Beyond "Renewal" to a Transformative Judaism

[By “Transformative Judaism” I mean absorbing and going beyond the wave of “Jewish renewal,” which has become a life-giving internal reopening of Jewish thought and practice — to a Judaism that sees beyond itself: sees its task as the transformation of the present world crisis into the creation of world community.

[At the end of this statement, I propose some specific and concrete actions we would undertake in pursing this vision. I welcome comments.]

We are at perhaps the greatest choice-point in human history. We hold in our hands and hearts the technical tools and the spiritual wisdom that could create an interwoven planetary community of love, abundance, and freedom rooted in cultural and biological diversity. On the other hand, those same tools—without spiritual wisdom—can bring about disaster for the web of life on our planet and for human civilization. 

Responding to this choice—point so as to create a planetary community requires of Judaism as well as of other life-paths a profound commitment of our spiritual, religious, ecological, economic, political, communal, and interpersonal abilities to serve the transformation of our world.

We think of this process as a “movement” not in the sense of a highly structured institution or denomination but as a wave of people in motion.

We must be honest about the dangers that we face, as well as being conscious of what we can create through love.. The greatest dangers arise from an onrushing thrust toward domination and subjugation at many levels of our lives:

Today the most powerful institutions in human life are turning their power not toward the sacred service of life, but toward subjugating the Earth, all its life-forms, and most human beings.

  • They are changing the chemistry and biology of the planet in profoundly dangerous ways. The rate of species extinctions now rivals that of 65 million  years ago, long before the emergence of Homo “sapiens.”  The climate crisis is accelerating.
  • The distribution of power and wealth in the human race has become imbalanced in ways that are both unethical in themselves, and make it far harder to address the planetary crisis. (On the one hand, the desperately poor claw at every source of income even if that destroys basic resources and ecosystems; on the other, the ultra-wealthy and ultra-powerful resist all efforts to change their behavior even if their current pathway leads to disaster.)
  • The use of extreme violence -- torture, terrorism, war, and genocide — and the permanent expansion of military budgets has perverted human ingenuity and misapplied the world’s wealth toward death and destruction in many venues, not least in the global reach of US military power, even while there have been increasing efforts to bring nonviolent “people power” into play as an avenue toward change.  

What would it mean for us to transform these dangers into healing by drawing on the ancient, continuing, and contemporary wisdoms of Judaism to serve life, community, and love?

 1. Atzilut/ Spirit:

Deep changes in how we understand and speak to God, not only in theoretical theology but in experience of and relationship with God through prayer, meditation, and action.

Just as the Torah describes God at and after the Burning Bush  explaining that in a transformative time the old Name (“El Shaddai”) was no longer truthful or useful, so today the metaphors of God as “Adonai, Melekh, Lord, Ruler, Almighty” must give way to Names that beckon to a sense of Immanence: Eyn Ha’chayim, Ruach Ha’olam, Alz iz Gott, etc. 

2.  Briyyah/ Creative Intellect:

Transforming the belief that the tzelem elohim, the Image of God,  inheres in but is limited to the human race into a recognition of the Image of God in the planetary ecosystem, including all its myriad life-forms and elements (even what we might once have thought non-life aspects like oxygen and CO2, rocks and rivers, etc). 

Willingness to affirm and practice the midrashic method: that is, the importance of reconfiguring Torah in relationship with the past, not subservient to the past but not ignoring it either. Godwrestling.

Willingness to reintegrate religious and spiritual wisdom with the explorations of science and the arts.

Taking into account that many parts of the world-wide Jewish community today, and certainly most of the American Jewish community, are no longer victims, outsiders, pariahs, or poor –- but instead possess considerable privilege, power, and comfort compared with most of the human race.

So a Transformative Judaism must include thought and action on how a tradition formed by what might be called “Exodus values” — the memory of having been runaway slaves and the repeated experience of being pariahs —  can take responsibility, when the community has privilege, to use its power to embody the same “Exodus values”  as it upheld before. 

3. Yetzirah/ Relationship, emotion, ethics:  

Relationships with other communities must be transformed at several levels. All religious, spiritual, and ethical communities must affirm that in ALL of them is a great deal of truth-value, not merely accidental or occasional saintly figures; and that in all of them, including our own, are streaks of violence and blood. 

