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On the Origins of Kehilla: Discovering the Ba’al Shem Tov

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

Note: This is the fifth of a 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.

The image of God that I had formed while I was growing up derived from the way in which I had experienced my relation with my parents. When I was a small child, my mother was often distant and punitive and my father was absent when I needed him. Thus, the notion of God I developed during my adolescence was of a distant, transcendent, omnipotent Being who held absolute authority over me, told me how to behave, and judged me. I became a pious, observant Jew.

A few years after I entered rabbinical seminary I began to reject that understanding of God. And then, in 1963, I read Elie Weisel’s powerful memoir, Night, about his time in Auschwitz. I was completely shaken and found myself veering between atheism and agnosticism. It was an extremely painful period of my life.

And then, just a few years later, I experienced psychedelics for the first time and I was totally blown away. I could no longer deny the reality of Something more immense, wondrous and mysterious that underlies and interpenetrates the material world.

By 1970, five years after my rabbinic ordination, I realized that the traditional Judaism I had been practicing, even abetted by years of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, had failed to alleviate the rage and anxiety in my soul that continued to feed the sense of guilt that had been my companion since childhood. I began to dream of living without the rigid structure of Jewish religious discipline, without the ever-present ghosts of Jewish persecution and the death camps defining my attitude toward possibility. I dropped out of the Jewish world and moved to California. I began searching for a new identity, a sense of self that would be free of the suffering I had experienced as a Jew.

My sole connection with Judaism during this time was my study of the writings of the modern Jewish mystic, Abraham Isaac Kook. Kook’s spiritual world reminded me of my experiences with LSD.

And then, in 1973, I discovered the last book written by my teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth. Much of the early part of the book focused on the life and teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. When Israel Ba’al Shem Tov was born in 1700, Polish Jewry was disheartened and dispirited by the massacres they had undergone in 1648. The Ba’al Shem brought a message of healing and hope, teaching the importance of joy, love and faith to his people. And he offered a very different image of God as a compassionate motherly presence within the world and within the human self.

Heschel wrote about the Ba’al Shem’s humanity. “He related to people as if everybody were his equal. The glory in being human, in being a Jew, enchanted him. He could discover jewels in every soul, and wherever he went he sought to foster reconciliation . . . The Baal Shem made being Jewish a bliss, a continuous adventure. He gave every Jew a ladder to rise above himself and his wretched condition.”

One particular passage in the book leapt out at me.

At last, the teacher of all Israel appeared, Reb Israel Baal Shem Tov. He revealed the Divine as present even in our shabby world, in every little thing, and especially in man. He made us realize that there was nothing in man—neither limb nor movement—that did not serve as vessel or vehicle for the Divine force. No place was devoid of the Divine. Furthermore, every man in this world could work deeds that might affect the worlds above. Most important, attachment to God was possible, even while carrying out mundane tasks or making small talk. Thus, unlike the sages of the past, who delivered discourses about God, the Baal Shem brought God to every man.

I read this passage again and again. I, too, longed to be able to see divinity everywhere, to feel God surging through my limbs, to witness the Presence in my own consciousness. I wanted to be attached to God while carrying out mundane tasks or making small talk. Somehow I knew then that my destiny lay with the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Years later, as I thought about the synagogue I wanted to start, I knew that the values I had found in the life and teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov would need to be central to the vision of Kehilla Community Synagogue: wonder, mystery, compassion, love, joy, ecstasy and human empowerment.


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