The Jewish Roots of Kehilla’s Values: Martin Buber, Part 4

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

Martin Buber’s parents divorced when he was quite young, and he grew up living on a farm with his paternal grandparents. The boy would also visit and spend time with his father. One time his father took him to a small Hasidic synagogue for worship on the Sabbath, and there he experienced his first encounter with a rebbe. He later wrote

The palace of the rebbe, in its showy splendor, repelled me. The prayer house of the Hasidim with its enraptured worshippers seemed strange to me. But when I saw the rebbe striding through the rows of the waiting, I felt, “leader,” and when I saw the Hasidim dance with the Torah, I felt “community.” At that time there rose in me an awareness of the fact that common reverence and common joy of soul are the foundations of genuine human community.

Buber’s grandfather was a Jewish scholar, and Martin received a good Jewish education as he was growing up. But he lost all of his interest in Judaism when he attended university. During those years he went through a period of extreme confusion about his life as well as alienation from Judaism. His return to his Jewish roots began with five years of work in a progressive Zionist movement, but politics was not enough to provide him with the kind of spiritual meaning he was longing for.

In 1904, Buber discovered a small volume of Hasidic teachings in Hebrew titled The Testament of Rabbi Ba’al Shem Tov. One day, while studying the book, a particular passage leapt out at him:

                        Embrace the virtue of enthusiasm.

                        Rise from sleep with enthusiasm,

                                and you will become

                                a radically different person:

                        You will become capable of giving birth,

                               just as God gave birth to worlds.

Perform each act with enthusiasm,

       and each of your deeds will become

       a vehicle for serving the One.

The Ba’al Shem’s insight excited him. It was true, he had been too passive and he was lacking a sense of enthusiasm about his life. If he could take initiative he might be able to discover his own creativity. It was as if the Ba’al Shem had promised him that through his own devotion and his own deeds he would be able to unite the divided powers of his soul and create something new, something that had never existed before. And by taking personal responsibility for his life in this way, he would be able to embody the creative power of the divine. That moment of discovery became Buber’s spiritual awakening as a Jew.

Buber came to feel that there was a wealth of spiritual wisdom in the hasidic texts he was studying in Hebrew. But at the beginning of the 20th century hardly anyone in Western Europe had ever heard of Hasidism or the Ba’al Shem Tov. Buber decided to begin to translate Hasidic literature into a European language, German, something that had never been done before. This was how Hasidism first became known to secular readers.

In 1907, Buber published his first book on Hasidism, The Legend of the Baal Shem. The book contains twenty legendary stories about the founder of Hasidism. In the book’s introduction Buber called the Ba’al Shem “a simple, genuine man, inexhaustible in enthusiasm and guiding power.”

Buber’s youthful insight “that common reverence and common joy of soul are the foundations of genuine human community” seems to me to be a core principle of Kehilla Community Synagogue. And our prayer services derive their creativity, joy, and enthusiasm from the fervor of Hasidic worship.

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