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Spirituality Lite

A simple truth lurks behind the rise of "post-denominationalism" in Jewish religious life. It is that increasing numbers of Jews are becoming less interested in defining what Judaism means than in sampling aspects of the Jewish tradition that seem to promise spiritual vitality. If you're on the lookout for that particular commodity, it doesn't much matter where the insights and inspiration come from.   

Relevant Links
Hidden Master  Daniel Landes, Jewish Review of Books. A modern-Orthodox educator criticizes Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism and by extension the Jewish Renewal Movement. (Green responds here.)  

An expression of this perceived need to revitalize Jewish spiritual experience is the Jewish Renewal Movement, which first emerged in the 1960s. Today the movement comprises a loose network of congregations, retreats, experimental study-and-prayer communities, and a couple of unconventional rabbinic training schools.  Many of them share a passion for the experiential dimension of Judaism's mystical tradition, and especially Hasidism. In a recently published collection of essays, Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, scholars, rabbis, and educators invoke the language of this tradition to appeal to contemporary Jewish readers.

Each of the book's chapters opens with a passage from a kabbalistic or hasidic source, followed by a contemporary commentary on it—thus already giving the volume a quasi-traditional feel.  Many of the introductory source materials themselves are masterpieces of hasidic exegesis; some of the commentaries are insightful, too, and one, by the Israeli scholar and poet Haviva Pedaya, is flat-out brilliant.

Substantively, though, the book is much more of a mixed bag: an exercise in dissonance. The problem makes itself felt right from the start. The first of the book's six sections (each designed to address a question or issue "at the heart of much of contemporary Jewish sensibility") is devoted to "Discovering God in All Reality": a classic hasidic theme. But the section immediately following it focuses on "Spiritual Growth, Inner Transformation." However they may have talked, hasidic Jews in Eastern Europe didn't talk like that.

The language of tradition and the sensibility of New-Age "spirituality" sit cheek by jowl throughout the book. Its authors are refreshingly unashamed to speak of the centrality of God to Jewish life, although they tend to describe the divinity in such carefully chosen, non-personal terms as "an always-flowing force of light and energy" and the like. While similar terminology is to be found in mystical and philosophical Jewish texts, the real difficulty arises when you consider how an "always-flowing force of light and energy" can issue commandments—mitzvot. To this question, the Jewish tradition offers a variety of sophisticated answers, but in Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life you get the following: "The mitzvot are intended to be the vehicle through which a life of meaning, purpose, and holiness is realized." As the passive voice and piously vague vocabulary indicate, the challenge is simply evaded.

The volume opens with an assertion: "We live in a time of great spiritual renaissance . . . within the Jewish community." This will surely strike many as news; what has happened to the same community's endemic spiritual ennui, against which the Jewish Renewal Movement has set itself in the first place? The "renaissance" turns out to be, rather circularly, the one owing to the movement itself, and more precisely to its emphasis on the "mystical revival of Jewish theology and spiritual practice." The self-adulation reaches its peak in a chapter identifying Jewish Renewal as the contemporary spearhead of a mighty process begun in the first half of the 20th century by Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, in mid-century steered in a more radical direction by Arthur Green, Shlomo Carlebach, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and now being advanced by those whose ideas are filtered through the lens of "progressive America."

Delusions of grandeur can, perhaps, be forgiven. But in this case, as the invocation of progressivism suggests, they point to a deeper problem. That is the movement's radically egalitarian impulse, which reaches to, and is fundamentally at odds with, the heart of the Jewish tradition.  

One of the ultimate concerns of that tradition is to actualize the image of God latent in human beings—women and men, Jews and non-Jews alike. And one of the ways the tradition does this is by constantly putting before us the commanding heights of perfection by which we should strive to evaluate and order our own lives. If, in the light of those heights, I know that mine is a "low" life, at least I know where I stand—and also that, if I so will it, and if I put in the effort, I can rise upward. In Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, by contrast, everyone's life is understood to be already suffused with the "always-flowing force of light and energy," thus neatly reversing the poles of judgment. Now the measure of all things is "I," and all "I's" are equal.  

Two examples may suffice. A chapter of this book opens with Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav's profound parable about a king and his beloved vizier who together descend into madness in order to remain sane. In Nahman's telling, where the king represents God, the parable can be taken as suggesting that radical dissatisfaction with this fallen world is the sine qua non of an authentic religious life. In the book's telling, the parable is turned on its head, transformed into a therapeutic lesson for people who need help adjusting to "change."

Another chapter opens with the Piaseczner rebbe's heartrending interpretation of the suffering of the biblical matriarch Sarah, written in the Warsaw ghetto shortly after the rabbi lost his son, son-in-law, and sister-in-law, to be followed soon by his mother. This leads to a series of absurdly cloying and impertinent questions: "Why do we not show more 'revealed kindness' to others? . . .  What are we willing to sacrifice for others?" And so on.

