Jigsaw Pieces Toward the Puzzle of a Jewish Future

Three new pointers toward the Jewish future have recently been published, and caused a stir: the book on Jewish Megatrends that Rabbi Sidney Schwarz edited/compiled/wrote; the book about the neo-Hassidic community of Jewish renewal by Rabbi Shaul Magid on American Post-Judaism (a most peculiar title since it’s about a new paradigm of Judaism); and the Pew survey on a generation of “non-religious” Jews.

Each of the three is valuable; each has an important lack that the others might fill.


"Each of these three jagged-edge explorations of the Jewish future might be seen as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle," the author writes. Credit: Creative Commons/Scouten.

There are two major problems in Schwarz’s book. One is that it ignores the spiritual roots and spiritual flowering of the new universalist orientation of an increasing number of Jews—an orientation away from “What’s good for the Jews?” to the question, “What in Judaism is or can become good for the world?”

Schwarz affirms this universalist orientation of the Jewish outlook that not only draws strongly on Jewish teachings from the past but also strongly enriches Jewish wisdom for the future. So I am startled that he did not include among the authors he invited to respond to his initial essay on this more richly universalist Judaism several of our own folks: Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and—full disclosure, for good or ill—me. The three of us have strongly taken into the world a Torah-rooted, spiritually nourished vision of a universalist Judaism, a world-transformative Judaism.

Yet somehow this vision of the unification of “spirit” and “politics” is missing from Schwarz’ book.

The second problem with the book is that there is another blank space in its analysis of how we have gotten to this universalist place. It seems to me that the explosion of Havurah Judaism, Jewish renewal/ neo-Hassidism, feminist Judaism, Eco-Judaism, contemplative/ meditative Judaism all happened because of a series of crises in the broader world. In God’s world.

The crisis was named by Martin Buber in 1921 in I and Thou and surfaced much more broadly in human and American consciousness in the 1960s and ’70s. Our world shook as we questioned whether democracy could coexist alongside racism and the disempowerment of women; as we faced the Vietnam War and threats to U.S. domination of the world as well as efforts to reinforce U.S. power; as we trembled before the dangers of nuclear holocaust and the transformation of violence; as we were awed by the rise of effective nonviolence; as we began to grow concerned that the State of Israel might be transforming itself from a refuge for the desperate into an occupier of the subjugated; as we hungered for the intimate connection of human beings with each other and the Earth (adam with adamah) that had been severed, alienated, by the rise of hyper-industrialism.

All these brought forth both deeper spiritual search and deeper political exploration among Jews who began to draw on Torah in new ways to create what Reb Zalman called a “new paradigm” of Judaism.

Not only does Schwarz avoid grappling with how the bubbling social crises forty years ago led to the spiritually rooted universalist Judaism that is addressing these crises; he is silent about the boiling-over social crises of the present and future that will affect Judaisms of the next forty years. The worsening climate crisis and its threat to the web of life on our planet, together with worsening extremes of inequality in wealth and power, are already being experienced as calls to a new renewing of Judaism. Yet none of this future crisis and the “megatrends” it may create are visible in Schwarz’ book. The word “climate” does not even appear.

The reverse blank-space is “visible” in Magid’s book: spirituality is present but social commitment is absent. He expounds and explicates Reb Zalman’s Neo-Hasidism but ignores the more sociopolitical elements of Zalman’s own thought and ignores even bigger chunks of Jewish-renewal thought. For example—Michael Lerner’s book actually named Jewish Renewal addresses powerfully the issues of world transformation, as do Michael’s other books and his journal Tikkun—as (to repeat the triad) do Tirzah and I in our own works.

Indeed, in Magid’s book there is not even a hint of the feminist and gay-positive Judaisms that have transformed “neo-Hassidism” and that were infused into the early B’nai Or/P’nai Or kallot by Barbara Breitman, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, Rabbi Julie Greenberg, and others.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean only the full visibility and equality of women and of gender-minority folks. I mean changes in theology, ritual, practice, and midrash that arose and keep arising as part of the deeper meaning of feminist and gay-positive thought.

For example: the whole notion of a “field of rebbetude” beyond the traditional “Rebbe” and not restricted to a single charismatic figure but also not smoothed out into an anodyne “rabbi as facilitator” was infused into our movement by the cross-fertilization of feminist Judaisms with neo-Hassidism.

As for the third “sacred text”—the new Pew survey: it identifies a spurning of “religion” and (along with a recent study of rabbinic attitudes toward Israel) a spurning of State-of-Israel-centrism and of Shoah-centrism among many younger Jews as well as some older (even elderly!) Jews. Pew seems not to have asked questions like “Do you see yourself as a spiritual person?” alongside the “Non-Religious” category. Nor has it asked follow-up questions such as: “If so, what practices embody your spirituality? Are any of them Jewish in your awareness? Are you committed to or troubled about changes in the social definitions of gender roles and sexuality? Are your approaches to those issues related to your understandings of Jewish values? Are you concerned with the crisis in planetary life, and if so do you see this as related to Jewish values? Are you concerned with eco-kosher practice, with the Earth as Holy Temple, with organic farming as a Jewish path?”

Each of these three jagged-edge explorations of the Jewish future might be seen as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that could with care and commitment be brought together to make a harmonious and instructive whole. But that will take a serious effort at raising the questions that each leaves unasked, and fitting the pieces together.

For more on this topic, see Arthur Waskow’s piece “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in the Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Elliot N. Dorff and Jonathan K. Crane, eds.; Oxford University Press, 2013).


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