My Dear Friends:
Last night I spoke to you of the warrior’s path, the path less travelled. Today I speak to you of what has informed and formed our path less travelled. They are the tests and lessons.
I was once asked to give a graduation speech for an Episcopal parochial school. Faced with this daunting task I faced the kids and suggested to them that they were very fortunate to be in a school environment. This was received with barely disguised scorn. Undaunted I continued by saying that in school we study our lessons and then we take our tests. Yet when we enter the real world that cushion is removed. I pointed out to them that in real life, the tests come first and if we are lucky or wise, the lessons come after. For life is a series of tests and lessons.
And who better than we to exemplify this maxim. We who call ourselves the Chosen people, we who say so often in our services “אשר בחר בנו” “Who has chosen us!” But beware of translations, for the same word that means chosen means tested. We were chosen to be tested.
It has always been so for our people and our path. It has been the tests that have lit the lamp of learning and the lessons that have fanned the flames of growth among our tribe. And tribe we are, no not tribe but an amphictyony a tribe of tribes. Our tribal light was lit by Avraham and Sarah and it has enlightened our path ever since. When crushed in the darkness of the Egyptian night Moshe found a bush burning in the wilderness and led us into the light. When we returned to our spirit homeland of Yisrael, we took the sage plant there, the מוריה or teaching plant and it became the blueprint for the Menorah that was continually lit in the Temple.
And when that light was extinguished by the conquering hordes of Babylonia, a group of wise scribes carried a tiny light into the wilderness of exile. There by the rivers of Babylon, they kept the light lit with prayer and study and Torah sharing and the synagogue experience was born. We returned and rebuilt and relit the Temple Menorah but the Ner Tamid that tiny eternal light that we carried into exile burned bright in Synagogai, small communal meeting places of the people, with services mirroring the Temple service but without the pomp and circumstance of animal sacrifice. People met and prayed and chanted and read Torah and fanned the flames of faith. In so doing they added movement to Judaism.
Temple life was the province of the priests, spiritual descendants of Tzadok the high priest in the times of King David. They became known as the Sadducees. The Scribes of which I spoke, the learned ones who cared for the Ner Tamid of Synagogue communal life became the חכמים the ones who pursue wisdom. The Sadducees dismissed them as Pharisees or the ones who separate themselves. With the tests of Roman oppression new lessons, new movements kept our light alive. The Essenes moved from Jerusalem disgusted with Temple practices that they considered corrupt and with the Roman occupation which was oppressive. They left the aesthetic world for the ascetic wilderness of the Dead Sea area. And they kept the light kindled late into the night as they copied parts of our sacred guide and mystical works that they hid in jars in caves. We have the remnant of their light in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Others felt that the only way to oil our lamps was with blood. Their movement was called the קנאים or Zealots, some taking their name from the word for knives in Latin, they were the Sicarii and their lamp can be found in the ruins of Masada where they found their final stand. Some believe that their ranks were complimented by members of another movement that of the Jesus followers for they certainly began as a movement within Judaism.
But the path of Jews and Christians diverged, as our poem says in a yellow wood, the yellow wood of exile from the land of Israel. These were the ancient movements of light, the eternal light that has lit up our lives for thousands of years.
But it is the movement of the חכמים the sages, who we call the Rabbis, who made Judaism portable and potable in the arid soil of Europe. The Rabbis can be called a movement for they moved us forward and kept the Ner Tamid lit along the path less travelled. Rabbinic Judaism became the movement of the Jewish people. But as happens with movements others grew up within and around this movement. During the enlightened times in Europe and even in the dark night of the dark ages movements of philosophy built fires bright in the minds of our people. Philosophers from Albo to Zunz fueled the fire of Jewish learning and Jewish spirit exploration, accepting the tests and learning the lessons.
And in the darker times came the need for us to confront deeper demands, the souls scream in the night and Jewish mysticism surfaced and resurfaced like a firebrand brandished against the dark. The enigma is that Philosophy was for the learned and yet open to all. Mysticism was for the masses but open only to a few. Philosophical texts and tests were learned lessons for any who could spend the time. Mysticism was a flame that enlightened or burned in the soul, restricted to those grounded males over the age of 40, married with children. And the tests of anti-Semitism, overt or genteel brought forth the lessons taught in the bosom of synagogues and Yeshivas of the philosophical and mystical movements of the day.
