I want to try and do something a bit different this morning – to use this time not to give a straightforward sermon on something or other – though I guess not many of my sermons could ever be described as straightforward – but rather to speak to a text: to read it with you and comment on it, expand on it, be in dialogue with it as it were. And if you feel minded to join in the dialogue and make it a real conversation, please feel free to do so.
The text is taken from A.J. Heschel’s wonderful book ‘A Passion for Truth’, which he delivered to his publisher just a few weeks before his death in 1972. If I tell you that it is a parallel study of two towering religious figures of the first half of the 19th century, the Hasidic leader Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, who lived in Poland, and the Danish Christian mystic and theologian Soren Kierkegaard, one of the forefathers of existentialism, neither of whom knew of the existence of the other – well, hearing this it is possible you might feel yourselves having to work hard to stifle a yawn. But I can assure you that such is the brilliance of Heschel as a writer that he creates a fascinating and very accessible drama out of the lives and ideas of these two figures, showing how they each were wrestling with similar religious questions and issues, though in completely different contexts. What they were both aware of – and found themselves battling against – were the ways in which religious experience becomes institutionalised, how an individual’s possibility of engaging with the divine becomes bogged down in tradition and ritual and repetition, how religious formalism and religious institutions can become a barrier to religious experience rather than a vehicle for it.
Today I want to focus on the Kotzker rebbe’s ideas rather than Kierkegaard’s so I have chosen a passage for us to look at that opens up some of these themes.
Let’s read: The Kotzker apparently felt that overemphasis on strict adherence to patterns of religious behaviour tended to obscure the individual’s relationship with God. He never questioned the validity of the traditional pattern and regarded living by the Law as essential. Observance as a matter of routine, however, he considered odious.
So – observance of the law and the traditions of Judaism is central, ‘essential’, for Reb Mendl, but observing as a ‘matter of routine’ is ‘odious’: strong language from Heschel. He wants to bring out something about the specific religious stance of Mendl – halachically observant but with the emphasis not on repetition for its own sake but something else.
Let’s see what else: What appalled the Kotzker was the spiritual stagnation of religious existence, the trivialization of Judaism. He scorned praying by rote. In opposition to the traditional preference for verbose recitation, he pleaded for brevity, even taciturnity. He dared to teach that the preparation for prayer surpassed prayer itself in spiritual value and found a basis for this reformative principle in an ancient tradition: ”One should not stand up to say a prayer save in a reverent frame of mind. The pious of old used to wait an hour before praying in order to concentrate their thoughts upon their Father in Heaven.” (Berachot 5:1). One would expect the phrase “while praying” to appear at the end of the sentence, since the goal is concentration in prayer. The intention, however, is to teach us that concentration should precede the act of prayer. Preparation for prayer is valuable in itself, perhaps more so than prayer itself.
Let’s unpack this: first there are the powerful phrases Heschel uses to describe what the Kotzker set himself against – ‘spiritual stagnation’ and ‘the trivialization of Judaism’. And what’s an example of that? : ‘prayer by rote’. And then Heschel illustrates the radical nature of what the Kotzker was teaching by quoting how the Rebbe used the traditional text from the Talmud as the basis of his ‘reformative’ stance. We have that quote in our siddur (p.10) as a text to reflect on before the service: the tradition to have a period of reflection or meditation before a service starts, a quiet personal time before the collective prayers. ‘Reformative’ is a loaded word for Heschel, as it might be for us: he is raising the question: Does our tradition, our prayer life, need reforming? Have we got our priorities wrong. Maybe. Because ‘preparation for prayer is valuable in itself, perhaps more so than prayer itself’, that is the fixed prayers of tradition. Now, how threatening is that?!
He’s not saying we can or should dispense with the words of tradition. But Heschel is saying, following the Kotzker’s lead, maybe we have our priorities the wrong way round: that what we might do before the formal prayers begin has a spiritual value in and of itself and maybe, and this is the radical note, maybe more valuable ’than prayer itself’. What would our services look like if we followed that approach? They would surely be different. I’ll say more about that later. But let’s stay with the text. Although he’s focused here on prayer, I just want to note in passing how Heschel’s greatness as a teacher is there in that subversive phrase he slips into that first sentence of the second paragraph: the phrase ‘the trivialization of Judaism’. Because in using that language he is inviting you to think: ‘and what else goes on in Jewish life and practice that is a trivialization? where else do we concentrate on stuff that misses the point about our religion? that avoids the essence of religious and spiritual life?’ We can each create our own anthology of things that we might point to as the trivialization of Judaism. My list would probably be a long one but off the top of my head I’d think about obsessionism about aspects of kashrut, or frenzied pre-Pesach cleaning, or substituting Zionism for Judaism as the heart of religious life, or seeing the Bar/Bat mitzvah party as needing more attention than the ceremony itself, or anything that prioritises ritual obligations at the expense of the ethical vision and inter-personal dimension of Judaism with its focus on compassion and justice.
Let’s read on: In the Kotzker’s synagogue one could see the disciples with prayer shawls over their shoulders walking up and down the room, their lips hardly moving. They gave the impression that they had not begun to pray yet and were still immersed in preparation. They prayed quietly. Suddenly they would stop, take of phylacteries and shawls, join one another at the table, and consume a little vodka together…
That’s a weekday picture – and very seductive too. Quiet immersion in prayer, each individual alone in community, together in community, and then: tephillin off, and time for a different connection to the spirit, sharing a drink together…
And how does Heschel bring this theme to a conclusion? Even piety will not sustain the tedium of unlimited repetition. To preserve one’s commitment with the intensity of its first ardour requires more than obedience. Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation – all these are necessary ingredients for religious renewal.
