Beyond the Community of Dissent: A Second Generation of Jewish Renewal?
By Shefa Siegel | 22/07/2010
For Jewish renewal to extend itself generationally, it has to come to grips with the need to do something that in many ways is anathema to its fundamental perspective: It has to define itself, not just against the grain of the establishment, but as a legitimate expression of its own vital message
Photo: Joe Schonwald
One afternoon a few years ago I was descending from the mountains above Dharamsala, India. I had traveled there not because I wanted to discover Tibetan Buddhism but because I knew the Tibetans were high mountain people. After two months at high elevations, arriving in the humid, furious pace of Delhi's streets frightened me back into the hills. I had never spent a night alone in the mountains and my preparation showed this; part way up I found myself low on food, out of water, and in need of a cave to avoid freezing. As I sat on a rock, a tall Sikh passed me, and asked what I was doing. After explaining myself, he smiled, and suggested I follow him to a higher plateau, then set about constructing a shelter between two rocks, giving me all his food, a jug of water, and his spear. “In case of leopards,” he said. Before leaving he mentioned that he had a friend halfway down the mountain. “You'll be hungry by tomorrow. I'll tell him to have some food ready for you.”
Happy but hungry, I sat in his friend's hut that afternoon watching him prepare rice in a pressure cooker over an open fire. As I turned for a moment to find something in my bag I heard the sound of a different sizzle in the pot. “What is that?” I asked. “That is goat.” I was hungry but not starving. Ample vegetarian food in India and Nepal made avoiding meat an easy practice, but this situation had never presented itself to me before. A stranger, clearly poor, was offering to share food from his own goat, which earlier he had slaughtered himself by slitting its throat with a knife. To reject the goat after he had already cooked it on the assumption that I ate goat, implied rejecting what was a genuinely generous offer for a meal and leaving him with more than could be consumed.
Two weeks I later I was sitting in a yeshiva outside Jerusalem, learning about oxen, thinking about goat. Seeking the advice of an advanced rabbinical student I recounted the story for him in detail, describing the conflict I felt between dietary laws and the ethics of being a recipient of hospitality far from home. “I know what the rav [rabbi] here would say,” the student finally said to me. “The way to deal with that dilemma is by not putting yourself in that position.”
But self-imposed isolation to avoid meeting the conflicts presented by choice has never been an option for me. I am too much an individualist, too liberal, too Canadian, to defend this decision to myself. Travel and exploration are an urgent way of life for me, as is wanting to see, as Richard Burton wrote, with my own eyes what others are content to hear through the mouths of others. Frequent migration is a way of gaining perspective on yourself; the more you see people and experience places for which you have no context, the more you are forced to define for yourself what it is you are seeing, and this process almost inevitably demands an expansion of what you previously imagined to be true. But this is not simply an intellectual process. It manifests itself in the form of conscious choices about where to go, what to do, whom to talk to, and sometimes what to eat.
This anti-isolationist approach does not spring out of nowhere. For years, an intimate friend has without exception introduced me to his own friends as “second-generation Jewish renewal.” “His parents,” he always says, “were followers of Zalman and Shlomo.” I don't mind that he says this – it's true enough – but I also never know what to say in response. I am never quite certain what it means, and decidedly uncertain about what it means to other people. There is a great gap between Jews who turn to me and want to trade stories, and those who ask me what is renewal? Or who are Zalman Schachter and Shlomo Carlebach? Were I to be introduced as a third-generation Conservative Jew, the reception would be more predictable. But the ambiguity of being the second-generation of a grassroots movement of Jewish spiritualism that is still a mystery to most can be a little unsettling.
But it's not just unsettling because of what other people think. Within renewal there is a preoccupation with certain concepts like embracing the divination of the feminine and boundary-less egalitarianism that overshadow a larger and more compelling critique of American Judaism. These concepts appeal to an ideal that hierarchies should be devalued, and are applied across the board on everything from halacha to Middle East politics. This preoccupation within renewal circles is first and foremost intellectually unstimulating, but it also sets the bar for liberal credentials too high, alienates people, often devolves into a cult of personality, and splinters into so many factions that renewal sometimes appears to be a series of personal support groups rather than an authentic Jewish social and religious movement. This is what I find unsettling. Despite all this, there is a reason why a more refined version of renewal's universalism is deeply compelling.
