ReCreating Jewish Communities: Wholeness and Healing

November 1, 2005
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Sarah Tauber

Nearly two millennia ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple, our ancestors in Judea, the Galilee, and Babylonia creatively transformed the conception of Jewish tradition and Jewish community, birthing a new kind of Judaism that we call rabbinic Judaism. Like those daring survivors of catastrophe, the Jews who were born after the Shoah live in the shadow of cataclysm. And like our ancestors, we live in an era when the urgent need for innovative ways to confront our past, nourish our present, and sustain our future stares us in the face every day. As we enter the 21st century, how will the Jewish community respond to the worldwide pain and suffering that characterizes our era — no matter how materially secure we may be? The slow but steady deterioration of the natural environment, the collapse of a social safety net, fears about job security, the demands of an aging Jewish population, the anxiety about the precariousness of our children’s futures, the ongoing worries about the difficult hurdles Israel continues to face — all these concerns weigh us down as human beings and as Jews.

The search for wholeness is what Jewish tradition describes as shleimut . I believe that the main focus of Jewish identity in the 21st century, in the Diaspora and in Israel, will be the re-creation of Jewish communities that help us find solutions to the very real pain and fear we experience because of our contemporary situation. The ability to shape a community life that helps people overcome their loneliness and isolation as they deal with these struggles will be the unifying factor around which a 21st- century Jewish identity will emerge. A revitalized communal experience that emphasizes deepened personal relationships will have a powerful healing impact on worldwide Jewry and, by drawing on traditional and contemporary models, will redefine the centrality of Jewish identity for Jews worldwide. The links between spiritual seeking and mitzvot, and in particular Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasidim , will be addressed in ways that will empower Jews to see Judaism as a renewed source of profound personal meaning. In the midst of our concerns about the present and the future, we will explore together the various ways that the mitzvot of study and prayer open us to the security that comes from an ongoing connection with Mekor Chayim, the Source of Life. And in an era when so many of us feel the extraordinary stresses on our financial resources and on our personal time, the mitzvah of gemilut chasidim will guide us in our search to cultivate what it means to give and receive as loving human beings.

Refuah shleima is the Hebrew expression that we use daily in the Amidah when we pray to God to be restored to a sense of wholeness. Refuat hanefesh , refuat haguf — healing of the soul, healing of the body — these very words are found in the mishebeirach , or healing, blessing that we recite every Shabbat. Our rabbinic ancestors who gave these prayers their prominent place in our liturgy grasped the dire need for a total healing to such an extent that they instituted them as a regular part of our spiritual practice. This acute sense of the importance of healing is similar to much of the current search for spiritual healing that is gradually making its way into the forefront of Jewish life.

Where do I see evidence of this growing desire for spiritual wholeness as a response to our present reality? It is found in the very large numbers of so-called secular American Jews who seek out the healing practices present in the spiritual traditions of the Orient and who attempt to adapt them to Judaism’s religious traditions; it is found in the vitality of groups like Chabad Hasidism and Jewish Renewal, movements that are both centered on the idea of teshuvah , or spiritual turning to God; each, from its own vantage point, shares an awareness of the core spiritual depth that Judaism wants us to embrace at every moment as a means of giving our lives purpose, orientation, and coherence. It is also found in the waves of young secular Israelis who, after having served their perilous time in the army, go to India and other points east in search of spiritual guidance that they tragically do not yet seem to be able to discover in their own country.

Alongside the existential challenges that we face daily, as Jews we live in an era that has experienced the “eclipse of God,” to borrow Martin Buber’s biblically inspired metaphor. In this new century, the voices that speak truthfully and honestly about a pervasive loss of spiritual orientation, and about the possibilities for recovering it as Jews, will be listened to carefully; 60 years after the Shoah, and in view of the ongoing struggles of the State of Israel, our visionary leaders will begin to light paths for us that must rekindle anew our faith in the transcendent meaning of our Jewish existence — for us and for the world. Such an audacious charge of hallowing our mundane lives is the task that Judaism thrusts upon every generation of Jews, pushing us to confront and to work through the challenges that we face in being human. In the 21st century, this spiritual endeavor will once again occupy a central place in our collective identity.

In the coming decades, the primary task of our religious leaders and educators will be to hone their listening skills, to hear with keen attentiveness the voices that cry out for spiritual healing. Our leadership must be willing to respond with caring guidance, with the wisdom that emerges from our awareness of the necessity to act with cheyn, chesed, and rachamim . These are the spiritual virtues that Judaism commands us to cultivate because we are made in the image of a compassionate, responsive God. Each individual who chooses to walk through the doors of our communal spaces will know that she or he is unconditionally welcomed and supported; our leaders will counter the impersonal communication promoted by sophisticated technologies and will develop instead the face-to-face relationships that provide sustenance for the spirit as we journey through our lives. Our manifold hopes for Jewish continuity will depend upon the capacity of our religious and lay leaders to work toward the creation of Jewish settings that will be safe havens, places where our time together will be sanctified, where — as a collectivity — ongoing and enduring refuah shleima will give birth, as it did 2,000 years ago, to an energized Jewish identity.

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Sarah Tauber, born in 1966, is currently a doctoral student in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Sarah has studied modern Jewish history in the United States and Europe; she also ran a congregational school in Geneva, Switzerland for several years before returning to the USA in 2003. Sarah's Jewish passion was charged by close relationships with family members who survived the Shoah, by the inspiration of several rabbis and Jewish teachers, and by the writings of Aharon Appelfeld and Martin Buber.

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