Jewish Renewal Movement

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JEWISH RENEWAL MOVEMENT . The Jewish Renewal movement is one of the most recent and creative expressions of Judaism's continued attempt to mold itself to the contours of modernity. It is, in many respects, an indigenous American religious movement but is expanding into a global Jewish phenomenon. This multifaceted development in contemporary Judaism is hard to categorize. It has the audacity of a reformation, the passion of a revival, and the optimism of a renaissance. Its critique and reconstruction of Judaism not only occupies the realm of ideas but reaches down to the organizational structure of Judaism in the Diaspora.

For most of the twentieth century Judaism in America developed along denominational lines. Each denomination has its own autonomy, its own rabbinical academies, its own fund-raising structure. The separation of church and state in America has enabled American Judaism to develop its own institutional and spiritual apparatus without any serious threat of one community dominating another. Renewal emerged from this denominational bedrock but has challenged the denominational structure. It is, perhaps, the prelude to, or first-fruits of, a postdenominational Judaism in America, growing out of the dissatisfaction many Jews have with the present ideological and practical structure of Judaism in the Diaspora, in North America in particular.


There are many factors that contribute to the breakdown or transformation of denominational Judaism in America and the emergence of a new approach to religion and culture. Three of the most prominent direct factors are the maturation of American Jews who did not experience firsthand the devastation of European Jewry in the Holocaust; the rise of a generation of Jews (many second generation Americans) who were dissatisfied with the materialism and spiritual vacuity of mid- to late-twentieth-century American Jewish life; and the shock-waves of the American counterculture, including the importation of Eastern religions to the American continent. More specifically, it is possible to pinpoint the beginning of Jewish Renewal in one seemingly benign event.

In 1948 the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Schneersohn (d. 1950), decided to inaugurate the missionary wing of his movement by sending emissaries to college campuses. He asked two young disciples, Zalman Schachter (later Schachter-Shalomi, b. 1924) and Shlomo Carlebach (19241994), to attend a anukkah party at Brandeis University (which opened its door that year) in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. Zalman and Shlomo (who prefer to be called by their first names) took various Hasidic books, tapes, and religious paraphernalia and attended the party intending to spread the message of traditional Judaism. Both were raised in Europe, studied there, and were refugees from the war, Schlomo escaping before the war and Zalman afterward. What they experienced that winter night at Brandeis University was the extent to which young American Jews lived in an intellectual universe that left no room for tradition the way they envisioned it. They both understood the extent to which unadulterated Hasidism simply could not be sold to an American audience raised on liberal democratic ideals. Zalman and Shlomo did different things with that realization, both of which contributed to Jewish Renewal, but the spark of what would become a new Jewish movement was ignited that evening. Zalman's meditation on those and other events was published as Fragments of a Future Scroll in 1975.

The next significant manifestations of nascent Jewish Renewal occurred on the two coasts of the American continent, in San Francisco and Boston, the former during the turbulent years of the late 1960s, the latter during its aftermath in the early 1970s. Shlomo opened what was known as the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco in the late 1960s, what was, in effect, an early Chabad Housea small house, usually rented, run by members of the Chabad Hasidic sect that functioned as a synagogue, outreach and drop-in center, and a gathering place for Jews to express their Jewishness in whatever way felt comfortable. During the 1960s its purpose was often to provide a spiritual and counter-cultural Jewish alternative to compete with the myriad spiritualities that were emerging in the Bay Area after the Summer of Love in 1967.

In the early 1970s, Arthur Green, Zalman, and others founded Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Massachusetts, an egalitarian, experimental Jewish community devoted to study, prayer, and the exploration of Jewish spirituality. Zalman taught and served as Jewish chaplain for numerous years at the University of Winnipeg, and eventually settled in Philadelphia, founding a community called Bnei ʿOr (Sons of Light). Under the influence of feminism and his commitment to the egalitarian spirit it espoused, he changed its named to Pnei ʿOr (Faces of Light). This community and its numerous branches around the United States are often viewed as the first organized communities of the Jewish Renewal movement. Its experimental Judaism extended far beyond its Hasidic origins and beyond even the more restrained, albeit provocative, communities of Havurat Shalom (which is still operating) and the House of Love and Prayer (which disbanded in 1977; some of its members moved to a small community in Israel known as Moshav Me'or Modiim).

