Jewish Renewal: Toward a "New" American Judaism

By Magid, Shaul | Tikkun, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

Jewish Renewal: Toward a "New" American Judaism

Magid, Shaul, Tikkun

It is time to begin thinking about writing the history of Jewish Renewal in America. This is not because the Jewish Renewal movement is over. Quite the opposite: Jewish Renewal, just one generation old, is quickly becoming part of mainstream American Judaism and is now at a threshold moment.

Jewish Renewal is essentially an attempt to revive, recontextualize, and reform Jewish spiritualist movements that have most recently manifested in Hasidism but have roots in premodern Jewish pietism. It is a reformation of Jewish spiritual practice in the spirit of humanism and global consciousness. Most of what has been written about Jewish Renewal-by both insiders and observers-focuses on how it relates to developments within the parameters of Judaism.

People often ask, is Jewish Renewal suigeneris, is it a fad, is it "good for the Jews" or not? In my view, these are the wrong questions. Jewish Renewal is a theology that grows as much out of late twentieth-century America as out of Judaism. It is, perhaps, the second stage of an indigenous American Judaism born in America's transition from late pluralism to multiculturalism following the second World War. (While Jewish Renewal is developing at a fast pace in Israel, the Israeli context is quite different and deserves a separate study.) The right question to ask about Jewish Renewal is this: Will Jewish Renewal provide the beginnings of a new American Judaism that will change the face of Judaism in the twenty-first century? Or will it, like the Hasidic and Mussar movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fold back into the strong current of conventionality, serving at best as a chapter in the history of Judaism in America?

Chabad's Spiritual Outreach

The initial groundwork for Jewish Renewal arguably began in 1929 when the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880-1950) traveled to America. Schneersohn saw the dark cloud forming over Europe two decades before the rise of Nazi Germany. A virulent anti-Zionist, he believed America would be the next phase of the Diaspora and the future of Judaism. In America, he created what became the Chabad movement.

The vision of Judaism that dominated Chabad after the emergence of Schneersohn's son-in-law, Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, as the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe melded classical Hasidic spirituality with an attenuated accommodation to modernity. In the 1960s, American Chabad became the first large-scale American Jewish attempt to reach out to an unaffiliated, alienated, and spiritually charged youth culture. Hasidic nomenclature and metaphysics were employed to interpret contemporary events, while Hasidic spirituality was proffered as a "[ewish" alternative to the spiritual renaissance influenced by Eastern religions. Chabad emissaries envisioned Hasidism as the alternative to counter-cultural spirituality, at least for Jews.

This outreach was not necessarily intended to make more Chabadnikim (Chabad followers)-although this did occur-but rather to proffer a user-friendly and Americanized Jewish mysticism as a tool to foster Jewish traditionalism, distinctiveness, and identity. As much as reaching out to an alienated Jewish-American youth population, Chabad challenged the non-Orthodox influence on American Jews by arguing that Hasidically reconstructed Orthodoxy was the most, if not the only, authentic Judaism. Paradoxically, Chabad succeeded in large part because its particularistic, hegemonic vision of authentic Judaism fed off the multicultural spirit of the late twentieth-century American youth movement. In reaching out to alienated youth, Chabad emphasized the importance of claiming a particular identity within a multicultural environment.

The two figures perhaps most important to the founding of Jewish Renewal, Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Jewish Renewal's acknowledged architect) and Shlomo Carlebach (renowned singer, songwriter, and translator of Hasidism to counter-cultural America), began their religious lives at the forefront of this new Chabad project. …

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