A tale is told of a rabbi who was transformed by a powerful spiritual experience. Though a learned man before his encounter, he now found himself possessed of a deep connection to all of life and the wisdom of Jewish tradition. The awareness of God’s presence was almost visible on his face, and certainly shone forth from his eyes like a beacon in a dark night. Many disciples were attracted to him to observe his ways and to learn from his example.
The rabbi would occasionally refer to this transformative experience, but only as ma’aseh she’haya, “that thing that happened.” Though pressed by student and friend alike, he resisted speaking about it publicly or privately. Some of his students thought that his reticence was an indication of his humility. Some of his detractors thought it was evidence of his arrogance. And some even suggested that there had been no experience, that the rabbi was a charlatan.
Many years went by, and the rabbi’s reputation deepened and broadened. And one day, when his students began to press him yet again to recount his story of transformation, he relented. No one knows exactly why, but some suspect it was because of the tears of his grandchild who sighed that it was not possible to become as close to God as he desired.
The rabbi’s story was riveting. A roomful of disciples listened intently, barely daring to breathe, lest the slightest cough or wheeze obscure a syllable of this extraordinary occurrence. When the story ended, the people in the room released their breath as one, and the sound was as pure and inspired as the still, small voice that spoke to the prophet Elijah.
Almost immediately, the rabbi’s students transcribed his remarks from memory. Barely a word varied among the various versions, and when one scribe would read the version of the other, he was likely as not to say, “Oh yes, yes. You remember correctly! I will change my version to match yours.”
For days the students could talk of nothing else but the rabbi’s revelation. The people of the town, even those who disparaged the rabbi before, were thirsty to read it find inspiration in it. But those who had not been present as the rabbi told his tale had only the words on paper, not the sounds they made. When they read, their eyes searched the page, which was flat and unexpressive, unlike the face of the rabbi as he spoke. Their breathing was regular, not significantly different at the end than before they began. And while the story was moving and exceptional, those who had not heard the rabbi tell his story asked those who were there when he did, “What am I missing?”
And each disciple offered his particular analysis of the experience. It was the glow on his face. It was his intonation. It was the blissful smile on his lips. It was the entranced look in his eyes. It was the way his hand fluttered like an attending angel when he spoke.
The stories about the story multiplied, and they were transcribed and distributed and analyzed and debated. As the weeks wore on and the freshness of memory faded, the focus of the student’s discussions was no longer the experience of the rabbi telling the story, but the story as it was written, and the meaning of each word, each gesture, each reaction.
In fact, the rabbi himself noticed that his students were no longer quite as diligent about spending time together with each other and with him. Instead, they spent more and more time poring over the manuscript of his story and the stories they each had written about the story.
And when the Days of Awe next arrived, the rabbi wailed and beat his breast and asked God’s forgiveness for having ever told of his experience.
In a lot of ways, this story is the anti-Torah story. For a people like us, the People of the Book, the notion that text is the antithesis of spirituality is almost heresy. It is unlike the famous Hassidic story of the Baal Shem Tov’s journey into the forest to the special place, with the special fire and the special prayer. You may remember that we shared that story some years ago in the midst of our Synagogue 2000 efforts, or you may remember hearing it told so wonderfully by Renee Brachfeld during our pre-selichot program. In that story, the text becomes the vehicle for spirituality, for holiness. In this story, the text becomes the obstacle.
So here I am, faced with a dilemma. If I agree with that message of this story, then I ought to just sit down now and let the experience speak for itself. After all, what am I going to do, analyze the story?
Actually, I am going to analyze the story, at least just a little bit. Because on the surface, it does sound like the text is the villain. But after 17 years of my teaching, you cannot believe that I would offer you such a lesson.
It is very important to the story that the character is a rabbi. A rabbi is someone who has demonstrated a mastery of text and pattern of personal piety that respects tradition. Sure, you can name some rabbis who are not such masters of text and some who are not so observant, but you and I both know that to be a rabbi is to be serious about scholarship and spirit.
And that means that before the rabbi can appreciate this transformative experience, he had to have done some diligent preparation. He had to have cultivated a vocabulary, a sensitivity, a pattern of behavior that would allow him not to discover spiritual depth for the first time, but to deepen and broaden what was already there.
Perhaps you once wanted to have a life as an actor or an actress. Perhaps you had it in your head to sing opera or rock and roll for a living. Perhaps you aspired to dance, or paint or make movies. Perhaps you wanted to play second base for the National League Central Division 2003 champion Chicago Cubs.