Judaism lived because it was both a religion of finality, conclusive and irrevocable, and a faith of commencement, of inauguration. To act as a Jew, thought the Kotzker, meant to make a new start upon the old road. (quotations from ‘A Passion for Truth’, pp.92-3, Farrer, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1973).
Here’s the Kotzker’s recipe for religious aliveness, channelled through Heschel. Another way of saying that is that here we have Heschel’s 20th century agenda for religious renewal – but using, rooting himself in, the spiritual tradition to which he was an heir. Remember that Heschel was born into a Hasidic heritage: his grandfather, Reb Abraham Joshua Heschel, who died in 1825, was the ‘Apter Rebbe’, the last great Rebbe of Mezbizh on the Polish/Russia border, who was buried next to Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, who came from that same village.
In this paragraph Heschel is teaching us what is required for an enlivening religious life: ‘Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation..,’ that is the search for new approaches to the tradition. These are the ‘necessary ingredients’ not just for one’s own spirituality and prayer life but for collective ‘religious renewal’. That’s what Heschel was after: collective and individual ‘religious renewal’. And what a great trio of ideas he puts together here: ‘Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation…’.
So: do our services here at FRS meet that demanding standard? You will have to tell me. I suppose we are fortunate here in this community – we are blessed with talented and creative clergy and open-minded lay leadership, so our possibilities for reaching that level of spirituality, with ‘Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation…’ are increased.
And I’m sharing this passage from Heschel today not just because I think it’s interesting in itself, but because it speaks to our own situation, it gives us a framework to think in, it gives us ideas to think with. Each week, each festival, when we gather for services, we are making – to use Heschel’s concluding metaphor – ‘ a new start upon the old road’. And we have here at FRS – very often – all sorts of services to choose from: there’s always a main service, following our siddur in quite a steady direction, although always with different elements added in, depending on who is leading it; there’s Rhythm and Jews, there’s B’Yachad, there’s the new Etz Chaim minyan now that Danny Newman is with us, and there’s the so-called ‘Alternative service’ that I’ve been involved with over the last decade or so.
And I want to finish today by talking about ‘Alternative services’ because I met with my planning group this week and we talked about those monthly services that we offer and we wondered how to help more people in the community – you – feel more willing to come along, try them out, if you haven’t already. I think they do have a mixed reputation. Maybe they are thought of as a bit weird, a bit too maverick or experimental. Maybe the name is just off-putting – Alternative service doesn’t actually say anything much about the content. We might just as well call it ‘the other service’ for all the descriptive power of ‘alternative service’ – so we have decided to drop that title, that nondescript non-description. And what we thought about doing – because we had looked at the Heschel text at the beginning of our meeting and got rather enamoured of it – what we wanted to do was re-name the alternative service with one of those phrases that Heschel uses, and call it the ‘Spiritual Adventure’ service, because that actually is much more evocative of what we do when we meet.
Because each person who leads those services – and we have a talented combination of lay and clergy leaders of do that – what we do is like a tailor-made ‘spiritual adventure’ which includes what Heschel is talking about: ‘Surprise’ – you never know exactly what you are going to get when you take part in one of those services, with the combination of prepared material and music and quiet time and spontaneous discussion and participation that those services allow and encourage. And as well as ‘surprise’ you get the element of ‘the search for new appreciation’ of the material in our siddur and the material that each leader will find and bring in, and also the ‘new appreciation’ of other members of our community who have come to share this time together, because there is the opportunity there, in a way that is harder to do in a more conventional service – to engage with each other, to connect, to listen, to hear, Shema, each other, and the richness of each of our own lives.
But I’ll let you into a secret: when I discussed with my clergy colleagues this week the possibility of calling it the ‘Spiritual Adventure’ minyan, they weren’t that enthusiastic, and I did kind of agree with them, it was a bit of a whim, so we have decided to go back to the name that was originally given to those services, before I was involved with them actually. FRESH – which in the old days I gather stood for ‘Finchley Reform Experimental Small Hall’ services, neat! But we are tweaking that now, in our re-branding exercise. It’s still going to be FRESH – but that now will stand for ‘Finchley Reform Experiential Small Hall’ services. You’d pay consultants thousands of pounds to come up with that in a business, and our planning group came up with it in 5 minutes. For free.
So that’s our ‘new start on the old road’. I’d really encourage you over the coming months to try out FRESH – whoever leads it I can guarantee you it will be ‘fresh’ and if you are up for spiritual adventure and can cope with the element of surprise which will accompany lots of liturgy that you are familiar with, I think you will experience it as an antidote to any ‘spiritual stagnation’ – to use Heschel’s phrase – that you might be feeling.
Part of what makes our clergy team such a blessing to work with is the different talents and interests that each of us brings. Danny has a lot of expertise in meditation and that whole tradition represented by that Talmudic idea of preparation and inwardness, Zoe has her musical creativity of course and her way of bringing in stories and experiences, Miriam is keen on writing and introducing new liturgy and I – well, I don’t know exactly what I do, but I suppose I’m trying keep us on guard against the trivialisation of Judaism; and keep us on track, focused on, the elements of adventure, of surprise, of new approaches, in our eternal journey through the wilderness away from spiritual stagnation, towards spiritual richness, aliveness, new possibilities.