One of the important phenomenons in the American Jewish community has been the development of Jewish Studies departments at various universities. Clearly these departments have made an important contribution to American Jewish thought. At the same time, they have contributed the shifting of the center of intellectual excitement and creativity from the synagogue to the academy. Too often, the synagogue becomes a place which fulfills ritual and life cycle needs and does important counseling, but is fundamentally arid and uninspired when it comes to challenging the minds and flaming the soul of its constituents.
At the synagogue where I am privileged to serve, we are committed in a deep and profound way to education. Thousands of children attend our schools and we have many wonderful rabbis on staff–indeed, over 700 people at our synagogue and her educational institutions. And yet, with all of these wonderful people and programs, I remained unsatisfied.
For quite a few years, I had been filled with a great desire to transform our community to a genuine community of adult learning. I believe that the engagement of the divine through sacred study is a central Jewish spiritual practice. As such, I was committed to finding a way to engage our lay people, all of them highly accomplished and gifted in their own professional realms, in a regular spiritual practice of serious and exciting adult study. In order to do so, I decided together with my staff to engage in a bold experiment. We would seek out a world-class scholar and teacher, the best we could find, and invite him or her to hold a Wisdom Chair position at our institution. The idea was to find someone to find someone at the cutting edge of Jewish intellectual and spiritual thought that might normally occupy a leading position in the academic world, and invite them to do the same kind of work they would do in the academy within the context of our synagogue.
Now, truth be told, we actually needed much more than a leading academic. We needed somewhat of a cross between a cutting-edge thought leader and a profound spiritual leader who could teach in a compelling fashion to one of the brightest–I say, somewhat skeptically–lay leaders in the country.
My dream was, could we get 300, 400, 500 people a week to come out to study? Could we get people on an ongoing basis in large numbers to sign up, not for a one time lecture, but for ongoing study? And not just any kind of study, but a study which involved unmediated engagement in the texts of Talmud, Zohar and other great Jewish spiritual tracts. Could we bring the highest level of university/yeshiva study coupled with a profound commitment to spirituality into our synagogue as an animating and re-energizing force?
All of this led us to the creation of what I believe is an important model program, especially for large synagogues with the resources to accomplish it, the creation of a Wisdom Chair of Hebrew Studies.
The question was who was the right person to hold the Wisdom Chair? As always, once the commitment is made, possibilities begin to open. I attended the General Assembly of the Federation in Washington, D.C. I heard there a stunning lecture by an important and emerging voice in Israeli and international spirituality, Rabbi Mordechai Gafni. At around the same time, when I asked a friend, “Who is interesting that I should invite to speak at the synagogue?” his response was Rabbi Mordechai Gafni.
Gafni is an orthodox-trained, trans-denominational rabbi and is the founder and spiritual director of the Bayit Chadash spiritual community in Israel. Bayit Chadash, comprised of a large community, a top flight think-tank, a rabbinic ordination program, a public culture division which has hosted for several years Israel’s national television show on spirit, and much more, is one of the important and exciting initiatives in Israeli culture and spirit today. Rabbi Marc Gafni also holds the Chair of Integral Kabbalah at Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute.
Ken Wilber, the integral philosopher, based in Denver, CO, is considered by many to be the Aristotle today. He is the best-read living philosopher in the world and is engaged in creating an integral map of consciousness bringing together the best insights of all the worlds’ religions, bringing together the best in economics, social theory, and moral theory and so on. Wilber, who met Gafni after reading one of his essays on levels of consciousness in Tikkun magazine, invited Gafni to hold the “Jewish” Chair at the Integral Institute, essentially asking Rabbi Gafni one question: “What is the unique Jewish contribution to the symphony of spirit?”
Rabbi Marc Gafni himself is a little bit hard to describe. Now, having heard him teach over 200 lectures, I can say without reserve that he has the depth and soul of Heschel, the insight of Solovetichik, and the passion of Kierkegaard. When I described to him what our intention at the synagogue, he was deeply excited and moved by the model we sought to create.
He believed, with me, that a shifting of the center of gravity from the academy back to the synagogue was of immeasurable importance in developing the American synagogue as vital to the spirit of the contemporary Jew. Clearly, Rabbi Marc Gafni could not leave his community in Israel or the Integral Institute, so we created a model in which he has been visiting the synagogue for periods ranging from three weeks to three months a year.
On principle, Rabbi Gafni has refused to comprise the level of depth in any of his lectures. He reads Aramaic texts, subjects them to careful analysis, and engages a broad range of topics including personal myth, ritual, the quest for meaning, Eros, soul print, shadow psychology and the like, all through original readings of classical texts. The level of scholarship, erudition, and compelling teaching he brings is simply not often found in a synagogue. Not because rabbis are not wise and good teachers, but because the broad range of rabbinic functions rarely allows the development of the kind of breadth, depth, and original creativity that is afforded by a cutting edge scholar and thought leader.
The response from the synagogue, sustained already over a period of three years, has been electrifying. Over 1500 people have participated in Rabbi Gafni’s ongoing teachings during the last three years. People who I had not seen in the synagogue since their wedding or bar mitzvah began to return. A level of spiritual excitement was engendered in many congregants in a way which was previously unknown. What the congregants have intuitively understood is that we have created within the synagogue a scintillating intellectual/spiritual matrix for them to engage.
Of course, like with everything, there were issues to be dealt with. It has been important to affirm the place and role of other rabbis in the synagogue. It has been important to have Rabbi Marc Gafni do regular study with both the clergy and the general staff. It has been important to foster relationships of love and trust between our scholar and the broader synagogue lay and professional communities. Rabbi Marc Gafni came to view our Synagogue not merely as a gig but truly as a Wisdom Chair, as a kind of second home.
All of this, with a lot of work, attention and caring, has unfolded in a completely beautiful way. It is my belief that this Wisdom Chair model can be replicated in many major synagogues across the country. Instead of bringing in guest lecturers for one or two major gigs, creating an ongoing sustained relationship with a leading thinker offers an entirely different and new vision and model. It contains great benefits, both for the community and for the thinker. The thinker steps out of the world of thought and engages the American community with all of her concerns, angst, hopes and dreams with an unmediated spiritual embrace. The community is connected to the vital waters of living torah flowing from the source which wash and nourish the soul in a way that little else can. This shifting of intellectual-spiritual center from the academy to the synagogue seems to be a vital next step in the reinvigorating and re-spiriting and re-minding of the American Jewish Community.
This article, was written while Marc Gafni was retained at this institution. Marc Gafni’s mother agrees with all the praise in the article. The agreement was to create the model for three years which is exactly what happened. The institution has since hired a full time director of Adult Education.