Between Paradigm Shift Judaism and Neo-Hasidism: The New Metaphysics of Jewish Renewal

Painting of a wheel of trees.

The Wheel of Life by David Friedman. Credit: David Friedman (

Since its emergence in the early 1970s, the Jewish Renewal movement has made a revolutionary break from past forms of Judaism. Led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the movement’s architect, Jewish Renewal communities have explored new realms of Jewish ritual and aesthetic innovation, gender inclusivity, progressive political activism, environmentalism, and interfaith cross-pollination. We have sought to usher in a new Aquarian Age of Judaism.

In the present moment, as we mourn the recent passing of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and reflect back on his brilliant contributions to the Jewish Renewal movement, we are also looking forward and wondering what the future holds. Will the revolutionary qualities of Jewish Renewal prove vibrant and lasting, or will this attempt to make a seismic break from the past eventually sink into an abyss of disappointment, as have so many other attempts to usher in radical transformation? A hundred years from now, what will historians see as Jewish Renewal’s lasting contribution to the revival of Judaism in the twenty-first century? Will it be seen merely as an umbrella movement that grew out of the Chavurah movement in the early 1970s, when Judaism met the New Age in the generation of the counterculture? What can maximize the success of this attempt to jump ahead of history, to view our world as containing the possibility of a leap forward, a paradigm shift?

I believe that the future of this attempt at Aquarian Age Judaism will depend in large part on our continued exploration of the most paradigm-shifting aspect of Jewish Renewal: its radically new approach to Jewish metaphysics.

Why Metaphysics?

Back in 1970, in a commencement address to Hebrew College, Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi noted that past attempts at Aquarian Ages (attempts to view the present as a seismic break from the past), have all tragically moved from revolution to disappointment and even despotism. It is the historian, he argued, who can best serve as the gatekeeper to prevent these attempts at renewal from sinking into the abyss of despair. Below I challenge Yerushalmi’s pessimistic claim about spiritual revolutions and the exclusive role of the historian to mitigate its negative consequences.

Aquarian Ages usually contain two overlapping but not identical components: the practical and the theoretical, or the ritualistic/activist and the metaphysical. Much has been written on the practical components of Jewish Renewal—its aesthetic and ritual experimentation and its progressive agenda of social activism. Indeed, much of the writing about the progressive social justice dimension of Jewish Renewal has appeared here in the pages of Tikkun, as well as in Michael Lerner’s Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. Less has been written about its metaphysics. A deep exploration of Jewish Renewal’s metaphysics, or theology, can contribute something crucial to the staying power and longevity of Aquarian or renewal movements and thus help avoid the pitfalls Yerushalmi described.

Contemporary Jewish Renewal can be divided into two basic components. The first component, which I call “second-wave neo-Hasidism,” follows in the footsteps of first-wave neo-Hasidism popular at the turn of the twentieth century and consists largely of an adaptation, or revision, of Hasidism to conform to present-day sensibilities and beliefs. Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi was deeply engaged in this effort to adapt Hasidism to the New Age. One can see this in Fragments of a Future Scroll: Hassidism for the Aquarian Age, Wrapped in a Holy Flame, and A Hidden Light. As part of this focus, he also made great contributions to gender inclusivity, drawing together feminist Judaisms with neo-Hasidism.

(To read Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's response to Shaul Magid's piece, click here.)

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3 thoughts on “Between Paradigm Shift Judaism and Neo-Hasidism: The New Metaphysics of Jewish Renewal

  1. I read Shaul Magid’s essay with great interest (“Between Paradigm Shift Judaism and Neo-Hasidisim,” Tikkun, Winter 2015). Professor Magid uses Jan Assmann’s work on the translatability of deities in the ancient world as a source for his Jewish metaphysics for a “New Age.” For Magid, the ancient translatability of deities across cultures serves as a critical feature in what he calls a “post-monotheistic” metaphysics for today. Magid additionally draws on my book, God in Translation (Fortress Press), to show that the Bible itself contains examples of translatability. For Magid, this translatability is in the Bible because monotheism is not complete in the Bible; non-translatability (what Assmann calls “the Mosaic distinction”) is only really the case for a later philosophical monotheism represented by Maimonides: “Smith’s compelling claim is precisely correct to the extent that the Hebrew Bible is not monotheistic, at least not in the normative, Maimonidean sense.” In short, for Magid, Assman’s notion that monotheism precludes translatability of other deities with the Jewish God is realized in the form of a philosophical post-biblical monotheism: “While Smith may be correct when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, Paradigm Shift Judaism’s new postmonotheistic metaphysics is not a response to the Bible but rather to its reception in historical Judaism where the Mosaic distinction may be more palpable.” In this historical scheme, however, biblical monotheism as found in Genesis 1 and many other biblical works fits into neither the translatability of earlier biblical tradition nor the philosophical non-translatability of the likes of Maimonides.

