Spiritual Formation of Jewish Clergy: Principles of Neo-Hassidic Rebbetude


¬Experiences the presence of G*d.
         Shiviti haShem l’negdi tamid. Rabbis Marcia Prager and Jane Litman have a way of speaking as follows: “When people ask if I believe in G*d, I surprise them by saying ‘No. . .  I experience G*d.’” The neo-rebbe’s G*d-sense arises from and is renewed through experience; it is not an intellectual construct. G*d sense is at the core of rebbetude; this is in contradistinction to those who place Torah, halachah, philosophy, holy days, social action, or klal Yisrael at the center.

¬Accepts narrow places as Adonai spaces.

        Oseh shalom u’vorei et ha ra. The narrow place, pharaoh, the midwives, mash-kheet, all are faces we place on G*D that help us value and navigate the journey called life. Because faith is constantly renewed through experience, even a “negative experience” reinforces our perspective on life as a spiritual journey.

¬Embraces paradox.

        ”I am nothing but dust and ashes, for me the whole world was made.”

        G*d can be a no-thing or every-thing, it is all the same thing. Our G*d sense tells us that all is impersonal and within the vastness of Ein Sof,  the mystery of ruakh, the force of Adon Olam’s melekh and G*d also is also our intimate, avinu, Shekhinah, kallah.

        Humans are able to hold diametrically opposing experiences as true. Neo-rebbes observe and accept that humans benefit from crying out to a G*d that intellectually we can’t prove is listening.

¬Recognizes the soul.

           Kol ha olam kulo gesher tzar m’ode. The bridge across to ancestors and sages can be felt through methods, such as recalling tales of those we’ve loved and lost, doing varieties of teshuvah with them where indicated, giving tzedakah in their name, saying kaddish and more. The neo-rebbe is open to the possibility of reincarnation, a world over-soul and other manifestations of soul beyond life this time around. And, for sure, we recognize soul as that aspect of a person that is capable of experiences such as suffering, ethical living, awe and gratitude.

¬Aspires to humility and transparency.

          A person is the vessel and vehicle, not the Source.From where does one get the chutzpah to serve as a guide for others? Shiflut, humility. Reb Zalman teaches transparency is necessary to do this work. Buber expressed this as know yourself and let go of yourself. Neo-rebbes are like old souls who have emerged from their series of life times with the insight that guidance comes from without. This requires a letting go of the ego and effort of intellect so that the intuitive can tap into the greater pool of wisdom and a drop of guidance can emerge. One learns to trust that the withdrawal of action, what in the Sufi turn follows “will” and is called submission, is part of being of service.

¬Promotes respectful pluralism.         

          Treats the spectrum of Jewish practice and non-adversarial religious expressions of other peoples as a bouquet. Sees no people or religion as hierarchically better and works for each to be free to co-exist and contribute with integrity. The neo-rebbe is able to respectfully visit, study and teach in other Jewish, religious and mystical communities.

¬Accepts the uniqueness of our people and Israel.
          As one of the worlds longest continually existing forms of human organization, despite the odds our people survives to contribute and delight in yet another day. The Jewish people appear to be stem cells carrying concepts important to the human future. Neo-rebbes pay extensive attention to the research and development efforts within Judaism, including ahavat tzion through citizenship, visitation, tzedakah and emphasis upon the evolution of principles for ethical nationhood.

¬Sees contact with surrounding civilizations as healthy and valuable.

          Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s contribution of the perspective that Judaism is as an evolving civilization under girds the openness of the neo-rebbe’s approach. A neo-rebbe recognizes that our people have long taken ideas and practices from the civilizations in which our lives are embedded and reshaped them as part of renewing Judaism.
          We understand the value to Jewish survival of semi-porous boundaries allowing for exchange of information and genetic material. Accordingly, rebbetude demands intellectual honesty, cultural exchange and scientific currency. This is possible because we trust that our continuity in the face of all odds is part of the design of creation, that sheer numbers are not the criterion of continuity, and the matter is not actually under our control.

¬Empowers seekers and adherents; does not seek to maintain a hold over them.