How is one to understand such shallowness in a book, and a movement, brimming with such avowedly noble aspirations? In the concluding chapter, Zalman Schachter-Shlomi claims that our generation needs a doctrine, a Torah, of loving-kindness (hesed). After reading Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, one might be forgiven for concluding that our generation needs precisely the opposite, namely, a Torah of might (gevurah):  that is, the strength to envision what spiritual greatness really entails and, in light of that vision, to know where one truly stands and to proceed from there.

Appended March 31, 2011:

Read an exchange between the editors of Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life and Aryeh Tepper, the author of the review-essay above.  —The Editors 

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Larry Snider on February 15, 2011 at 10:29 am (Reply)
I find myself at somewhat of a disadvantage, having yet to read the book, but am not sure whether you are offering a book review or a more general review of Jewish Renewal or both. When I think of Rabbi Zalman, or Rabbi Green or Rabbi Carlebach I think of them each as leaders in a quest to bring mystical Judaism in all its guises to Jewish people living in the 20th now 21st century. It is a kind of spiritual awakening that incorporates all of Jewish history and tradition while attempting to connect it far beyond the boundaries of any book to those worshipping G-d in Shul and out. It is to me a work in progress with all of us waiting to learn more whether through the words of the Rabbis I just mentioned, through Rabbi Steinsaltz Talmud or any number of other inspiring encounters that allow Jews and non-Jews around the world to touch that which is Holy.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on February 15, 2011 at 11:29 am (Reply)
Tepper objects to "the movement's radically egalitarian impulse, which reaches to, and is fundamentally at odds with, the heart of the Jewish tradition." Our movement does indeed reach beyond the hierarchy of rabbis-in-charge, just as Rabbinic Judaism reached beyond the hierarchy of (hereditary) priests in charge. It is simplistic to say we are at odds with the tradition; we both transcend and continue it.

As for needing gevurah: We have already developed some elements of a new Halakha: women are fully equal in all aspects of Jewish life, including authority to shape the future of Judaism; gay men and lesbians are fully equal; "kashrut" must be made to apply more broadly to what we consume from the earth, like coal and oil and plastics, not only food; Kashrut must be restructured so as to apply not only to the death of an animal but to its life, the life of the Earth, and the lives of those who work to feed us; other religious and spiritual traditions must be treated with respect as flawed bearers of truth just as we are (asher bachar-banu IM kol ha'amim," We are chosen ALONG WITH, not "FROM," all other peoples") ; etc. These halakhot do not fit into the content of and are arrived at outside the process of Rabbinic Judaism.

As Reb Zalman has taught, they betoken, in both content and process, the beginnings of a new era or paradigm of Judaism, drawing on the past as Rabbinic Judaism drew on Biblical Judaism, but not imprisoned within it. The review seems unable to understand time and thought as a spiral -- not a circle always repeating itself, not a straight line of simple change -- but a spiral that draws always on the past to transcend the past. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in huge ways.
David Aharon on February 15, 2011 at 11:53 am (Reply)
While we debate the quetion of a Torah of Chesed versus a torah of Gevurah ... both are needed to bring about a Torah leading to Shalom or Tiferet-Harmony ... as we say in the prayer when returning the Torah to the Aron - All her paths lead to peace.[kol netivosecha Shalom.]
anon on February 15, 2011 at 2:23 pm (Reply)
Rabbi Waskow, Rabbinic Judaism was developed at a time when Biblical Judaism ceased to be a possibility as the Temple had been destroyed. Rabbinic Judaism in our time has not become impossible (!), but only incongruous with the ideas of the time. How can you make such a bold claim as if Orthodox Judaism were not flourishing? Nevertheless, you're doing better work than the other non-halakhic movements, so I applaud you.
Lanie Bergman on February 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm (Reply)
Whether our responses are inspired or insipid, Jews in every generation are obliged to engagement with the mesorah and its transmission to the next generation in its entirety so that each new generation can authentically continue. The Renewal movement joins other approaches in this continuity. "These and these are the words of the living G-d."
I prefer enthusiastic wrong-headedness to passive and rigid obedience, and I trust the G-d of history to continual manifestation.
Lyssa Tall Anolik on February 15, 2011 at 8:22 pm (Reply)
Mr. Tepper-- Have you had an opportunity to attend a Jewish Renewal service? If not, as a member of P'nai Or, a Renewal community in Portland, Oregon, I would like to invite you to do so. (You can find a directory of congregations on the ALEPH website: To fully understand Jewish Renewal, it's helpful to experience it firsthand. If you are willing to visit us with an open-minded spirit of inquiry, you will be welcomed. You may find yourself uncomfortable in a Renewal setting, but then again, you may be surprised...
Independent Patriot/Elise on February 16, 2011 at 6:36 am (Reply)
As long as the basic tenets of Judaism are kept (Tanach, Am, Eretz) there is something refreshing and quite frankly beautiful about a people being able to grow their religion to meet modern philosophies and understanding of life. Remember that Judaism at the time of the Torah was a very forward thinking religion which gave humanity and social understanding to its adherents. Something denied to other peoples throughout the known world.Judaism today should remain forward thinking and address the challenges of our modern society and reflect our modern understanding of equality and humanity as well. Judaism is not a stagnant religion. It has grown and developed as humanity's realizations of its own human rights and that of others has evolved.Whether its the moving from Temple to Synagogue era or to different branches and what that means to each individual person (Hasidism to Reform), Judaism is a vibrant religion that allows its people a voice.But what needs to not be lost is the history of the Jewish people and the fact that our survival should not be dismissed while we practice tikkun olam. We do have a right to exist, do not need to apologize for it, nor should allow our enemies to define us (which does seem to be a problem with those who confuse Liberal politics with Judaism)and it is time that the more lefty of our religious adherents see that rather than constantly trying to undermine our own survival.
Cyd weissman on February 16, 2011 at 8:45 am (Reply)
Your cynical side is showing this morning..I saw you teach the light of Rav kook...turning paradigms on their heads is what we do to survive worlds in transition...something is growing in the US that enlivens individuals...and leads to a living Torah..come spend Shabbas with our community..then you may have another thought. Best wishes for your continued insight and provocation
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on February 16, 2011 at 9:24 am (Reply)
"Undermine" our own survival? I suggest you look at the efforts some of us in Renewal have made to revitalize Judaism. For example, just some of my own:

