Shabbat HaGadol, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and reclaiming the voice

Kabbalat Shabbat – Shabbat HaGadol

Kehilla Community Synagogue

April 15, 2016 • 8 Nisan 5776

Shabbat Shalom.  Thank you Reb David, Reb Dev, Hazzan Shulamit, Reb Burt, Reb Diane and the whole Kehilla family for so warmly welcoming Rachel and me.  For months we’ve looked forward to this weekend, and we couldn’t be happier to be here.

This Shabbat is part of a yearlong international Listening Tour on the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal.  We’re making 13 visits across the U.S. and Canada, from Boston to Vancouver, San Diego to Montreal; video sessions with Europe and Israel; summits with seminary leaders within and beyond the denominations.  We aim to explore the breadth and depth of all that ALEPH and Jewish Renewal have been, and all we might become.  We hope to hear from you how Renewal flourishes, how ALEPH falls down on the job, what you yearn for, what needs change, what you most love and what should never change.

It’s Big Stuff for a Big Shabbat.  It’s a Big Shabbat of Big Ideas, and it’s a Big Shabbat because it’s Shabbat HaGadol, literally the Big Shabbat before Passover – a time of preparation traditionally known for long rabbinic sermons about the stringencies of Passover dietary laws.  If anyone wants that sermon, you have two choices: either an imaginal exercise, or please go to the shul you wouldn’t be caught dead in.

We joke, but the reason that kind of sermon doesn’t belong here at Kehilla is no joke: the Judaism we stand for turns power upside down.  Decades ago, the normative Jewish flow was from instructing rabbi to compliant congregant, from older to younger, mainly heteronormative, usually male, and the result too often freeze-dried and stilted.  Today Kehilla centers on each heart and soul, more bottom up, flows spiritually and democratically, inclusive and innovative, a fount of social justice and more.  That’s the aspiration of Jewish Renewa: it’s been Kehilla’s way from the start.

And yet it’s so easy to take it for granted.  Wherever Rachel and I go on this Listening Tour, we’re reminded that communities like Kehilla, Chochmat and Aquarian Minyan inherit a legacy gifted to us by those whom we call the first Renewalniks of this era – Reb Zalman, Reb Burt and other visionaries who planted for us the seeds of a soul-nourishing, inclusive and innovative Judaism, with halachic and hasidic roots deep in the tradition but wings that lift the soul soaring high. Sometimes at great expense and with hurt from the normative mainstream, they modeled how to make Judaism radically alive again.

The seeds they planted are today’s maturing trees of a growing movement, bearing fruit for second, third and fourth generations.  In part thanks to them, today much of Jewish life is shifting on its axis, sending waves of renewal in nearly every direction.  This moment finds Kehilla part of the vanguard of 60 communities inspired by their life’s work, and suddenly more coming online.  The ALEPH clergy orgination program has surged into one of the world’s largest rigorous liberal Jewish seminaries.  Add cutting-edge trainings, new multi-faith partnerships and a Kallah this summer that will rock your world, and the next turning of ALEPH has begun.

But then what? What comes next for ALEPH and Renewal?  What repairs must we make for the next turning of ALEPH and the Renewal movement to be sustainable and whole?  What will be Kehilla’s role in that exciting future now taking shape?  Those questions we put to you.

It’s too soon for answers – after all, this is a Listening Tour, not yet an Answering Tour.  Besides, our teachers taught that we shouldn’t let answers get in the way of good questions.  But if we look to what already is as a baseline, some possible futures begin to emerge.

Reb Zalman often spoke of “spiritual technologies,” tools to deepen the experience of spirit.  Some of these tools that come from Jewish Renewal might seem so common now that we hardly see them for how precious and transformative they can be, and how rare and needed they are elsewhere.  But think about it: chant-based liturgy, sage-ing, spiritual direction, deep ecumenism, radical egalitarianism, integral halacha based on paradigm shift, an Earth-based Judaism that sees the planet as our living temple – tools we sometimes find here at Kehilla and at other Renewal communities – in truth, they’re tools for Jewish R&D, research and development for a continuously renewing next-era Judaism.  And that’s a wow. It’s a wow that we live in an era, and in communities, in which these realities exist.

And with your help we can make it more wow.   What if we could make these spiritual technologies a focus of Jewish life?  What if it’s our calling to bring them into every synagogue and chavurah, in ways we know can work wonders because you do some of it here at Kehilla?  What if we explicitly make these tools – and the R&D to evolve the next tools for wow – the organizing force of all of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal?

That would be a wow, and the reason is even more radical.  What these tools have in common is reclaiming the spiritual voice of each person, and each generation, and each community, and the planet, and the Infinite we call God.  Shouldn’t that be the point of the wow we want religion to be?  And, it turns out, the wow of “reclaiming the voice” also is the point of this preparation time for Pesach we call Shabbat HaGadol. (You know I had to go there.)

The Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noah Berezovsky, who died in the year 2000, taught that the ancient liberation from Egypt began not at the Sea of Reeds, not with the physical exodus from shackles, not with the Ten Plagues, but when people reclaimed their voices. It’s right there in Exodus 2: “And the people groaned under their bondage, and their sigh rose up to God, and God heard…”  Bondage began to lift, and a whole new era began to dawn, when the people groaned, and their sighs rose up to heaven, and the Eternal heard them, and recalled the Covenant, and liberation then followed.  It was reclaiming our voices that helped turned the page of history.

It was always so – every movement in history has come from people reclaiming their voices – and it remains so today.  It’s why we speak out.  It’s why Zohar puns on the name of Pesach as pehsach – the speaking mouth, a holy conversation with the Power of Liberation and the future awaiting us even now.

Jewish Renewal’s spiritual technologies, Shabbat HaGadol and this Listening Tour come together to reclaim our voices in holy conversation to liberate the future awaiting us even now. And that’s why we are here  We’re here to take in your voices, the yearning of your hearts for what the Jewish Renewal of tomorrowcan be.  We ask for your voices tonight and tomorrow, in the months ahead, at Kallah this summer in Fort Collins, and by email at

And by that merit, by lifting all of our voices to uplift the next turning of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, may all of us help renew a Judaism of liberation and joy to shine on this Shabbat HaGadol, and on Passover, and for all time and all who yearn.  Shabbat shalom.


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