What is Jewish Renewal? A definition-in-process.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

A Definition-in-process

By Arthur Waskow

The historical origins of Jewish renewal lie in the intertwining of at least four strands of Jewish rethinking that deeply affected many North American Jews in the 1960s and 1970s:

a) the neo-Hassidism of Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Shlomo Carlebach, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi;

b) the urge to create more hands-on, participatory, and intimate forms of Jewish community that in the period from 1967 to 1972 sparked the emergence of a number of havurot and similar minyanim that became models for this process;

c) the closely connected urge toward social and racial justice and toward peace that infused many of these havurot and their members with a social as well as communal vision; and

d) the emergence not only of a movement for equality of women and men in existing Jewish life but more deeply for their equality in shaping what Judaism is to become, including the insights of feminist Judaism.

During the 1980s and 1990s, two other strands became increasingly important parts of the weave of Jewish renewal:

e) the knowledge and practice of forms of meditation used in Eastern spiritual traditions, and the rediscovery of meditative traditions in Judaism; and

f) the insights of a spiritually-rooted caring for the endangered web of life on this planet.

As this history unfolded, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal came into existence (through the merger in 1993 of two considerably older networks — the P'nai Or Religious Fellowship and The Shalom Center) as the one national/ international group with the sole purpose of encouragement, development, and outreach focused on Jewish renewal.

ALEPH publishes a quarterly journal, New Menorah; initiated the Elat Chayyim retreat center and the Spiritual Eldering Institute (which are now independent); sponsors a biennial Kallah; includes a Network of Jewish Renewal Communities with about 50 local havurah and synagogue affiliates; and sponsors The Shalom Center, the Jewish Renewal Life Center (a teaching center), and a process for ordination of rabbis.

Although ALEPH and most other Jewish-renewal people see the nurturing of exploratory institutions as one necessary aspect of the deepening and growing of Jewish renewal, they also see Jewish renewal as a process reaching beyond all denominational boundaries and institutional structures, much like the multi-centered civil-rights movement of the last generation or like the women's movement.

This process is going on in Jewish music, liturgy, midrash, art, education, politics, etc etc etc — in synagogues as well as havurot, in "secular" or communal settings and even in ashrams and on Broadway.

At the heart of JEWISH RENEWAL is a renewed encounter between God and the Jewish people, and an understanding of Jewish history as a series of renewed encounters with God. These encounters have followed painful crises during which God has been eclipsed; yet each crisis has resulted in the emergence of a more or less deeply transformed, renewed, and joyful version of Judaism.

In our generation, Jewish renewal is the increasingly joyful, renewing, and transforming response of Jews to the crisis of the Holocaust and the triumph of Modernity in both its creative and destructive aspects.

Through prayer, study, and action, Jewish renewal seeks —

  • to nurture the rebbe-spark (that is, the creative energy and leadership that comes from direct contact with the Divine) in everyone, without fearing its emergence in different ways and degrees at different moments in different people;
  • to nurture communities that dance and wrestle with God, that are intimate, participatory, and egalitarian, and that create a "field of rebbetude" — shared openness to spiritual experience;
  • and to assist the spiritual growth and healing of individuals, communities, whole societies, and the planet.

JEWISH RENEWAL IS ROOTED IN A MIDRASHIC RESPONSE TO TORAH, DRAWING ON ANCIENT WISDOM WITHOUT GETTING STUCK IN IT — particularly on the wisdom of Kabbalah and Hassidism as well as the Prophets and Rabbis, infusing these with the insights of contemporary ecology, feminism, and participatory democracy.

Central to the emerging vocabulary of many (but not all) participants in Jewish renewal has been a renewed understanding of the Kabbalistic/Hassidic teachings of the Four Worlds of Atzilut (Being, Spirit), Briyyah (Knowing, Intellect), Yetzirah (Relating, Emotion), and Asiyah (Doing, Action), and of the S'phirot — all understood not only as aspects of the Divine but also as aspects of "embodied" human expression.

In Jewish renewal,

  • women and men are fully equal & participatory in shaping the future of Judaism;
  • those who have often been marginalized in Jewish life (such as gay men and lesbians, converts, those who are new to the study of Torah and the process of prayer) are welcomed and honored;
  • there is respect for and often learning from other spiritual paths (e.g. Buddhism, Sufism, etc),
  • people seek to heal the earth and society;
  • chant, meditation, dance, the graphic arts, and "drushodrama" are encouraged alongside more widely known forms of davvening and learning and daily practice as ways of connecting with God & Torah;
  • people desire to **embody** wisdom rather than etherealizing or intellectualizing it;
  • people sense God as suffusing the world with Divinity.

Jewish renewal is "maximalist" about Judaism — that is, applies Judaism in many down-to-earth life-dimensions (food, money, sex, health, politics, etc.) as well as to prayer, festivals, and Torah-study.

