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Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov

In this workshop we will examine the influence of the Ba’al Shem Tov on Reb Zalman’s life and thought, particularly on Zalman’s creative way of renewing the practice of davvenen. Rabbi Burt will also discuss Zalman’s personal influence on his own life. The class will be taught through lecture, text study, guided visualization, and davvenen practice.

Rabbi Burt Jacobson was my first mashpi'a (spiritual director), and I've been fortunate enough to study the works of the Baal Shem Tov with him. As soon as I saw this session on the schedule, I knew I wanted to attend.

"When I saw the announcement of the theme, mikol melamdai hiskalti (from all my teachers I have learned), I immediately thought of Reb Zalman and the Baal Shem Tov," Reb Burt told us. He said:

I've been a student of the Baal Shem Tov's now for 35 years. And I believe that though he lived in the 18th century he is still a teacher for our time. He provided me with an orientation not just to Judaism, but an orientation to life that serves me every day. I want to talk about the Baal Shem and then talk about parallels I see in Reb Zalman's work.

Reb Burt teaches.

He offered some biographical details about the Besht. He was born around 1700. Some fifty years before he was born were the Chmielnitzki pogroms, 1648 and the following years. "These pogroms were among the worst experiences that Jews had ever had since the Fall of the second Temple." And he continued:

In my opinion, those massacres on top of all the dark experiences that Jews had undergone in the years of exile left a traumatic scar on the body of the Jewish people. That scar ruptured the relationship between God and the Jewish people. People thought: we sinned, and God took it out on us through the massacres. There was an abundance of guilt, and in its wake, a lot of asceticism.

I believe that the challenge that the Baal Shem felt was the challenge about how to heal that trauma. How to bring hope, how to bring love. Perhaps the chief tool that the Baal Shem used was prayer. There had never been a movement in Judaism before Hasidism that put prayer so much at the center of Jewish religious life. But it wasn't the old style of prayer. The Baal Shem felt that prayer needed to be reinvented in his time! To make a connection with God that would allow healing to happen.

As I heard him say these things, I started to realize the extent to which there are parallels between Reb Zalman's work and the Baal Shem Tov's. Working and teaching in the aftermath of a communal catastrophe, seeking to help our community heal from trauma, using the tool of prayer (and reinventing the tool of prayer) to make a connection with God which would allow healing to happen -- all of those things sound like Reb Zalman to me, for sure.

The Baal Shem Tov wanted ecstatic prayer to become normative. Ecstatic prayer, Reb Burt suggested, "brings with it a unified vision of reality in which the individual can experience a sense of being loved by God, and being a vehicle to bring love to the Jewish community." And then he transitioned to speaking about Reb Zalman and pointing out some of the similarities between the two men's contexts:

Reb Zalman lived through the Holocaust. He eventually came to see his vocation as the spiritual healing and renewing of the Jewish people. I believe there were two sources of brokenness that needed healing. The effects of post-Enlightenment secularism, which to a large extent drove God out of the Jewish people, or at least the liberal Jewish people; and of course the Holocaust itself.

Together these two sources had ruptured Jewish faith and belief. For so many people, God had disappeared from the center of Jewish life. Reb Zalman felt that Jewish prayer needed to be reinvented.

A packed room listens attentively.

Some ten years ago, Reb Burt interviewed Reb Zalman for the book he's writing on the Baal Shem. And he asked, what did the Besht give you personally? And here's the answer which Reb Zalman gave him -- drawing on a Besht teaching which in turn arises out of the story of Noah, the flood, and the ark:

The Baal Shem has had a great deal to do with the software of my theology of prayer. I learned from him how every word in the liturgy can disclose more and deeper meanings if only you allow this to happen. The Torah states that God told Noah to build an ark to carry life through the devastation of the Flood. And he was also told to make a window-light for the ark. Well, the Hebrew word for ark (teivah) can also mean 'word.' So the Besht took the Biblical verse to be a call to worshippers to leave the external world and to fully enter and immerse themselves in each word of prayer.

But this was not enough. The worshipper was also to make a window-light (tzohar) for each word, to open the word to the illumination of the inner light of the soul. It was a call to enter into the Divine through the sacred language of tradition, to leave the 'objective' world and enter fully into the so-beingness of God.

Imagine yourself in a theater. Most of the people in the audience just sit there and passively watch the action ufolding on stage. Only the actors are fully engaged in the drama. That is what the act of prayer is to the Besht. He calls us to be on stage, to embody the script at all levels of our being. Then the davening becomes one's own drama, one's own love and longing, one's own rendezvous with God.

I love the idea that going to services can either be a matter of sitting in a theater passively, or being the actors on the stage who are inhabiting the words of their scripts every time they speak them aloud. Imagine delivering every line of a prayer with all of the heartfelt feeling that a talented actor would bring to a meaningful role. Imagine really embodying the script really feeling what the prayer means, and then reciting it aloud!

Reb Burt continued:

This becomes the task of congregational prayer. Making a window in the word, as Noah was commanded to make a window in the ark. To illuminate the word.

What does that mean? It means that we can't be passive when we're davening. That we have to look at each word -- the Baal Shem actually says each letter! -- and go inward, uncover the experience that we have had at some time in our life that somehow resonates with this particular word, and we use our imagination to take that memory and infuse it into the word on the page. So that the word now becomes us, and there's no separation between us and the word.

Somewhere in there was an amazing guided meditation, and also an exercise where we took three minutes of silence to focus on our experiences of being loved, and then we prayed the first line of the ahavah rabbah prayer ("with a great love You have loved us, Adonai our God...") aloud. I closed my eyes and thought about being loved, and was immediately filled with sense-memories of my sweetie and our son showing me that they love me. When I prayed the prayer, after that, I thought: the wild enthusiastic hugs of my three-year-old: that's God's love. Holy wow.

Toward the end of the session, Reb Burt shared with us a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Man's Quest for God, commenting on the same teaching (about going into the teiva, the ark / the word) which the Baal Shem had commented on:

There need be no prayerful mood in us when we begin to pray. It is through our reading and feeling the words of the prayers, through the imaginative projection of our consciousness into the meaning of the words, and through empathy for the ideas with which the words are pregnant, that this type of prayer comes to pass. The word comes first; the feeling follows...

Unless one knows how to approach a word with all the joy, hope, or grief that he owns, prayer will hardly come to pass. The words must not fall off our lips like dead leaves in the autumn. They must rise like birds out of the heart into the vast expanse of eternity. To begin to pray is to confront the word, to face its dignity, its singularity, and to sense its potential might. It is the spiritual power of the praying person that makes manifest what's dormant in the text.

"There ned be no prayerful mood in us when we begin to pray:" indeed. As with creative life, as with writing poetry, as with making love, when one begins the act at hand, the feeling comes -- and if one waits until the feeling is there, the act might never happen. And I love Heschel's notion that the words of our prayers must "rise like birds out of the heart into the vast expanse of eternity"!

Anyway: this session was one of the highlights of the conference for me. (And it was a particular joy to have Reb Zalman in the back of the room, occasionally calling out with an addition or a correction.) I'm grateful to have had the chance to listen to Reb Burt teach not only about the Besht, but also about how the Besht's life and work are paralleled in the life and work of Reb Zalman, the teacher of my teachers.