Jacob's Ladder/ Ya'akov Levy column the Religious Fringe

 The Prayers were laced with Carlebach melodies, spices from the exotic kitchen of Breslav, even Intellectual Depth.

The evening Shabbat prayers at the 'Yakar' Synagogue', Ashkaenazi, HaLamed-Heh St.

...Prayer is something that requires intention. There are those who unintentionally close one eye, and there are those who close both. There are those who rock back and forth, filling themselves with generous, even excessive amounts of powerful, inchoate feelings, and there are others who surrender their wills and allow various feelings to come and go. Some are quiet and calm; others, busy and turbulent. All of them together, while preparing themselves for prayer, create a highly fascinating and intimate picture. Sometimes we can't help forgetting ourselves and our good manners and gazing wide-eyed at one congregant or another ultimately forgetting our own prayers.

Perceptive readers have surely noticed that intention in prayer is a quality which is hardly mentioned in this column. There are even those who have begun slandering me (never mind) and my ladder (now that's really beyond the pale!), saying that we are mere dilettantes, who remark only on the comfort of the benches or when the cantor goes off key. What about the prayer itself? What about intention and devotion and all those sublime religious experience, which we apparently ignore?

The criticism is no doubt appropriate, but what can we do, given that it's very difficult to find synagogues in which there transpires a religious experience worthy of the name. Synagogues which purportedly make room for the soul to soar are a precious commodity, publicized only by word of mouth, as if they were dubious goods. 

We've already written here in the past that the liveliest market for religious young people, who scorn the uninspired prayers of their parents, is located somewhere between the neighborhoods of Baka and Katamon. In recent years, a number of experimental minyans have sprouted up which have tried to break down the endless orthodox barriers separating ethnic groups, sexes and the various exilic streams; yet primarily they sought urgently to crack the barrier between the head and the heart.

I once dubbed this welcome wave of activity 'the religious fringe.' And indeed, the synagogue and communities in question are likely to provide a degenerating religion with the same blood transfusion that fringe artists confer upon the art, every time the museums become the cemeteries of the spirit.

If its fringe were talking about, we have to acknowledge that the Yakar synagogue is at the center of this movement. Long before Shabbat comes in, the connoisseurs of prayer hurry from near and far to Lamed Heh Street to assure themselves a place. All the rest can forget about finding an empty seat.

After a moment and a half of prayer we forget the crowding. The ushering in of the Shabbat at Yakar reveals itself as the almost perfect merger of all those ingredients we have become accustomed to find in fringe prayers. As usual, there was an almost egalitarian partition between women and men, and the congregation was divided equally between the sexes. The prayers were laced with Shlomo Carlebach melodies and spices from the exotic kitchen of Breslav, and there was even intellectual depth there, adorned by a distinctly British accent. All of the former, aside from the accent, are already the obligatory traditional ingredients of the genre. Yet Yakar's precise blend is what makes the prayers there into a real spiritual event, instead of a mere anthropological foray. 

At the center of Yakar's prayers is the figure of Rabbi Rosen. Any attempt to portray him in a few concluding lines would be typical Israeli negligence. Without trying to be profound, I would merely say this man uplifts the participants to the religious heights without being a professional cantor and is riveting and natural speaker without being a preacher. 

I am well aware that ever since a certain politician burst into the Israeli public consciousness; we all have a problem with the eye movements of religious people. But what can you do, there are certain situations in life in which the eyes, as if of their own accord, and not in order to impress anyone, turn and look inward for a moment. It happens at especially good concerts, and with particularly good chocolates, and it also happened to me at Yakar.


The Rebbe Other Chasids Shunned (26/06/2008) 

The Quest for Authenticity — The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim

By Michael Rosen, Urim Publications, $30

Reviewed by Mordechai Beck

Michael “Micky” Rosen, who founded the alternative Jewish community centre, Yakar, in London and Jerusalem, also has another side to his rabbinic persona, as his new book makes abundantly clear.

The Quest for Authenticity probes the arcane world of Rebbe Simchah Bunim of Pshiskha (1765-1827), one of a remarkable chain of Chasidic rebbes — Reb Simchah himself, his contemporary, Hayehudi, and his own prodigy, Menahem Mendel of Kotzk.

This trinity of rebbes challenged the existing norms of Polish Chasidism with its proliferation of rebbes and their courts, and the increasing stress on group Chasidut, in contrast to the teachings of the founder of the movement, the Besht (1700-1760), who stressed the direct link between God and the individual.

These rebbes sought a return to these basics: developing an inner presence that connected them at all times with their Creator. None of them actually wrote down their teachings; their teaching was in their behaviour and in the lives of their followers. Rosen’s first triumph is in drawing on secondary and tertiary sources, analysing each text as to its possible authenticity in relation to the whole body of the rebbes’ work.

His focus on Rebbe Simchah Bunim is clearly motivated by the fact that Reb Simchah was not only a man of Jewish learning and sensitivity, he was also a “modern” — studying a profession ( to be a chemist) and donning Western-style clothes, even when acting as a Chasidic rebbe. Even then, when he prayed, for example, he would remain stock still, in contrast to the ecstatic movements associated with the followers of Chasidut. This reflected his great stress on inner spiritual intensity, in which the “soul took over from the body”, as opposed to outward manifestations of frumkeit, which he found suspect.

The reaction of his contemporaries was so negative as to lead to a move to excommunicate him and his followers; the Pshiskha way threatened to undermine the existing consensus of the Chasidic world with its elaborate court system and powerful hierarchies. Yet though this attempt failed, ultimately the new movement was neutralised and quashed.

Rosen sees a strong parallel with today’s scene, when once again outward conformity threatens the inner qualities that comprise a truly vibrant and dynamic religious life. His book thus offers a painstakingly researched work as well as serving as a trenchant critique and timely warning.



Yakar: Center for Tradition & Creativity. 10 Halamed-Hey St. Tel: 972-2-561-2310 /1,