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Our Origin Story

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Almost 2,000 years ago the Romans destroyed our holy Temple in Jerusalem. It’s fascinating that the Talmud does not blame the Romans for its destruction, but takes a look inward and puts the responsibility on ourselves. Our sages do not exonerate the Romans, and the horrors they committed are not excused. During what is called the Jewish Wars between 35 CE and 135 CE more than 1 million Jews were killed or died of starvation fighting for freedom against the Roman Empire. It is estimated that about 100,000 of these Jews were crucified in that period of time.

What does the Talmud say? It says that the first Temple was destroyed because of murder, robbery, and idolatry, but the second Temple was destroyed because of senseless acts of hatred between one Jew and another. It seems that the rivalry between our sects, and senseless jealousies of each other caused us to be vulnerable to the Romans who were occupying our homeland of Judea.

The origin story of the Jewish Renewal movement is no less dramatic. Unlike the Jewish rebellion against the Romans which lasted 100 years until our defeat in 135 CE, the story that led to the birth of Jewish Renewal started with the revolution within Judaism ignited by the Baal Shem Tov who lived in the 18th-century. Judaism was suffocating under European anti-Semitism, and suffocating itself in its retreat into intellectualism and study whereby our leaders removed themselves from the daily life of the people. The Baal Shem changed all that. 

He was a storyteller who used parables to reach the hearts of people and not just their minds. He told of holy beggars, holy thieves, and holy sinners who miraculously saved one village after another through some humble act of social justice. Instead of intellectualism, the Baal Shem lifted up the illiterate Jew who didn’t know the prayers but who read the aleph-bet one letter at a time and told God “God, I don’t how to pray, but you know what I need. I am going to recite the letters of the holy Hebrew alphabet. You put the letters together for me to create the right prayers.” 

Or the story told by the Maggid of Mezerich of the young shepherd who was thrown out of the synagogue on Yom Kippur for playing his flute until the rabbi realized that the prayers of atonement were not reaching heaven because this boy had been ejected. It was only this innocent boy’s flute playing, note after note, that were penetrating the gates of heaven. The boy was brought back into the shul playing his flute, and the prayers for forgiveness of the people were accepted. It is these stories along with dancing and a return to the spirit of joy that transformed Judaism back to being a faith of the heart that had been forgotten or lost because of the oppression of life in Europe. 

Fast-forward to the 1950’s and the 1960s. Once again Judaism was suffocating under the strict, rigid interpretations from traumatized rabbis and teachers who themselves had barely survived the pogroms of Europe and the Holocaust. They cannot not be blamed for their rigidity for they were traumatized survivors themselves. Rabbi Aryeh zt”l, myself, and some of you who are old enough, grew up in this strict, joyless kind of Judaism. By the 1950’s and 1960’s synagogue life wasn’t an effective spiritual path any longer for millions of American Jews. Many of our young people, including Reb Aryeh and myself, became enamored with Eastern religions and Native American spirituality.

Along comes two trailblazing pioneers ordained in the Hassidic lineage started by the Baal Shem Tov himself: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach zt”l. They brought the joy back to Judaism that had always been there, but had gotten buried beneath the traumas of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the late 1960’s Reb Zalman started the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley and Reb Shlomo started The House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. Old-school beatniks, artists, intellectuals, anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, and free-love hippies by the tens of thousands came out of the woodwork to hear these two great teachers teach and lead services like they had never experienced before.

Suddenly drumming was part of the services along with meditation. Yoga mats were part of the décor of their shuls, and everyone was into the Kaballah. Women, and members of the newly emerging LGBTQ community were being fully empowered to be teachers and ordained as rabbis for the first time in Jewish history. New translations were transforming our prayer books and new interpretations of old, wise spiritual practices that had been discarded for being too mystical were being resurrected. The mikvah was brought back to our communities. The Hevre Kadisha (burial society) was brought back. In fact, as Reb Aryeh started our Havurah more than 35 years ago he also started our local mikvah and burial society. In the world of Jewish Renewal people started making their own multicolored prayer shawls and learning to tie their own tzitzit. Some women started wearing t’fillin, and a revolution in Jewish liturgy, music, and art began.

What Reb Zalman gave our own Ashland community cannot be underestimated. When he ordained Reb Aryeh he said, “Aryeh, you’ll really become a rabbi when you’ve ordained someone else.” Rabbi Jackie Brodsky and myself were the two rabbis that our beloved teacher, Reb Aryeh, ordained before his untimely death. And Rabbi Sue was the first rabbi that I had the honor of ordaining under Reb Zalman’s guidance. All three of us (Rabbi Jackie, Rabbi Sue, and myself) living here in Ashland are the twelfth generation of rabbis ordained in the direct lineage of the Baal Shem Tov.

Reb Zalman taught that Jewish Renewal is not a denomination. Rather, it should be a movement that ought to act as the “R&D,” the research and development department, for the entire Jewish people. He felt all of us in Renewal are being deployed by the Holy One to experiment with new modalities of prayer as we did with chanting, drumming, dancing, new liturgy, and meditation in the past decades. Today, for example, the latest cutting edge of Judaism is being called “embodied prayer,” and new spiritual technologies are being brought into our services all the time.

We are all part of great unfolding story that is being told through each of us every day. May the Holy One grant us with a transformative High Holiday season. May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, friendship, community, and delight in the unfolding story that we are part of.