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Can New Agers Channel the Old Rebbes’ Spirit?

‘We are the heirs of the chasidism that would have been created by all the rebbes who were killed in the Holocaust,” Daniel Siegel told the 200 Jewish spiritual seekers who gathered last month for the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan’s “Awakening, Yearning and Renewal: A Conference on the Hasidic Roots of Contemporary Jewish Spiritual Expression and Neo-Hasidic Shabbat Festival.”

A dizzying array of speakers and performers — from respected scholars of chasidism, Jewish mysticism and Jewish musicology to fringe practitioners of many varieties of “Jewish spirituality” — participated in this unprecedented event that combined features of an academic conference with concerts and a Shabbaton, complete with Sabbath services, meals and lots of hugging and communal singing.

Siegel is the rabbinic director of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, an organization that offers a variety of spiritual services, ranging from weekend retreats to a program leading to smikha, or rabbinical ordination. Siegel described smikha in his presentation as the “world’s only serious program of rabbinic study with no campus.”

Siegel’s claim to be an heir of pre-war chasidic masters notwithstanding, the New Age neo-chasidism that was the central topic of this conference should not be confused with classical, or Beshtian, chasidism, which originated in late-18th-century Poland and Ukraine and is still practiced today by hundreds of thousands of chasidim in thriving and rapidly growing communities around the world.

In fact, the handful of chasidic rebbes who did survive the Holocaust re-established postwar chasidic communities that continued, unchanged, the Orthodox traditions of their forebears and does not in any way resemble the amorphous hodge-podge of spirituality that was on display at this conference. Nor should the new neo-chasidism be confused with the romantic neo-chasidism of early 20th-century Jewish writers like I.L. Peretz, Micha Yosef Berdichevsky and Martin Buber, who found inspiration in chasidic sources but neither proposed them as the basis for a new mystical Judaism nor presented themselves as latter-day chasidic saints, unlike Aleph’s faculty members, who actually call themselves rebbes.

The goal of the conference, co-sponsored by the Spirituality Institute, the JCC in Manhattan and Bard College, was — in the words of Nancy Flam, director of the Spirituality Institute — “to stimulate thinking about the ways in which the richness of chasidic texts, ideas and practices is finding expression in contemporary, non-Orthodox Jewish religious communities.”

The Spirituality Institute, based in western Massachusetts, provides a two-year program of periodic weeklong retreats for rabbis and cantors from the non-Orthodox congregations intended to deepen the spiritual dimension of their professional work. The conference that it organized brought together a diverse group of other Jewish Renewal organizations, such as Aleph, all of which have turned in some way to the chasidic tradition for spiritual enlightenment. The Jewish Renewal phenomenon, inspired by

such charismatic masters as the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (known as the “singing rabbi”) and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, markets an eclectic blend of popularized kabbala and Buddhist practices directed at young Jews alienated from the more established forms of Judaism and who might otherwise be attracted to Eastern mystical religions.

One of the prominent leaders of the neo-chasidic movement and a major presence at the conference, Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, is the director of Bayit Chadash, which means New Home, an Israeli version of the Spirituality Institute, whose program of study centers on the Zohar, an esoteric 13th-century work that is widely considered the central text of medieval kabbala. Among Bayit Chadash’s offerings is a two-year, four-retreat seminar called “Training To Become a Maggid, a Holy Teacher,” led by Gafni.

Responding to my doubts about the pedagogic soundness of teaching Zohar to students who are not yet familiar with the Hebrew Bible, to say nothing of the rabbinic literature, Gafni (described on the jacket of his latest book as “a profound thinker, philosopher and spiritual guide [who] is the author of the national best-seller ‘Soul-Prints’ and… a premier voice in Israeli and international religion and spirituality”) insisted that “devekut [mystical union with God] can be reached in a number of ways and only one of them is Halacha [Jewish law].”

This search for Jewish spirituality in all but the most basic, normative and important sources of Judaism is evident in Aleph’s statement of principles, where we learn that “Among our guides to interpretation of Torah are the Prophetic, Kabbalistic and Hasidic traditions as they are now being transformed in light of contemporary feminist spirituality, process theology and our own direct experience of the Divine.”