    Moreover, Magid’s New Age metaphysics is hardly “post-monotheistic.” (Admittedly, it’s a catchy turn of phrase.) Recognizing deities across religions in association with the Jewish God is not “post-monotheistic,” but intensively monotheistic. Furthermore, the discussion skips over biblical monotheism and its own non-philosophical expressions of divine oneness and its meanings. The power that biblical monotheism has for people lies partly in its capacity to evoke and invoke God in relation to the world without sacrificing divine transcendence. To my mind, because it entails both ontology and metaphor, biblical monotheism resists efforts at metaphysics alone that seeks to explain God and the world in a way that may appear overly rational from a biblical perspective. Indeed, this approach tends to reify God in a manner that strikes me as decidedly not biblical. As a reader of the Bible, I would question the translation of metaphor into metaphysics in the manner that Magid undertakes. Biblical monotheism offers a powerful kaleidoscope of many visions of God and the world; it continues to surprise, in a way that may be characterized as mysterious. Some may find the notion of mystery a bit of obfuscation, but it strikes me as offering a better reading of biblical monotheism. It holds together a vision of God’s ordered world, a good world infused with light in Genesis 1 on the one hand, and on the other hand, the vision of God and the chaotic world, evidently evil and dark, found in the book of Job. It also offers a way to face the terrible trauma when these two visions collide, as we see in the book of Lamentations, which both recounts the trauma and serves to help its audiences cope with it. By contrast, Magid’s discussion largely skips over biblical monotheism, by squeezing it into a philosophical teleology leading up to his metaphysics for a New Age. To my mind, this approach runs the risk of putting God in a box, not unlike Job and his three friends. Yet God in the Bible surprises, not only at the end of Job.

    I fail to see how biblical monotheism cannot support, even sing for the social and political causes that Magid champions. For his effort, Magid cites the call at the end of my book: “Translatability of divinity is no mere academic task; it is a central task of human self-understanding. Otherwise, in this situation, something of our humanity—and arguably of our divinity—may be lost.” I welcome the effort that Magid displays, as well as others under exploration. However, when it comes to biblical monotheism, I think Tikva Frymer-Kensky in her book, In the Wake of the Goddess, comes closer to understanding the biblical vision of God’s mysterious oneness, which can link us together. It is also its deeply problematic character that can continue to challenge and, hopefully, inspire in a post-Holocaust world.

    Mark S. Smith
    Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies
    Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies
    New York University

  2. Mark Smith’s learned response to my essay “Between Paradigm Shift Judaism and Neo-Hasidism” raises numerous issues worthy of a more lengthy response than I can give here.

    Smith questions my deployment of the term “post-monotheism” as a way of describing the metaphysics of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He rightly notes that I want to tweak Jan Assmann’s “mosaic distinction” moving it from the biblical Moses (and thus the Hebrew Bible) to Moses Maimonides (and thus “normative” Judaism) who is arguably more metaphysically influential today than the Bible itself. And maybe not. And that is precisely my point.

    As Smith notes, the Bible’s monotheism is surely more metaphoric and less metaphysical, more malleable and less dogmatic, borrowing from Assmann, more “cosmotheological” and less “monotheistic” as the term is often understood today. The tolerance the Bible had for “translatability” that Smith notes is all but rejected by Maimonides. For Maimonides “other gods” are not only less than the God of Israel (who is also the God of creation), they are false because they simply do not, and cannot, exist.

    This metaphysical distinction surely did not receive unanimous support. The Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah, for example, do not swallow the Maimonidean Kool-Aid albeit both work so deeply inside a Maimonidean orbit (even when they reject it) that their cosmotheism turns into the plurality of the (unified) godhead as opposed to the translatability to other deities. Kabbalah can thus be described as monotheized cosmotheism.

    In this sense, Paradigm Shift Judaism calls out Kabbalah for what it is but cannot fully own. The New Age context and demise of any viable Jewish hegemony allows for that. Smith suggests that we simply go back to the pre-Maimonidean Bible and work from there. As a matter of scholarship, this is certainly tenable. But as a matter of Judaism, less so. Why? Because as my rosh yeshiva once told me, Judaism arguably cares less about what the Bible actually says and more about how it was received.

    It is no accident that the medieval jurists forbade Jews reading the Bible outside its rabbinic interpretation. The Bible as it is, so to speak, is only so the extent to which the sages say it is. In deference to Smith, let me give another respected Bible scholar the last word. At the conclusion of his book The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, Benjamin Sommer writes, “It is meaningful to note that a kabbalist in the thirteenth century C.E. is a monotheist, whereas a worshipper of Marduk in the early first millennium B.C.E. is a polytheist – but it is also meaningful, and perhaps much more revealing, to note that they are much closer to each other in their understanding of the nature of divinity than they are to many other monotheists and polytheists respectively.

    As much as this work argues that the terms ‘monotheist’ and ‘polytheist’ are useful starting places for a historian of religion, it also shows that they are no more than that.” Perhaps post-monotheism is one way of heuristically negotiating between these two liquid terms.

    — Shaul Magid

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