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Judaism and the New Age

Two small communities trying to create a ‘New Age’ type of Jewish setting were established in Israel at the beginning of the decade. They incorporated meditation into prayer and integrated bodily experiences into religious ritual. A study by Rachel Werczberger demonstrates how these communities symbolize Judaism as a flexible cultural resource, serving many Israelis in their formation of a personal and collective identity

Two small communities trying to create a "New Age" type of Jewish setting were established in Israel at the beginning of the decade. They incorporated meditation into prayer and integrated bodily experiences into religious ritual. A study by Rachel Werczberger demonstrates how these communities symbolize Judaism as a flexible cultural resource, serving many Israelis in their formation of a personal and collective identity.
In recent years, the combination of “spirituality” and “Judaism” has generated renewed interest. Every Rosh Hashanah, tens of thousands of haredi, national-religious, traditional, and secular Jews stream to Uman in the Ukraine to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Hesder yeshivas teach Hassidism and Kabbalah, and completely secular Jews mumble, à la Shuli Rand, “Where are You?” to the Creator of the Universe. It is no wonder that in the spring of 2009 the Hartman Institute’s Havruta journal of Jewish discussion chose to devote an entire issue to new Jewish spirituality.
Jonathan Garb, a scholar of twentieth century Kabbalah, calls the many facets of this phenomenon “the revival of Jewish mysticism in our time.” For my doctoral thesis I elected to deal with an angle I call “Jewish spiritual renewal”. My fieldwork focused on two Jewish communities, striving for Jewish spiritual renewal that were active in Israel from 2000-2006: the Makom [Place] community, operating at Metzoke Dragot in the northern Judean Desert and the Bayit Chadash [New Home] community in Jaffa.
The Makom community was founded by Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi. The Bayit Chadash community was founded by Rabbi Mordechai Gafni. The former is a baal teshuva (a newly-religious Jew); the latter is an American rabbi who, at the time of this research, defined himself as Orthodox. Both rabbis were influenced by the American Jewish Renewal movement, gathering a few dozen adherents, around which the initial core of the communities grew.
Members of the Makom community at Metzuke Dragot
Both communities were founded and then dispersed at around the same time. The first to disband was the Makom community, in May 2005, as the result of a joint decision by its members. About a year later, Bayit Chadash, also disbanded. Its collapse stemmed from a crisis in the community, resulting from charges that the community’s rabbi had taken sexual advantage of a number of community members and staff. The rabbi was fired by the community’s executive committee, and the community members went their separate ways.
The establishment, activity, and disbanding of the Makom and Bayit Chadash communities are, to a large extent, the story of a daring and subversive experiment and the failure of that experiment. Both communities consciously sought to establish a non-halachic spiritual alternative to contemporary Jewish religiosity, combining ancient Jewish traditions (notably Kabbalistic and Hassidic), philosophies, ideas, and practices with "New Age" notions. “Neo-Hassidism” and “New Age Judaism” are among the labels attached to this experiment, with parallels occurring among North American Jewry.
One of the main features of the experiment was an emphasis on the spiritual experience and the mystical desire to unite with the transcendent (dvekut in Hassidic terminology) by creating an experiential, physical, sensual Jewish ritual. A new Jewish style of prayer emerged in these communities, combining the Jewish words of prayer with "New Age" musical and physical aesthetics. Prayers were held with participants seated on mats, men and women together and were shortened to just a few sentences, chanted repeatedly accompanied by musical instruments and drumming. Many times, prayers would end in ecstatic dancing with all participants standing up and swaying enthusiastically.
An additional "New Age" feature of these communities was their eclectic approach. Community members were happy to incorporate non-Jewish customs and ideas, usually originating from Far Eastern religions or from native cultures, into their Jewish ritual. For example, meditation was incorporated before and during the recitation of the Shema. One of the communities even adopted Native American shamanistic ceremonies during immersion in a natural spring for purification.
Both short-lived communities operated on the cultural fringe of Israeli society. My interest in them stems from the feeling that both communities were an extreme expression of social processes occurring in the Jewish world, particularly in Israel.
The development of Jewish spiritual renewal at the end of the 1990s was linked to other social phenomena taking place in Israel at the time–the flourishing of "New Age" culture, significant expansion of the Jewish Renewal movement (which led to the development of pluralistic yeshivas, secular prayer groups, and the like), the increasing numbers of Israeli backpackers traveling to the Far East after their army service, and the strengthening of connections between Israelis and Jewish communities in North America, especially the Jewish Renewal movement and its leader, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. These phenomena led to the attempt of many Israelis to formulate a new Jewish and religious identity outside of institutional settings and conventional Israeli-Jewish social frameworks.
Jewish spiritual renewal also reflects the growing expectation of the current social era—sometimes referred to as postmodern—that the individual formulate his or her own independent identity that goes from being “given” (by tradition) to being “achieved”. In other words each person must formulate his or her identity by looking inwards.
In their book The Jew Within, Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen discuss the way in which non-Orthodox Jews in North America infuse their Judaism with meaning. Their central argument is that similar to their peers of other religions, Jews searching for meaning turn inwards, to the self too. This autonomous understanding of the self, led to the activities in which they chose to engage and the meaning they attributed to it. In the same manner, the “identity work” undertaken by the Jewish spiritual renewal communities in Israel is an expression of the growing need of secular Israeli Jews to search for personal meaning within traditional settings and to creatively incorporate those traditions with global "New Age" cultural elements. For the members of the Makom and Bayit Chadash communities, the result was a Jewish spiritual compound that suited the aesthetic and moral proclivities of the community members.
On the surface, this trend of creating new content and approaches to Judaism was primarily characteristic of American Jewry. The activities of these two communities however and of the Jewish spiritual renewal movement in general teach us that this trend is now also taking place among Israeli Jews. As such, spiritual renewal is putting existing cultural definitions and boundaries to the test. Its eclecticism and incorporation of different Jewish and religious approaches challenge the accepted lines drawn between Jews and non-Jews and between Jews of different denominations. In Israel, the standard public discourse makes a binary distinction between “secular” and “religious.” The religious tendencies of members of spiritual renewal movements and their detachment from halachic authority undermine this distinction.
Despite the short lifespan of the Makom and Bayit Chadash communities, the activities of their members and followers illustrate how Judaism has become a flexible, cultural resource, serving many Israelis in their own private identity formation projects. As for the communities themselves, their attempt to adapt Judaism to postmodern "New Age" social life ended in failure.
Rachel Werczberger is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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