by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
Note: This is the seventh of an ongoing series of personal essays on the beginnings of Kehilla. Each article shares the origins of one or more of the ideals and/or values that motivated me to start Kehilla. The essays are adapted from the manuscript of the book I am in the process of completing, tentatively titled There is Only One Love: The Ba’al Shem Tov in the Modern World.
Spirituality and Social Justice
In 1982, Debby Enelow and I started Kehilla School. A year or two later, Debby asked me when I was going to start the synagogue I had been talking to her about. “We really need to provide something substantial for the families of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids besides the few religious services we’ve been offering,” she argued. Yes, I wanted to initiate a congregation, but I was caught in the horns of a dilemma.
What kind of synagogue should it be? A spiritually-oriented community? Or a politically progressive congregation? The truth was that I was torn between the love and joy of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the revolutionary cry for social justice of the biblical prophet, Amos of Tekoa.
Both the Ba’al Shem Tov and Amos longed for a radical transformation of their respective societies. They both saw the need for a renewed relationship with God and renewed relationships between human beings. But their understandings of what this transformation required and of the ways in which the necessary changes would come about seemed completely opposed.
When I looked at the world from Amos’ dark perspective, it seemed to me that my fascination with mysticism was merely self-indulgent luxury. Thinking about the deaths of six million Jews and countless Non-Jews during the Holocaust and all the disasters that were currently plaguing the world, my conscience would demand that I give my all to the task of advancing radical social justice and peace.
Amos was a harsh critic of his people and the way they lived their lives. But the Ba’al Shem loved the Jewish people. He would have found Amos’ severe condemnations of the people of Israel repellent. And I very much longed to learn how to love people the way the Besht did.
What was I to do? Amos burned into my conscience, but the Ba’al Shem enflamed my heart. Was there a way in which I could bring these two radically different perspectives together? I did not know.
It was around that time that I discovered a form of guidance practiced in the Christian world that was called “spiritual direction.” A spiritual director meets with a directee and together they work to discern where the divine is present in the directee’s experience, and how the directee is being called to serve the Spirit.
I made an appointment with the man who would become my first spiritual director, Pastor Ted Pecot, a Methodist minister. At that meeting, much to my surprise, Ted voluntarily told me that he had been deeply influenced by Martin Buber, and he also said that he felt that there was no one in the Christian tradition who embodied the kind of joy that he had found in the Ba’al Shem Tov. Without any prompting, he assured me that he would never attempt to convert me to Christianity. I knew I was working with the appropriate counselor. I later learned that Ted had written a paper about the Ba’al Shem Tov when he had been an undergraduate.
Sitting with Pastor Ted for hours on end, I was able to speak freely about all of my personal and professional issues. Over the months I shared with Ted my desire to initiate a synagogue community, and my hesitancies in doing so. Ted strongly encouraged me to put my dream into action. When I spoke about the the Ba’al Shem Tov/Amos polarity within me, he suggested that I reflect on the mission of this new congregation in a more inclusive way, making room for both spiritual seekers and political activists, and also for those who might seek to integrate both perspectives into their lives. And he reminded me that religious leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to work to change the world out of their spiritual visions and their faith commitments.
With Ted’s guidance, I began to bring together the visions of Amos and the Ba’al Shem Tov. I came to understand the ways in which spirituality and community could actually provide a wholesome foundation for political action and change. I saw that I could work to provide my future congregants with the strength and courage to act in the world out of love, compassion and their sense of justice, and not merely out of righteous indignation.
Many years later I learned that one of the Ba’al Shem’s core spiritual practices had to do with bringing a compassionate consciousness to all of one’s daily activities. He taught that this pure compassion transcends all polarities and divisions because it is rooted in the infinite light of oneness out of which the universe was fashioned. I have come to feel that through such spiritual practice, it may be possible to bring compassionate awareness to our struggles for justice, peace and sustainability. In other words, I believe that we have the ability to cultivate a kind of compassion that allows us to struggle with the forces of oppression and with those individuals and collectivities that represent such oppression, without investing our energy into reactionary hatred.