The Jewish Renewal movement has an umbrella organization called ALEPH, Alliance for Jewish Renewal, which has centers worldwide, training rabbis and spiritual leaders to serve in its own synagogues and the synagogues of other Jewish denominations. Jewish Renewal activities include an annual Kallah, a kind of Renewal pilgrimage where workshops, seminars, and communal celebrations are held in a rural setting. The Renewal centers are typical of a progressive experimental movement. They are strongest in places like Berkeley and San Francisco; Boulder, Colorado; New Mexico; Boston; New York; Philadelphia; and Los Angeles. Other centers exist in Miami, Florida; Hartford, Connecticut; and Washington, D.C. Much of the training of rabbis and leaders is accomplished through mentoring and correspondence.


In many ways Jewish Renewal is a good example of late twentieth-century religious syncretism in America. It does not intend to start a new American religion or sub-religion, yet, in contrast to other Jewish denominations, it freely adopts ideas and practices from other religions, incorporating them into its developing Jewish model of worship. Renewal is antiorthodox in that it rejects the very notion that one way can embody the fullness of tradition. It seeks to create a spiritual context that can be utilized by Jews and non-Jews alike. In this sense, it is very much a product of American life, in that it exercises an kind of eclectic creativity, reaching beyond the confines of its own tradition, fully taking advantage of a society where freedom of religious expression is a matter of law. Influences include an amalgam of classical Jewish pietism, medieval Qabbalah, Hasidism, the Western version of Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, Christian monasticism, American pragmatism, Jewish Reconstructionism, religious existentialism, and progressive American political activism and environmentalism.

The most interesting thing about Jewish Renewal is that it is a decidedly non-Orthodox Judaism built on the pietism and ritualism of classical Jewish mysticism and Hasidism. It translates these insular forms of Judaism through the lens of an American counterculture devoted to progressive politics, global concerns, ecumenicism, equality of the sexes, and humanitarian universalism. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi employs his vast knowledge of Jewish sources to construct a Judaism that is an outgrowth of the American counterculture, presenting Judaism as a religion that can contribute to and be a source of inspiration for American Jews reared in the liberal democratic tradition who have been influenced by the spiritual renaissance of the 1960s. In many ways, Jewish Renewal is a pietistic antifundamentalism that is not apologetic for the tradition but views honest critique as a method of rebuilding a Jewish spirit lost in the dark ages of Jewish history. In this sense it sees itself as apostolic, reminiscent of Luther's Protestantism. It is solidly devoted to the concerns of living on the planet in a responsible and constructive manner and views its religiosity in global and activist terms.

The most direct and prominent influence on Jewish Renewal is Hasidism, a Jewish pietism from late-eighteenth-century eastern Europe that transformed world Jewry in the last two centuries. Both Zalman and Shlomo were trained in the Hasidic tradition and used Hasidic literature as the basis of their Renewal approach. Zalman, who is the architect of this movement, views the message of Hasidism as one that can be revamped, revalued, de- and recontextualized to complement an era of Jewish inclusiveness and tolerance. In many ways Martin Buber's modernization of Hasidism as Jewish existentialism plays an important role, as does Abraham Joshua Heschel's use of Hasidism as a source for his theology of pathos.

In his writings Zalman acknowledges his debt to Buber and Heschel yet seeks to take their initiative in a different direction. He does not relate to Hasidism as a movement but rather as an approach to Judaism, something that can be revalued and express contemporary sensibilities. While Hasidism is a usable model for this movement, some Renewal thinkers also view Hasidism as limited due to its unwillingness to extend its provocative teachings to their logical conclusion. This conclusion, which Zalman calls a paradigm shift, is the ideological foundation of Jewish Renewal and will be discussed below.