SEASONS OF OUR JOY, a history/ handbook/ guide to the festival cycle;

A TIME FOR EVERY PURPOSE UNDER HEAVEN, which Rabbi Phyllis Berman & I wrote -- a similar history/ guide/handbook to the life cycle;

DOWN-TO-EARTH JUDAISM: FOOD, MONEY, SEX, & THE REST OF LIFE, which looks at all 4 of those areas in everyday mode ("Rest" is a pun: = Shabbat)

and our newest (Rabbi Berman & I), published right now by Jewish Lights): FREEDOM JOURNEYS: THE TALE OF EXODUS & WILDERNESS ACROSS MILLENNIA.

For more info on a life-filled, life-giving Judaism, see
JULIAN TEPPER on February 16, 2011 at 9:48 am (Reply)
Thanks to Aryeh Tepper for Spirituality Lite. He organized what for me and, perhaps, others, have been some seemingly random intuitional abstractions and, in so doing, has again given voice to Jewish religious authenticism.

I have been unable to locate any progress in progressivism as applied to Judaism. I have, of course, located progressive change, incremental as it is, much akin to the slow transformation of steel left open to the elements that begins with a corrosive coating that eats away at what it covers, little by little, until it reaches a tipping point that renders the fabric of the host permanently weakened. The authentic is transformed for (excuse me, please) life. It is gone, and persons who come along only at this point never experience what could have been there for them had it been better protected and preserved by their predecessors.

I view many of Aryeh Tepper's writings as protectors of who and what we have been, especially important in that what we have been is always what brings us to our starting point. In other words, I think he sees the values of our past as worth preserving against the incursive intrusions of a progressivism whose hope for change often expresses itself as an enemy of the natural evolutionary self-examining and self-preserving self-improvement that is built into our species's spiritual nature.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
Yehoshua Hershberg on February 16, 2011 at 9:51 am (Reply)
Dear Rabbi Waskow,

Spirals that draw on the past to transcend the past sounds like a great concept. However, Aryeh Tepper's point is that within a tradition, certain ideas are essential, they can not be changed. He contends that the concept of ascending the moral/religious hierarchy, that one may be close or far from God is essential to Judaism. When you remove something essential, even if you are spiraling, you do not follow the tradition.

Good luck with your new era or paradigm in Judaism,

Independent Patriot/Elise on February 16, 2011 at 10:47 am (Reply)
Rabbi- I wasn't referring to your movement as the negative "Lefty influence," I was referring to those who use their Jewish identity as a hammer against their own people in furtherance of a political goal which they convolutedly ascribe to being Jewish. I was attempting to support the idea that Judaism is a vibrant religion and that your ideas are in perfect harmony with our ancestors. I apologize if it came out incorrectly.
Ellen on February 16, 2011 at 11:51 am (Reply)
The Renewal Movement speaks to the arid apathy that permeates the two established movements (Reform and Conservative) that have positioned themselves as alternatives, or improvements on Orthodox Judaism and its various streams in America.

The problem, as many astute observers have pointed out since the 1960's, when these supposedly "countercultural" types of Judaism came out, is that they really aren't countercultural at all. They are attempts to import into Judaism the ethos of the 1960's culture which is now the dominant mass culture of America, most of which is toxic to any culture based on tradition, sobriety, communal ties and placing communal welfare above individual gratification. People can justify their actions in any way they please, but the passage of time tends to show which streams of Judaism can survive the fads and fashions of our vapid mass culture, and I don't think the Renewal type of Judaism is going to have the staying power of Orthodoxy.

