4 Questions for Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan of Nava Tehila

Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan
Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan

Congregation Nevei Kodesh is hosting a Shabbaton January 17-19, 2020, featuring Nava Tehila, including a class on the ancient poem Ana b’choach. For more information about Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan (spiritual director), please read below.

Click here for Early Bird Registration through Jan 5, 2020.

Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan was born in Jerusalem. She grew up in a Zionist Orthodox family and is descended from a long line of Lithuanian Rabbis on her mother’s side. She studied law at Hebrew University and then immersed herself in Torah studies at the Hartman and Pardes Institutes in Jerusalem.

In the late Eighties she married Dr. Michael Kagan, author of the Holistic Haggadah, and together they were part of the first wave of spiritual activists in Israel. Ruth and Michael’s main interest became the renewal of Judaism and together they taught classes and workshops in Israel and around the world. In 2006 she published, together with Reb Zalman, “Jewish Renewal – Integrating Heart and World” (Kirvat Elohim, Yediot Achronot), the first book in Hebrew describing the principles and practice of Jewish Renewal for the Israeli readership.

Founder of Nava Tehila, Rabbi Ruth and her team focus on creating musical, inclusive, and engaging prayer spaces where people feel comfortable to come as they are. Nava Tehila’s musical spiritual leaders generate new prayer modalities, compose new music for prayer, and train Jewish leaders, including rabbis, cantors and students, in the art of musical and innovative prayer leading. Their music is rooted in Middle Eastern and contemporary Israeli music.

BJN: From law to theology, what inspired you to become a Rabbi?

Rabbi Ruth: I grew up Orthodox when the rabbinate did not include women. My inner experience was that I should become a Rabbi, yet I thought what does that mean? And my inner voice was persistent about becoming a Rabbi. So I said, alright; so be it. It didn’t make sense to me to start studying traditional rabbinate, years of studying Gemara and kashrut. So I went into a period of discernment. What does this mean? Who would need me, who would seek me out as a Rabbi? Interestingly, this did not become completely clear until I did become a Rabbi. Today you have women who are making inroads in the Orthodox movement, yet it was not like that when I started.

Next, I thought that it would be best to study with somebody who came out of the Orthodox and traditional world, someone who had opened up and went beyond this orthodoxy. Someone who was interested in spirituality and other religions. Someone who was modern and even post-modern. Remembering that we had met Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman) in Israel, and he had blessed our work as educators, we focused on him as the one to learn from. Since he was in America and we were in Israel, we picked up our entire family and moved to Boulder in 2001 to study with him. I felt God was telling me I needed to come and do this. Michael (Kagan) and all four children moved; the oldest was 12 and the youngest was three. We settled the kids in school, found our community, made our friends, and began to learn with Reb Zalman and to enjoy the 300 days of Colorado blues skies a year. Our family totally fell in love with Boulder. Every Sunday we would go for a hike, and explored Colorado. We felt like Boulderites for the two years we lived here.

The question I asked myself – who would need me as a woman rabbi – I found the people who wanted what I had to offer. And in the twenty years since I heard this call, the whole idea of a woman rabbi has totally exploded in the Orthodox world for the good. I was one of the first in Israel. In the last five years, people have stopped asking me questions about it. People used to want to know, what does it mean to be a woman Rabbi. What do you call yourself? How can you say this? I have seen the changes – from the time when I first had the inner experience which I followed – to now, in an unprecedented way.

BJN: What in particular did you learn in your studies with Reb Zalman? What stood out for you?

Rabbi Ruth: I became very close to Reb Zalman. In the beginning I learned with him every Friday in the Rabbi’s Shiur – his Friday morning class, to which he graciously invited my husband and me. I had enrolled in the Aleph Rabbinic Ordination Program with his encouragement. As much as I enjoyed this, I wanted to become closer with him. With encouragement from his mentee, Netanel Miles-Yepez, I asked Reb Zalman what can I do for you. He said that he would like his work to be available in modern Hebrew in a way that would speak to the Israeli spiritual seekers that he knew I could touch. I took this request seriously, and began to record our classes and translate them, and I also wrote articles in Hebrew. These articles were never published, as there was not yet a forum to share it in Israel.

