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The term Jewish Renewal describes "a set of practices within Judaism that attempt to reinvigorate what it views as a moribund and uninspiring Judaism with mystical, Hasidic, musical and meditative practices drawn from a variety of traditional and untraditional, Jewish and other, sources. In this sense, Jewish renewal is an approach to Judaism that can be found within segments of any of the Jewish denominations."[cite this quote]
The term also refers to an emerging Jewish movement, the Jewish Renewal movement, which describes itself as "a worldwide, transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions." The Jewish Renewal movement incorporates social views such as feminism, environmentalism and pacifism.
Jewish Renewal brings kabbalistic and Hasidic theory and practice into a non-Orthodox, egalitarian framework, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as neo-Hasidism. Like Hasidic Jews, Renewal Jews often add to traditional worship ecstatic practices such as meditation, chant and dance. In augmenting Jewish ritual, some Renewal Jews borrow freely and openly from Buddhism, Sufism and other faiths.
Jewish Renewal, in its most general sense, has its origins in the North American Jewish counter-cultural trends of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, groups of young rabbis, academics and political activists founded experimental chavurot (singular: chavurah) or "fellowships" for prayer and study, in reaction to what they perceived as an over-institutionalized and unspiritual North American Jewish establishment.
Initially the main inspiration was the pietistic fellowships of the Pharisees and other ancient Jewish sects.
Also initially, some of these groups, like the Boston-area Havurat Shalom attempted to function as full-fledged communes after the model of their secular counterparts. Others formed as communities within the urban or suburban Jewish establishment. Founders of the havurot included the liberal political activist Arthur Waskow, Michael Strassfeld (who later became rabbi for a Conservative congregation and then moved on to serve a major Reconstructionist congregation), and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Although the leadership and ritual privileges were initially men-only, as in Orthodox Jewish practice, the "second wave" of American feminism soon led to the full integration of women in these communities.
Apart from some tentative articles in Response and other Jewish student magazines, the early havurot attracted little attention in the wider North American Jewish community. Then, in 1973, Michael and Sharon Strassfeld released The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit. Patterned after the recently-published counter-culture Whole Earth Catalog, the book served both as a basic reference on Judaism and American Jewish life, as well as a playful compendium of Jewish crafts, recipes, meditational practices, and political action ideas, all aimed at disaffected young Jewish adults. The Jewish Catalog became one of the best-selling books in American Jewish history to that date and spawned two sequels. A much more widespread havurah movement soon emerged, including self-governing havurot within Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues.
By 1980 an increasing number of havurot had moved away from strictly traditional Jewish worship practices, as members added English readings and chants, poetry from other spiritual traditions, percussion instruments, and overall a less formal approach to worship.
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Hasidic-trained rabbi ordained in the Lubavitch movement, broke with Orthodox Judaism beginning in the 1960s, and founded his own organization, The B'nai Or Religious Fellowship, which he described in an article entitled "Toward an Order of B'nai Or." The name "B'nai Or" means "sons" or "children" of light, and was taken from the Dead Sea Scrolls material, where the "sons of light" battle the "sons of darkness." Schachter-Shalomi envisioned B'nai Or as a semi-monastic ashram-type community, based upon the various communal models prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. This community never materialized as he envisioned it, but B'nai Or did produce a number of important leaders in the Renewal movement. It also produced the B'nai Or Newsletter, a quarterly magazine that presented articles on Jewish mysticism, Hasidic stories and Schachter-Shalomi's philosophy. The masthead of this publication read: "B'nai Or is a Jewish Fellowship established for the service of G-d [sic] through prayer, Torah, celebration, meditation, tradition, and mysticism. We serve as a center to facilitate people in the pursuit of Judaism as a spiritual way of life."
Schachter-Shalomi was strongly influenced by Sufism (Sufi Islam) and Buddhism, even translating some of the prayers into Hebrew. He also focused more on urban sustainable living than rural culture, and suggested for instance interconnected basements of houses in urban neighborhoods that would create collective space (especially for holidays), while providing the level of privacy secular life had encouraged. Some of these ideas have influenced urban economics.
In 1985, after the first national Kallah (conference) gathering in Radnor, Pennsylvania, the name was changed from B'nai Or to P'nai Or ("Faces of Light") to reflect the more egalitarian perspective of the rising feminist movement. Together with such colleagues as Arthur Waskow, Schachter-Shalomi broadened the focus of his organization. In 1993 it merged with The Shalom Center, founded by Rabbi Waskow, to become ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, which served as a loose umbrella for like-minded havurot. However, some of the more Orthodox members of the old B'nai Or were not happy with these radical changes, and left the Renewal movement at this time. This resulted in major leadership changes, with Waskow taking an increasingly important role.
In 1979, Waskow had founded a magazine called Menorah, which explored and encouraged many creative ritual and social issues from a Jewish perspective. It was in this publication that Waskow coined the term "Jewish Renewal." In 1986, Menorah merged with The B'nai Or Newsletter to become New Menorah, now available online through ALEPH. The new version of the publication addressed Jewish feminism, the nuclear arms race, new forms of prayer, social justice, etc. Several of the early New Menorah issues explored gay rights, and became an important catalyst for opening this discussion in more mainstream synagogues.
The greater cohesion and focus created by B'nai Or/ALEPH and its magazine led gradually to the spread of Jewish Renewal throughout much of the United States and, by the close of the century, to the establishment of communities in Canada, Latin America, Europe and Israel. By this time, the beginnings of institutionalization were in place, in the form of the administrative ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the rabbinical association OHaLaH, and an increasingly formalized rabbinic ordination program that today is accepted by the National Council of Seminaries which includes the heads of all major non-Orthodox North American Rabbinical and Cantorial Training programs.
Renewal and the contemporary Jewish community
Statistics on the number of Jews who identify themselves as "Renewal" are not readily available. Signs of Renewal influence can be found elsewhere; it is not uncommon for congregations not associated with the Renewal movement to feature workshops on Jewish meditation and various Judaized forms of yoga. Many melodies and liturgical innovations are also shared among the Reform, Renewal, and Reconstructionist movements. Even rabbis trained by one of these movements have begun to serve congregations with other affiliations. An example of a Jewish Renewal community can be found at Beyt Tikkun in San Francisco, founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner in 1996.
Criticism and response
Critics of Jewish Renewal claim that the movement emphasizes individual spiritual experience and subjective opinion over communal norms and Jewish textual literacy; the above-mentioned formalization of the ALEPH ordination programs may be a response to such criticism. Some critics within the Jewish community have dismissed Jewish Renewal as "New Age Judaism." Others reply that the criticism is overblown and that the community values a range of practices and that textual literacy is a priority within the movement as a whole.
Some find fault with what they consider to be excessive borrowing from non-Jewish traditions. They hold that just as Jews cannot adopt Christian beliefs and practices and still consider themselves to be followers of Judaism, one cannot adopt Buddhist, Sufi, and polytheistic beliefs and practices and still consider themselves to be part of Judaism.
Like all religious movements, the movement faces challenges today. Some within the Renewal community maintain that the movement has been more successful in providing occasional ecstatic "peak experiences" at worship services and spiritual retreats than in inculcating a daily discipline of religious practice. Others have observed a tension within the community between those who prefer to focus on liberal social activism on American, Middle East and global issues; and those who favor an emphasis on meditation, text study and worship. These, together with the challenge of training and recruiting future generations of leaders, are among the issues facing Jewish Renewal today.
- Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (1994)
- Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Paradigm Shift: From the Jewish Renewal Teachings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1993)