This week’s post is by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, who has pioneered Kirtan in the Jewish world, offering communal call-and-response chant concerts and meditation seminars around the world. He is resident faculty at Clal in New York.
Years ago, I was taking a tai chi lesson. It was a freezing, late winter afternoon in Riverside Park. Like many Jews of my generation I had been attracted to practices of the East. Martial arts had been a life-long pursuit.
The mystical exercise Stephe taught me that cold afternoon was called the Wellfont of Overflowing Love. The idea was that rather than meet a threatening opponent in kind, with reptilian aggression, one would shower unconditional love on the would-be assailant.
“Set yourself in a stance, and I want you to attack me and get me.” Stephe instructed. I fully intended to spring on him and hit him. But, just as I was about to move, I felt a warm stream of air pierce the cold. I could not move. I could not attack. We both started to laugh.
“How did you do that?” Stephe answered: “Just imagine with all your heart that you are someone who represents unconditional love, such as Jesus or the Buddha—or, since you’re a rabbi, someone from Judaism.”
I was perplexed: I couldn’t think of anyone! Moses? Throwing down the tablets? David—who walked around with a kupah shel shrotzim (a bag of creeping things) on his back? Anyone? (Indeed, one of the strengths of Judaism lies in its more this-worldly, reality-based claim that no one is perfect.) At the time, I was distressed: I couldn’t easily call upon anyone from my tradition by whom to channel simple, overflowing love. For, like real life itself, each choice “was complicated.”
Years later, I now think of the Baal Shem Tov.
Perhaps the major inside question asked in Hasidic circles is: How did the advent of the Baal Shem Tov change the world? How is all of history, the fabric of being itself, different since the Besht appeared?
One compelling answer I discovered is in an essay on Hasidism by the Darchei Noam, son of the Slovener line, in his essay, רחמנא ליבא בעי (The Merciful One Needs the Heart). The author starts out by stating (my translation):
“Hasidism is not intended to fix external matters, nor even to establish a community (צבור) of devotees bound together—even if this [community] is something desired and very helpful. The main principle (עקר הדגש) of the teaching of Hasidism was concerning internal practice (avodah), to awaken within an individual the thirst and the longing for Hashem. And to this end, the holy Baal Shem Tov descended into the world.”
The Darchei Noam then goes on to share the explanation offered by R. Avraham of Kalisk, a senior disciple of the Vilna Gaon who, later, turned to Hasidism. [In astonishment,] they asked him: “What did you find amongst the Hasidim that you should join them [and leave the court of the Gaon]?” His concise answer: וחי בהם “And you shall live by them” (Levitcus 18:5). In other words, all of Hasidism (and what the appearance of the Besht changed) was boiled down to these two words, viz. to bring us to the vitality of Kedusha (לחיות דקדושה). The Besht’s teachings, and thus true Hasidic practice, was not about creating a community of believers, or gaining (or retaining) “members:” It was about the inner practice of the individual, such that he or she “should be full of longing and the energy of holiness.” Put another way: If there is to be any Jewish continuity, so the Darchei Noam might assert, this will only come about because of the experience the faith provides to the individual. If we are to have an ongoing community at all, it will not be because we find a new business model. Nor will it be because we channel an idealized historical figure. It will be because each of us discovers a practice and a sense of holiness which allows us to radiate outwardly a love of the Divine from within.
From what I’ve written here, it will become clear that I see the work of Kirtan Rabbi and its broader mission as most closely aligned with Proposition #4 from Rabbi Sid’s essay, namely, that of fostering “Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedusha.” (To a lesser degree, Proposition #1.)
In traveling the world as the Kirtan Rabbi, I have arguably been on the outer edges of kiruv (bringing Jews closer to Judaism). I have been where those self-described “Jews on their parents’ side” have flocked to find meaning elsewhere. I have sought to show that we can offer, out of the riches of Jewish Wisdom—and through the, if you will, vibrational power of the Hebrew language—a kind of ve-chai bahem, a “vitality of living” that can stand side-by-side with other, seemingly cooler (and baggage-free) world practices. As Rabbi Sid says, “if you show Jews how Judaism can offer a glimpse of a life of sacred purpose, they will come in droves.” (p. 37) Or, a page later: “[the] American Jewish community…needs to get into the kedushabusiness—helping Jews live lives of sacred purpose.”
Insofar as the purpose of our efforts is Jewish continuity and the creation of community, I see Kirtan Rabbi as wholeheartedly in alignment with the thrust of Proposition #4. However, where the activity of Kirtan Rabbi differs, perhaps, is in a focus on the practice, in the moment—not so much out of a concern whether the People or Religion continues. Indeed, if they are to come, halavai, “in droves,” this will be davka because we don’t focus on bringing anyone back, but rather on the Nike Mantra: Just do it! Just show it: Heat up the winter afternoon of a modern, secular world devoid of meaning out of the power of what Jewish practice and wisdom have to offer. If, precisely out of this practice, a community arises, or if something precious is preserved, as the Darchei Noam says, this is “desired and very helpful.” But it is not necessarily the goal in itself.
Rabbi Andrew Hahn, Ph.D. has pioneered Kirtan in the Jewish world, offering communal call-and-response chant concerts and meditation seminars around the world. He has been teaching tai ch’i and related arts for more than forty years. He seamlessly combines chant, movement, meditation and text study into a positive, holistic experience. He is resident faculty at Clal in New York. KirtanRabbi.com