Here’s the rub: even as the Jewish Renewal (JR) movement makes a good deal of intellectual and moral sense to a portion of our generation—the politics, the egalitarianism, and so forth—on an emotional, visceral level, the whole scene can just gross you out.
Say you attend a speech by the prominent JR rabbi Michael Lerner. Once you experience the way he whips up a rapt audience of trustafarians into an orgy of indignation (followed, like clockwork, by a soothing postcoital bath of self-satisfaction), then you actually start to agree with conservative critics who see the movement as a lingering expression of 1960s narcissism. After that kind of trauma, it’s hard to give the movement’s theology or rhetoric a fair shake.
That JR keeps kicking despite its weaknesses is perhaps a testament to its potential. I first encountered JR on a trip to Israel during a stay at Heritage House, the Jerusalem hostel Aish HaTorah uses as a Venus flytrap for disaffected young Jewish travellers. Someone had put The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz’s fantastic book about of a group of rabbis who travelled to India to meet the Dalai Lama, into the hostel's otherwise rigidly Orthodox bookshelf. One of the stars of the book was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder and leader of JR.
Schachter-Shalomi seemed everything Aish was not. His understanding of God was intellectually sophisticated, not archaic, and his Judaism inquisitive about other faiths rather than fearful of them. He relentlessly engaged with the non-Jewish world, rather than retreating from it or placating it.
So which is it? Is Jewish Renewal really the next step in spirituality, or just another expression of baby boomer narcissism? To demystify the issue we brought in Arthur Waskow, an influential author, rabbi, and political activist who is one of the leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement. For the next four days we’ll post his correspondence with Daniel Bronstein, a third-generation Reform rabbi and brainy young rationalist with little patience for airy-fairy posturing.
From: Arthur Waskow To: Dan Bronstein Subject: The arrogant and stupid will be scorched by the world
When Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and other Jewish teachers met with the Dalai Lama almost twenty years ago, they were all exemplifying renewal in their respective traditions. For centuries, the leaders of
Tibetan Buddhism had talked seriously only with other Buddhists. Most rabbis would have viewed Buddhists as idolaters bowing to the statue of a laughing fat man.
Only the impact of modernity on both Jews and Buddhists made it seem worthwhile to learn from each other.
This stems from an insight into history and God that the old paradigm of Rabbinic Judaism did not share: that other religious communities are also paths of truth.
Another insight of Jewish Renewal is that festivals need not be celebrated only as pleasant “private” ceremonies, but can also be political events. And political events need not be devoid of spirit, but can be filled with sacred energy, with awe for the Source of peace and justice.
Kabbalistic “oddball” rabbis in Safed 500 years ago created the Tu B’Shvat seder, celebrating the rebirth of trees in midwinter by eating a sacred meal of nuts and fruit. This meal did not even require the death of a carrot or a radish. It celebrated God as the Grower of the Tree of Life, reborn in every time of cold and dark.
Jewish Renewal rabbis in the 1990s turned this Tu B’Shvat seder into a framework for the protection for the earth by celebrating it where an American corporation was seeking to turn ancient redwood trees, 300 feet tall, into decorative panels for the party basements of the rich. We held the seder under a great grove of redwoods and then walked onto the corporation’s land—illegally—to plant redwood seedlings where it had cut down glorious trees.
The arrogant do not listen to the world around them, the world that greets invaders not with flowers but with improvised explosive devices; the world that greets despoilers of the forest with a climate crisis, the scorching of the planet.
Jewish Renewal affirms our own humility rather than the humiliation of others. It affirms that we share our lives with all the peoples and all the species and even the CO2 in the atmosphere as members of a grand community, part of the Breath of Life—YHWH.
From: Daniel Bronstein To: Arthur Waskow Subject: Before you think “outside the box,” find out what’s in the box
Much of your worldview is grounded in mysticism, while I’m more of a rationalist. You employ the language of the mystics, while I am more influenced by the Mussar movement and the language of Jewish humorists. And while I enjoy fruit and nuts as much as the “oddballs” of medieval Safed, I have never particularly cared for radish.
Your note sets inaccurate and superficial dichotomies; for example that there is an “old paradigm” of Rabbinic Judaism clashing with a “new paradigm” of “renewed” Judaism. As you know, Judaism has varied over time and place. To which time and place do you refer with the term “Rabbinic Judaism”? The Sages, the rabbis of Babylonian academies, and rabbis in 21st-century North America share many rituals and beliefs, but there are also many differences.
I am even less persuaded by the equation that old = bad and new = good. As someone who loves artifacts more than computer games, I’ve never had anything against “old” things. Moreover, centuries ago, Christians also bifurcated what they framed as God’s “Old Testament” from their “New” version. While you’re not saying that your branch of Judaism supersedes othe
r forms of Judaism as Christians argued in relation to Judaism, you do strike a triumphalist note.
I am a third-generation Reform rabbi. From the late 19th century through the beginning of the 20th, Reform Judaism was in a triumphalist mode. It took a lot learning, human history, and humility to realize that we did not have all the answers, nor would we alone be the salvation for Jews and humanity.
A few decades back Conservative Judaism went through its triumphalist phase, followed by various branches of so-called Orthodox Judaism. The triumphalism of Renewal is a bracha le'vatallah—a wasted effort—and merely repeats the sins of its predecessors.
You argue that Renewal possesses a new “insight” that other “religious communities are also paths of truth.” In fact, as early as 1885, a group of radical Reform rabbis publicly proclaimed that they recognized “in every religion an attempt to grasp the Infinite, and… the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man.”
Renewal is not the first expression of Judaism to be influenced or even shaped by other cultures and religious traditions, nor will it be the last.
Our willingness to learn from other religious traditions does not mean we should conflate Judaism with other religious systems. Religious differences are not simply accidents of history, but reflect genuinely different worldviews and different conceptions of human life and the Divine.
Neither one of us truly knows whether rabbinic sages would have viewed Tibetan Buddhism as idolatrous or seen in it some sort of value. I know that Jews, Buddhists, and others often enjoy being with laughing
fat men, and I can think of more than a few fat Jewish men who even now entertain society as a whole. Even so, the melting pot of syncretism can easily lead to an impoverished understanding of others’ beliefs, as well as of one’s own.
What does this have to do with the ostensible narcissism of the baby boomers? Although it is dangerous to generalize, the truth is that from the 1960s through the present the boomer generation has viewed itself as the first to question established ideas in theology, politics, or sexuality.
Narcissism has many guises, and one of the most tiresome is arrogance, a trait you properly decry in your note. There is arrogance in believing that “new” is always “improved,” that one is always more intelligent or on a higher moral level than one’s elders or ancestors. And this is the arrogance that dismisses tradition without even understanding it, and replaces it with fads.
Arrogance, presumption, and narcissism will not lead to an enduring Judaism. Even when we choose to dispense with a particular tradition, the process of religious reevaluation must be grounded in knowledge of what is being rejected. Before one can “think outside the box,” you need to know the contents of the box.
Respectfully Yours, in Peace,