Humanistic Judaism Journal, “Challenge of Jewish Renewal” Autumn 1998
A new religious movement is emerging in the Jewish world. It has its roots in the explosion of interest in Eastern religion that followed the Vietnam War. Thousands of Western Jews fell in love with the mystical insights and practices of Hinduism and Buddhism. Reincarnation became Jewish. So did meditation, yoga, and mind power healing. New Age religion was born, and a high percentage of its devotees were Jews.
Why did the alumni of the New Left turn in droves to transcendental meditation and Zen philosophy? Why did so many Jewish youth find a religious home with the Maharishi and the Maharashi? The transformation puzzled experts. Was there a spiritual vacuum in Jewish life that conventional Judaism could not fill? Was the romantic utopianism of the New Left simply a prelude to the romantic vision of a universe infused with personal immortality and angelic power?
Rabbis and Jewish community leaders became alarmed. While most New Age devotees did not repudiate their Jewish connection and Jewish identity, their flirtation with other religions frightened the establishment. Jewish jokes mirrored this anxiety. Jewish mothers were climbing mountains in Tibet to confront the guru and say, “Melvin, come home.”
It was only a matter of time before the Jewish world learned to accommodate what it could not dismiss. If New Age religion was not exactly Rabbinic Judaism, then Rabbinic Judaism could be reinterpreted to mean New Age religion. With a little creative experimentation, anything was possible.
The surge of Eastern mysticism coincided with a Hasidic revival. The new Hasidim also were into the wonders of spirituality. However, in Hasidism, spirituality was subordinate to issues of Jewish identity, Jewish survival, Jewish ritual, and Jewish segregation. The Kabbalah as a mystical, far-out interpretation of Torah text was encased in a box of Orthodox conformity.
Jewish New Age religion was as comfortable with Buddhist sutras as it was with kabbalistic numerology. It was an open and free exploration by Jews who wanted to be open and free. The authoritarianism of Hasidism was repugnant to these searchers for spiritual meaning. The New Age style was individualistic and egalitarian. Every devotee had to discover his or her own truth. The philosophic mantra of the new spirituality was the inner wisdom that lay within every human being. Each New Ager picked from the mystic smorgasbord what was to her or his taste. Out of such beginnings it was not easy to organize a movement.
During the past ten years, Jewish Renewal has arisen from this chaos of personal exploration, and charismatic leaders such as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Waskow, and Michael Lerner have given it a Jewish focus. Communities of Jews eager for spiritual renewal, such as P’nai Or in Philadelphia, emerged from the amorphous mass of seekers. Lerner’s journal Tikkun became the voice of the new movement. Schachter-Shalomi and others created a seminary to train rabbis for Renewal groups. Dozens of rabbis in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements offered their support and enthusiasm to these organizing efforts. Renewal congregations with Renewal rabbis began popping up all over North America. Even the Reconstructionist seminary, at one time a bastion of Kaplanian rationality, succumbed to the invasion of Renewal ideology.
The most interesting phenomenon is occurring in Israel. Hundreds of secular Israelis, turned off by Orthodoxy, bored by Conservatism and Reform, and finding no personal meaning in Zionist nationalism, have been making pilgrimages to India. In love with gurus and ashrams, they have returned to Israel to organize spirituality centers and communities that do Eastern religion in Hebrew. The major rival to Orthodoxy in Israel today is neither Reform nor Conservatism (which are viewed as bland North America imports); it is “Israeli Renewal.”
What does this all mean?
It means that there are large numbers of Jews who are attracted to Eastern religion and who, for reasons of either guilt or ethnic attachment, want to clothe these ideas and experiences in Jewish symbols.
It means that the quest for magic power is a strong human need, especially for people who feel overwhelmed by the stresses of modern urban society.
It means that the liberal Jewish establishment, whether Reform or Reconstructionist, will try to appropriate the new spiritual fervor for its own movements, especially because their philosophic messages provide very little magic power.
It means that there are now two rival radical “religions” in the Jewish world, one mystical and the other rational. Both oppose authoritarianism. But their messages are not the same.
It means that Humanistic Judaism not only confronts the traditional opposition of the old Orthodoxy and its pale reflections in Conservatism and Reform. It especially confronts the rising tide of freewheeling spirituality in the Renewal movement.
How do we respond?
We are not opportunists. We do not appropriate popular ideas we do not believe in because they are marketable and temporarily attractive.
We make a distinction between naturalistic spirituality, which celebrates the beauties of life, and mystical spirituality, which yearns for the magic power of instant healing and eternal bliss.
We recognize that reincarnation, angels, and numerology are just as irrational as the resurrection of the dead.
We refuse to accept the accusation that rationality is cold and unromantic. Facing the world realistically requires passion and determination. It also makes us romantic about beauty in a world where so much ugliness prevails. Love and friendship are beautiful and magical, but they do not confer magic power. They are rooted in the natural power of the human condition.
We acknowledge that we have a unique role to play in a Jewish world consumed by irrationality. The life of courage is a powerful Jewish message for those who are strong enough to accept it.
In the years to come, Jewish Renewal will be an important force in the Jewish world for us to dialogue with. We have to enter into the conversation with a clear sense of who we are.