Jewish Renewal (Hebrew: התחדשות יהודית) (Yiddish: ייִדיש רענעוואַל), is a recent movement in Judaism which endeavors to reinvigorate modern Judaism with Kabbalistic, Hasidic, musical and meditative practices. It is distinct from the Baal Teshuva movement of return to Orthodox Judaism.
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.”
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. About the movement, Jewish Renewal rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes:
- Renewal is an attitude, not a denomination; adherents of Renewal come from all of the branches of Judaism. Renewal places emphasis on direct spiritual experience, and values accessibility over insularity…Renewal is a grassroots, transdenominational approach to Judaism which seeks to revitalize Judaism by drawing on the immanence-consciousness of feminism, the joy of Hasidism, the informed do-it-yourself spirit of the havurah movement, and the accumulated wisdom of centuries of tradition. We strive to imbue Judaism with an ecumenical, egalitarian, and post-triumphalist sensibility; to create innovative, accessible, and welcoming worship; to shape halakhah (Jewish law) into a living way of walking righteously; and to deepen the ongoing, joyful, and fundamental connection with God that’s at the heart of Jewish practice.
Jewish Renewal rabbi Barbara Thiede writes:
- Jewish Renewal will joyfully embrace music, meditation, chant, yoga, and storytelling in the practice of Judaism. Jewish Renewal reads Torah as our deepest challenge and our most precious gift… Jewish Renewal is about learning the why and not just the how. It’s about plumbing the very depths of why so that we can hear our private and godly voices of truth… Ideas, texts, tradition – Jewish understanding laced together in a sweet web of life so clearly that I could unpack the teaching as easily as I could unzip a boot.
The movement’s most prominent leader is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Other leaders, teachers and authors associated with Jewish Renewal include Rabbis Arthur Waskow, Michael Lerner, Rachel Barenblat, Tirzah Firestone, Phyllis Berman, Shefa Gold, David Ingber, and Marcia Prager.
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.
In an interview (published in Zeek in 2012), scholar and folklorist Chava Weissler—who has been a “participant-observer” in both the Havurah movement and in Jewish Renewal—articulated her sense of the differences between Jewish Renewal and the Havurah movement as it evolved:
- CW: I often use the following metaphor: the Havurah movement represents the Misnagdim and the Renewal movement the Hasidim of the Jewish counter-culture. The style of the Havurah movement is more cognitive, and the style of Renewal is more expressive and devotional. Also, the Havurah movement has a deep aversion to the “rebbe” model, while the Renewal movement has seen it as a way into a heightened spirituality.
- ZEEK: The Hasidim/Misnagdim analogy is a fascinating one, though I can see how some folks in the Havurah movement might have bones to pick there.
- CW: Especially because we saw ourselves as reinstating Hasidism, or parts of it. Some years ago, a well-known Renewal teacher taught at the Havurah Institute. I asked him how he felt it compared to the Kallah and Renewal. And he said, ‘the havurah movement is so unspiritual, it really bothered me… when they have a study class, they go in, open the text, study, close the text and you’re done. When I teach a class, we sit in silence, we open our hearts to the text, we sing a niggun, we study the text, we process what’s happened to us, then we sing another niggun and sit in silence again to receive what we’ve received.’
- My havurah friends were outraged that he would say the Havurah movement isn’t spiritual! But it’s a different model of spirituality and also of study…
Bnai Or / Pnai Or
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.
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.
Jewish Renewal is “part of the burgeoning world of transdenominational Judaism — the growing number of synagogues, rabbis and prayer groups that eschew affiliation with a Jewish stream.”.
Rabbi Marcia Prager writes:
- Jewish Renewal is a “movement” in the sense of a wave in motion, a grassroots effort to discover the modern meaning of Judaism as a spiritual practice. Jewish-renewalists see “renewal” as a process reaching beyond denominational boundaries and institutional structures, more similar to the multi-centered civil rights or women’s movements than to contemporary denominations.