While American forms of Judaism have become fully comfortable with American life, in many respects the particularistic nature of Judaism and its relationship to the individual have prevented it from engaging in global issues as part of its devotional life. While Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism do address global concerns, their social activism is not as integrated into their devotional practices as in Renewal. A good example is the environmental movement in America. One of Renewal's original leaders, Arthur Waskow, has played a prominent role in contemporary environmentalism. His most popular works, Seasons of Our Joy and Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought, explore the connection between Judaism and environmentalism.

One very prominent feature of Jewish Renewal and an example of its commitment to integrating global issues into its devotional life is the concept of "eco-Kosher." This idea suggests that the traditional dietary laws (kashrut ) should be augmented to include prohibitions against consuming any foods that exploit irreplaceable natural resources; are produced by companies that pollute the environment, are manufactured by using abusive labor practices, or support institutions that knowingly disregard environmental concerns. In Jewish Renewal there are differences of opinion as to whether these principles should replace existing restrictions or be added to them. This kind of debate is common in nascent religious reform and is reminiscent of the debate between the Jewish Christians and Paul regarding the continued efficacy of the law after Christ. Some Renewal Jews want to retain a more traditional relationship to Jewish law (halakhah ) while others prefer to remain devoted to ritual yet not bound by existing legal decisions regarding those rituals and practices.

Ecumenicism and the use of other religious traditions and teachings to enhance and revise existing Jewish practice is another major aspect of Jewish Renewal. While modern American Judaisms often engage in ecumenical dialogue (before September 11, 2001, almost exclusively with Christians) they usually do not integrate the practices of other religions into their religious life. This speaks to the cautious way in which modern Judaisms view the "other" even in a free democratic society. Zalman is an ordained ūfī teacher and many of Jewish Renewal's constituency practice and teach various forms of meditation, either adapted to Jewish sensibilities or not.

This raises yet another internal debate in this community common in fledgling religious movements. Should external influences be Judaized or made kosher or should other rituals and traditions be practiced without any Judaizing process? Elat Hayyim, the Jewish Renewal retreat center in upstate New York, holds regular mediation retreats as well as more traditional Jewish festival retreats and workshops. Serious engagement with other religious traditions, including inviting masters of other religious disciplines to speak at seminars and retreats and adapting some of their practices, illustrates Renewal's attempt to break out of the insular framework of traditional and even progressive Judaism.

Underlying this ecumenical approach is a fundamental belief that all religions hold some basic truths and that dialogue between religions, including openly borrowing various practices, can aid the healing of the planet and enhance religion's contribution to civilization more generally. This kind of applied universalist particularism is a new phenomenon in modern Judaism (most other progressive forms of Judaism, religious and secular, focus on Zionism and Israel as their global outlet). The implication here is that all religions have ossified and have lost some of their truth as a result of historical circumstances and that religious confluence can contribute to reconstructing some of these inherent truths. Jewish Renewal is sometimes accused of religious syncretism. This characterization is misleading, although not entirely false as the Jewish Renewal movement is making no attempt to develop a new religion. The starting and end point is always Judaism, but it is in fact Judaism transformed out of its insular and exclusivist mold.

Another important influence on Jewish Renewal is American pragmatism, viewed through the lens of Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionist Judaism. Reconstructionism argues that Judaism is, first and foremost, a civilization. Jewish law is viewed as a system of folkways that Jews developed in order to give themselves a unique identity as a people. These folkways must be maintained and protected as the people's identity is dependent upon them. However, Jewish ritual and practice must conform to the sensibilities of the people and not be foisted upon them as commandments.

This notion of Jewish practice came to be known as post-halakhic Judaism, a Judaism devoted to practice but one not based on unalterable and commanded law. Kaplan's battle was with the liberal Reform Judaism that abandoned law and practice completely and Conservative and Orthodox Judaism that were, in his view, living a law that was outdated, both in form and substance. Kaplan's influences included John Dewey and Émile Durkheim. His approach was rational and pragmatic and not generally metaphysical.