          This is not a cult.The neo-rebbe maintains an open, inquisitive, non-dogmatic stance in his/her classes, learning from students and empowering them to learn from each other and to share their experiences and teachers from various traditions and institutions. No one is required to follow only the counselor’s preferences, referrals or practices. Second opinions are encouraged. All are allowed to flow freely from or toward other teachers and communities. While attentive to the seeker’s personal, intellectual, economic, and spiritual development, the neo-rebbe takes no part in using the power differential between teacher and seeker associated with cult leaders.

¬Welcomes seekers who have cultivated spiritual practices in other religions’ contexts.

            Recognizes that the skill sets of applied spirituality are often learned on the seeker’s journey back to Judaism. Time spent learning practices such as meditation, movement, spiritual direction, sacred dance, and how to work with qi, “spiritual energy,” within Buddism, Hinduism, Quakerism, Wicca, Christianity, and Native American traditions, among many, are intrinsic to the human form as a vehicle for spirit and valuable to the renewal of Judaism as a spiritual path. This recognition allows the neo-rebbe to embrace and share as beautiful and valuable the works of new and non-Jewish mystics, such as Rami Shapiro and Shefa Gold, Rumi and Meister Eckert.

¬Reserves the right to be inconsistent in practice, philosophy and faith.
         Degrees of observance are all over the map in neo-rebbes. Recognizing the evolutionary nature and cultural influences upon such practices, and expecting neither punishment from an anthropomorphic G*d nor coming of a messiah contingent upon our degree of observance, we tend to vary our practice in accord with need and ability over time and not judge one another adversely for this.

¬Skillfully leads and develops ritual.

           Recognizes that facilitation and design of ritual is a skill set requiring facility with process, family dynamics, music, halachah and liturgy. Neo-rebbes recommend and often guide processes of spiritual preparation for life cycle ritual participant(s). Makes a point of knowing and participating in the wonderful and difficult times in the lives of seekers and adherents in our midst.

¬Promotes the living of mitzvot as sacred acts of consciousness.
           Rather than taking the mitzvot as introjects, things which one does because they are inherently good or because “G*d said so,” the neo-rebbe encourages a process-based engagement with the spiritual potential of mitzvot through experimentation, study of traditional and new sources, and selection. No guilt trip is given that a person should attempt to fulfil all the possible mitzvot, rather, understanding humans as created in the image of G*d’s self definition, ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I am becoming what I am becoming,” the individual Jew is permitted the same living space in his/her own religious life.

¬Become skillful in davenology.

          The sequencing and timing of Jewish prayers can be understood as carefully arrayed nutrients for the human soul stream. Respecting order, content, metaphorical implications and healing intent of prayers, we take cautious license to evolve them for the times in which we live.

           Liturgy does not stand on its own, it requires reagents to come alive – niggun, meditation techniques, passionate choirs, sacred dance, choreographed ritual and more allow one’s emergence from davening joyfully renewed for life.

¬Steadily studies and teaches text.

           Attains language skills to fully access the riches of the written tradition because the majesty and deep value of Judaism is encoded in the original sacred texts. Whether via use of human adjuncts (tanna) or by dint of extraordinary retentive powers and exposure, our ancestors seem to have been like CD rom search engines, able to sense the correspondences among terms throughout the tradition and then  to build upon them. Neo-rebbes engage in and encourage text study as a life-long practice and cultivate skills in teaching our sacred languages and texts.

¬Expands sacred text by developing new hermeneutics and adding columns of contemporary commentary.

          “The old becomes new and the new becomes holy.” Neo-rebbes contribute to advancing the sacred dialogue among the generations by adding new commentary, midrash, ethics, and practices to the pages of Jewish sacred text. We are committed to expanding the lens of study to advance the justice of the text by including the voices, history, views, experience and leadership of women, as well as the participation of the full spectrum of denominations.

¬Reserves the right to build castles in the sky and live in them.
          The plausibility structures of religious cultures have been wrecked by scholarship. Every Reconstructionist rabbinical student has probably experienced the problematic effect upon others of mentioning that the Jews may never have actually dwelt in Egypt, or of speaking of Adam, Eve, Moses, Sarah, Abraham, Joseph, mashiach and others as mythical figures.