And then, when the wonder of the reformation and the renaissance began to enlighten the dark days of Europe, fresh movements within Judaism continued to light our way on this new turn of the path less travelled. The movements reflected tests taken and lessons learned. The first of these modern movements was חסידות. חסידות, which could be translated as “followers of the compassionate path” began in a sacred bonfire of joy. Singing, dancing, chanting and teaching, all in joy, was their path. The first Hasidic Rebbe was Yisrael Ben Eliezer better known as the Baal Shem Tov. Torah commentary burned bright, unfettered in their free-hand style that celebrated the mystical meanings to each portion, each sentence, each word, each letter of Torah. Noah’s ark becomes a metaphor for the Jewish people, the window being the place for the G-field to flow in to those Jewing within the ark. And while the tales of the Hasidim imbued our hearts with a warm glow, there arose a movement of opposition. They were called the מתנגדים “those who oppose” for they opposed the radical hippie free thinking of the Hasidim. Such has always been the case.
As science and philosophy found their footing during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, the ghetto walls came tumbling down and Jewish life was bombarded with the winds of outside influence. It could have been that the sacred light of Judaism would have been extinguished but yet again movements fueled our internal flames against the brisk breeze of modernity. The first of these movements included a hardy group of Reformers who translated Torah and Tfilah, our sacred guide and our sacred service into the vernacular, something that had not happened in almost two thousand years when our Torah was translated into the vernacular Aramaic as was the Kaddish prayer the way we read it to this very day. The Reformers, who called their movement, aptly enough, the Reform movement, spoke to universal ideals of morality and ethics. They pointed to our prophets and our Torah as a divinely inspired guide to ethical life. Rituals were for the furtherance of ethics or could be dismissed as we would discard green wood when building our fire bright. Their most famous early leader was Isaac Meyer Wise who, when he came to this country introduced “Minhag America,” meaning the practice of Jews in America. We were to be Americans who are Jews, American Jews. Services held in English, gone the relics of Talit and Kipah and Tfilin as anachronisms of an ancient time. And again when this movement came to the fore there was a reaction among our people. A group of people argued that Judaism cannot be molded to suit the person rather the person had to be molded to the doxology, the belief of our Judaism. They felt that there was only one ‘ortho’ that is ‘correct’ ‘doxa’ ‘belief’. Thus was introduced the Orthodox movement and the leader was Samson Rafael Hirsch. He decried the release of ritual that was part of the Reform path. Two movements diverged in a yellow wood, polar opposites both begun in Germany both which added light to the Jewish path. Each with vastly different views of how to light that path less travelled.
And not long after that yet another modern movement comes into being. These people wanted to conserve Judaism, they thought that the Reformers were throwing the baby out with the bathwater and that the Orthodox were not entering boldly and brightly into the dawn of the 19th century. In the United States they are most famous for bolting from the Trefe Banquet in Cincinnati in 1883, in which Kashrut was either woefully ignored or wantonly flouted. When the Reformers signed on to the Pittsburgh platform negating the tribal aspects of Judaism and relegating ritual to a small lamp in a tiny corner of our path, the Conservative movement in America blazed forth with leaders such as Abraham Joshua Heschel. They struggled with the light, discussing and interpreting but rarely discarding Halacha, Jewish Law.
But all movements, as we have seen, spawn other movements and there grew up in this country a movement that wanted to reconstruct the reason for the ritual. Their movement teaches that Halacha, Jewish Law has a vote but not a veto.
They call themselves the Reconstructionist movement and their founder was Mordecai Menahem Kaplan. He viewed our light as the light of civilization rather than the torch of a tribal movement. When asked to explain reconstuctionist Judaism, in a moment of humor, I answered that it is like Conservative Judaism but when the Rabbi finishes his sermon, the congregation has 20 minutes for rebuttal. Reconstructionist Judaism shines a light on the democratic nature of our Jewish tradition.
To be sure other movements have enlightened our path or burned a smoky flame blurring our way. We have Karaites and Sabbatians, Frankists and Humanists. The Havurah movement has helped bank the flame of our Jewish light in small communities and small gatherings. And yet there is another movement that needs to be acknowledged and that is the torch brought to bear on our path by a Rabbi ordained by Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson the Lubavitcher Rebbe who brought Hasidut to the United States. The founder’s name is Zalman Schachter known simply as Reb Zalman. His ideal was and is to renew the light of Jewing in our souls and his movement is called Renewal. Renewal seeks to bring the blend of Hasidut openness and mystical teachings into the modern realm complimented by the wisdom of all faiths, practices and paths. Jewish Renewal endeavors to reinvigorate modern Judaism with mystical, Hasidic, musical and meditative practices.
Our movements, all of them, reflect the lessons learned from the tests of pogroms and ghettos, renaissance moments, genteel anti-Semitism, the iniquities of inquisitions and the Age of Enlightenment that brightened the landscape of Europe. Each movement has brought tinder and kindling, wick and wax to light the path less travelled. Each movement, forged in the furnace of tests and lessons offers the light of those lessons for us and we are the better for them.
Let no one decry any of these movements, rather we should learn and grow from each of them, for they contribute to the light of our path, the path less travelled.