What B’nai Or was like in the old days…
a memoir by Yonassan Gershom
This essay no longer appears to exist on any current website. An archived version of this essay was found on Archive.org, The Internet Archive Wayback Machine, at What B’nai Or was like in the old days…
What was B’nai Or like, before the days of the Jewish Renewal movement?
I can answer this from the experience of having been a member of the old B’nai Or (Children of Light) in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and having been ordained as a B’nai Or rabbi under the old system. My wife Caryl (Rachel) and I lived in B’nai Or House on Emlen Street in Philadelphia from 1982-83, during which time I studied and traveled with Rabbi Zalman Schachter, founder and Rebbe of B’nai Or.
Origins and early history of B’nai Or…
The name B’nai Or originally came from the Dead Sea Scrolls (thought by many to be Essene writings), where the Children of Light battle the Children of Darkness in the Last Days. Those Scrolls were discovered in 1948, right after World War II, when the Jews of Europe were destroyed by the Nazis.
Reb Zalman was deeply touched by the story of the Essenes in the wilderness. He felt that something similar was needed to preserve the mystical teachings and techniques from Hasidism as it had been before the Holocaust. He originally envisioned B’nai Or as a semi-monastic Jewish community, which he described in a paper entitled Toward an Order of B’nai Or. It was an idea that I eagerly embraced.
For a while, Reb Zalman did indeed attract Jews seeking a contemplative life, and from the mid-1970’s to the mid-80’s a number of us moved to the Philadelphia area. But the community never really came together, for a number of reasons. Looking back, I think part of it was due to Reb Zalman himself. He admired the contemplative monks he met in the various ashrams of the 60’s, but he himself was too restless to be a leader of that kind of community. He was always on the road, so the B’nai Or community lacked continuity on the local level. People came and went, but few stayed for the long haul.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in ecstatic prayer at his daughter Shalvi’s naming ceremony in Philadelphia, 1977. (Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi Collection, University of Colorado )
What B’nai Or was like when I was there…
The old B’nai Or was much more orthodox than the Jewish Renewal movement of today (which grew out of B’nai Or.) It was closer to what is now called Traditional Judaism (or Conservadox), except that it had a much more mystical bent to it. It has been called neo-Chassidic and I think the term fits well, although I cringe at the sound of neo-anything. But I do always think of B’nai Or in an Essene-Chassidic context.
Reb Zalman once told me that he envisioned it as a repository of Chassidic knowledge that would preserve and renew the Jewish spirituality that was destroyed in the Holocaust — similar to the way that the Essenes retreated to the wilderness to preserve their knowledge from being lost under persecution of the Romans.
At the time I was in Philly, B’nai Or was not so much a movement or a denomination as a spiritual path in terms of daily discipline. Nor was it so political as Jewish Renewal is today.
It was more of a retreat and training center. Jews of all backgrounds came, experienced, then took that energy home to their own communities. Bring it all home to davening (Jewish worship), Reb Zalman used to say, bring it all home to davening.
B’nai Or was a sort of spiritual laboratory, where we could experiment with our inner feelings about relating to God and Torah. It didn’t matter if a person was Reform or Conservative or whatever — things were set up according to halachah (Jewish law), so that even very traditional Jews could participate without violating the rules of their religious practice. Plus, the non-traditional Jews learned something from it, too, because they saw how Chassidism was supposed to work in practice.
The shul itself was in a house on Emlen Street in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, where Reb Zalman and his family lived. The first floor was the synagogue, and on Shabbos M’Varchim (the Sabbath before Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon) there was a big gathering, when Reb Zalman held a farbrengen (fah-BRENG-in), which is a Chassidic gathering with a Rebbe. (In Eastern terms, it was something like a satsang.)
We did a Bnai-Or style service on Friday night, which was based on the traditional prayerbook, but had some kabbalistic meditations incorporated in. The service used the Orthodox text, but with more chanting — much of it done in English. (As far as I know, Reb Zalman invented the technique of chanting the English prayers with the Hebrew davening cadence. The purpose was to give non-Hebrew readers a feel for the inner dynamics of traditional davening.)
I especially remember the way we said the Shema prayer, with a full breath for each word, and our voices blending together in a crescendo which felt as if it pierced the very gates of Heaven. That was very powerful davening! It was mystical but it also had a format — it was not something new made up each time. There were certain traditions to it, using particular songs and meditations, etc., so that the group had a sense of doing a ceremony together each time. I experienced it as an incredibly deep level of spirituality.
“Experiential davening laboratory… ”
There were a lot of experimental exercises that we tried during the week, then we brought the insight and energy of that experience to the Shabbat worship. Reb Zalman had a special knack for taking a passage from the prayerbook, and devising a way to act it out and make it more real. Then the next time we came to the passage in the prayers, we had a better grasp of it. In those days, the labs were separate from the davening itself. The purpose of the labs was to learn more about the texts to enrich the traditional service.