          Rebbetude accepts the reality that one can form deep relationships with such mythical figures, that the midrash reveals our ancestors projecting onto them in order to fill out their characters in ways helpful to the times of the midrash-makers and so we claim our own right to do so today. We call upon the archetypal nature of these figures when practicing ushpizin, entering the amidah, studying Torah, concluding the seder and more. It is beneficial to the human spirit to do so, and we choose to retain this benefit as part of the culture of effective Jewishing.

¬Encourages personal revelation.
          Knows each person to be a unique lens who can afford a new revelation when the text of Torah goes through the prism of his/her character and life experience. Through techniques such as bibliodrama and group themed aliyot, neo-rebbes preference personal contact with the text over ability to recapitulate the views of the classical commentators.

¬Is pro-active on matters of justice and peace.
Evolves a standard of Jewish practice within his/her immediate sphere of influence to evolve and incorporate rights, practices and rituals for those historically disenfranchised such as women, gay, lesbian, transgendered Jews, disabled, and other peoples dispossessed of their lands as we have been.

¬Cultivates skills that help with healing.

          In addition to training in chaplaincy and counseling, the neo-rebbe recognizes that most Jews need to heal from the process of growing up Jewish. Whether from obsessive observance that became abusive, from the ravages of the Shoah, from being prevented from full participation in Judaism because of one’s gender or gender-orientation for relationships, or from the absence of a meaningful Judaism in one’s home of origin, or from despair over the meaning of Zionism, or more, this is as tender a time as ever to be alive and the neo-rebbe’s skillful help is expected. Often this begins with the receipt of a modern kvitl, an e-mail.

¬Supports the evolution of conscious community.

          We vision and lead communities which honor the human desire to know and show up for each other, to welcome the stranger, celebrate transitions, care for those ill and those in need. We crave and create lively, living Jewish communities.       

          We invite the whole person to be present, offering compassionate listening and organizing tachlis help during seasons of joy, loss and lament. Feeling is encouraged. We attract those who desire participatory and ecstatic davening. In our hands liturgy and holy days become embodied experiences relevant to personal and political circumstances.

         Neo-rebbes view people as characters in a village, not bad or good, but rather unique and interdependent. Synergies happen because of rebbenic presence in a given locale, usually resulting in open programming for spiritual seekers, interfaith mystical study and hospitality for Shabbat and holidays for those seeking to drop in and experience our venues.

¬Becomes adept at working with spiritual energy.

          Humans can be energetically aroused, alone, during hevruta, and in group contexts with outcomes both joyful and tragic. Neo-rebbes know the power of spiritual energy; study its flow and cultivate skills for engaging with it. We also recognize, anticipate, and know how to counteract its side effects, which can range from a draining phenomenon leading to depression, build-up resulting in megalomania and fiscal irresponsibility, as well as sexually inappropriate engagements.

¬Understands the life of a rebbe is a book, a living Torah being studied by the community.

          Maarit eyin, having to live with many eyes upon us, we know our choices of practice and relationship interactions become examples others may follow. This realization yields tremendous caution, as the Talmud says, tzarikh sheh adam mamtin…, “it is essential that a person be deliberate.” Rabbi Rami Shapiro uses “First do no harm” as a guiding maxim for his work.

¬Is scrupulous in accounting and allocating philanthropic funds.

         Obtaining the skills of budget reading, planning, tax accountability, financial oversight and board governance are part of the neo-rebbe’s range of responsibility. One is careful to play no favorites among colleagues, friends, seekers or adherents in assignments of work and assessment of compensation.     

¬Is zealous for the well being of parents, children and spouse.
Strives to be fully present, honoring their needs, working through issues and delighting in and simulating each other in all appropriate ways.          

¬Seeks role models, mentors and supervision.
          It takes a rebbe to train a rebbe and keep one on course during a lifetime. One must have walked in rebbenic moccasins, embodying the full range of information coming in from the seeker and the G*D-field, in order to supervise and cultivate a professional capable of offering healthy, skillful rebbetude.