In many ways, Jewish Renewal took Kaplan's basic critique of contemporary Judaism and refracted it through Hasidism and mystical lenses. Renewal is one type of post-halakhic Judaism, one that fuses law and custom (not unlike many premodern Qabbalists) and views the Jewish attachment to its practices as essential for living an authentic and meaningful Jewish life. While it does view Jewish practice as commanded, it views commandedness largely as an outgrowth of the desire of the devotee to express love for the Creator and the creation and expression of Judaism's role (special but not necessarily unique) in promoting a healthy and organic global community. In other words, Renewal posits a theory of autonomous commandedness.

It is not coincidental that Renewal's headquarters in the 1970s and 1980s and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) were both located in Philadelphia (a city that was once a center of Conservative Judaism). Nor is it insignificant that Arthur Green, cofounder of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Massachusetts, was president of RRC for ten years. During that time, there was a steady interaction between these two communities that resulted in, among other things, shared principles and ideals. If one had to cite the strongest influences on Jewish Renewal, Hasidism and Reconstructionism would top the list. This odd symbiosis is addressed by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in a chapter entitled "Neo-Hasidism and Reconstructionism: A Not-Only-Imaginary Dialogue," in Paradigm Shift, edited by Ellen Singer.

Two other important influences are liberal/progressive politics and Zionism. While not a political movement, and, in many ways, strikingly apolitical, Jewish Renewal is loosely part of the new Jewish Left in North America. It champions progressive political positions on the environment, war, poverty relief, world hunger, AIDS, women's issues, globalization, and unilateral aggression. The two most prominent activists in this area of Renewal are Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner. Both 1960s radicals who adopted Judaism as a center of their spiritual and political lives, Waskow and Lerner have been outspoken about many issues, both national and international, concerning Jews and society more generally. Lerner's bimonthly magazine Tikkun can be viewed as a political arm of Jewish Renewal, and many Renewal members write regularly for this publication. Two of Lerner's books, The Politics of Meaning and Jewish Renewal, offer a vision of Jewish Renewal dedicated to a Jewish approach to contemporary political issues and crisis (see, for example, Jewish Renewal, pp. 265280).

Both Lerner and Waskow envision Renewal as contributing Jewish alternatives to the political arena. What is new and important here is that these Jewish resources are not employed to address issues of Jewish concern but rather to contribute to global concerns from a Jewish spiritual perspective. This illustrates the extent to which Jewish Renewal is a universalized Judaism with humanitarian concerns that extend far beyond the narrow boundaries of the Jewish people. This mixture of universal ideals coupled with a dedication to Jewish practice makes Jewish Renewal a unique phenomenon in contemporary Judaism.

The progress that Renewal made in diffusing the particularistic nature of traditional Judaism, however, is put to the test on the question of Zionism. While there is no official Jewish Renewal policy on Zionism, anecdotal evidence suggests that most members are Zionist if by that one simply means supporters of the State of Israel's right to exist. Given the prominence of Israel and Zionism in contemporary Judaism it is curious that the most sustained statement of Jewish Renewal, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's article in Paradigm Shift, does not contain any serious discussion of Zionism or the State of Israel.

This omission is not insignificant and speaks to way in which Jewish Renewal is really a diasporic religious phenomenon (there is a growing Jewish Renewal movement in Israel which will no doubt confront these issues differently). While the minimalist definition of Zionism would include most of those involved with Jewish Renewal, many of its members advocate a progressive position on the Middle East crisis, are supporters of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, and view the occupation as both immoral and spiritually damaging to Israel as a nation and Judaism as a religion. While some in the larger Renewal community might not share this position, this appears to be the one that is dominant. This is surely the case with Waskow and Lerner, and the platform of Tikkun magazine.

Another important factor in Renewal is its engagement with Islam. Renewal members, and Zalman in particular, were early and continuous supporters of a dialogue with Palestinian Muslims, particularly ūfīs. They were quite successful in opening lines of communication between Jews and Muslims on matters of spirituality and politics, particularly in the 1960s when there was almost no serious JewishMuslim dialogue. As progressive leftists, most sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian civilian population and view Israel as an occupying power in the territories.