It is not at all clear to me how much of Judaism is left when one sidesteps its historically central texts like the Mishna, Talmud and Shulkhan Arukh — i.e. the entire rabbinic tradition — and goes directly to esoteric mystical sources that were never intended for popular consumption, especially not by their authors. This approach seems to me to be far closer to the heretical antinomism of Shabbetai Zevi, the notorious 17th-century false messiah of Izmir who ended his career as a Muslim. In fact, one of the participants at the conference, Shaul Magid, a professor Jewish mysticism and chasidism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, seemed to suggest in his presentation that the Jewish Renewal movement is, in many respects, closer to Shabbateanism than to chasidism.

An even more serious problem, to my misnagdic and Yiddishist lights, was made manifest by the linguistic and cultural illiteracy of many of the conference’s participants that was so evident at every session I attended. These sincere, well-intended people come to such events to deepen their understanding of Judaism — a noble purpose, to be sure. Yet many of the “holy teachers” they find in the Jewish Renewal movement have little patience to teach the basics, i.e., the Jewish languages, the Bible and Mishna, to say nothing of serious and structured instruction in rabbinic and halachic texts. Being a “maggid” and a “rebbe” is after all a lot sexier than being a language instructor. The consequences of this impatience with imparting the very basic languages, texts and practices of Judaism was made painfully evident in the fascinating presentation on chasidic and neo-chasidic liturgical music by Mark Kligman, a professor of Jewish musicology at the Hebrew Union College in Manhattan. Citing a study of the Bnai Or worship community in Boston, Kligman quoted one of the women participants:

I’m a much more intuitive person than an intellectual person, so I find that music sound gets me to a spiritual plane more than words. I have a hard time with word prayers, and I don’t speak or read Hebrew. And in English… when you put things into words sometimes it minimizes, whereas sound has a sort of infiniteness. I have to say, there are certain melodies that take me “out there.”

Inspired by the early masters of 18th-century chasidism who did indeed subvert the hierarchy of traditional rabbinic values by placing prayer and mystical experience above Torah scholarship, the neo-chasidim are confident that their form of spirituality will spread and strike roots among contemporary American Jews the way chasidism did across Eastern Europe.

But the analogy is a false one: For unlike the chasidim of Poland who were immersed in a mimetic yidishkayt that filled the air of the European shtetls and saturated the pores of virtually every Jew, many of today’s spiritual seekers who are attracted to neo-chasidism are Jewishly illiterate in every respect. Even the most ignorant, untutored chasid in Belz, Vizhnitz, Satmar or Lubavitch spoke Yiddish, davened in Hebrew and had an intuitive understanding of the norms of rabbinic Judaism. In a word, they were steeped in yidishkayt. That certainly cannot be said of most of the participants in the neo-chasidism conference.

This problem was evident to me even before the conference formally began. A pre-conference concert on Wednesday evening featured the wonderful trio the Singing Table, led by Michael Alpert, an erudite student of East European Jewish music and gifted musician. Although Alpert went to great lengths to explain what he was doing, he occasionally made Hebrew references and told some untranslatable Yiddish jokes. When I was one of the only people in the hall to respond, I began to suspect something was amiss with the neo-chasidim. Sadly, that suspicion was deepened and confirmed over the course of the next days.

To be fair, the spiritual founder of the neo-chasidic Jewish Renewal, Schachter — himself a deeply learned rabbi of chasidic origin — is acutely aware of these problems and addressed them directly in a video presentation to the conference. Schachter called upon participants to pay more attention to the study of rabbinical texts and insisted on the need for some form of halachic structure to guide the neo-chasidim on their spiritual path.

Another leading figure of the Jewish Renewal movement, the respected scholar of chasidism Rabbi Arthur Green, is also aware of the need for more study and structure. There is clearly a tension, if not a rift, within the neo-chasidic community on this very issue.

There were several other serious scholars, profound philosophers and seasoned rabbinic leaders among the ranks of the neo-chasidim at the conference — people like Nechemia Polen of Boston’s Hebrew College, Magid, Elliot Ginsburg of the University of Michigan and Chava Weissler of Lehigh University. One can only hope that their learned voices will prevail and help provide many sincere Jewish spiritual seekers with a more structured entrée to Jewish learning and a more responsible Jewish spiritual home.

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