But somewhere along the line, in the transition from B’nai Or to Jewish Renewal, the lab experiments became the davening itself, which was just too strange for me. And a lot was lost in the process, I think. With the traditional format, the repetition of ritual becomes almost like a mantra. But in order to get that effect, you must repeat the same service many times, until it becomes completely familiar.
Farbengens (gatherings) with Reb Zalman…
After the service, we would share a kosher vegetarian meal, sing Chassidic songs, and Reb Zalman would tell stories and give teachings. I remember these as very intense, magical, spiritual gatherings which often lasted well beyond midnight. On Saturday morning we had the Torah service, then the noon Sabbath meal. In the afternoons we learned, took a nap, etc. Havdalah (the ceremony to end the Sabbath) was done with incense as the sweet-smelling spices. Unfortunately, my wife proved to be allergic to this, but the idea was very beautiful, because the air was literally filled with the scent.
The retreats at Fellowship House Farm…
We also had retreats at a place called Fellowship House Farm in Pennsylvania. These were rather primitive affairs in terms of living conditions — rustic cabins or tents. In my case, I used to pitch my tent. A crew would go to the farm ahead of time to kasher the kitchen, bringing the B’nai Or set of kosher dishes and utensils. The food was vegetarian — simple but ample.
The old B’nai Or functioned more within halachic (Jewish law) parameters. So in that sense, it was a lot like Shlomo Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer, etc.
At that time, the quest was to create a community that would be analagous to the various ashrams, etc. but would be within the parameters of traditional Judaism — a sort of mystical neo-Chassidism. Until 1985, the masthead of the old B’nai Or Newsletter read:
B’nai Or is a Jewish Fellowship established for the service of G-d [yes, it was spelled that way] through prayer, Torah, celebration, meditation, tradition, and mysticism. We serve as a center to facilitate people in the pursuit of Judaism as a spiritual way of life.
Then along came political correctness…
The big change toward becoming the Jewish Renewal movement of today came in 1985, at the first Kallah or national gathering. “Political correctness” had arrived, and the feminists objected to the name “B’nai Or” because b’nai means sons. But I always felt that this was a big mistake, because it completely missed the point of what B’nai Or was supposed to be.
Translating b’nai as sons represents only the narrowest meaning of the word. As a technical term, it can also mean disciples as in b’nai naviim which the New English Bible translates as a company of prophets, which is a more accurate translation than the old King James Version’s translation as sons of the prophets.
The b’nai naviim were not the biological male children of the prophets. They were their disciples — and since there were female prophets also, it is clear that the term b’nai naviim was not limited to men alone.
Nevertheless, at the 1985 Kallah, it was decided (some would say militantly demanded) by the new generation of B’nai Or people to change the name from B’nai Or (Disciples of Light) to P’nai Or (Faces of Light). Some saw it as a circumcision (lopping off the B to make a P), but I wondered at the time if it were not more of a castration. Because the change was far more than a mere matter of semantics. It was also a change from discipleship to humanism.
As was mentioned above, the semi-monastic order never really came together. In 1983, when Reb Zalman was planning his sabbatical from Temple University, he seriously considered disbanding B’nai Or altogether and moving to Israel. I remember hearing him say that he wanted it to be like in the days of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who trained disciples and then sent them out to found their own communities. He did not envision a new denomination or a centralized movement, but rather, a network of independent communities of many different flavors, but all grounded in observant Judaism.
Many of Reb Zalman’s disciples, myself included, took that message to heart, and struck our on our own. Returning to Minneapolis, in 1983, I set about trying to found a Twin Cities chapter of B’nai Or to spread my Rebbe’s teachings. At the time, we thought that this scattering was the end of B’nai Or as such.
B’nai Or did not die, however. Instead, it mutated. When I returned to the East Coast two years later, a lot had changed back in Philly. The 1985 Kallah gathering was the last national event billed as “B’nai Or,” and it was also the last I ever attended. Over the next year, Jewish spiritual renewal became simply Jewish Renewal, with less focus on inner quest and more focus on activism.
The new generation were not disciples in the old sense, and they were not Chassidim in any sense.
- The new P’nai Or was strongly influenced by Reconstructionism, which disavows miracles, revelation, choseness, or the afterlife, and tends to view Judaism as a human made folk culture.
- The focus shifted away from inner-directed contemplative mysticism toward outer-directed political activism.
- The word “spiritual” dropped off the masthead of the B’nai Or Newsletter, now re-named New Menorah.
- Articles appeared in the newsletter which ridiculed people who followed spiritual masters, and Hasidism was dropped from the editorial agenda.
