A d’var Torah offered at Congregation Bet Ha’Am in Portland, Maine. Offered aloud by Rabbi Rachel; jointly written by R’ Rachel and R’ David.
Why am I welcoming you home when you live here and I’m the visitor? I don’t mean welcome home to Bet Ha’Am; I mean welcome home to Shabbat – or more aptly, welcome home into Shabbat – because Shabbat is a homecoming.
Rabbi David and I are delighted to join you as scholars in residence, or maybe scholars in homecoming. This weekend we hope to share with you tastes of Renewal, starting with the renewal we call Shabbat. For six days we busy in our doings; on the seventh day, we come home to our sense of being human beings.
When we can “just be,” when we really know that we’re enough just as we are, we can touch that loving miracle of spirituality that Jewish mystics call the World to Come, right here and now. That’s what I mean by coming home.
Now I freely admit to y’all – and I say y’all as a good south Texan transplanted to southern New England, now visiting southern Maine – that not every Shabbat in my life lives up to this ideal of a homecoming. But tonight, singing and praying and being with y’all even for this short while, I feel the supernal Shabbat becoming that feeds my soul – and I feel at home here with you.
This sense of inner homecoming is Renewal – both the lower-case “r” of experiencing the love and joy we call the renewal of spirit, and the capital “R” of Renewing Judaism, and its umbrella organization — ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal — that Rabbi David and I call home. And these two Renewals are linked. A Judaism that is vital and vibrant in body, heart, mind and soul – what we call the Four Worlds of Jewish spirituality – is the quest and passion of Jewish Renewal.
Tonight we want to share with you how we see two Renewals as linked with the theme of our weekend together – holiness, for Parshat Kedoshim – and the heart of Parshat Kedoshim, to love our neighbor as ourself / ואהבת לרעך כמוך. How does Renewal relate to holiness and love?
To tell that story, we begin with a simple premise: Judaism is changing, and change is core to who we are. Both the Reform movement and the Renewal movement share this sense of something that moves. Like waves on the ocean, Judaism never stands still. Jewish Renewal does more than merely accept this idea: we put perpetual change in the center of spiritual life. Jewish life inherently changes — and changes us.
Which raises a paradox, because the comfort of being “at home” isn’t the same as “perpetual motion, ” unless you live with the perpetual motion machine that is my seven-year-old son. How can we feel at home and also always change? This question is perhaps the Jewish question, because our ancestors had to do just that – wander the desert, wander from nation to nation, navigate constant change in society.
But many of us, myself included, grew up with a Judaism that felt static – little motion, maybe little emotion. Since when did Jewish life stay still? Where did this idea come from that what’s most unchanging is “most Jewish?” It dates back to Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, who held in 1800 that Torah forbids anything new: כל חדש אסור מין התורה מכל מקום. He feared the radical changes then sweeping Jewish life as the Industrial Revolution began. He thought he could stop change, but trying to stop change is like trying to stop the sea: you just get wet.
In his perhaps desperate effort to stop sea changes in Jewish life, the Chatam Sofer forgot that the divine name Moses heard at the Burning Bush, אהיה אשר אהיה / “I will be what I will be,” is a name that evokes constant change – always becoming. Constant change, perpetual motion: that’s core Jewish theology, and core Judaism.
But the Chatam Sofer’s idea – that Torah forbids everything new – made a big splash. It sparked what today we call denominations – the Reform Movement that brought the modernity he feared, then Orthodoxy as a retreat from Reform, then the Conservative Movement in response to Reform, then Reconstructionism that saw Jewish life more as civilization than spiritual theology.
Today the tide of history is weakening denominations amidst huge social changes transforming who we are, how we connect and what we value. When we can log onto the internet anywhere, when ideas of identity and community are shifting on their foundations, naturally Jewish life must shift in response. Today, according to the landmark Pew study, a majority of Jews no longer identify with a denomination – and I say this as a rabbi serving a Reform temple like yours. Today a majority of Jews say they’re “Just Jewish,” without denomination — or more spiritual than Jewish – and this trend is accelerating among the younger generations.