Organizations like the New Jewish Agenda, the Abraham Fund, and Seeds of Peace, while not formally a part of Jewish Renewal, are influenced by it. Renewal's stance on the crisis in the Middle East illustrates its decision to opt out of a fervent messianism (severing it from its roots in Lubavitch Hasidism, roots which now, with the Jewish settler movement, represent the most virulent examples of Jewish messianism) and reject the militant nationalism so common in Diaspora Judaism. Instead Renewal lobbies for a softer utopian vision where barriers between peoples are to be made more transparent rather than more opaque.


Jewish Renewal is founded on a reformist ideology couched in a revivalist pietism. Like many such movements in the history of religion, its agenda is both apostolic and subversive. Its claim to have retrieved an internal meaning of Judaism is used to counter the status quo of what Judaism has become. In this sense it is also, to use more contemporary language, countercultural. The reformist predilection of Jewish Renewal is captured in what Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has termed a Paradigm Shift. The idea is not new, but is creatively adapted to the contours of the contemporary world.

The basic argument in the Paradigm Shift is that history can be divided into distinct historical epochs, each of which contains particular spiritual paths even within one particular religious tradition. As the epoch changes, so must the spiritual direction of that religion in order to insure an organicity between the external historic and cosmic environment (which are inextricable according to the Jewish mystical tradition) and individual and collective consciousness. This notion was suggested by the Christian monk Joachim of Fiore and is the basis of the anonymous fourteenth-century Jewish qabbalistic works Sefer ha-temunah and Sefer ha-peliah. In both premodern sources, each of which has underlying messianic pretensions, new paths of devotion are revealed as a new epoch emerges and those new paths must be followed in order to fully disclose the potential in the new era.

Jewish Renewal's rendition of this doctrine seems to have jettisoned the apocalyptic messianic flavor of these texts in favor of a belief in the slow and steady completion of the utopian redemption envisioned by some of the classical Hebrew prophets, a world without war, strife, and conflict. An analysis of the messianism of Jewish Renewal, born from a tempered reading of contemporary Lubavitch (Hasidic) messianism, is a desideratum in scholarship. What is also important here is that this doctrine is also foundational for the heretical Jewish movement of Shabbetai Tsevi in the seventeenth century.

The Shabbatean heretics argued that a new historical epoch was inaugurated by the Messiah Shabbetai Tsevi and this new era must be accompanied by a new Torah, a Torah that transcends the strict legalism of the old (rabbinic) law and expands God's presence into the mundane and even forbidden. While the language of Renewal is far more temperate and communal (it does not focus much attention on the centrality of the charismatic leader, or Zaddik, who serves as a foundation for Hasidic spirituality), it does argue that the theism (or deism) of past eras has now evolved into a pantheism of the present, thus requiring Jews to reaccess their relationship to Jewish theology and ritual practice. In Zalman's words:

So where are we now? I'd like to say we are in the shift to the place where everything is God, pantheism. We want Wholeness, a holistic understanding, now. I believe that people are moving from theism to pantheism. There are some who don't like the word pantheism, the idea that God is everything. They prefer the word panentheism, which means that God is in everything. I, however, don't think the distinction is real. (Schachter-Shalomi, 2003, p. 20)

Using an astrological system (also used by the Shabbateans) filtered through the theosophical qabbalistic system of four worlds and the ten sefirot (cosmic potencies), Renewal claims that a new era, an Age of Aquarius, has emerged that requires Jews to respond by reconstructing the Torah of the past in preparation for a new era (on this see Paradigm Shift, pp. 277298). While much of this is viewed by Renewal as rooted in Hasidic teachings, it is also quite reminiscent of the Shabbatean movement that also may have influenced early Hasidic doctrine. Because most Shabbatean texts remained (and largely remain) in manuscript (what Hebrew publisher would publish what had become viewed as blatant heresy?) most contemporary Jews are not familiar with them. It remains to be seen how the disclosure of these texts will affect both Hasidism and Renewal.


