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On the Origins of Kehilla

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

Note: This is the first of a series of personal essays that I plan to publish monthly in Kol Kehilla. In each article I will share with congregants the origins of one 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, There is Only One Love: The Ba’al Shem Tov in the Modern World.

Universal Love

I moved to San Francisco in 1972. I had come to California to escape both Judaism and Jewishness, which had become like stones around my neck. Despite my ambivalence toward Judaism at that time, I would occasionally “hang out” at the House of Love and Prayer, a Neo-Hasidic outreach center in San Francisco that catered primarily to young Jews who were part of the counter culture. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who had inspired the founding of the House, had stocked the prayer hall with a huge library of Jewish books and one day, alone in the prayer hall, I came across a slim volume in Hebrew by Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, which contained the rabbi’s teachings on certain moral principles. Rav Kook (1865-1935) was the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine and arguably the greatest orthodox Jewish mystic of the first half of the 20th century.

I was about to open the book when a young longhaired, bearded man named Eli wandered into the prayer hall. I knew very little about Eli, but he had previously told me that he had studied in several orthodox yeshivas. At that moment Eli was radiant and ecstatic, high on some kind of psychedelic. I smiled at him acknowledging his presence as I opened the book to the first essay, simply titled “Ahava,” which means love. I read the first sentence to myself: Ha’ahavah tzri’kha li’hi’yot m’lay’ah ba’lev la’khol . . . “Let love fill your heart for everyone and everything . . .” The words startled me, and as I reflected on them I felt a deep joy. I had never read or heard a Jewish teaching that was so filled with universal love, so embracing of all people, Jew and Gentile alike. And Kook had been an orthodox Jew!

And then I called out to Eli: “This is what Rav Kook wrote,” I said, “Ha’ahavah tzri’kha li’hi’yot m’lay’ah ba’lev la’khol . . “ “Oh wow!” Eli exclaimed at the top of his voice, “Oh wow! Oh wow!” And he lay down on the carpeted floor closing his eyes, lost in rapture.

In the weeks and months following that incident, I read and re-read the rabbi’s powerful words, and began to read the essay itself in Hebrew. Finally, I decided that I would attempt to render the chapter into English. Kook’s style was difficult for me, and translating it was extremely challenging. Moreover, I really wanted to absorb the teaching so that it would become part my own outlook. For these reasons thinking about and translating the essay became my chief spiritual practice for almost a decade. And I must say that this exercise turned out to be my doorway back to Judaism, for I came to truly comprehend that I could be a faithful Jew and an all-embracing universalist at the same time.

The essay begins with these profound words:

Let love fill your heart and flow out to all.

The love for all creations in their entirety comes first. After this, love for all humanity. And then the love for the Jewish people, which includes the whole, since it is the destiny of the Jewish people to serve toward the perfection of all things. Each of these kinds of love becomes real through deeds, for to love God’s creations means doing them some good, bringing them to higher elevations.

Beyond all these circles of love is the love of divinity, which is fully realized love. It is not the essence of this love to bring about any change, but the heart fills with a cosmic love which is the highest experience of happiness.

In this teaching, love is not merely a feeling or a sentiment. The love Rav Kook is speaking about requires one to identify one’s consciousness with the object of one’s love, an identification that enlarges one’s sense of self. Rav Kook’s teaching is an invitation to love all of humanity, all of God’s world. And he goes even farther, stating the purpose of Jewish existence—to serve toward the perfection of all things. What a broad and sacred vision of the essential task of Jews!

I had witnessed too much intolerance in my life, too much misogyny, too much racism, too much homophobia, too much anti-Semitism, too much prejudice toward Gentiles by Jews, too much ageism. And I had witnessed many of these forms of intolerance in American synagogues. Rav Kook’s teaching would later become my vision for Kehilla Community Synagogue—a Jewish community which would champion a radical hospitality, welcoming young and old equally, Jews and non-Jews, intermarried couples, straights and LGBTQ folk, and people of color. Women would serve alongside men in all leadership roles.  Every person is made in the image of God. Everyone deserves respect and love. “Let love fill your heart for everyone and everything . . .”

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