Hillel Halkin wrote a scathing critique of the Renewal form of Judaism in his wonderful 1977 book (Letters to an American Jewish Friend), and his critique remains as valid today as it was then.
Rachel on February 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm (Reply)
Wow, never has so much good writing said so little.

Mr. Tepper raises many important points, but he, and I think the comments, miss a crucial point - one of the reasons that the egalitarian movements will always lack the depth of ancient, Biblically-rooted, Rabbinically-rooted, halachic Judiasm is that they've either completely or almost completely wiped out the concepts of "commandment" and "sin." Jewish practice therefore becomes optional, just that, "practice," rather than actions that have eternal value, that change the course of history itself, that have potentially destructive consequences.

Go ahead, people, fire away. Make my day. And don't get me wrong, I think any Jewish action someone says is great. (Not that you need my approval.) I'm just explaining the main reason why it's "lite."

Wishing everyone hatzlacha in their avodat HaShem,
Rachel on February 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm (Reply)
And one more thing - a lively, heartfelt service is great - it's just not the same thing as depth.
Rachel on February 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm (Reply)
Also I retract the nasty insult. That wasn't okay and I apologize.
R. A Waskow on February 16, 2011 at 5:44 pm (Reply)
"Fire away"? At what? There's no "there" there. Rarely have 3 separate comments been based on 0 information. No world-changing commitments? Not the equality of women? Not the equality of gay people? Not the insistence on eco-kashrut? All mitzvot! You don't LIKE these mitzvot, don;t obey them. You don;t LIKE "Tzedek tzedek tirdof," don;t do it. Buit don;t pretend there's no depth to them because you don;t like them.
Moshebaer Yehudi on February 16, 2011 at 7:56 pm (Reply)
Rabbi Green seems to have capitulated. Where is there
ethical imperative for our people as the chosen nation
affecting balance in flux through inside/outside time?
Radical atheists scientific materialists seemingly win
his heart mind so only silence as answer to suffering.
Rachel on February 17, 2011 at 12:23 am (Reply)
Let me qualify my definition of mitzvot - I mean one commanded by G-d in the Torah, eg., one of the 613. "Good ideas" are not the same as "commandments," which presuppose a Commander.
Adam Sher on February 17, 2011 at 11:38 am (Reply)
I for one prefer to read book reviews that contribute enriching perspectives to the mix of human ideas and aspirations, over reviews that seem to serve the cause of sinat khinam.

What we need is love and light in the midst of darkness - but in the absence of that, Mr. Tepper, why don't you tell your readers what you Really think rather than masquerading an attempt to undermine and discredit (dare I say de-legitimize) the integrity of Jewish Renewal as a 'book review'. I'm sure if the subject was confronted directly rather than through the lens of reductionist sensationalism ("a simple truth lurks...), a much richer picture would emerge. Jewish Renewal as represented by Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, and an array of truly diverse leaders and communitites, is one of the most important (and thanks to screeds like this and Mr. Landes shameful 'book review', misunderstood and obfuscated) religious movements in recent history.

This subject (that of the implications of the rise of 'post-denominationalism', the commodification of spiritual experience, and unconventional Jewish spirituality) requires and deserves real engagement, critique, self-examination, and continual renewal - and is done a disservice by the employment of intellectualized lashon hara as an analytical tool.

Aryeh Tepper on February 20, 2011 at 3:50 am (Reply)
Thanks for all the responses.

First of all I should make clear that I identify with the post-denominational impulse. Vitality is what we're after.

That said, my main argument is that vitality doesn't emerge from simply having the "right opinion" regarding God's immanence. In order to "plug into" the "divine flow" you've got lots of work to do: intense study, character development, etc. That principle is clearly articulated in the mystical and neo-Platonic philosophical Jewish traditions, but it is largely absent from "Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life." And I'm slightly amazed that none of those who left a comment in support of "Jewish Renewal" faced up to that problem.

David Aharon on February 21, 2011 at 8:31 pm (Reply)
Just curious isn't the Renewal similar to Reconstructionism as started by Mordechai Kaplan?

Please enlighten us more on this movement.
Aryeh Tepper on February 22, 2011 at 3:07 am (Reply)
David Aharon:

