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.
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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