Some examples of Jewish Renewal-affiliated communities can be found at Beyt Tikkun in San Francisco, founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner in 1996; Bnai Or in Boston, founded by Lev Friedman and at one time led by Rabbi Daniel Siegel and Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel; and Pnai Or in Philadelphia, founded by Reb Zalman in the early 1980s and now led by Rabbi Marcia Prager.
Criticism and response
Some rabbis trained elsewhere have expressed a negative view of Jewish Renewal clergy:
- “There is a sense that what is happening in that community is a watering down of tradition to meet individual needs, that it is market-driven,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the 1,500 member Conservative-movement Rabbinical Assembly. “It’s viewed with very mixed to negative reviews.”
- “Quickie ordinations, ordinations done without people going through an in-depth period of study and learning, weaken the rabbinate and weaken Jewish life,” said Rabbi Meyers.
The movement’s adherents counter that these criticisms reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish Renewal and its ordination programs, and note that ALEPH musmachim are accepted by the National Council of Seminaries which includes the heads of all major non-Orthodox North American Rabbinical and Cantorial Training programs.
Since 1975, more than 130 Jewish Renewal spiritual leaders have been ordained. (As of 2007 the figure was 98 rabbis, three cantors and 11 rabbinic pastors.) Most are “graduates of the ALEPH rabbinic program, created in the late 1990s to bring greater consistency to the course of study and relieve the pressure on Schachter-Shalomi, who had been personally overseeing each student’s progress.”
The ALEPH program is unique among seminaries because it is low-residency. Each student works with a mentoring committee to develop their own path through the (currently) 60 course minimum required for smicha (ordination.) Each student’s program of study may include
- classes at other seminaries, synagogues and universities, independent reading and traditional hevruta, or Torah study in pairs, as well as teleconference courses led by ALEPH teachers.
- In addition to Hebrew, Jewish text, history and philosophy, and professional development courses, Renewal students study Chasidic literature and philosophy, meditation and prayer, and are each assigned a mashpia, or mentor, who guides their personal religious journey. The mashpia system is a staple in the Chasidic world.
While other seminaries offer electives in spiritual direction (75 percent of students at the Reconstructionist rabbinical college pursue it each year), only ALEPH requires it.
- “They have to know Bible and Talmud, of course, but we have made spiritual direction the core,” said Rabbi Victor Gross, a former Conservative rabbi who is now on Aleph’s central teaching committee.
ALEPH’s ordination programs include rabbinic, cantorial, rabbinic pastor and hashpa’ah. As of 2012, ALEPH is the only seminary which offers training toward ordination as a rabbinic pastor.
New Age Judaism?
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. Jewish Renewal is sometimes criticized as New Age, touchy-feely and stuck in the 1960s.
The ALEPH website offers the following response:
- Jewish Renewal is sometimes referred to as “New Age” by people who do not know that meditation, dance, chant, and mysticism have been present in Judaism throughout the ages and not, as some mistakenly believe, patched on to Judaism from other cultures or made up out of whole cloth. Sadly, some of our authentic, time-honored beliefs and practices have been lost to assimilation, leaving many contemporary Jews largely unaware of them. This is a major reason why so many spiritually sensitive Jews have sought spiritual expression in other faith traditions. It is an important part of ALEPH’s mission to make the “hidden” treasures of Judaism known and accessible to these seekers.
Jewish Renewal’s adherents typically praise Renewal’s spiritual relevance and power:
- “When I found Jewish Renewal, it was a wake-up call. It showed me that Judaism can be inspiring and spiritual, rather than irrelevant.”
Many Jewish Renewal techniques, ideas, and practices have become mainstream and are now familiar to Jews across the denominations:
- Three decades after Reb Zalman began reaching out to disenfranchised Jews with a hands-on, mystically inflected, radically egalitarian, liturgically inventive, neo-chasidic approach, many of the techniques he pioneered–from meditation to describing God in new terms–are widely employed in mainstream settings.
Despite the prevalence of Renewal practices, ideas, and teachings across the denominational spectrum, Jewish Renewal is not always known or credited with having originated these teachings and ideas.
- “Our influence is penetrating much deeper into the mainstream, but without acknowledgement,” said Rabbi Daniel Siegel. “There is still a lot of ignorance and prejudice toward us in other movements.”
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.