by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
In these monthly articles I have been offering readers some background history on the Jewish sources of the values and ideals that motivated me to develop the vision that became Kehilla Community Synagogue. In this four-part series, I turn to Rabbi Arthur Green, the founder of Hebrew College Rabbinical School. This is the seminary where Kehilla’s own SAM Luckey is studying to become a rabbi. And Rabbi Gray Myrseth, the educational director of Kehilla’s school was also ordained at that institution.
I met Arthur Green in 1963, soon after he entered the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school, where I was training to become a rabbi. Art had entered the rabbinic training program with the particular aim of studying kabbalah with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his enthusiasm for the mystical sources he was studying was infectious. Art’s presence was a great blessing in my life. He opened my consciousness and intellect to new worlds that amazed me, enabling me to redirect my life and thought in radically new ways. I found myself looking up to him even though he was younger than I, and for a few years he was my closest friend, confidant and mentor.
When we met, I knew relatively little about Jewish mysticism. Art told me about the Zohar, the “bible” of the kabbalah, composed primarily by the thirteenth century Spanish kabbalist, Rabbi Moses de Leon. During the academic year of 1964-65 I spent my junior year in Israel, studying at the Hebrew University. The most engrossing class that I took was an introduction to the Zohar.
Among the many dimensions of mystical thought that the kabbalah reveals is the enigmatic nature of divinity and the origin and spiritual structure of the universe. The Zohar posits ten divine stages or dimensions, known as the sefirot, which emanated out of the infinite mystery and became the archetypal spiritual blueprint of the universe. When I returned to New York, I excitedly told Art about the class I had taken and he helped me to understand that these ten sefirot were not just ideas. They were symbolic expressions of actual inner spiritual processes experienced by the kabbalists themselves.
Art’s way of understanding Jewish tradition seemed more sophisticated to me than anything that I was learning from my instructors at the Seminary. He sensitized me to the spiritual power of traditional religious language, revealing how myth and symbol could be windows into spiritual truth. And he introduced me to comparative religion, suggesting that I read a number of books in that field. Through his guidance I began to sense the universal underpinnings of religion, mythology and mysticism, and the intrinsic bonds that linked all the great religious paths.
Most important of all, Art shared with me his sense of the spiritual quest as the central defining characteristic of the entire religious enterprise. He told me about his own personal search, his longing for something beyond the confines of our ordinary consciousness, and he encouraged me to share my own searching with him. In these animated conversations he drew me towards his emerging spiritual worldview, which stressed the centrality of the quest for the underlying unity of the universe.
I found it hard to believe that just a few years before I had thought seriously about leaving the Seminary, unable to sustain my faith in the personal God of traditional Judaism, who had failed to come to the aid of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. The Holocaust had been a major issue for me since my childhood, and Art spoke to me about the radical ways in which the kabbalists dealt with the problem of evil. I came to understand that even though God could not necessarily act in the realm of history, this inscrutable presence was very much present in human consciousness, symbol and myth.
Toward the end of my senior year, Art began to speak glowingly about the potential of LSD for bringing about mystical experience, and he offered me the possibility of experimenting with the drug. I was hesitant, but after a few months I was finally persuaded to try it. Two days before my rabbinic ordination I underwent my first psychedelic experience, and it was, as they say, “mind-blowing.” During such “trips” the individual is quite vulnerable and it is important to have a guide who makes sure that he or she remains safe. I could not have asked for a better guide than Art. It was this experience that eventually changed my life in radical ways.
One of the elements missing for Art in modern Judaism was authentic spiritual community. In 1968 he started Havurat Shalom in Boston. I was one of the original members of Havurat Shalom, along with Reb Zalman Schachter and Rabbi Everett Gendler. We experimented with new ways of davening (communal prayer) and studying our ancient texts. And many of us were also social activists, participating in anti-war activities. The friendships that blossomed during those years are still important to me. If I had not undergone that experience with LSD, and if I had not been part of Havurat Shalom, I’m certain that I would never have thought of starting a radical synagogue community in the Bay Area.