The impact of Jewish Renewal is already profound, yet, given that we are still in the midst of its full disclosure, still somewhat unknown. It is important to note that while Renewal was fed by the Baʾal Teshuva movement (new returnees to Judaism) in the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Renewal is not a part of that movementin fact, in many ways it is its opposite. The Baʾal Teshuva movement was a movement of disenchanted Diaspora and Israeli youth who turned back to traditional Judaism as an alternative to the vacuous materialistic lives of their upbringing. The end-game of this movement was a return to Orthodoxy and a basic rejection of Western values. Renewal is not a return to the past but the construction of a future built on tradition but not bound to it. While many young Jewish seekers passed through Renewal on their way to Orthodoxy, those that stayed created a Judaism that was decidedly neither Orthodox nor accepting of the hegemonic claims of Orthodoxy's leadership.

Jewish Renewal has influenced all Jewish denominations in North America, from Orthodoxy to Reform. Orthodoxy absorbed Renewal's focus on joyful worship and the music of Shlomo Carlebach (who was not formally part of Renewal but floated freely between Jewish communities), some of the Hasidic teachings of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and the use of mediation and contemplative prayer developed by some Renewal members. Conservative and Reform Jewish communities in North America have seen the emergence of smaller prayer quorums (called avurah-style communities) in their larger synagogues among members who desire a more intimate and less formal prayer service.

Classes in Hasidism and mediation are held in many suburban American synagogues, largely due to the influence of members who attended Renewal retreats and brought the message of Renewal to their own communities. Secular Jews who had only negative views of Judaism as antiquated and irrelevant have found Renewal sympathetic to their needs and supportive of their own secular Jewish choices. Some of these Jews have found a political home in Renewal because it represents their politics and is decidedly and openly Jewish but not patriarchal, overly nationalistic, or xenophobic. In short, Jewish Renewal is leading a grassroots renaissance in Judaism, undermining tradition while espousing it, offering a progressive message that better suits the assimilationist ideology of classical Reform Judaism in the present multicultural climate and offers a non-Orthodox piety and metalegal alternative to Conservative Judaism.

The JewBu (Jewish-Buddhist) phenomenon is, in many ways, an extension of Jewish Renewal. This largely amorphous community consists of Jews who have taken on Buddhism as a religious and spiritual path, some attaining high ranks in Buddhist circles, and have taken their vocation and turned back to Judaism in an attempt to integrate Buddhist practice with Jewish worship. These practitioners and teachers have had an impact on Jewish communities by giving workshops throughout America and in Israel.

There has been a tendency to conflate Jewish Renewal and neo-Hasidism. They are, in fact, quite different. Neo-Hasidism was originally a literary movement among enlightened and ex-traditional Jews in the early part of the twentieth century who used Hasidism as a template for a kind of modern Jewish romanticism. Figures such as the Hebrew and Yiddish writer Yehuda Leib Peretz, the novelist and poet Shalom Ash, and the philosopher Martin Buber are counted among this circle. Contemporary neo-Hasidism is, perhaps, a second wave of that phenomenon, one that adopts the general tenor of Hasidic spirituality as a resource for contemporary Judaism. One example of neo-Hasidism would be the appearance of secular and contemporary adaptations of Hasidic music among some Israeli musicians in the 1970s.

Unlike Jewish Renewal, present-day neo-Hasidism has no discernible ideology, nor is it a constructive critique of Jewish life. It is primarily an artistic utilization and romanticization of a deeply theological movement. Religiously, it adopts certain Hasidic modes of worship in order to enhance Jewish ritual and practice. Neo-Hasidism is popular in all Jewish denominations as it does not demand any reordering of fundamental principles. It largely exists in the popularity of Hasidic texts and more prominently in music accompanying the liturgy. In this respect, the father of second wave neo-Hasidism is Shlomo Carlebach, whose music and Hasidic teachings have inspired Jews throughout the world. In contrast to Zalman and Jewish Renewal, Shlomo and neo-Hasidism have no real ideological or organizational agenda. While Jewish Renewal surely is a part of the more amorphous neo-Hasidism, it is not identical to it.

