Telling tales out of school

Telling tales out of school

Succasunna rabbi to be ordained maggidah

“Few people are resistant to stories,” said Rabbi Debra Smith of Congregation Ohr Ha Lev, who will receive ordination in Jewish storytelling.
“Few people are resistant to stories,” said Rabbi Debra Smith of Congregation Ohr Ha Lev, who will receive ordination in Jewish storytelling.

Once there was a Jewish Renewal rabbi who lived in Morris County, in the kingdom of New Jersey. Ever since she was a child, and listened intently to her grandmother’s tales, she was fascinated by the art of storytelling and how words could magically transport her to another time and place.

Then, one day, Rabbi Deb Smith — as she was called — learned about a man who was a maggid, a special kind of Jewish storyteller. And she realized that she, too, could become such a weaver of tales (a maggidah, in the Hebrew feminine) by studying with him. The man’s name was Jim Brulé, and she joined his two-year online course; by studying with peers from other faith traditions, she felt transformed. Now, after two years of study, she will be the first person to earn his blessing and his smicha — ordination — as a maggidah in her own right. Henceforth, she will be known as Rabbi and Maggidah Debra Smith (although she will continue to simply use the title of rabbi). 

For Smith, telling stories gives her another tool to help in her work as a rabbi.

“Sometimes people are resistant to religion or spirituality,” she said. “But few people are resistant to stories.” She added that stories can be “more engaging, less threatening, and more informal” than a standard sermon, and therefore, at times, more effective.

The maggid has a long history in Jewish tradition. During the time when rabbis sermonized just a few times a year, going back to the Geonic period (we’re talking a long time ago: 650-1050 BCE), and lasting into the 19th century, the maggid preached every Shabbat. Speaking in the vernacular, the maggid was often considered a popular counterpoint to the more scholarly rabbi. By the 16th century storytelling had reached a kind of art form, and the founders of Chasidism embraced it and synthesized rabbi and maggid into a single entity, the rebbe.

Today, at a time when storytelling has grown in popularity — consider the need to market every brand with a story and the popularity of the Moth Radio Hour on National Public Radio — it makes sense that the maggid is making a comeback.

According to Brulé, who hails from Fayetteville, N.Y., the maggid’s role is to bring people closer to God through a special kind of storytelling “in which the storyteller, the audience, and the story itself are all changed. The stories lift people’s spiritual state,” which is why he calls his program Transformational Storytelling. He is clear that a maggid is not simply a Jewish storyteller, whose goal might be to entertain or to educate, but has a spiritual purpose.

“I might tell a story I hope will move people to be kinder to their neighbors,” he said. Instead of saying be kind to your neighbors, he said, “I’ll tell the story, and if I do a good job, it should change me and the audience.”

Before the advent of rabbinical schools, rabbis tutored their students and, when their charges were ready, ordained them. Maggidim have been following a similar model for generations. For instance, Brulé received his smicha from Yitzhak Buxbaum, who received his from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Jim Brulé, founder of Transformational Storytelling

What’s new is the methodology: Brulé’s two-year curriculum is online and geared toward multiple faiths. It costs $2,000 per year.

Throughout the training, Smith and Brulé have only met face-to-face once. Smith is graduating with two others from the program, though, because neither is Jewish (one is a pagan spiritual leader, the other a nun), they will be presented with certificates, whereas she also will receive smicha.

The ordination ceremony will take place at 7:30 p.m. on July 27, during Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Ohr Ha Lev, which meets in Redeemer Lutheran Church in Succasunna. Smith, who will dress in white, will stand in front of the ark near a small round table, a bowl of water resting upon it. She will dip her hands into the water and Brulé will take a drop from the bowl and touch her lips, because “these are the hands that tell the stories, and this is the mouth that tells the stories,” Smith said.

She will also recite a blessing she wrote for the occasion which, among several stanzas, asks of God, “May I never forget that the transmission of these tales/Is a sacred act intended to better all lives/And to bring a piece of heaven down to us on earth.”

The celebration continues with a storytelling event on Saturday evening at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains from 7:30-9 p.m. There Smith and her two fellow Transformational Storytelling graduates will receive their certificates and a total of five students, Brulé, and Rabbi Moshe Rudin, spiritual leader of Adath Shalom, will share stories.

Smith appreciates the multi-faith perspective. “We all have the ability to learn from each other’s spiritual backgrounds,” she said.

Brulé takes it further: “If we only look at our own faith traditions through our own faith traditions, we have huge blind spots,” he said. And to those who would raise a concern that the multi-faith environment might dilute individual religions, he added, “It’s been very much the case that each student walks out with stronger attention to their own faith.”

Currently, Brulé has eight students, and as he just retired from his full-time work in the health-care industry — where explaining arcane regulations required all his storytelling ability, he joked — he hopes to take on more. While he’s the only one offering multi-faith training, Rabbi David and Maggidah Debra Zaslow are running a similar two-year maggid training program in Ashland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, which they started in 2010.

Smith is working on professionalizing the field, having drafted a code of ethics for storytellers, which didn’t exist previously. She hopes to share it with the maggid and secular storytelling communities, whom she said have already expressed interest.

And so, dear reader, you see how Smith was changed by becoming a storyteller, and if you come to Adath Shalom on July 28, to hear her, Brulé, and other students spin their tales, you might find that you are changed, as well.

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