When you were young, it looked so easy. You watched Meryl Streep or Sean Connery or even someone not exactly a matinee idol like Paul Dooley. All they did was--act! John and Paul started a garage band that changed the world; Mick and Keith just sang and did a lot of drugs. And, okay, you might never be Baryshnikov or Gelsey Kirkland, but Gene Kelly just sort of walked with a spring in his step, and even that slightly zoftig Bette Midler could do a soft-shoe. Maybe you aren’t Manet or Monet, but Keith Haring made a fortune with the same kind of doodles you used to draw on your desk in middle school.
But those of you who tried it know that it takes a lot of hard work for something so good to look so easy. There is enough bad acting in this world, enough bad music, enough bad art that you know it isn’t simply a matter of talent and desire that produce excellence. The expressiveness in the creative realms, the inspiration in athletics, even making an automobile run smoothly or a faucet not leak requires preparation for the challenge that includes hard work, confusion and failure.
Oh. And someone to guide you.
In our story, that someone is the anonymous rabbi. His life before his transformation was spent entirely in preparation, whether he knew it or not. And his mission, having been transformed, was to prepare others for their own experiences -- for their own experiences, my friends, not for his.
But his students and the townspeople around them saw only the result of the rabbi’s efforts, not the efforts themselves. To them, his easy radiance was something that a formula could produce. After all, everyone has a natural spiritual bent, isn’t that right? If they could just be given the recipe, they could mix up a batch of their own. They saw what he had earned and they asked him to share it, as if it were a renewable resource that was available for the distribution. He was reluctant, but he relented.
What the rabbi intuited was that he and his story could not be separated. Spiritual elevation is a personal arrival, the result of a long pilgrimage, not a destination to be booked on a public conveyance. When the rabbi and the story were one, the relationship among the community was inspired. When the rabbi and the story were separated, the relationship with others dissolved as well.
And that’s what this story has to do with Torah. The rabbi in this story is not a stand-in for any rabbi you know personally. He is Abraham Joshua Heschel and Judah Halevi and the Rambam. He is Judah the Pious and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Hillel. He is Isaiah and Deborah and Moses. He is the Kadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy One of Blessing.
We have a tendency to separate the text from the author, as if the person who experienced the story is irrelevant to the story. Can you know Heschel’s writings without knowing that he grew up in the house of a descendant of the Hassidic masters? Can you know Rambam’s theology without knowing he was uprooted from his native Spain as he was beginning to reach his stride as a scholar? Can you know Hillel’s teachings without knowing his origins in poverty and deprivation? Can you know the living Torah without knowing the living God?
But, you will challenge me, the sacredness of their teachings is the essence of who they were. Let us study their work and we will know the journey that brought them to it.
No, my friends. The quality that animates the great sacred teachings of our heritage is that they have a source in the intersection of the human and the divine, not that they are divine in spite of being human. Eviscerate the humanity and you become like the rabbi’s disciples, parsing the verses with clinical efficiency and losing the quintessence of the experience.
But how is that possible? The authors of the codes and commentaries, the precepts and the prophecies have long ago gone to their eternal reward. One of the questions I ask my conversion students is which three Jews in history would you invite to dinner – it’s a clever concept, but an impossibility!
There are teachers in our generation whose spirits have been kindled by the ones who came before. Not a one of them would lay claim to being Moses or Moses Maimonides or Moses Mendelssohn, but they are living evidence that the depth and breadth of Jewish wisdom can still be experienced.
I received a jpg file the other day, a picture sent by e-mail. It is the class picture of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School of 1964. Seated among the faculty are Abraham Joshua Heschel, H.L. Ginsberg, Simon Greenberg, Saul Lieberman, Max Arzt and, of course, the chancellor, Louis Finkelstein. Some of those names mean nothing to you and some of them resonate, but what is important to know is that these are the mentors who inspired the class of rabbis who were their disciples and learned their living stories. Standing behind the faculty, in the narrow ties and horn-rimmed glasses of the time, are sixteen young men of about 25 years. One of them is Jerry Zelizer, former president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and rabbi in New Jersey. One of them is Dov Peretz Elkins, author of an extraordinary series of books on spiritual practice and inspiration, and rabbi in Princeton. One of them is David Gordis, whose career has shaped educational and public policy institutions across the nation. And looking very, very young are new rabbis Neil Gillman and Bill Lebeau, who are now themselves the faculty members forty years later at the very same Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Gillman and Rabbi Lebeau are shaping the spiritual pilgrimages of another generation of rabbis, as are Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, Dr. Jack Wertheimer and, of course, the chancellor, Ismar Schorsch. Their teachers passed the living tradition to them, and they continue that unbroken chain.