We must seek what, to use a Jewish metaphor, might be the tzitziot at the edges of our communities, fringes that mix our own particular cloth and God’s universal air to make threads of connection among us while affirming the distinctiveness of each of us.

To use a metaphor from biology, in each of our bodies is the central truth of body-wide DNA. It lives at the center of each cell; yet each organ is made up of cells that have folded this shared DNA into a path of life-giving difference. So unity is accomplished in two ways: at the heart of each cell is what unites all our organs, AND at the edges of each cell and between these different organs are connective threads of chemical and electric impulses that  give the body life.

Transformative Judaism must also affirm the intrinsic sacredness of every human being, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and the right of each to life and bodily integrity (as against torture, for example) and the right to create consensual emotional, familial,  and sexual connections with others. 

Communal celebration through ritual and ceremony of the many moments that are new steps of spiritual journey in each individual human life and in the life of the community as a whole must honor these relationships with the earth as a whole. 

In any exploration of a Transformative Judaism, even though the world-wide crisis is the focus there needs to be some special consideration to the place of the State of Israel in a Judaism that can address the world crisis creatively and effectively. 

To begin with, a transformative Judaism cannot take Israel as sole center and focus of its thought and action or the chief measure of its outlook on the world,  while setting the rest of the world crisis to one side.

At the same time, a transformative Judaism cannot ignore the importance of the State of Israel as an attempt and a claim to express Jewish values. 
The existence and behavior of a state that asserts its Jewishness and also exerts considerable power in the world raises serious questions – theological, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, ethical, political, practical —  that have to be addressed.

A transformative Judaism cannot accept and support without question actions of the Israeli government or treat the State of Israel as an idol, rather than an instrument of ultimate Jewish values like other institutional instruments.  

Transformative Judaism has a responsibility to critically address the policies and behavior of the Israeli government: Do they help heal the world in the midst of this planetary earthquake, or make things worse?  

In the light of a Judaism faithful to the values of Exodus even while the Jewish people holds considerable power, it seems especially necessary to address the policies of the Israeli  government and people —  toward the Palestinians within and beyond Israel’s borders, and toward the democratic vision put forth in the name of the Prophets of Israel in its Declaration of Independence.

On both counts, the present policies of the Israeli government contradict the values we understand as Torah. A transformative Judaism must challenge those behaviors. 

4. Asiyah/ Actuality, Action:  

Recognizing that both our ability to control more efficiently what is around us and our ability  to commune more lovingly with what is around us (“I-It and I-Thou,” “the workdays and Shabbat,”)  are dynamic aspects of the Divine life-process in biological evolution and in human history.

Recognizing that in our generation we are living in the midst of Control Run Amok and must redress the balance by creating new forms of planetary community.

Seeking to fuse the spiritual with the political, ritual with action, so that we strive to make every political act “praying with our legs” and to make each moment of prayer “subversive,” toppling pyramids of callousness and arrogance. (Both thoughts from A.J. Heschel.)

Many Jews who are committed to healing the wounded world have felt so excluded by much of “official” religious language and practice that they define themselves as “secular” and “irreligious.” We welcome all into the process of reshaping a religious and spiritual life that is intrinsically committed to healing and transformation, in which old Names and categories can be reshaped to express the unity of what we have mistakenly divided into the “spiritual” and the “political.”

 At the authentic heart of our festivals, of Shabbat, of many life-cycle markers, of many practices like that of sacred eating, sacred clothing, sacred housing -– are  moments that have been and can be direct confrontations with unjust and arrogant power. We seek to renew these moments in the spirit of nonviolent direct action

How can this vision be usefully embodied? We intend to —  

  • Send forth a statement, a manifesto,  that could help Jews in many streams of Jewish life guide,  shape, and dialogue about their actions.
  • Create a network of communication by Email, etc, as people committed to this vision meet practical questions in the world, share insights and spiritual concerns, generate new action based on this vision, etc.
  • Bring together a committed community of people devoted to carrying this process forward.
  • Gather in larger numbers perhaps every other year to assess our vision and the practice needed to embody it, as the world and the Jewish community continue to change.   

Just as the Rabbis taught that the disaster of Tisha B’Av became not only a cause for grief but also the seed of Messianic consciousness, so the disasters facing our world could become for us the seed of a new wave of commitment to planetary community.


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