Daniel Landes treats Arthur Green's connection to Mordechai Kaplan in his article from the Jewish Review of Books, which you can find in our "relevant links," above. Green relates to Kaplan in his response to Landes, which you can also find above.
Shifra on February 22, 2011 at 7:57 am (Reply)
Aryeh Tepper mocks the Renewal Movement’s Jewish Mysticism and Spiritual Life. His essay reflects more on his own ignorance and closed-mindedness than on the actual content of the book. He derides the characterization of God, in the book, as a free-flowing sort of energy:
“While similar terminology is to be found in mystical and philosophical Jewish texts, the real difficulty arises when you consider how an “always-flowing force of light and energy” can issue commandments—mitzvot.”
Would it make more sense, intellectually, to characterize God as an old man with a long white beard, fluent in ancient Hebrew, who sits in the sky on his royal throne and issues commandments?
Indeed, movements such as Renewal Judaism were born from an intellectual and emotional need to characterize divinity in terms that were more comprehensible to the modern-day intellectual. As a teacher at a Reform Hebrew School, I spoke with dozens of teenagers who simply could not accept the idea of God. Educated in elite high schools, taught evolution and the big-bang theory of creation, these teenagers seemed to agree with the famous scientist and mathematician, Pierre Simon-Laplace, who said of God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
Is there a need for God in an age when science is our primary source for credible information? Is there a need for rabbis when we have therapists to heal our emotional holes? Is there a need for religious dogma when our culture prides itself on open dialogue and intellectual discourse?
The answer, for rabbis like Zalman Schachter-Shlomi and the other authors of Jewish Mysticism and Spiritual Life, is most definitely yes. Religion can no longer provide answers to scientific questions, at least for the majority of modern-day educated Westerners, but it can fill a much deeper role in human life.

Judaism has a rich history, tradition and culture that provides guidance for daily life in an intricate system of halakhah, Jewish law. There is value and deep wisdom in this system, acquired and filtered through centuries of Jewish philosophers and sages. Renewal Judaism seeks to give meaning to that system of law from a perspective other than that of dogma and out-dated superstitions.

My Hebrew School students would not be motivated to celebrate Shabbat by the notion that an old man in the sky would be angry if they used their computers. If, however, I explained to them that nature’s systems all work with ebbs and flows, with periods of exertion followed by moments of relaxation, and that all life systems need to rest, they can begin to understand the value of Shabbat. In a world where Facebook status updates are more important than breakfast, and iPods and iPhones are constantly buzzing and demanding attention, my young students could understand the value of a day of rest when characterized in this way. If God can be comprehended as the source of all life, the spirit of all beings, then it makes sense intellectually to say that God rested on the seventh day. The source of life is one that ebbs and flows, and it created a world that also grows and recedes, and wakes and sleeps. Thus we are commanded to sleep, to rest, simply by the fact that our nature demands it of us.

This terminology can be used for almost all of the commandments and begins to explain why organization like Uri L’Tzedek have begun to crop up in the Orthodox community. The organization, dedicated to promoting an ethical seal of kashrut, was founded on the principle that kashrut is more than a system of rules spouted by an old man in the sky. Instead, kashrut is valuable because it teaches us to be aware of what we eat. In a system of law commanded by the spirit of the universe, as the Renewal movement describes God, eating only healthful food is essential to physical and emotional well being. Most pets are picky about what they eat. Even wild animals are careful to eat fresh, healthy foods and spit out bitter mushrooms and rotten meat.

This characterization of God is not necessarily the same one the medieval rabbis would use or understand. That seems to be precisely the reason it is useful today. For women, who have been educated that God was a man, it can be particularly useful to change these conceptions. The essence of religion and God are more important than the specific terminology we use to characterize them.
Aryeh Tepper on February 22, 2011 at 8:09 am (Reply)
Shifra: I did not mock Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life. Here is what I wrote, in full:

"While similar terminology is to be found in mystical and philosophical Jewish texts, the real difficulty arises when you consider how an "always-flowing force of light and energy" can issue commandments—mitzvot. To this question, the Jewish tradition offers a variety of sophisticated answers, but in Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life you get the following: "The mitzvot are intended to be the vehicle through which a life of meaning, purpose, and holiness is realized." As the passive voice and piously vague vocabulary indicate, the challenge is simply evaded."

I hope you don't think Zalman Shachter-Shlomi was the first to claim that God is not an old man with a white beard, or that modern, American Jews have been the first to discover this problem. Many of the medieval Jewish philosophers said the same. They, however, offered sophisticated explanations of how a non-personal God can issue commandments.
Rachel on February 22, 2011 at 8:14 am (Reply)
Shifra, many frummies are just as annoyed at the Old Man in the Sky thing as you are. I completely agree, Michelangelo's Creation of Man is great art, terrible theology.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on February 22, 2011 at 9:34 am (Reply)
It js a little hard to enlighten someone who keeps his eyes tight shut. Mr. Tepper keeps reciting his own anti-mystical mantra that there is no grounding for mitzvot in Jewish renewal. He is wrong, and several of us have pointed out specifics over and over again.

To repeat; understanding YyyHhhhWwwwHhhh as the Interbeathing of all life, ruach ha'olam, means that among the mitzvot -- not nice ideas, MITZVOT -- are the healing of the deeply wounded relationship between proportions of O2 & CO2 in our planet's atmosphere. The present imbalance, brought about by pharaoh-like behavior by several power centers in control of much of human life (e.g. Big Oil, Big Coal), are having precisely the effect that Pharaoh's irresponsible & arrogant power had; the "plagues."

It is a mitzvah to heal God's very Name, the ruach ha'olam, the YHWH, which is now in crisis that we call the "climate crisis."

Mr. Tepper is so locked into the halakha as Rabbinic Jews 2,000 years ago encoded it, with some emendations within the system over the years, that he cannot even recognize the emergence of a new halakha, emerging by new means -- with rabbis part of but not controlling the process, with women & gay people fully part of it, with ears open to other traditions (including science). Shifra's explanation off the regrounding of the mitzvah of Shabbat is a perfect example -- and points toward some revisions in content as well, revisions in that Rabbinic "forty minus one" list of what must not be done on Shabbat. A new halakha of Shabbat,

For we are in a break with history at least as radical as what the ancient Rabbis faced when Rome shattered Biblical Judaism, and what led to the Voice in the Burning Bush.

Remember, that Voice explicitly cast off an old "Name" of God ("El Shaddai") and said a new Name was crucial to liberation.

Mr. Tepper is like a kohen after the Temple has been destroyed, complaining that the Rabbis are ignoring the halakha of Temple practice (as Yokhanan ben Zakaai did when he had the shofar blown in Yavneh on Shabbat Rosh Hashanah) and therefore insisting the these newfangled rabbis have no halakha, no mitzvot.

I think his response,like that of Landes to Art green's book, is socio0-teologically understable. Our world is in earthquake, in every dimension of human society. Some people respond to this by despwerately seeking some "unchanging" steady point they can desperatel;y cling to. I understand, and pity, that response. It leads to death.

The life-giving response is to learn to dance in God's earthquake. It is surely hard -- the ground is always shifting, and the dancers must be agile. But it is the dance of Life.

With blessings of emet, tzedek, and shalom -- Rabbi Arthur Waskow,
Aryeh Tepper on February 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm (Reply)
R' Waskow:

I think you've misunderstood my claim. I never argued that one won't find reasons for the commandments – ta'amei mitzvoth – in Jewish Renewal, or to be more precise, in Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life.
Instead, I claimed that there is no account for the Divine origin of the commandments. You refer to the end, or purpose, of the commandments, while my question deals with their beginnings.

But I'll pose the question to you: in what way are the commandments Divine, according to your thinking? Is it their inherent, progressive wisdom – the wisdom of the new paradigm? But then a case must be made that this progressive wisdom is actually Divine; asserting it is not enough. Or if you don't accept the Divine origin of the commandments, what makes them binding?

To illustrate my point, Maimonides also believed in a non-personal God, but according to some of his commentators, Maimonides believed the commandments were Divine because they were mediated by the mind of the prophet-legislator, while some of his more radical commentators claimed that the commandments remained obligatory for social-political reasons.

If by "learning to dance in God's earthquake" you mean that, since there is no solid ground, one simply commits to performing the commandments – a free-standing decision of the will - this simply means that there's nothing binding at all.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on February 22, 2011 at 3:21 pm (Reply)
Eyes still tight shut. How can I make it clearer that YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh -- the Divine Interbreathing of all life -- commands, requires, insists on actions that preserve and uphold that Interbreathing? Whatever shatters YHWH is an aveirah. Actions that extinguish species and damage the fabric of all human civliization are aveirot. This Mr. Tepper translates as "nothing binding at all"? He wins in one sense: I refuse to waste further time repeating the point. Anyone who is seriously interested is welcome to consult or any of my dozen or so books on Jewish thought and practice, for this purpose especially DOWN-TO-EARTH JUDAISM. Shalom, Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Aryeh Tepper on February 22, 2011 at 3:38 pm (Reply)
R' Waskow:

I'm sorry you are treating this as a kind of competition. I'm simply trying to understand. And what I understand from your final post is that "Actions that... damage the fabric of all human civliization are aveirot," i.e., sins. That's fine, but who decides what damages the fabric of human civilization? Thoughtful people argue about such issues. Unless we're supposed to merely take your word for it, in which case we're no longer dealing with Judaism, but something far more limited.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on February 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm (Reply)
Just because Shammai & Hillel disagreed did not mean there was no halakhic process under way, and no conclusions about how to behave. The process of working our way toward an agreement on what needs to be done to heal our planet is well on the way. My objection to your stance is that you don't even realize that the process is happening. -- AW
Aryeh Tepper on February 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm (Reply)
To be more precise, I doubt if the process to which you refer constitutes progress. --AT
Shifra on February 22, 2011 at 9:38 pm (Reply)
Hm... at the risk of interjecting in this lovely argument:

I think the larger disagreement between Arthur Waskow and Aryeh Tepper concerns the purpose of religion/God. For Arthur Waskow, devotion means working towards healing the world/planet/all living beings. For Aryeh Tepper, there is no clear reason for devotion to God. This devotion comes from a belief that God commands one to be devoted.

From these differing views stem two vastly different worldviews.

Aryeh Tepper on February 22, 2011 at 11:32 pm (Reply)
Shifra: I haven't said anything about why one loves God, and there are no grounds for you to come to any judgment.
Rachel on February 23, 2011 at 4:08 am (Reply)
My head is swimming from all the issues that have gotten conflated. Is there a G-d, how do we conceive of G-d (Spinoza, as Mr. Waskow alludes to? Michaelangelo? The Rambam?), what are mitzvot, who decides, are Aryeh Tepper's eyes shut, does Rachel Hershberg actually have a point, or is there no "there," there, but I want to try to address something that was raised earlier, when Adam Sher suggested that Mr. Tepper might be serving the forces of sinat chinam.

