Keystones of Renewal: The ALEPH Listening Tour, the Future and You.
Shabbat Shalom. Thank you, Rabbi Sarah Bracha and the Nevei Kodesh family, for so warmly welcoming Rachel and me. For months we looked forward to this weekend. We couldn’t be happier to be here.
When Reb Sarah Bracha asked me for the title of my dvar tonight, I immediately answered, “Keystones of Renewal: The ALEPH Listening Tour, the Future and You.” A moment later I got the sense that this title reminded me of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.” I don’t pretend to have an Answer to the Ultimate Question of Anything – but for the future of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, I’m betting that you’ve got some of the answers. That’s what this Shabbat is about.
This Shabbat caps a yearlong international Listening Tour about the future. This is our 13th visit across the U.S. and Canada: we’ve criss-crossed the continent, held video sessions with Europe and Israel, and summits with seminary leaders within and beyond denominational life. This weekend we hope to hear from you, with no holds barred – What do you yearn for? What do want Renewal to be? How has ALEPH missed the mark? What should change, and what must never change?
These questions arise from the unique moment for all of us – and I mean “all of us.” The ongoing renewal of a vibrant Judaism that jazzes the heart and wows the soul, that reaches beyond particularism to heal wounds of triumphalism long past any healthy shelf life – by its nature, it can’t come from one rabbi or one congregation or one organization alone. A Judaism that truly renews itself and all of us needs the broad vision and collectivity that is Reb Zalman’s lasting legacy for all of us.
Many here remember the tribute weekend to Reb Zalman in August 2014, that Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and others in this kahal lovingly crafted for everyone. Much of that tribute evoked everyone – because everyone together was Reb Zalman’s point. As Reb Zalman so often said, with a glimmer in his eye, “The only way to get it together is … together.”
Exactly. Together is how we’ll continue to bring Reb Zalman’s life’s work forward. By its nature, there can be no other way.
But “together” can be hard, especially when it’s most important. At this moment, much in Jewish life, spiritual life and human life is shifting on its axis. The planet can’t keep absorbing human impact without boomeranging impact back at us. The speed of change outpaces systems of all kinds – political, technological and spiritual. Institutions on which we once relied to hold us together are proving unequal to the task and buckling under the weight. “Together” never was easy – read almost any Torah story and see how hard “together” always has been – but we can be forgiven for feeling that “together” seems especially hard now.
Enter ALEPH, Jewish Renewal and this Listening Tour. Try as we might to imagine that ALEPH and Jewish Renewal aren’t institutions and are exempt from the global axis shift,surprise. The hora’at sha’ah, the emergent lesson of this hour, as Reb Zalman called it, is precisely that all organizing forces of spiritual life are shifting at once. What Reb Zalman foresaw decades ago is unfolding before our eyes. The Conservative Movement is soul-searching, synagogue affiliations down 30% in 10 years. The Reconstructionist Movement just finished a wrenching re-organization and more may yet come. Modern Orthodoxy faces possible schism over the role of women and central authority.
ALEPH and Jewish Renewal can’t stand apart from this global era of de-centering institutions and more porous identity. Renewal also has choices to make about who we’ll be, and how we’ll be, in this emerging era. That’s what this Listening Tour is about, so we come to you to ask what needs doing, what’s important, what hurts, what helps, what future you see, and how you will help midwife that future to life.
In all of this, I believe that ALEPH and Jewish Renewal have four built-in advantages, four keystones, to build from this moment in ways that bring our core values to life – and that help us do it together.
First is our core principle of global evolution – that Judaism and spiritual life inherently evolve. We must hold the past, even our own past in Renewal, both close to our hearts and also gently, so that no well-intentioned but insidious preservationism can make Renewal calcified or brittle. Not even Reb Zalman – especially not Reb Zalman – would want us to do things the same way he did. He taught us all to keep renewing, and he was right. We must do Renewal in ways that work for today’s generations, and empower the next generations to do likewise for their times, so Renewal can continue hastening the flow of transformation.
That cause cues up our second keystone to build the future: getting serious about research and development. ALEPH and Jewish Renewal claim to be the research and development lab of Jewish life. After all, Mishnah Avot 2:13 teaches, אַל תַּעַשׂ תְּפִלָתְךָ קֶבַע / “Don’t make your prayer fixed.” But there’s a penchant in human endeavor to innovate and then freeze innovation in place, and we’re not exempt. We need some קֶבַע / fixity to transmit efficiently, but too much chokes off the flow, and flow is what we’re supposed to be about. That’s why we must double down on spiritual R&D. But R&D means more than walking to the beats of different drummers: it means being wise and intentional about what beats will help people walk best in the light of Spirit. Few today are doing that spade work: it’s a gift we’re uniquely positioned to offer, beyond tired labels of denomination – if we get more serious about it.
Which points to our third keystone to build the future: focusing on tools over dogma. Reb Zalman spoke of “spiritual technologies” to transform heart and soul, and we know they work because you’re living proof of it. Think about specific practices you love about Renewal, and together we’re likely to make a list that includes chant, meditation, sage-ing, davvenology, spiritual direction, embodied practice, deep ecumenism and an integrated Earthy approach tohalachah / Jewish law. Renewal so effectively refined these tools that today some stealthily permeate Jewish life: Shefa Gold chants in Conservative shuls, meditation minyanim most everywhere, and eco-Kashrut became trendy. We must make spiritual technologies, and the next ones whatever they might be, the focus of all we do. Imagine if every Jewish community put spiritual direction and sage-ing at its core? If tikkun ha-olam / repairing the planet were truly a lived central ethic? Dare to dream up the next spiritual technology to banish boredom from spiritual life: if we will it, it need not be a dream.
And that points to a fourth and final keystone to build the future: flexible structure. None of this happens without institutional structure, and none of it happens with too much institutional structure. I confess that so far, we haven’t gotten the balance right. Nevei Kodesh is a core community of ALEPH, and I bet some of you are surprised to hear me say that. And who could blame you? After all, what has ALEPH done for you lately? You’re doing Renewal R&D right here in Boulder: you have so much to offer the Renewal world, but what’s the structure to harness and share it? This is one area in which ALEPH must do better, so Renewal can do better. And in the wisdom of our lineage, what may seem like past mis-steps can become a strong platform for the future. Elsewhere in Jewish life, excess structure so badly restrained spirituality that today’s institutional de-centering is an organic reaction eroding the foundation. Precisely because we didn’t make that mistake, today we are more nimble, positioned to build a new way – one more bottom-up with innovation and spiritual technologies at its core. We can evolve a new flexible structure unprecedented in Jewish life, if we do it together.
That’s why we’re here, and why this Listening Tour is so near to our hearts. Shabbat is a dreamscape: we enter a dream of a world renewed and perfected, bringing down inspiration and rejuvenation to power the rest of our week and the rest of our lives. That’s our hope this Shabbat. Our hopes are with you in Boulder, where Renewal took root and flourished. May this Shabbat be worthy of that legacy, and uplift your deepest hopes to build a truly awesome future for all of us together.