¬Creates and maintains healthy boundaries.
           Reb Zalman often cites the aphorism: As much as the calf wants to suck the cow wants to give milk. However, we are not cows and neither do we, nor those who seek us out, always recognize when we are depleted or in need of financial aid or rest. Boundaries need to be developed, agreed to and maintained. Further, the energy that arises during ecstatic practices and study can feel sexual and result in the perception of mutual sexual attraction somehow made holy by the context in which it arises. This leads to difficult to reverse trauma and tragedy to both seekers and teachers. We have come to recognize the stages of energy leading to unio mystica and that there are traps at each level on the way, particularly a penchant to linger with or see eros as the goal rather than a station through which one must know how to pass without acting

¬Knows oneself: Traditional methods.
            This is a message the neo-rebbe gives to seekers and a standard s/he holds to personally. We use traditional methods of raising awareness and character development such as focusing on the middot, cheshbon hanefesh, sephirotic tree of life, omer, respectfully delivered peer reproval without shaming, meditation, etc. These methods have important consequences, such as allowing one to recognize mohin d’katnut, subjective consciousness and open up to mohin d’gadlut, rare and precious (at least in my experience) moments of what seems to truly be expanded consciousness.

¬Knows oneself: Enters therapy.
        Traditional practices and the course of life itself will reveal blockages to health and growth caused by family systems and patterns, genetics, addictions, assumptions, projections, prior sexual or other forms of abuse, the current presence of sexual frustration or loneliness and much more. A commitment to regular courses of psychotherapy is recommended for seekers who wish to achieve their entelechy, and essential for the conduct of a safe rebbenate.

¬Supports regulation for the profession.
          Develops standards for this manifestation of rabbinical practice, including the requirement of smichah from a full-scale training program. We seek and take seriously feedback from peers, students and friends. Ohalah, the new trans-denominational rabbinic and cantorial organization with many neo-rebbenic members has just voted in a tough, compassionate ethics policy and carefully developed ethics policy and training to deal with internal and legal processes.

¬Accepts descent as a psycho-spiritual process.
         Where the light shines the brightest, the shadow falls the furthest. Major mistakes stemming from personal blind spots or simply one’s own humanity are inevitable. When unfit to serve whether for a moment or far longer; the neo-rebbe is responsible to get off-line, to take time out to assess, understand and recover. Old mistakes may require teshuvah and processes of penance.

¬Attends to maintaining a healthy body.
          The body is the instrument on which the soul plays life for G*d. Reb Zalman mentored many of us while pacing around a jogging track together. He also brought us into his kitchen where careful attention is paid to personal preparation of food, its contents and method of production. He made us  aware of his participation in medical screening methods that are pro-active for survival and health.

¬Anticipates and takes time for regeneration.
            Trying to be of service during burn-out will likely damage self, family and seekers. In Spiritual Intimacy Reb Zalman speaks of going to see the rebbe, who does answer the door but tells Reb Zalman that the person he’s come to see is not available. Now THAT is role modeling. Many of us find ourselves crying for at least a full day after a prolonged period of effort, such as teaching a retreat or supporting a family through a major trauma. It is told that the Lubavitcher rebbe was known to enclose himself in a room and cry for three days at a time. Moisture is needed for healing and growth. We also need time to go on vacations and retreats. Sabbaticals are vital.

¬Appreciates a life partner in this work.

            Whether rebbetzin or hubbatzin, s/he is the neo-rebbe’s most honest friend and critic, source of inspiration, and grounding in the realities and opportunities for spiritual growth present in a committed relationship. A healthy, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical partnership is part of having the capacity to practice and model safe rebbetude. It is possible but difficult to rebbe alone.

¬Creates white space for contemplation; practices tzimtzum.
           Craves and teaches the value of warm and contemplative silence. Draws back to create room for students to question, contemplate, test, teach and emerge, when possible, as leaders themselves.

¬Encourages the emergence of talented spiritual aides-de-camp.

Senses and organizes training for adherents with the talent to serve the community as: (genders are deliberately randomized in the Hebrew)
Morot, educators

Baalei tefillah, davenning leaders.

Hazzanim, cantors.
Baalei shirim, minstrels and creators of chant, niggun, liturgy & song.

Maggidot, story tellers and crafters.

Omanot, artists.

Mashpiot, spiritual directors, with specialties ranging from youth and b’nai mitzvah, to midlife, to elders.

