What is Jewish Renewal?
Jewish Renewal is a new movement within Judaism. It is a kind of neo-Hasidism, in that it seeks the spiritual renewal of Judaism, but “neo” because it insists on full equality for women and a creative return to the process of transforming Hallakhah (Jewish law) so that it continues to be a living path to connection to God. The philosophy of Jewish Renewal is articulated best in the theological writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel (see particularly The Prophets and God In Search of Man and Man Is Not Alone) and Zalman Schachter Shalomi (Paradigm Shift), Arthur Waskow (Down To Earth Judaism, GodWrestling) and Michael Lerner (Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation).
Judaism is a distinctive blending of spirituality and a liberatory political vision. But when Judaism abandoned its liberatory message, the Judaism that survived was unable to command the respect and adherence of many Jews. Those who sought spiritual vitality often found themselves attracted to other traditions. Others became disillusioned with all forms of spirituality, assuming that it would necessarily be associated with patriarchal and repressive social realities.
So Jewish Renewal seeks a revolutionary transformation of the world: away from the ethos of selfishness and materialism and toward an ethos of love and caring. Its political vision is spelled out in three books by Rabbi Michael Lerner: The Politics of Meaning, Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul, and The Left Hand of God. One of its central ideas is that we need a new definition of productivity, efficiency and rationality. Institutions and social practices should be judged efficient or productive not only to the extent that they maximize wealth and power, but also to the extent that they maximize our capacities to be loving and caring, ethically/spiritually/ecologically sensitive, and capable of transcending a narrow utilitarian attitude toward other human beings and toward the universe so that we can respond to them with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of Creation.
Jewish Renewal is an attempt to take God seriously at every level of our being. That requires more than adding a few phrases about social justice to an existing liturgy or ritual. It is an attempt to make us more fully alive to God’s presence the world, to build a life that is God-centered, and to provide us with a way of reclaiming the unique spirituality of Judaism, deeply embedded in political consciousness but not only political.
Jewish Renewal energy is flowing through all the various denominations of Jewish life — and it will eventually help to transform all of them.
There’s even an organization which has become the coordinator of some Jewish Renewal activities. It is called Aleph and you can go their website to get a list of Jewish Renewal synagogues or to find other valuable Jewish Renewal activities. And when you are in the San Francisco Bay Area please do visit our congregation, Beyt Tikkun.
And there are many people in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox movements of Judaism who are actually embodying aspects of Jewish Renewal and making it happen in their respective movements. So it would be a mistake to think that any one organization is “the” Jewish Renewal movement. Rather, you will find elements of Jewish Renewal consciousness in a wide variety of institutions and movements in Jewish life today, and it our intention at Tikkun to support and nurture that consciousness.
So, at the present moment the promise of Jewish Renewal is only a promissory note to be filled in by you. A set of ideas have been developed, and there are some inspired teachers and spiritually alive communities. But the full vision is yet to be instantiated in the world.
Tikkun magazine is committed to supporting the development of a Jewish Renewal movement wherever it occurs. Our Jewish writers are Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Reform — not to mention many who are not part of any particular religious movement or those who are adamantly secular. In Tikkun you’ll find our attempts to clarify and deepen a Jewish Renewal consciousness, but you’ll also find that many of our articles are not written from that perspective. We provide a place for secular Jews as well as for those seeking Jewish Renewal, as we do for spiritual progressives in all faiths and none.
But if you are interested in Jewish Renewal, we want to encourage you to become part of the Tikkun community, because it is in Tikkun that we try to provide the space for both the theological and the political discussions that provide the foundation for a spiritual renewal of the Jewish people. And we encourage you also to participate in the activities of Aleph, and many other kinds of Jewish Renewal programs described in Tikkun.