Jewish Renewal, our Judaism, and parashat Terumah


Temple Beth El, Stamford CT
Shabbat Terumah
March 4 2017 * 6 Adar 5777

Shabbat Shalom. Rabbi Josh, Matt, Stuart and the Men’s Club – thank you for your warm welcome and for inviting me this morning. I’m delighted to be with all of you today.

I’m here as co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, to share my excitement and joy about the growing Jewish Renewal movement. One of my hopes today is to lay a foundation for our Wednesday learning series, “Tastes of Renewal,” starting March 8 at 7:30pm, on topics beckoning the Renewal journey – Illness and Healing, Mitzvah and Mysticism, Meditation and Esoterics, and Innovation in Jewish Life – all doorways for this journey.

So what is this journey we call Jewish Renewal? And what does Renewal have to do with our Judaism, and this Shabbat of Parshat Trumah?

I want to start offering answering by doing something intellectually funky given my title and the fact that I’m standing here. In offering perspectives on these issues, I disclaim hierarchy – presumptive authority based on title or role. Verticality has a place in spiritual life, but tradition teaches that שכינה, our name for God’s Indwelling Presence, resides with כנסת ישראל, all of Israel together. It’s our collectivity – not the vertical but the horizontal, our own yearning and searching for the experience of the holy indwelling within us – that is the point. That’s where Renewal begins.

Marcia Prager, dean of the seminary of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, tells this story. Someone asked a question of Reb Zalman-Schachter Shalomi, Jewish Renewal’s zeide (grandfather) who died in 2014. The question was whether Reb Zalman believes in God. Now Reb Zalman was a pious and deeply faithful man, a dynamic teacher, a boundary pusher – so we might expect him to answer the question by teaching about his theology. Reb Zalman looked at that person and said, “Do I believe in God? No.” The person nearly fell over: how could Reb Zalman not believe in God – but Reb Zalman continued, with a shmeichel (gleam) in his eye. “No, I don’t believe in God. I experience God, and so can you.”

The experience of the holy – our certainty that everyone can experience the holy, and our commitment to helping make that so – is our North Star. We can find this principle – spiritual experience and its lower-case “D” democratic accessibility, leaping out of our tradition. The plain language of Parshat Trumah starts with it: God tells Moses in Ex 25:2 –

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי: Tell the Children of Israel to bring Me trumah – from each person whose heart so inclines, accept gifts for Me.

“From each person” (כל איש) – democratic – “whose heart so inclines” (אשר ידבנו לבו) – from an inner place of voluntary commitment. And after Torah lists the gifts to be given, the Biblical punchline comes in Ex. 25:8 –

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ Make Me mikdash (a making holy), and I’ll dwell (make-Shechinah) in them.

Not within it (the mikdash), not a physical place, not the Trumah gifts that build it – though fundraisers and other community builders know how important tangible gifts are. Even so, precisely so, the indwelling of God is still b’tocham – within, in us, the inclined heart. We can even say that the making of the inclined heart is the portal, the mikdash, to experience God.

Whatever our theology – creator God, paternalistic God, benevolent God, aloof God of physics, God who hears prayer, God who answers prayer, God of the mystical friend, God the lover, God of the ineffable transcendent, God of mysterious unknowing – whatever your theology (or no theology at all), the journey of spirit begins with the yearning of the inclined heart.

If so, then theology emphatically isn’t the point. For us People of the Book, supposedly what matters is action – what we do, the mitzvot we keep, the acts of tikkun olam that pervade our lives. All true. But what inspires us to act? What inspires us to keep mitzvot? Really just two things, taught Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writer of the Tanya; really only two things, says Talmud over and over again; really only two things, says Torah over and over again. What inspires us to keep mitzvot and act in the world is either אהבה (love) or יראה (fear) – which I prefer to translate יראה as “awe.” What inspires us to live lives rich with meaning and spirit-based action is love or awe – love from within, or awe from beyond. One or the other, maybe both, but not theology. “Theology,” taught Reb Zalman, “is merely an afterthought of the believer … a puny attempt to describe an experience of the infinite.”

That’s my first response to the question of what Jewish Renewal is: not a theology but a set of tools that help incline a heart to spiritual experience. Jewish Renewal seeks spiritual experience over structure, theology, dogma or denomination. This task is radically democratic: it needs all of us, it disclaims hierarchy, which is why I disclaimed hierarchy from the start. It seeks experience for everyone. Renewal seeks to know which tools, what spiritual technologies work – and when, how and why they work. Renewal commits to refining these tools, and developing new ones, so our spiritual technologies can work best for all seekers in a fast-changing world.