Neviim, agitators for justice.

Morei derekh, chaplains.

Dayanim, arbitrators and judges to serve on a beyt din.

Eydot, witnesses for documents.

Sofrim, scribes, skillful in correspondence, communication and document technology, from calligraphy to web sites, cinematography, and other ways of recording emerging practices, stories, achievements, participants, conflicts and resolutions, a.k.a, history.

M’sadrei rav todot, coordinators of volunteer appreciation.

M’sadrei hachnassat orchim, Hospitality leaders, ensuring a welcoming place for all visiting seekers, family and scholars, for widow(ers), alienated teens, abused family members and those sore of heart.

M’sadrei bikkur cholim, coordinators of skill trainings and visitations to the sick.

M’sadrei hevrei kaddisha, burial society trainer and coordinator.

M’sadrei kiddushin, pastors empowered to develop ritual and conduct life cycle events.

Poskim, wise scholars able to recognize congealing ethical trends during this inter-halachic period of Jewish social change, and able to mediate the spirit of the tongue of the river of Jewish ethical thought for those seeking guidance on issues.

M’lamdim, scholars dedicated to the academic study of the full range of Judaism and the place and practices of neo-rebbenics within it.

Shadhanim, coordinators of singles events and introductions to potential partners.

Shochetim and mashgihim, eco-kosher food guides.

Mohalim/ot, circumcision experts.

Badkhnim, ceremonial instigators of joy and humor.

¬Carefully screens emerging leaders and difficult seekers.

           Not everyone is or will become healthy enough to be a rebbe or aide-de-camp. There are addictions, personality disorders and psychoses that disqualify a person from eligibility to serve or, at times, mingle in the community. There are times to place people outside the camp or limit their range of authority to aide-de-camp rather than send them on to be rabbi or rebbe. Far better to err on the side of holding someone back from access to leadership when doubt dogs your intuition. You can support their candidacy at a later date should the concern pass, far better than to try to remove someone after they’ve traumatized others.

¬Regularly refreshes and advances skills.Embraces and trains in dynamic teaching methodologies. Those from secular spheres, compassionate listening, mediation, hand-made midrash, bibliodrama and those reclaimed from Judaism, such as hevruta, fabrengen, storytelling, sending a seeker on a mission or journey, the Pardes model, four worlds, five levels of soul, sephirot, and much more.


This list, now expanded and regularly refined, was originally developed for a course at The Academy for Jewish Religion for rabbinical and cantorial students titled “Spiritual Mentoring” and later given as a presentation at the Conference on Neo-Hassidism, Manhattan JCC, March 28, 2003.

This list was arrived at via the following primary methods:

1)  Years of extended direct observation primarily with Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Shohama Harris-Wiener.

2) From having experienced direct “rebbenic” supervision, via methods such as being sent on shlichut by Reb Zalman, experiencing a season of guidance from a Chabad mashpia (who asks to be remain unnamed), and through the peer support system of now dear friends from the group originally known as the Aleph Rabbinic Cabinet.

3) From a decade of service as a “rebbe on the road” and cyber-rebbe which has resulted in friendships and service to communities in hundreds of places world-wide.

4) From mining texts which offer guidance pertinent to this form of rebbetude, particularly Spiritual Intimacy by Reb Zalman, works by the Piacezna Rebbe, Reb Mendel of Satanov, Reb Nachman of Breslov, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the Chernobler, Kostsker, Rav Kook, Rabbis Lynn Gottlieb, Marcia Prager, Shefa Gold, Shohama Wiener, Jonathan Sachs, Rami Shapiro, David Zaslow, David Wolfe-Blank, z”l and many more.

5) From seven years of experience as a dean of admissions and professional development, teacher, field work supervisor, curriculum shaper and mentor to emerging and evolving rabbis, cantors and neo-rebbes and neo-hazzanim.

6) From, alas, while an adolescent, having experienced a gross violation of my own physical boundaries by one of the pioneers of neo-Hassidism. Meeting many, along the way who suffered similar experiences, and, subsequently, participating in the crafting of policies seeking to justly address and help with the healing and recovery of both victims and perpetrators.

Additions, agreements, objections and corrections are invited and welcome!