Many Jewish-renewal participants think we are entering/ creating a profoundly different period of Jewish life, as different from Rabbinic Judaism as Rabbinic Judaism was/ is from Biblical Judaism. This view is based on the sense that Modernity has challenged Rabbinic Judaism as profoundly as Hellenism challenged Biblical Judaism, and that this challenge demands as profound a transformative response.

Indeed, some feel that this challenge is not a mere accident of history but part of the emerging presence of the Divine in the universe. For this reason, many practitioners of Jewish renewal sense that God is calling on us to move away from old ways of connecting with God as King and Judge, toward metaphors that are much more intimate — Breath of Life, for example — and toward a whole new paradigm of Jewish life in all its dimensions:

  • New words of prayer, and more embodied forms of prayer;
  • New ethics for sexuality;
  • New "eco-kosher" practices to help heal the wounded earth;
  • New efforts toward mutual respect between the Jewish people and other peoples and paths, in the world at large and in the Land of Israel;
  • New efforts to carry Jewish wisdom into the public sphere.

Both Jewish renewal and what might be called "Jewish restoration" (the baal tshuvah movement, etc.) are critical of many aspects of Modernity — particularly the Modern urge to constrict religious expression, to shatter communities, and to conquer the earth.

Jewish renewal differs from "Jewish restoration" in trying to absorb into Torah the Divine truths embodied in some aspects of Modernity — such as the equality of women and a peaceful contact with Buddhism, feminist spirituality, and eco-philosophy — and go forward, rather than reject as much as possible of Modernity and return to the past.

Several important resources:

Two major Websites with rich information about Jewish renewal:

Shalom Center Website www.theshalomcenter.org
ALEPH Website www.aleph.org

Some books and some authors, that I suggest for Jewish-renewal reading:

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's Paradigm Shift (Jason Aronson), a collection of crucial essays on crossing the river into a new form of Judaism for the 21st century and far beyond. Spiritual Intimacy, on the relationship between psychotherapy and the Hassidic encounter between Rebbe and Hassid; and From Aging to Sage-ing on the spiritual growth of elders, and how they can share their wisdom. Jonathan Omer-Man and Shohama Wiener, eds, Worlds of Jewish Prayer & The 58th Century (Jason Aronson). Both collections of essays by students of Reb Zalman, pointing new directions in the "new paradigm" of Judaism.

Michael Lerner's Jewish Renewal (Putnam), psychologically rooted analysis of the God of love and why the Bible sometimes portrays God as cruel. The book moves into a political analysis of modern malaise and how to draw on religious spiritual practice to heal society.

Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai (Harper San Francisco), Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism (Jewish Publication Society).

These two are the most important guides toward a theory and practice of feminist Judaism.

Arthur Waskow's works of "feminist hasidism," integrating theory/ theology with practice in the world: Especially Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights, Woodstock, Vt) on the changing faces of Torah as renewal communities wrestle and dance with it. Also Down-to-Earth Judaism (Morrow), Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon), Trees, Earth, & Torah (Jewish Publ. Soc.), Torah of the Earth (Jewish Lights), and Waskow & Phyllis Berman, A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (Farrar Straus & Giroux, forthcoming).

Three books on the movement for Jewish renewal:

Rodger Kamenetz's Stalking Elijah and The Jew in the Lotus (both, Harper San Francisco). The first, the story of the more mystical and meditative aspects of Jewish renewal; the second, the story of the meeting between Rabbis & the Dalai Lama and its deeper meaning and results.

Judy Petsonk's Taking Judaism Personally (Free Press); story of her life-journey into jewish renewal.

And two books of midrashic fiction:

Marge Piercy's He She and It (Knopf), a novel set in mid-21st century, with a vision of a free Jewish-renewal community, free humans and a free android/golem, in a sea of corporate feudalism.

Phyllis Berman & Arthur Waskow, Tales of Tikkun (Jason Aronson).

Writings (for a much fuller book list, see my essay, READER'S GUIDE TO JEWISH RENEWAL & TIKKUN OLAM ) by Arthur Green, Jeffrey Dekro, Rami Shapiro, David Cooper, Larry Kushner, Shefa Gold, Peter Pitzele, Liz Koltun, Rebecca Alpert, Susannah Heschel, Debra Orenstein, Ellen Umansky, David Cooper, Christi Balka & Andy Rose, Anne Brener, Nan Fink, Simcha Raphael, Ari Elon, Ellen Frankel, Naomi Hyman, among many others.

Audiotapes and videotapes by Shefa Gold, Marcia Prager, Reb Zalman, Yaakov Gabriel, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, David Shneyer, Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin, Atzilut, Rayzel Raphael, Miraj, David & Shoshana Cooper, and Aryeh Hirschfield, among others.

The journals New Menorah, Tikkun, Lilith, Bridges, Kerem, Pumbedissa.

Jewish and Interfaith Topics: