New Age Judaism gets a bad rap. It’s namby-pamby, critics say — indulgent, narcissistic. Maybe it’s not even Jewish. Never mind the fact that the Havurah movement, Jewish Renewal and Neo-Hasidism have significantly shaped mainstream Jewish prayer life (chances are, your mainline synagogue’s Friday night tunes were first sung by a hippie in Birkenstocks) as well as much of contemporary Jewish social justice activism (with apologies to this publication’s venerable heritage, angry Jewish socialism is not what inspires today’s young activists; engaged spirituality and social justice is). Jewish spiritual innovators are told, even by our allies, that we’re “off the derech.”
I’ve responded to these criticisms before, and while they keep coming, I’m not going to do so again here — at least not in the usual, moderate, liberal way. I’m not going to argue that meditation makes us better people; I’ve already done that in these pages for years.
I’m also not going to cite studies pointing out that old-school Judaism is being abandoned in droves anyway, or that this is part of wider trends in the transformation of American religion. Rather, I want to make a more radical argument: that precisely the weirdest, fringiest elements of New Age Judaism are, consciously or not, productively re-enacting and reimagining very old tendencies within Jewish civilization.
Let’s begin with, for lack of a better term, magic. Biblical Judaism — at least, the version of it recorded in biblical texts — is obsessed with purity and impurity, life and death, and with drawing obsessive-compulsive distinctions between them. This is the “cultic Judaism” that has been relegated to superstition by selective readings of prophetic discourse, by rationalist philosophy and Reform Judaism, and, not least, by Christianity. Jews may still read texts about sprinkling blood upward once and downward six times, but we skip over these parts, embarrassed by their very existence.
But the nonrational never disappeared from Jewish life; it just went underground. The Talmud is replete with tales of demons, spirits and all manner of supernatural events; we may think of the talmudic rabbis as lawyerly sages, but in many texts they appear as mages and wizards. And of course, magic and folklore surge throughout the Kabbalah, from Madonna’s red strings to the segulot (amulets and talismans) that you can buy at any tzaddik’s grave in Israel.