When Rabbi Avraham Sutton searches for words — the ones that will perfectly articulate what he’s trying to impart to his audience — he shuts his eyes tightly. Head tilted back, one hand planted firmly on his hip, the other punctuating his sentences, Sutton shuckles back and forth.
“Let’s do something interesting,” he said on Wednesday night to about 30 congregants and community members at B’nai Israel. “Let’s see what happens.”
Sutton, 69, was doing what he does a couple times a year, coming from Israel to the U.S. for a speaking tour, of sorts, stopping primarily in Northeastern Orthodox enclaves. He also makes time to visit his home state of California, where his siblings still live. On the Baltimore leg of his journey, he’ll give four lectures in his time here.
At B’nai Israel, Sutton’s talk was lively and wide-ranging. He broke into song several times; mentioned his brief stint on the 1967-1968 UCLA freshman basketball team; recounted a “really far-out” experience in Ukraine in 1990, and he tossed in references to Bashir al Assad, Raymond Moody and the Baal Shem Tov, among others.
Along the way, he wove in emotional, complex thoughts on the relationship between the High Holidays and “the collective transformation of mankind,” which, he said, is inextricably linked to the personal transformation of individuals. The High Holidays in particular, he notes, are a time for this sort of world- and personal-level spiritual accounting. “The call of the shofar is the call of the human soul,” he explained.
Sutton, born in Hollywood, kept kosher in his Syrian- Jewish home growing up, and went to synagogue a few times a year. But it wasn’t until he watched Shlomo Carlebach officiate a wedding in 1972 that his life-long fervor for Judaism — in particular, for its mystical side — was born. Soon after, he moved to Israel, where he’s spent his life writing, learning and teaching. His work, though mostly self-published, is voluminous. The last few years have been dedicated to creating a set of siddurim that he thinks will bring the richness of the text to the fore.
All of his work, he says, is in the service of raising awareness of what he sees as a quickly approaching epoch of change. He wants people to “be open to this dawning of a new age, the spiritual energy that’s coming down into mankind,” and to “have some sense of [their] own infinite worth as a human being.” If it sounds somewhat vague, that’s not an accident.
“All we have when we talk about these things is metaphor,” he told the audience.
The day after his talk at B’nai Israel, Sutton lamented the “vaccuum of meaning” in American Jewish life.
“There’s a dearth of meaning in American Judaism, such that when you don’t have the wellsprings flowing to you and the incredible enlightenment that comes to you from knowing the deep teachings of the Torah, you say, ‘Wow, Judaism, oh that’s something I gotta change,’” Sutton said.
“There will be certain minor changes, and of course the way people treat each other, that’s totally important, but you don’t need to change Judaism because it’s an amazing system of truth,” he continued. “For those of us who have gone deep into it, and who understand it on the inside, we want to live that truth, in the modern world, with a higher consciousness.”
Andrew Koch of Baltimore attended the B’nai Isaral event, and found Sutton’s idiosyncratic considerations “very eye-opening.” Though he was not familiar with Sutton before the talk, he was grateful for the rabbi’s instruction in “how to get basically more meaning out of these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah.”
“He’s a connectable teacher,” said Marcia Glass-Siegel, also of Baltimore, who saw Sutton for the first time. “He’s very down-to-earth, while teaching very high-up-there teachings. So I’m glad I came.”