Respectful criticism is not sinat chinam, just as respectful criticism of Orthodox theology, practice, or community is not sinat chinam, but rather valuable contributions for us to consider and see as an opportunity to do teshuva. It seems to me that there's a double standard in the progressive movement - progressive criticism of Orthodoxy is valid, but Orthodox criticism of progressive Judaism is not ok. Is this true? I'm not talking about bashing, which of course happens in all streams, but about real discussion of issues, based on thoughtful consideration of what the writer is saying. Mr. Tepper wrote a piece criticizing the book (and perhaps indirectly, the movement) of shallowness. It's a serious, painful accusation. Maybe asking himself to explain himself further could be a tremendous learning experience for the participants or supporters of the movement.

Plenty of accusations are made regularly by progressive Jews towards traditional Torah and its followers, many of which were voiced (here, without nastiness) in this talkback. My experience has been that once careful consideration of each of those points has further enhanced and enriched my Judaism. I'm suggesting that we try to learn from each other.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow on February 23, 2011 at 8:38 am (Reply)
Chavera Rachel: Maybe I should have referred to Spinoza, but I didn't. My understanding of the YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh arises from my own life experience as a member of a generation in which that very Name Itself, the ruach ha'olam, has been traduced by human action -- the ultimate chillul haShem -- in what we call the climate crisis.

As for the respect that various streams of Judaism owe each other, I would never stoop to refusing to call an Orthodox Rabbi "Rabbi." Hmmm, never? Maybe for Meir Kahane.

Shalom, AW
Steve on February 23, 2011 at 10:30 am (Reply)
To Arthur Waskow: if you reject Rabbinic Judaism, and view it as totally unequipped to deal with the problems of our generation, then why even call yourself 'Rabbi'? I ask this question with all sincerity and do not intend it to be mean. If the problems of our generation are largely environmental, then it would be more appropriate to heal those problems by ascertaining a PhD in Environmental Science, no? Why waste our time looking for sources in a tradition we believe humans created in order to justify claims that we are going to make even if we do not find justifications in the tradition?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on February 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm (Reply)
Good question. I was ordained after 5 years of study under the direction of a beit din made up of one Rabbi of Lubavitch lineage, one Conservative rabbi, one Reform rabbi (a woman) and one feminist theologian who was not a rabbi. When I asked the theologian to sit on my beit din, she said it seemed strange for a non-rabbi to ordain a rabbi. I said that I did not want to join the rabbinate as it had been, but rather a "midrash" on it -- and the midrash i wanted was what she brought. She said it still sounded strange, but she agreed.

So -- I think the Rabbinic era is over, but I learn from it deeply as I do from Biblical Judaism and if the teachers of the Jewish community in our generation continue to be called "Rabbi," I am glad to celebrate the title as a member of the "Drusho-Rabbbiate," if you like.

On your 2d question: There is a great deal in Biblical Judaism -- in the Torah, Psalms, Shir HaShirim, etc -- that teaches a powerful eco-Judaism. PHDs in "envir'l studies" do not, unfortunately, learn the meaning of Shabbat & the shmitah (sabbatical) year.Or the connection between Eden and manna.

Further, what I learn from the tradition goes far beyond the direct application of Torah to ecology and the earth. I focus on that because it is the great crisis of our generation. But many other issues -- nonviolence & violence, labor organizing, sexuality, food, the meaning and practice of festivals and life-cycles,are part of what I learn from AND REMAKE in the tradition -- and especially the midrashic process as the early, transformative rabbis created and used it.

Again, let me urge you to dip into

Shalom, AW
Julian Tepper on February 23, 2011 at 6:42 pm (Reply)
I see that no one was cowed by the Rabbi.

While it that he seeks to be a teacher, should we, after reviewing what it is he wants to teach, also view him as a Lerner? I hope not!

I am impressed by Aryeh's patience and willingness to correct, gently.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
Larry Snider on February 24, 2011 at 7:27 am (Reply)
I do not believe the practice of Judaism needs be an either or proposal where one side is necessarily more right. There are many streams and much to study, learn and apply. I hope we can carry on and carry each other as far as necessary to promote both our continuity and our relationship to an infinite G-d.
Julian Tepper on February 25, 2011 at 10:17 am (Reply)
Larry Snider's most recent comment pinpoints a key question raised by these comments, namely, does the religion, Judaism, have a finite fabric, a sine qua non, without which it is not the religion.

And, the necessary follow-up question, to wit: can the elements of that fabric, including practices, liturgy and restrictions, be identified.