- Reb Zalman himself also changed, renouncing his role as Rebbe and preferring to be called Zayde (Grandfather) Zalman.
Going my own way…
Although I had finally acquired my own B’nai Or rainbow tallis (prayer shawl) at the 1985 gathering, I was already drifting away from the community which wore them.
I continued to study with Reb Zalman and received ordination from him in 1986, but was increasingly alienated by the direction in which the new organization was moving. I had a falling out with the new administrator, and, three years later, I left the movement altogether. Then I disbanded the Twin Cities B’nai Or group that I had founded, put away my rainbow tallis for a while, and went my own way.
When B’nai/P’nai Or finally changed its name completely, to become the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal, I was actually relieved. Because as far I am concerned, B’nai Or is gone forever. I sometimes describe myself as a child of a former marriage, remembering a family that no longer exists anywhere except in my memories.
Since 1988, I have had little or no contact with the movement, so I cannot say how much — if any — of what I remember exists in Jewish Renewal now. But from where I stand, it appears that the Jewish Renewal movement of today is a different animal altogether. Once in a while I cross paths with somebody from the old B’nai Or days. We reminisce, but it is not the same. And the newer generations do not even know this history.
Finding my own role as a teacher…
The final break was very traumatic for me, to be sure, and I was spiritually homeless for a number of years afterward. I was also in a sort of limbo about the validity of my ordination, since the group was no longer anything like Chassidism. I do still say that I was ordained by The B’nai Or Rebbe, because that was what Reb Zalman was at the time. And those who call me “rabbi” will always do so, even though I no longer do much that is rabbinical anymore. Reb Zalman was empowering me to be a teacher, and a teacher I do remain.
But I finally decided to limit myself to teaching and storytelling only, and not perform weddings or conversions or whatever. Why? Because the Chassidic world now sees Reb Zalman as an apostate, and something of that stigma also reflects on me as a rabbi in what I do. So I don’t want to be cause any future problems for people in terms of halachah. I accept the fact that, to many people, a B’nai Or rabbi is no rabbi at all. But I still honor Reb Zalman himself as one of my teachers, because, as it says in the Talmud:
He who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a single rule, or even a single letter ought to pay him honor, for so we find with David, King of Israel, who learned only two things from Ahitophel, yet called him master. (Pirkei Avot 6:3)
I also feel a similarity to the relationship between Ben Abuyah and Rabbi Meir, two rabbis of the Talmud. When Ben Abuyah became a heretic, he was shunned by all the rabbis except Meir, who continued to study with him. How can you still learn with him, Meir’s colleagues asked. I throw away the husk and keep the kernel, replied Meir.
That pretty much describes my relationship with Reb Zalman’s teachings. For me,. the current Jewish Renewal movement is an empty husk that I cannot relate to — but Reb Zalman himself still has many kernels of knowledge from the early days. And so I honor him for the many letters of Torah that he taught me over the years.
I connect with Breslov…
Ironically, Reb Zalman was indirectly responsible for me becoming a Breslover Hasid. In the 1970’s he had done a recording of the famous Seven Beggars tale by Rabbi Nachman, which moved me very deeply. I listened to it over and over until I had totally memorized and internalized it. From there I began to look more and more into the teachings of Rabbi Nachman, so that, as I drifted away from B’nai Or in the 80’s, I drew closer to Breslov. But at the time, there was no way to be in contact with living Breslovers, because there were none in my area, and I could not afford to travel. Still, the teachings about making hisboddidus solitary prayer in the woods) touched my heart, and became central to my daily practice. When we moved to the country in 1988, the Breslov teachings sustained me by giving me a way to relate to God as a Jew in a place where there were no other Jews.
Finally, in 1989, I was able to spend Rosh Hashanah with some Breslovers in New York — a wonderful experience! Three years later, my first book was published, and I began to travel more, so of course I sought out Breslovers when I could, to spend the Sabbath.
And then came the Internet. Suddenly I could correspond with Breslovers all over the world! And the more I met, the more I knew that I had come home at last. So in 1993 my wife Caryl and I decided to make it official and call ourselves Breslover Hasidim.
But in a way, I’ve always been a Breslover Hasid –maybe even from previous lives — only I just didn’t know it. And I think Reb Zalman also sensed this. Way back in 1983, he called me a “Master of Prayer in the way of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.” When I asked him what that meant, he referred me to Rebbe Nachman’s story about the Master of Prayer who lived alone in the forest… But that, my friends, is a whole other story….
Copyright 1997 by Yonassan Gershom. Parts of this essay first appeared in the introduction to 49 Gates of Light: Kabbalistic Meditations for Counting the Omer, published by Crown Point Enterprises in 1987. http://rooster613.blogspot.com/2014/04/since-my-old-website-went-down-people.html