The opportunity to learn from these and other teachers is usually a privilege that comes with a serious devotion to full-time Jewish studies. But sometimes the living teacher and the living text come together for others. And we, my friends, have a unique opportunity to be those others. As most of you know, the Jewish Theological Seminary will conduct its Torah Institute at our congregation beginning on November 6. The basic information has been in our bulletin. Some of you received some personal encouragement from me, but all of you are welcome to enroll. The registration form is in the centerfold of our reflection book – please don’t take it out now, it will be here next week and there will be additional forms available in the lobby and from the office. It’s not cheap, I know. You can also expect that if you enroll, you will be encouraged to extend your support for JTS beyond the tuition amount. I tell you this information just to be honest with you.
But the real excitement, the real value of the Torah Institute, is the opportunity to fulfill the mandate articulated by Yosi ben Yo’ezer of Tz’reidah, who is quoted early in Pirkei Avot (1:4): Make your home a meeting-place for scholars, sit eagerly at their feet and thirstily drink in their words. The scholars who will come to touch your mind and your soul with their learning are the embodiment of the many kinds of spirituality that exist side-by-side in the Conservative movement. Like the rabbi in the story, they are not only academics, satisfied that their learning, though dry as the ink on the page, is all they need to be sustained. Like the rabbi in the story, they are not only mystics, satisfied that some unique and exceptional experience supercedes the record of history. Like the rabbi in the story, their learning and their passion are intertwined, and the texts they teach are animated by their own remarkable pilgrimages.
But I do not want you to think that if you cannot clear your Thursday evenings from November to May that this opportunity is closed to you. Some forty of you already sat with David Blumentstein to prepare for these Days of Awe. Dozens of you have and will and should take part in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, where Benjy Cohen and Rabbi Bruce Aft and Claire Simmons will teach on Monday nights or Tuesday mornings. Sunday mornings, Rabbi Jim Michaels will teach Bible. Tuesday nights, Wednesday mornings, Shabbat mornings and on occasional weekends our staff members, other rabbis and teachers and scholars-in-residence will open the pages of their hearts to you in the subjects that inspire them. You can find them in the booklet produced by Evelina Moulder and her Lifelong Learning Committee.
And if, for some reason, our schedule is not enough, there are places within our community to learn – the Foundation for Jewish Studies, the Jewish Study Center and others. And if for some reason, our community is not enough, there are other places you can go – The Wagner Institute, the Elderhostel at the University of Judaism, Elat Chayim and more. When you come into the presence of learned people whose eyes shine with the light of Torah, you enter the realm of genuine spirituality that transcends the pop culture of enlightenment that attracts celebrities and wannabes, looking for a quick fix.
As our brochure begins, “Lifelong learning among Jews is the bedrock value in the tradition.”
There is one more aspect of our original story that is important. It is how the rabbi realizes his own shortcomings. He was not perfect, this rabbi. He was enlightened. And what he misunderstood when he finally revealed his time of enlightenment was that it had only begun with the experience itself. Had his spiritual elevation happened in the privacy of his own life, it would have been worthless. Perhaps that’s why Judaism has no appreciable history of monastic living and why hermits are not heroes in our spiritual saga. Perhaps that’s why the nazir, who rejects all creature comforts and social conventions during his period of devotion, must offer a sin offering at the end of his withdrawal from community. Perhaps that’s why Talmud is studied not before a computer screen and not alone in a quiet place, but in chevruta, in the partnership and intimacy of discussion. Only when the rabbi’s eyes shone to his disciples did he rise to the heights they could only reach together. He needed them as much as they needed him – as the Talmud quotes Rabbi Akiva (Pesachim 112a), “As much as the calf needs to nurse, the mother cow needs to give.”
Our vaunted emphasis on education is not learning for the sake of the mind. It is learning for the sake of the soul, which is to say, for the very wholeness of being. When we return the Torah to the ark we affirm, “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” It matters little which of those paths you travel, as long as they lead you to peace.
Did I ever tell you why I left my previous pulpit? I loved the people and they loved me, but it was hard for me to be a rabbi there because I had so little chance to teach. So I made the leadership an offer – if they would commit to studying an hour a month with me, I would stay. I told them I would teach individuals or groups or a combination of both. In a small congregation, it was a large commitment for the leadership.
Do you know why I remain so proud to be the rabbi here? The excitement about the many paths of Torah seems never to abate. The text is never flat, never dry, never stultified. It is always engaged, it is always animated, it is always alive.
Come sit at the feet of scholars and thirstily drink in their words. And when it is your turn, come nourish and nurture them.