Jewish Renewal

An introduction to the Jewish Renewal movement.

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Rabbi Paley said that, “the whole nomenclature of Jewish Renewal has become part of the federation world over the last 10 years, especially the last three to four years,” in the way things are discussed in continuity commissions and other departments.

Jewish Renewal’s impact is also visible in the fact that the Reform movement held a meditation retreat in Arizona in early April--the denomination’s first--and it was oversubscribed.

And it is visible in the current vogue, in liberal settings, for exploring new God-language as an alternative from the masculine wording of the traditional prayer book. Reb Zalman was one of the first to explore feminine language to describe God. He also broke away from standard modes of prayer, employing liturgical creativity that pairs off worshippers, with one person closing their eyes while the other recites a Psalm from memory.

Yet at the same time, in many quarters there has also been a strong resistance to the movement’s innovations.

One of those which hasn’t widely caught on is substituting the breath sound “Yah” in prayers, replacing “Adonai” or “Lord.” Another is addressing people with the title “Reb,” a term expressing warm respect, but one which, especially when used to address a woman, can sound more like affectation than affection.

There is also widespread suspicion of the validity of the ordination conferred by Reb Zalman, who works with each student to create an individual program.

He has done things which other movement leaders would not: One of the rabbis he ordained, Tirzah Firestone, was at the time married to a Christian minister.

The Reform and Conservative rabbinical organizations don’t admit Schachter-Shalomi’s rabbis.

“There is a sense that what is happening in that community is a watering down of tradition to meet individual needs, that it is market-driven,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the 1,500 member Conservative-movement Rabbinical Assembly. “It’s viewed with very mixed to negative reviews.”

“Quickie ordinations, ordinations done without people going through an in-depth period of study and learning, weaken the rabbinate and weaken Jewish life,” said Rabbi Meyers.

Jewish Renewal is sometimes criticized as New Age, touchy-feely and stuck in the 1960s. And indeed, that was visible in the groovy Grateful Dead-head-style dancing a couple of women did at the edges of the sanctuary during a song at the recent Shabbaton at B’nai Jeshurun. It was audible in terminology coined by Reb Zalman and used by others such as “davvenology” and talk of a “vibrant spiritual experience.”

Still, Renewal continues to attract people, touching one soul at a time. Many are those, who have felt, like Renewal's founders, on the margins of mainstream Judaism.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.