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Defining Renewal

"So what is Jewish Renewal, anyway?"

You'd think I'd have a good response to that question, especially now that I'm a student in the Renewal rabbinic program. But I wrestle with the same "elevator speech" problem that my friends over in Reconstructionist Judaism and Unitarian Universalism know so intimately; there's no good twelve-second definition of Jewish Renewal.

I've heard Renewal described as "feminist neo-Hasidism," and there's some truth to that; we draw both on feminism's social and political shifts, and on the mystical, joyful passion of the Hasidic world. I've also heard Renewal described as "Jewish Unitarian Universalism," and there's some truth to that too; we espouse a post-triumphalist religious sensibility and an understanding that there are many paths to the one God. But neither of those descriptions conveys the whole flavor of what Renewal's trying to do.

If you've got the time, I'll happily push a pile of books and articles into your hands. Reading Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's First Steps to a New Jewish Spirit, and Reb Arthur Waskow's Down-to-Earth Judaism is a good start. There's a fantastic article by Rabbi Rami Shapiro called The Three-Fold Torah, published in Tikkun (Volume 18, No. 4), which does a great job of explaining the Renewal movement's approach to Torah and revelation. But most of the people who ask me what Renewal is aren't looking for a course syllabus. (More's the pity, really.) So what do I tell them?

I might begin by saying that Jewish Renewal is "a worldwide, transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism's prophetic and mystical traditions." (citation.) Renewal Judaism grew out of the hands-on approach of the havurah movement and the First Jewish Catalogue, out of 20th-century feminism, and out of the work of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, sometimes called the zaide (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal.

Renewal is an attitude, not a denomination; adherents of Renewal come from all of the branches of Judaism. Renewal places emphasis on direct spiritual experience, and values accessibility over insularity. We often make use of the prism of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), especially the Four Worlds paradigm. We incorporate contemplative practices like meditation and chant, and our approach to liturgy and worship is joyful, creative, and participatory. Renewal is also characterized by tremendous respect for classical Jewish scholarship. We know we can't drive if we're only looking in the rear-view mirror, but neither can we move forward if we don't know where we've been. As Reb Zalman writes:

People in Jewish Renewal do not want to abandon sacred and cherished traditions to toss them out along with outworn cosmologies. We are now privy to information which floods us with wonder at the view of a wider and ever more complex cosmos, and we don't want to put our minds in pawn as the price of our staying wedded to our tradition. Still, we look to fill our spiritual needs as experienced in the present with a maximum of tradition. To make this happen we have to retrofit our spiritual technology to the demands of our era.

Jewish Renewal is an attempt to do that retrofitting. It's a paradigm shift, the newest twist in the spiral of tradition. So far I have yet to find a perfect definition of Renewal, though triangulating between different quotations might offer a sense of who we are. (Here goes.) This article sees Renewal as:

an effort to re-energize Jewish piety by making it more emotionally satisfying, inclusive, experimental, experiential, and compelling. For Jews who were alienated from the sometimes tepid rationalism of the Reform movement and the stern ritualism of the more traditional denominations, the brilliant neo-Hasidic writings of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were a call to embrace the living fire of a slightly different traditionalism -- the great tradition of ecstatic union with God carried by the Hasidic mystics. At the same time it was a call to link themselves to the world of the moment, its pains, possibilities, and lessons, its psychospiritual breakthroughs and political changes.

This congregation calls Jewish Renewal:

a process by which we reconnect to God through our hearts and our minds, through an openness to a Jewish life that emphasizes joy and celebration of the grandeur of the universe, and through studying the deepest spiritual truths of the Jewish people, recognizing that our understanding is always limited by the historically shaped categories and psychological limitations and distortions that we bring to our encounter with God.

(Holy run-on sentence, Batman! Okay, so that's a mouthful, but it's worth swallowing, I think.) This community, too, makes of Renewal a verb, calling it "a process of Jewish prayer, learning, community-building, and practice that seeks to nurture communities that dance and wrestle with God, and that are intimate, participatory, and egalitarian, and to assist the spiritual growth and healing of individuals, communities, whole societies, and the planet." Jewish Renewal, they say, "draws on the wisdom of Jewish tradition without getting stuck in it -- infusing [it] with the insights of contemporary ecology, feminism, and participatory democracy."

This essay heads off a common critique of Renewal by arguing that "Renewal Judaism isn’t New Age Judaism or Santa Fe Spirit Judaism.... Renewal Judaism means the examination of our tradition and the rebirth and renewal of what still makes sense to us, what speaks to us now, in our time." And this article highlights the God-focus of Renewal, observing that:

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 in 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.

These quotes are grandiose in places, and no one of them is complete, but taken together they begin to offer a sense of the Renewal mosaic.

As I think about it, the fact that Jewish Renewal isn't easily summed-up strikes me as a feature and not a bug. That obligates us, the people involved with Judaism's ongoing process of renewal, to articulate and define for ourselves what draws us to Renewal, and what we want Renewal to be. I expect my understanding of Jewish Renewal (and, for that matter, my understanding of basic terms like "Judaism," "Renewal," and "God") to shift and grow over the next several years. But right now -- on the cusp of 5766, as I begin my Aleph studies -- here's my answer:

Renewal is a grassroots, transdenominational approach to Judaism which seeks to revitalize Judaism by drawing on the immanence-consciousness of feminism, the joy of Hasidism, the informed do-it-yourself spirit of the havurah movement, and the accumulated wisdom of centuries of tradition. We strive to imbue Judaism with an ecumenical, egalitarian, and post-triumphalist sensibility; to create innovative, accessible, and welcoming worship; to shape halakhah (Jewish law) into a living way of walking righteously; and to deepen the ongoing, joyful, and fundamental connection with God that's at the heart of Jewish practice. 

Renewal folks, do you agree? What am I missing, and what would you say differently? What Renewal resources do you offer to friends, loved ones, and curious strangers when they ask? And non-Renewal folks: if you come away from this post with more questions than you have answers, hey, welcome to the journey...


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