Spirituality Lite

By Aryeh Tepper
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

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.   

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 

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/spirituality

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