For the overwhelming majority of American Jews, the experience of unmistakable ethnic and linguistic difference is part of a distant past. Neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, which would once – like today's American Chinatowns – have carried a reminiscent fragrance of the old world, are now enshrined by museums and are burgeoning fields of academic study (two sure signs that there is a struggle to preserve its memory). Boston's North End, where Italians and Jews once shared a neighborhood and bonded over mutual hatred of the Irish, has only a single remaining Jewish store – Sheldon's – among its hundred-twenty Italian restaurants, bakeries, and Mafioso storefronts. Jews still live together, but it is in nondescript suburban neighborhoods where the only way to know who is inside is by checking the doorframe, which even then often does not tell the story. They still have their own markets, but they are throwbacks mostly, kitsch, without the smells of difference or the substance of life. There is no language barrier: Old and new communal languages are mainly the expertise of an academic and rabbinic elite. For most, English is their only language, and America their only allegiance.
The effect of this transformation, now nearly complete excepting the far right of the religious world, is as much existential as sociological. When you live among yourselves, when your language, your food, your aesthetics are different, identity is externally, and in some sense negatively, defined. You are what you are not. But economic prosperity, political freedom, religious tolerance, are existentially burdensome, because if I am free to be who I am, then I must self-determine who I really am, and for God's sake, who am I really and where do I belong?
For many, it is a luxury to confront the problems of identity aroused by prosperity and freedom. But the need for belonging is almost as essential as the need to be free. As if by instinct, people without rootedness latch onto forms of identity, both positive and perverse. The anthropologist Ernest Gellner's well-known thesis about the origins of nationalism gets at this point. Nationalism, he argued, is the antidote to the loss of identification with place and tradition experienced by the industrialized peasantry, an imagined, hyper-extended, community fabricated to replace the inherent belonging associated with rural life. Given freedom, people will nevertheless seek out ties that bind them.
Perhaps anticipating a growing need to redefine belonging, the American Jewish establishment developed fictions around two distinct but related items: the modern nation-state and the legacy of Jewish genetics. In turn, these two things became the lynchpins of a creed built not on the sanctity of Jewishness but on an eternal threat of murderous antisemitism and the existence of Israel as the only permanent solution to this threat. Since the end of the Second World War, this creed has formed the basis of American Jewish identity, a creed which has little to do with a vision of Israel as the culmination of a post-exilic dream and everything to do with filling the empty spaces of Jewish American life.
But when social scientists conducting population studies close to a decade ago began to reveal that, even by the establishment's own measure – intermarriage – the creed was not working, it further unraveled a long-kept secret about the nature of this narrative. While intermarriage may not be the right index (among non-Jewish ethnic groups the rate of intermarriage is actually much higher than the figure of 50 percent ascribed to Jewish Americans), given the right to choose, a narrative of Israel and the Holocaust is not sufficient to keep people Jewish.
When I called this creed a “fiction” earlier I did not mean to say that they were untruths (fiction is not lying), but rather that they were conscious creations of a collective narrative. The problem with these fictions is that they were, indeed they still are, blatantly cynical; they weaponized Israel and they capitalized on suffering. Take, for instance, a statement of the American Zionist Movement regarding its position on Jewish identity (found on its website): “…using the magnetic force of Israel as a weapon against the destructive trends of assimilation and intermarriage; we are creating a new sense of Jewish self through identification with the people and the State of Israel” (italics added). In reality, most American Jews have only the barest connection to Israel, and, among my generation, just as fuzzy a memory of their immigrant, and even their refugee, identities. This is not something weaponization can fix; it is difficult to love something you do not know.
From its inception, Jewish renewal has been inextricably linked with the rise of anti-establishment sentiment that absorbed parts of America in the 1960s. Edward Feld, one writer addressing this theme puts it like this: “Faced with the wasteland of spiritual values that formed the landscape of America in the 1950s, and the decline of belief in secular redemptionist ideologies of communism and scientism, the search for religious meaning became an imperative.” Indeed, the military-industrial complex is to Americans what the weaponization of Israel is to American Jews: a recognition that people are being swindled out of a deeper sense of identity and belonging. The idea of being American is more than generating industrial output for the state to use to fund its military power, and being Jewish is about more than avoiding assimilation and defending against antisemites.
