January 25, 2001
"We have a place, all of us, in a long story -- a story we continue, but whose end we will not see."
The first strains of George W. Bush's inaugural address, penned by his 36-year-old speechwriter Michael Gerson, put me in mind, oddly enough, of the American Jewish community and the story we are also writing, but whose end we will not see. Judaism, like America, is the story of a new world that liberated the old, though we were a slave society, not a slave-holding society, one that remains a servant of freedom. My mind quickly wandered away from the clouded presidency to the larger point: Both America and Jewish Americans are committed to evolutionary change that brings out the best of its people.
Signs of that "peaceful evolution" were evident in Los Angeles throughout this month, as Rabbis Arthur Green, Jacob Staub and Lawrence Kushner made separate appearances to discuss the state of Jewish spirituality. These three may not be exactly the Three Tenors of Jewish life, household names known to one and all, but each one represents facets of a movement that has been altering our understanding of Jewish life during the past decade, almost beyond recognition. Green, professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis University, spoke at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. A student of Abraham Joshua Heschel's at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, he is editor-translator of two astounding works on Chasidism that have alone provided the grist for thousands of rabbinic sermons: "Tormented Master: The Life and Spritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav" and "The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger." Nachman and the Sefat Emet are among the patron saints of the Jewish Renewal movement, but the impact of their rediscovery crosses all ideological lines.
"For better or worse, I am regarded as the father of the word 'spirituality' in Jewish life," Green said. Once derided as a vague mishmash of "feel-goodism," today, "spirituality" is a more widely accepted concept of Jewish life than "building fund." Green demonstrated why: Using a piece of text about the long-suffering Job, Green cited Chasidic commentary that Job, rather than being removed from God, was so close that God was "in Job's hair." It was thrilling to see a crowd of liberal Jews, like those at the Reform synagogue that evening, actively seeking such metaphors in their lives, pursuing the holy spaces between ordinary moments.
A week later, Staub, dean of students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, spoke at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. This movement, which began as an intellectual or scientific alternative to religious superstition, today has caught the same mystical feeling that has captured the rest of the Jewish world.
Staub described a new rabbinic training program, "Spiritual Direction," devoted to the intense development of the spiritual path.
Do rabbis need to be taught to take spirituality seriously? Apparently so.
The program, which was adapted from the works of fourth-century church fathers as well as Chasidic practice, trains spiritual mentors or "guides" who work in a quasitherapeutic relationship one-on-one with a seeker. Staub said he's already been asked to teach "Spiritual Direction" to Reform rabbinic students.
Staub used as his text a homily by Reb Nachman (1772-1810), which cautions that one must never give in to despair. Once again, it was amazing to see liberal Jews, who a generation ago would have been twisting themselves into knots over the concept of a "personal God," now struggling only to deepen their sense of awe and wonder.
Finally, last weekend, I caught up with Kushner at Makom Ohr Shalom, one of the oldest Renewal synagogues in America. Kushner, until recently a pulpit rabbi in Sudbury, Mass., is now rabbi-in-residence at Hebrew Union College and widely known for such popular books on Chasidism as "Honey from the Rock" and "The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition" (Jewish Lights).
Kushner's lively Shabbat afternoon talk focused on Moses and the burning bush and the question of what it means to see God "face to face." But what impressed me most was not the obscure text being studied, that of Reb Naftali Tsvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760-1827), or the combination of Jewish numerology and good humor -- Does the human face include the letter aleph, the first letter in the name of God? -- that Kushner used for his demonstration, but the language in which it was printed: "Raise your hand if you want Hebrew text," Kushner said. "Anyone want the Hebrew?" So here's the evolution completed: A Reform rabbi speaks at a Renewal synagogue about a Chasidic master and brings Hebrew text to bolster his point. What a testimony to the literacy -- and the hunger -- of our age.
Not 20 years ago, a younger generation criticized Judaism as an "intellectual pursuit," marked by Democratic party politics, social action and an obsessive interest in The New York Times and Commentary magazine. Today's Judaism still stresses education, but the goal is not to raise a wised-up American voter, but a more spiritually alert, evolving Jew. How fitting it is that the Chasidic masters, whose disciples died so violently during the Holocaust, would be ushering in that peace-seeking Jewish age.