These are first principles of Renewal – democratic, personal, the inclined heart, privileging experience over theology to make an inclined heart, and commitment to refining practices that beckon the journey of the heart.

And here’s the thing: it needs to be real. This path asks us to get really real. If Renewal is anything, it seeks real: there’s no such thing as fake spiritual experience. We know real when we see it, even more when we feel it. So let’s get real. What tools are we really talking about? What can help bring us more wow of love and awe, meaning, transcendence, holiness, and inspiration to act in the world? And what are we willing to do, and maybe risk, to get ever more spiritually real?

To really steep deeply in our texts, we enter them deeply. For thousands of years, tradition has turned to music and vernacular for help. I’m a big fan of Hebrew – and we can leyn Torah bilingually – in English, infused the carrier wave of ancient trope that catches us in the kishkes – so more of us can access the text. As a Conservative Movement cantor friend told me last week when she tried it, leyning bilingually made her penetrate the Hebrew more deeply than ever before. It deepened how she received Torah.

Let’s think of prayer as a spiritual technology. Our matbe’a, traditional architecture of a prayer service, isn’t just tradition but but roadmap for a spiritual journey. Our Hebrew word for prayer, t’filah, hails from a reflexive verb, l’hitpalel: to pray ourselves. Morning liturgy proclaims, ואני תפלתי: let me be my prayer! Prayer is identity, a journey of becoming – not something we do but something we seek to be. So we can ask: do we feel like we’re on a journey of becoming when we pray? Renewal asks this question using davvenology – the study of davvenen (prayer) tools to make prayer real: learnings, words, kavvanot (intentions), tunes, silence, movement, stillness, images – all to enliven prayer. And if it doesn’t feel so alive, we start exactly there, with that reality – not a forced dogma that maybe doesn’t feel true, like “It should feel real so I’ll say it does” – but rather with the reality of what is for us. So if prayer life feels less than fully alive, we start by letting ourselves feel that, to stoke inner yearning for prayer to feel alive. Yearning is the start of prayer – raw, radical, alive. Heschel said yearning is prayer. We start for real where we are. ואני תפלתי – let me be my prayer, for real.

Here’s another tool to get more real: hashpa’ah, spiritual accompaniment – the art of discerning how God, holiness, meaning or spirit flows through us and the stuff of our lives, for real. It’s named for shefa, divine flow; the pump we prime is hashpa’ah. Hashpa’ah hails from Hasidut, making spirituality personal, in trusting relationship with a mashpia – not therapy but trained spiritual guidance. Hashpa’ah goes where the flow takes us: faith, faithlessness, love, anger, clarity, doubt, loss, hope, fear, relationships and more. God is big enough to take it: so are we. The ALEPH seminary is Judaism’s only seminary to require hashpa’ah for all students. Here’s why: only when we’re in active, dynamic relationship with the holy, in our own lives, can we journey with others and prime the flow of the holy among us all. It means we need to risk feeling really real.

Other tools for renewal – sage-ing to harness wisdom of eldering, integral halacha that understands Jewish law to constantly evolve in response to paradigm shifts of our fast-changing world, Earth-based Judaism that views the planet as spiritually alive, and some incline to mystical and esoteric practices rooted in Kabbalah. Some tools are making their way across the Jewish world, spreading by osmosis. If you’ve seen a meditation minyan, or chant, or colorful tallitot, Jewish Renewal has something to do with it.

All these tools, and others, draw from the principles from our paresha: democratic access, spiritual experience, an intrepid chutzpah to yearn and seek the holy – and two other principles also from our paresha. The next principle is constant movement, not staying the same – not individually, not collectively. Our paresha says that on the Mishkan were gold rings holding the wood poles that would lift and carry it forward. Then Ex. 25:15 –

בְּטַבְּעֹת֙ הָאָרֹ֔ן יִהְי֖וּ הַבַּדִּ֑ים
לֹ֥א יָסֻ֖רוּ מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ The poles of the ark will be in the rings, they will not be removed from them.