Then Reb Zalman asked me to translate his booklet, “Gates to the Heart.” I became ambitious and wanted to take this booklet along with some of the other articles, believing that I had enough for a book. I gravitated to what I was interested in and put it altogether, translating ideas for the Israeli mentality. All the time I meet people who say they read this book, which was published in 2006. It is out of print, yet it can still be found in libraries and open minded yeshivot (houses of study) in Israel. They tell me they are touched and feel like it opens their minds. The book was in no way comprehensive, yet it brings together many of his ideas. This includes a basic understanding of kaballah, prayer, Jewish meditation, deep ecumenism, and eco-kashrut. He was there first, in many ideas. I was very happy to have this initiation with him, and to have had the ability to work closely with him. It was wonderful for my rabbinic studies.

BJN: You are bringing two of your core musicians, Daphna Rosenberg and Yoel Sykes, with you for both a concert at the Omni Interlocken on January 11th and to the Shabbaton at Congregation Nevei Kodesh January 17 – 19th. How did you all find each other?

Rabbi Ruth: After my smichah in 2004 I began to collaborate with people who wanted to celebrate Kaballat Shabbat, and as Reb Zalman taught me, we experimented. One of the things I was drawn to was to work with young Israeli seekers who find spirituality in music. I was inspired to create tefilah (prayer) that is musical, deep, and multi-layered. Even if one was a total beginner in Judaism, there would be high-level spirituality in the service. Young musicians were drawn to me, and through the grapevine they came to me to grow spiritually and to study; I became their mentor. Together we have started creating the “Neva Tehilah method”, which is an inter-lacing of chanting and spiritual journeying through kavanot (intentions).

Daphna and Yoel were the first two young musicians that were drawn to me and learned to become prayer leaders. We have grown together along with our kahal, and it has become a community. Our inspiration was to write music, which is their gift. Everything was created fresh for Nava Tehila, totally and deeply sitting on tradition – including Jewish Renewal tradition – and new Israeli melodies. With our musicians and the people that came to daven (pray), magic happened, and we’ve been living this magic since then. And we realize that we have been given a gift that is not just for us. And that is why the Nava Tehila mission is to travel and bring these ideas and experiences to communities world-wide, to both Jews and non-Jews. Our prayer services are deep, moving, joyful, mystical – and even ecstatic experiences. If you are ready to be moved, you will be moved. You have to come ready to leave different than you entered. And if you don’t – it’s okay! You’ll still have a pleasant time.

BJN: The Shabbaton at Nevei Kodesh will include a teaching session on the ancient prayer ana b’choach. Why did you choose this prayer to focus on?

Rabbi Ruth: Davening leadership is part of my work. And, I’m also a teacher, and I teach Torah. I call myself a spiritual detective. I discover something that looks promising in the kabalistic and Hasidut arena, as I am a talmidah (student) of Reb Zalman, and then I investigate it. Ana b’choach is a 42-letter name of God. The Zohar (major kabalistic text in Judaism) says that it has the energy to lift us up, for ascent. It is connected to angels and to ancient powers of spiritual realties. This prayer is a beautiful, meaningful, and amazing poem. I was mind-blown to learn more, and have been learning about it for over fifteen years, and am still learning about this poem all the time. I have discovered both through finding sources and personal experience that it can be a practice. Studying this prayer/poem can enhance your mind, touch your heart, and teach you about life. Many ancient practices are connected to ana b’choach. Some are simple, some are quite complicated and spiritually intense. And they can become part of one’s daily spiritual practice. Ana b’choach can speak to people on whatever spiritual level they are on. We will explore things like: how does the name of 42 become a poem? Why? Is it a poem, a hymn, a prayer, a practice? There is so much in it. We will get a taste of this complex name of God throughout the course of the Shabbaton, along with practices to do at home or in community.

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