Jewish Renewal in Israel is just taking root and it is still too early to tell how it will affect Israeli society. Orthodoxy's hegemony in Israel and the deeply rooted secularism of Israeli Zionism will no doubt force Renewal to alter its message to accommodate the unique conditions in Israel. Renewal communities are beginning to emerge, reflecting secular Israel's fascination with Eastern spirituality and neo-Hasidic Jewish ritual and worship. Festivals held in rural areas on Jewish festivals like Roʾsh ha-Shanah (Jewish New Year) complete with drum circles, meditation, dancing, and the sounding of the shofar (ram's horn) are becoming commonplace. A new Israeli Renewal is surely emerging but, to date, it is still in its embryonic stages.


Jewish Renewal is led by many talented individuals who contribute to the progress and expansion of the movement. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi remains the major force in this movement. Shlomo Carlebach's influence is deep and wide even as he offers a more inspirational than intellectual contribution. His dozens of recordings, many including stories and Hasidic teachings, began in 1959 and changed the face of contemporary Jewish music. Marcia Falk's Book of Blessings has had significant impact on Renewal liturgy.

Arthur Green is a major figure whose influence is both theological and organizational. His book Seek My Face, Speak My Name is perhaps the first systematic Renewal theology. Green was the president of RRC for more than a decade and fostered the important relationship between Reconstructionist Judaism and Jewish Renewal. Dovid Din, a lesser-known figure who died in the late 1980s, had a profound impact on many who are now in Renewal. He was a student of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Winnipeg in the 1960s and had a small community in Boro Park in Brooklyn.

Gershon Winkler is an important teacher in Renewal, as are Miles Krassen and Elliot Ginsburg. Other important figures include Sylvia Boorstein and Avram David, who teach Buddhist meditation, Jonathan Omerman and Rami Shapiro, who have both led Renewal communities, and Andrea Cohen-Keiner, who translated a work by a Hasidic master popular with Renewal entitled Conscious Community, and who has been very successful teaching Renewal to adolescents and young adults. Shefa Gold is a prominent Renewal musical personality who has composed and performed moving Jewish meditation chants based on Native American and Hindu traditions.

Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner have both developed the political arm of Jewish Renewal and their work has influenced not only Jewish circles but also the U.S. and Israeli political arenas. Another thinker deserves recognition even as he might not feel comfortable identifying with Jewish Renewal. Aryeh Kaplan was an Orthodox Jew who inspired many with his works and translations. His forays into Jewish spirituality, especially with his Meditation and the Bible and Meditation and the Kabbala, have contributed greatly to the Jewish Renewal movement. While Kaplan's commitment to Orthodoxy remained strong, his works inspired many who would become important figures in Jewish Renewal. Finally, numerous professors of Judaism teaching in universities in the Diaspora are marginally or more formally connected to Jewish Renewal and have brought this orientation to their profession in many interesting ways.


Numerous challenges confront the relatively young Jewish Renewal movement. One major hurdle is the ability of Renewal to establish Jewish literacy among its members and create an educated lay community. Another challenge is how it will confront the radicalism of its own doctrine and develop a vision outside the shadow of more traditional Judaism. As is the case in many fledgling movements, Renewal tends to seek acceptance from the traditional branches of its religion. As it matures, it will have to decide how to negotiate this relationship on a more equal footing. The heterodox world of North America is fertile soil for such an endeavor.

In some respects, Jewish Renewal is following the path of early Hasidism. However, as scholars have argued, Hasidism's success in becoming normative was due, among other things, to its abandonment of some of its more radical doctrines. The contemporary situation is quite different from early-nineteenth-century eastern Europe, where the choices were more limited: either traditionalism or Enlightenment (or some combination of the two). In the present cultural climate, especially in North America, where the hegemony of Orthodoxy no longer exists, new religious movements can maintain less traditional positions and still survive and flourish among those seeking a spiritual alternative. Jewish Renewal may occupy a space between early Hasidism's more radical and audacious posture (which widened the margins of Jewish thought) and Shabbateanism (which abandoned Judaism altogether). Jewish Renewal seeks to offer a fresh critique of tradition, reconstructing a pietistic and contemplative alternative embedded in the spirit of universalism, activism, and tolerance.

See Also

Hasidism; Reconstructionist Judaism.


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Shaul Magid (2005)

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