This way the Mishkan could move. And not just move, but be ready to move instantly, always ready. What if spiritual fullness were always immediately available to us – the radical holy now? Judaism must make spiritual life, spiritual movement, immediately available. We are to make a Mishkan of our lives: Torah can guide us, and we must adapt to its ancient words now, for real – that’s Renewal. We mustn’t fix ourselves in place – not us, not our practices, not our prayer, not anything. Says Pirkei Avot, אל תעש תפילתך קבע / “don’t make your prayer fixed.” We all must be ready to move. Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, put it this way at the Rabbinical Assembly meeting: we say, חדש ימינו כקדם – renew our days, the experiential sense of being renewed, but כקדם / as in days of old? How do we renew by going back? By rooting in what came before – in tradition, like the poles that never leave the Mishkan’s rings – but not stuck immobile so the Mishkan can move: nostalgia is never renewal. We must keep renewing: this is our creed – להתחדשות הנפש / to keep renewing the spirit, and להתחדשות היהדות / to keep renewing Judaism itself.

Renewal’s fourth principle is the ineffable, the wordless – which is ironic, of course, because we Jews have countless words for the wordless. But our words also teach that none of our words are enough. As Kaddish puts it, לעילא מן כל ברכתא ושירתא / above all blessings and praises we ever can utter. And yet we keep uttering words, because it’s what we have – right? Well, not quite. Our paresha continues that atop the Mishkan, our ancestors were to put two kruvim – two cherubs, their wings stretched toward each other – and between the two wings, God would speak.

What most strikes me about our kruvim is how few words Torah offers about them. A dozen chapters of Torah on how to build the Miskhan – colors, fabrics, metals, dimensions, directions and vessels – all in intricate detail. Then, oh by the way, put two kruvim on top. No words about what they are, or what they look like except they have wings, or anything about size or shape. For all of Torah’s precision, the kruvim are ineffable.

Is it possible that our ancestors already knew what kruvim were, so Torah didn’t need to say? That our ancestors were mystics? Or does Torah’s near silence about kruvim teach us that words, images and descriptions only go so far? This idea comes from none other than the great Jewish rationalist, Maimonides (Rambam) – that all of our words and images are just crude approximations – a medieval take on Reb Zalman’s Renewal idea that theology is just an afterthought. Words and ideas inherently must fail, and our kruvim come as a foil to remind us so. In Moreh Nevuchim / Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam wrtes that the very fact of two kruvim teaches us exactly this: they can only tell us what they are not – they’re not God, just pointers toward God. Kruvim are two. Only God is One.

And this is the point. All our religion, practices, prayers, theologies, and words are just pointers toward God. We must not confuse the pointer for the point. The point is spiritual experience to lift us beyond ourselves, but often we do confuse the pointer for the point. Our embrace of practices, theologies and words – all important – can lull us into calling them truth instead of merely tools. We mistake the instrument for music; we mistake the recipe for the meal. When we do this with religion and spiritual tools, they gain more power than they should have. When they distract us in this way, we risk making them into idols. They are like the kruvim – important and beautiful, but they are only tools. They are multiple: only God is One.

That is Renewal’s message. We use all our tools for the purpose of experientially orienting toward God: in Reb Zalman’s words, we’re naturally theotropic, growing toward God much as plants naturally are phototropic, growing toward the light. We must use our traditions, but hold them gently lest they become crusty or brittle, lest we become crusty or brittle. And all of this – access, experience, ever-readiness to change, the ineffable – is to incline the heart toward the Mystery we call God.

We’ll use these tools and ideas in our learning together – this coming Wednesday on Illness and Healing, March 22 on Mitzvah and Mysticism, in April on Meditation and Esoteric Practice, and in May on Innovation, Disruption and Re-Centering in Jewish Life. My hope is to explore how so much richness in Jewish life waits for us to find it and make our own, to continue the timeless trajectory of renewing for today’s spirituality and tomorrow’s, and for us to be remade and renewed in turn. This holy task needs all of us – כל איש / every person // אשר ידבנו לבו / whose heart so inclines // לא יסורו ממנו / nobody left out, always ready to change – to stretch like the kruvim wings toward the unity we call God.

That is our timeless creed, להתחדשות הנפש / to renew the spirit, and להתחדשות היהדות / to renew Judaism. I am grateful to share this journey, this holy work, with all of you today and hopefully many of you in the weeks ahead. I bless all of us for this ongoing journey together for inspiration and ever-becoming, that together we may feel ever more the indwelling presence among us. Shabbat shalom.

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