the heart. 

People think that they have to live there all the time.  You don’t always have to live in the heart, but every once in a while the blood has to come back into the heart and be pumped out again.  And so we need to be involved in pilgrimage and not tourism.  If Palestinians would also recognize the charge they get from a visit, that would be helpful.  They want a pied-à-terre for their being able to renew themselves.  But look how many Palestinians live outside of Israel, and how many Israelis live outside of Israel.  Jerusalem is like the heart and you don’t always live there. 

Years ago, I was talking about how Jerusalem needs to be internationalized and the UN to move there, if Isaiah’s prophesies [will] make any sense to us, and not to argue with this.  We own it best when we give it up to share with all the other people, so that “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” 

When we go back to a chthonic and the atzilic tzinor, that connection that we have with the greatest spirituality and also with the most earthy thing, that’s important and this is also a reason why we need Israel.  When this is missing, we are not natural in our calendar, our calendar somehow is pegged to the seasons in Israel. 

I often have a sense that we go crazy slightly, if we don’t set foot in Israel from time to time to renew ourselves. 

And our connection is mostly with the new renewal yishuv.  There are some wonderful people who are sabras who are doing renewal work.  It’s so different from how it used to be when people thought, “You could either be Orthodox or Secular” and now there is a whole new group of people who see themselves as indigenous to the land and to the shamanic power that’s there.  So the Renewal yishuv is vital, that it should be a viable option for Israelis and, thank God, some progress has been made. 

Internationalization of Renewal

Eastern Europe, and other diasporas need Jewish Renewal.  (The Chabad people have gone there and they have restored a number of things that are necessary.  But we also need renewal there.  It should have a Russian flavor, a Ukrainian flavor, it should have the flavor of the countries where this has to be.) 

A Renewed Halachah

Now, how do we serve best?  By being vocal and not endorsing the injustices and the missteps of the Israeli government.  There is a sense that we have to stand up with real strength in Jewish Renewal and say, “What makes us Jews is that we have a connection with God.  That voice of God says ‘You don’t destroy houses of people.’  That voice of God in the chumash says, ‘You don’t destroy trees; you don’t kill the olive trees there,’ and that same voice that says, ‘You have to be nice to the sojourner and the stranger.'”  We have to learn to live together.  Any other option, is not something that we can make a home for in our heart and in our conscience.  And so, what we need in Jewish Renewal are people in Psycho-halachah who are going to be able to know enough of the traditions in such a way that they know the basics.  And our leaders need to learn to be conversant in halachah so that they can renew halachah.  Otherwise we truncate our life and our soul is starved when that’s not there. 

We need to also be downward compatible, that is to say that things that come from the past have to be able to have a home with us.  So there is vast amounts of work that’s needed to be done here and we need those who know and who care to help us out, so that Jewish Renewal will not be based on ignorance or on saying “I don’t care for that.”  There has to be an understanding of the tension between heteronomy, (rules that come from outside of me so that I can share with other people), and autonomy, (what happens inside of me).  We have to recognize that we are all Jews by choice, that whereas in Europe, we would have said, “I had no other choice, I had to be a Jew,” here in the United States and at this time in our history, everyone is a Jew by choice.  When we make that clear, the surface tension between those who come into our people and us is reduced. 

In Conclusion

People ask me, “So, nu!  Could you define more what Jewish Renewal is?” and I say, we need about 150 years for the middle of the curve, of mainstream to catch up to us and give it better form.  I do hope that we will have, in every community, a lehrhaus / a study hall where we will be able to do what we can to pick up the help that the past can give us and to renew it in such a way that it will give us a way to see our generations to come. 

Thank God that we are now seeing that Jewish Renewal is not a one generation phenomenon. I wish for you to be able to see your children and children’s children find their place to take Jewish Renewal further.  I’m so delighted to be able to say that I hope that my son Reb Sholom will be a Rabbi in Jewish Renewal and my son Barya is now interested in studying in yeshivah and he wants to do it. 

I want to wish you all to be able to have that sweet, sweet, naches and see generations to come from you that will renew themselves.  Amen, v’amen.

5 Responses to “Renewal is not Judaism-Lite”

  1. Rachel Barenblat Says:

    Thank you so much for posting this, Gabbai Seth! In the comments to my recent blog post about the Kallah, a reader of Velveteen Rabbi asked me to explain Jewish Renewal. I linked him to my post “Defining Renewal,” and to some writings by Reb Marcia which I excerpted on my blog; but I think this post would be a good resource for him, too.

  2. Lindsay Says:

    This is wonderful Reb Zalman! So useful, so inspiring… where might I find those wonderful stories by the Baal Shem Tov?

  3. Gabbai Seth Fishman (Blog Editor) Says:

    Lindsay:
    Reb Zalman has published a few books with Hasidic stories: “Wrapped in a Holy Flame” and “Spiritual Intimacy” are a couple. There are many places to go for stories of the Baal Shem Tov.

    Here’s my take on the kinds of things to which Reb Zalman refers:

    There’s a story of the Baal Shem Tov I had heard during my early youth: A young boy gave a piercing whistle in the synagogue on Yom Kippur because, not knowing the words of the prayer, and feeling a strong longing to bring his prayer to God, a whistle was the way in which he could express it. The people of the synagogue wanted to throw him out: How could he insult God in this way? But the Baal Shem Tov defended his having whistled. He said that all day long, he had been noticing that the prayers of the congregation weren’t ascending, that they were not getting beyond the “ceiling.” With this boy’s whistle, all the prayers had now ascended on high.

    In other stories, the Baal Shem Tov affirms that if one has a special gift, a good singing voice, a skill as a dancer, or as an artist, when sent in God’s direction, each of these are ways of devotion and ways to be a Jew. It doesn’t have to just be one way, i.e., the way of the talmud chocham / wise scholar. There are many stories of the Baal Shem Tov meeting simple people and affirming their connections to God which are done each in the person’s special way.

    A final story: I heard from Rabbi Marcia Prager a story of an ignorant man who recited the letters of the Aleph Bet over and over because he didn’t know how to read Hebrew. His heart was filled with longing, and the intention he gave the recitation of the letters was to ask God to assemble them as God saw fit. And the message of the story was that this simple act was greater than the prayer of all the great prayer masters.

    May we all be blessed with the holy light of the Baal Shem Tov.

    Gabbai Seth Fishman

    P.S. I’ve included below a copy of words Reb Zalman wrote to go with a melody called the Baal Shem Tov’s niggun:

    As I sit and I think,
    I remember my heavenly home;
    As I sit and I sing,
    I feel the nearness of God’s throne.
    Lord my light, heart’s delight,
    You I seek You alone.

    Your sweet love Oh God above,
    Thrills me, fills me, gives me life.
    With Your power, my rock and tower,
    Your will to do I’ll strive.

    The race of grace Your Torah radiates.

    Guide me on the road, to Your heavenly abode,
    Your wisdom bright, understanding’s light,
    In knowledge will abide.

    Oh Lord, lift my earthly load.

    Guide me….

    Your sweet love …

  4. sandy Says:

    What a wonderful article! I am sitting here on the west coast of Florida on Shabbos, missing my Jewish Renewal friends and Rabbi Marc in Fort Lauderdale. Thank you for reminding me of home!

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