But the counter-culture in America has all but disappeared. One still finds small pockets of hippies hiding in the woods out West, but their dissent turned out to be more fad than a genuine movement for social change. America is not a better, more peace-loving place than it was thirty years ago, but is, on the contrary, more ruthless, more stubborn, more scandalous than ever. Likewise, Jewish renewal is similarly threatened by its own version of the counter-cultural experiment. As an extended community built on a surge of dissent it has actually managed to introduce new dimensions to the mainstream Jewish world, in particular an openness to universalism, acceptance of the validity of other religions, inquisitiveness about the varieties of spiritual practice, and the emancipation of women in public ritual.
Moreover, the renewal network has exposed a glaring oversight within the mainstream movements by reaching out to the truly unaffiliated and offering them sanctuary without conditions, and hospitality without reservations. Jews who would otherwise be disconnected from Judaism because the establishment will not and cannot make place for them, find room to examine themselves and their Jewishness without immediate fear of being labeled unholy, unfit, or uncommitted. And this, perhaps, is renewal's most compelling contribution: It has opened the door to reflection on the spiritual dimensions of Jewish belonging and on the idea that we are not Jews because of Israel or the Holocaust, but that Israel and our collective history exist because we are Jews.
These, I think, are all commendable contributions to the beginnings of a reevaluation of Jewishness, both in and out of American communities. But what threatens the capacity for a spirit of renewal to persist over time is its relationship to being at its core a community of dissent. There is beauty in rebelliousness, but defiance also tends to carry with it a lack of focus. Too many extraneous emotions, pet causes, “hang-ups,” burden the development of positive agendas. Thirty years ago it made sense to unionize over a shared distrust of the establishment, and to a large extent there is still every reason for this distrust. For the most part, the Jewish establishment in America has not changed its tune, it just emphasizes different notes. It still pushes the perpetuation of Jewish identity through commitment to Israel and aversion to intermarriage without making Judaism more interesting, more vital, more real. There is a new rhetoric of “continuity,“ “spirituality,” “renaissance,” and “revival,” but it is still very much the same boring, stodgy, establishment that it was thirty years ago.
But impassioned dissent is not the draw it used to be. Just as in spheres like environment people are now more excited about the mechanics of installing solar panels than they are into discussing the philosophical meaning of environmentalism, so too within the Jewish world the need and the desire is to generate architectural change rather than spiritual awakening. It is no longer enough just to have one's mind blown. If there is such a thing as second-generation, then its concerns are more with policy than preaching, and its search is for the structures around which the Jewish community can be reconstituted.
This poses a problem for Jewish renewal and its commitment to a culture of ambivalence. In its acceptance of the universality of religious teaching, renewal has provided permission for a kind of cultural and religious promiscuity that pays homage to the profundity of Jewish spirituality without expressing the boundaries of Jewish practice. Initially, it made sense to unyoke people in order to give them the freedom either to explore their Jewishness from wherever they were standing at that moment or to experience themselves as Jews outside of a strictly Jewish context. This helped provide the unaffiliated with access and frustrated affiliates with flexibility. And, in this sense, those who were culturally or religiously removed from Judaism were able to rediscover something beautiful in its particularism, and those who felt stuck in the rigidity of establishment Judaism were able to explore beyond the Judaism they knew, as well as beyond Judaism.
For Jewish renewal to extend itself generationally, it has to come to grips with the need to do something that in many ways is anathema to its fundamental perspective: It has to define itself, not just against the grain of the establishment, but as a legitimate expression of its own vital message. Jewish renewal brings to the table a new range of choices, first by adopting a deeper mystical understanding of Jewish identity, and, second, by arguing that, in practice, being religiously Jewish is not a barrier to being open to the world. But, to live this way in practice, one has to have an ethic that helps guide decision-making in situations that raise new, or at least different, questions from what most of the religious establishment is contemplating. It is not the place of a yeshiva rav to address my conflict between foreign hospitality and kashrut; he is not advocating that I live my life within the range of this dilemma. Rather, it is renewal that is pushing for greater openness and it is for renewal to develop an ethical framework of Jewish universalism that preserves universality without surrendering Jewish authenticity. Through defining the limits of universalism, renewal too can begin the process of defining its own boundaries.
What do YOU think about this article? Click HERE to enter to the Forum, where you can see readers’ comments -- and share your own ideas.