That’s where Jewish Renewal comes in. Renewal is a movement in the sense of moving, responding to the constancy of social change, but not structured as a denomination. Renewal seeks experience and tools to open doors to experience the holy in all its forms.
So what is Renewal like? Well, it’s time for a confession: Rabbi David and I began introducing you to some Jewish Renewal this evening without saying so. If you noticed bilingual prayer, attention to pacing, passionate use of words and silence, focus on feeling, fusing the rational with imagery and meditation, that’s part of Renewal’s toolkit called davvenology. “Davvenology” hails from the Yiddish word davven, to pray actively, in ways that attune within – not saying what’s on the page just because it’s on the page. Renewal seeks pathways of prayer that deepen experience and connect us more deeply with our inner lives.
In service of this, we experiment, fuse ancient words with modern tunes, change words or sometimes go without words entirely; use meditation, poetry, movement, anything to achieve spiritual experience. Maybe you’ve seen some of these ideas before; what maybe you don’t know is that they trace to the founders of Jewish Renewal, including Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who died in 2014, and his dear friend, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
For us, spiritual experience is the goal, and we develop tools to help reach that goal. Often we think that Judaism is the words, the prayerbook, the building, even the Torah – and I dearly love all of them. But they’re tools, not the goal. To confuse one for the other is like confusing a meal with a recipe: we can’t eat a recipe. Renewal cares about the spiritual meal more than the recipe. Or as Reb Zalman put it, every religion is a pointer: don’t confuse the pointer for the point.
But what if prayer doesn’t float your boat? Some Jews aren’t davveners, and Judaism is more than liturgy and synagogue life. Renewal says go to whatever sparks experiences of awe, gratitude, and inner transformation: that’s where we start. What helps you touch the holy is what we want – because when we touch the holy, we are renewed, and that’s the point of the Jewish Renewal we cherish.
So what else is in the Renewal toolkit? For some it’s social justice work. Renewal radically commits to tikkun olam, seeing the planet as alive, taking seriously our duty to tend the earth and treat others well in how we live and what we eat. That’s our eco-Kashrut movement, planet-conscious eating as a spiritual practice.
For others it’s deep ecumenism: not just multi-faith tolerance and acceptance, but living our Judaism in ways that uplift and journey alongside our cousins in faith in radical ways. For some it’s using meditation and imagery to engage the mind and heart: we’ll offer tastes of that on Sunday when we show how familiar mitzvot we take for granted offer profound mystical practices. For some it’s spiritual direction, in Hebrew, hashpa’ah, meaning divine flow, to discern how the sacred flows through the real stuff of our lives. For others it’s Sage-ing – not lighting a smudge stick to scent the corners of the room, but harnessing the wisdom that comes with age.
For some it’s a mindset, and a heart-set, that emerges in response to adversity. We chose the topic of “Illness and Healing” for our Saturday learning before havdalah to show how Renewal harnesses ancient wisdom to uplift modern life.
These are some of the tools, what we call spiritual technologies, in the Jewish Renewal toolbox. Renewing our individual Judaism means using tools to come home to our inner lives. Renewing Judaism means also seeking the next spiritual technologies, so that Judaism keeps coming home to being ever more alive.
How will we know when we succeed? When these tools are available to all of us, and the next ones flow as easily as rain. When you can take your spiritual life into your own hands, own your Judaism and help make it amazing and new – growing organically from what came before, like a new spring leaf growing from an ancient tree. When spiritual experience transforms us from the inside and helps us feel alive. When we feel in ourselves and each other a quality of love, an inner sense of home, that transcends our words – that we can only call God. When loving another as we love ourselves becomes second nature.
That’s our subject for tomorrow morning’s Torah study together, and it’s our definition of holiness – kedoshim, whose heart is the mitzvah to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s the wellspring always ready to renew us. Drinking from those living waters is the goal of Jewish Renewal, and all spiritual paths of every name and creed.
May you be blessed with a Shabbat that renews your sense of what Judaism can be, and your sense of what you can be. And may this renewal be a living well to nourish you and all whom you love. Thank you for welcoming us, and for learning and being real with us this weekend. Shabbat shalom.