The basic element of the progressive approach toward defining Judaism (and just about everything else) is this: the religion is anything we want it to be. Anything that it was can be extinguished, added to or modified. And we have the right to refer to whatever it is that we wind up with as "Judaism," and no one can stop us from doing that.

It is axiomatic that the more that revisionists gain popularity, the less, by definition, there is a finite religion. Their efforts and practices cannot, and should not, be repressed. They are entitled to believe, and to act on their beliefs, as they wish.

The assumed issue (that is, who, in this religion which lacks a central power, is authorized to define what it is and what it is not) is not the real issue. The real issue is this: why are the progressives afraid to give their new, living, ever-changing, malleable religion, which to an extent copies and incorporates some of the traditional aspects of Judaism, a name of its own?

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on February 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm (Reply)
Mr. Tepper asks, "does the religion, Judaism, have a finite fabric, a sine qua non, without which it is not the religion"?

Yes, of course. Offerings of animals, barley, wheat, pancakes, unleavened and once a year leavened bread at the Holy Temple, as Torah (Vayikkra) absolutely commands -- yes, commands. Jews could have made those offerings at another place (indeed, some Jews did, at least at Elephantine on the Upper Nile). How chutzpadik to claim that Judaism can go forward without them!

And of course kashrut, which doesn;t even require the Temple. So a million Reform Jews in the uU are not even practicing Judaism at all!

What a relief -- thanks for the clarification, Mr. Tepper.

Shabbat shalom, y'all -- AW
Julian Tepper on February 26, 2011 at 9:02 am (Reply)
How to reply to the Waskow response, if I am to remain serious and avoid the seductive progressive, Alinsky-like tactics that his response prefers, such as try to ridicule the opposition and foment an attack in lieu of an intellectually honest approach. Well, I'll have a go at it.

1. If the Rabbi's response was a sincere and honest answer to an inquiry, it would comprise an admission that his religion is not Judaism. But, it was sarcasm.

2. Is a query as to the religion's sine qua non aspects so unworthy as to justify a response that is not both sincere and honest, and which avoids by the use of sarcasm giving a response that actually provides the information sought by the query?

3. Is the Rabbi able to regard as separate from each other those who, on the one hand, at any given point in history regard the commandments as authored by God and thus part of their religion (despite the extent to which they may obey them) and, on the other hand, at that same point in time, those who do not accept those commandments as having been authored by God?

4. Does the Rabbi recognize the difference between changes in practices over the ensuing time among those in the first group in #3, above, and a rejection of them and their bases by the second group, who create their own bases of religion and their own method of practicing that religion?

5. If those who are adherents of the Rabbi and his religion were as a group to decide that the concept of a day of rest, a Shabbos, is no longer to be part of that religion, would that change be incorporated into that religion with the result that there is to be no more Shabbos? If not, then what was there to stop it? Who, with authority, was there to reject it? And if the change were to be effectuated, would the Rabbi regard that changed religion as Judaism? Or would he say, okay, you are entitled to the religion you wish to construct, but give it its own name. Without a Shabbos, that is not Judaism, not my Judaism.

6. Thus, is the concurrent progressive-created religion defended and practiced by the Rabbi sufficiently different from the historical Judaism that has been practiced over centuries (as it has evolved from within by its adherents) as to deserve a justified demand that it find its own name?

7. Or should the religion as practiced by the Rabbi be deemed another branch of Judaism, along with the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches? And, if so, what name should that branch carry?

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
Eric Cohen on April 1, 2011 at 12:38 am (Reply)
As per Tepper's comment:
"In order to "plug into" the "divine flow" you've got lots of work to do: intense study, character development, etc. That principle is clearly articulated in the mystical and neo-Platonic philosophical Jewish traditions, but it is largely absent from "Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life."
I agree, it takes lots of work, and the mystical tradition does demand this. But, I do not agree that the authors of this book reject this idea. There is plenty here that is challenging. Tepper claims that he is interested in post-denominational Judaism, and in its re-invigorating potential. But, reading his critique... it sounds like he wants a re-invigorated Conservative Judaism. That's fine, I see lots of positives there, but it's not post-denominational. I think both the Landes review of Green's book and Tepper's review of this one come from a place of great anxiety and fear: people will get seduced into "Judaism lite," and avoid the "real work," which is, of course, re-discovering commandedness from Big Daddy in the Sky. I do see that as a possible outcome of people's spiritual searching, but I don't believe that is the real problem. The real problem is that Judaism has lost its meaning to countless thousands of Jews, and it's important to come up with ways to approach them. Not everyone will respond to the same openings, so not everyone will take to this book, but certainly many others will find great meaning and inspiration here. That's what post-denominationalism is about - accepting that there will be different paths. If people like Tepper and Landes are so worried about this particular path, then it behooves them to offer an alternative gateway or vision. Of course, that would involve "lots of work," and we're not likely to see that from critics.
disk on February 13, 2012 at 3:34 am (Reply)
Typically dislike commenting; but when you read an excellent post, occasionally you have to get out of those lazy approaches. This is such a post.

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