Neo-Hasidism: The New Jewish Movement Bridging
Traditional Observance and Progressive Values
By Lisa Gold
For a little over a year now, I have been considering myself a Neo-Hasidic Jew. Feeling “too” politically progressive for traditionally observant circles, and “too” traditionally observant for politically progressive communities, I continually find myself in unchartered territory, forced to move back and forth between the two sectors, yet never fully feeling at home in either. Neo-Hasidism, with its call for re-imbuing Jewish practice with spirituality, embracement of soulful and uplifting niggunim, and modern adaptations of Hasidic theological teachings, strongly appeals to me.
However, the more I have learned about Neo-Hasidism during my time in Israel, the more I recognize that once more I have encountered a community in which I must sacrifice my progressive ideals—many of which actually stem from my Jewish upbringing and values—to fully integrate into this world of quasi-traditional observance. In this paper, I will argue that the Neo-Hasidic movement, in contrast with the Jewish Renewal movement, actually has the potential to engage an entire generation of young, American, progressive Jews, yet its stances on the Land of Israel are in fact contradictory to the other values it espouses, therefore preventing it from gaining mass popularity.
The State of the American Jewish Community
The Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of American Jews produced some staggering statistics regarding Jewish observance and identity, sparking panic amongst leaders of many major American Jewish communal organizations. What was causing them such concern? It was such numbers as the fact that “about three-in-ten American Jews (including 19% of Jews by religion and two-thirds of Jews of no religion) say they do not identify with any particular denomination.” And “among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults—the Millenials—68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.”[i] Given that “the percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%,” I can understand why the adult leaders of the American Jewish community are worried that their latent fears of assimilation and disaffiliation are being realized.[ii]
Their fears are not unfounded: If rising numbers of Jews, particularly young Jews, feel disconnected from the religion, who will maintain the community in the future? Who will serve as the next generation of leaders? These are certainly important questions to be asking, and while I am thrilled that the American Jewish community is finally starting to engage in this important process of self-evaluation, I think they are looking for answers in the wrong places. Covert anti-intermarriage efforts and free trips to Israel are prioritized, when, in my experience, many members of my generation are looking for meaning—for our community to stand for something, to live up to our supposed commitment to justice. Finding that value lacking in many Jewish organizations and communities, they turn elsewhere, often feeling forced to select their ethical-political values over a strong commitment to traditional Jewish practice.
The Influence of Israel on American Jewish Affiliation
In my experience, this discrepancy between values and observance[iii] becomes most obvious in discussions about Israel. Returning to the Pew Research Center’s report, it becomes clear that American Jews do not hold monolithic views on Israel and Israeli policies. For example, “just 38% say the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians,” and “just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security.”[iv] Yet very few Jewish organizations actively create the space to support and facilitate conversations in which their constituents can wrestle with these important questions of what it means to support Israel with a critical, yet constructive, mindset. And those that do still face tremendous opposition from mainstream Jewish leaders and organizations, as evidenced by the recent Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations’ decision to reject J Street’s bid for membership.[v] To progressive Jews, actions such as this one send the message: “you are not wanted here.” And for those that do value or seek a traditionally observant lifestyle, how long and how hard must we fight to gain entrance to a community that so clearly does not value our presence?
My Personal Story as a Young, Progressive, American Jew
I speak about this because this is a story I know all too well. I grew up in what I often describe as a prototypical Conservative family: we have Shabbat dinner every Friday night with my grandmother and go to shul every Shabbat morning, yet we drive to both of those places. In high school, to the alarm of my family, I decided to become more observant, becoming strictly shomer Shabbat and shomer kashrut, as well adopting more tznius modes of dress. I began attending services at the Modern Orthodox shul across the street from my family’s Conservative one, and spending Shabbat with my observant friend when possible. I thought this was the world I wanted, and I particularly absorbed Orthodoxy’s teachings about women’s roles in the home. Each Friday, I would come home from school and frantically clean the whole house, and even sometimes cook food for Shabbos lunch, before running over to my grandmother’s house for dinner.
By twelfth grade, though, this new lifestyle had begun to unravel. There were many reasons—disagreements with my family, living in a non-observant neighborhood, and being heavily involved with activities that often conflicted with Shabbat—yet one of them was my increasing feeling of alienation from the religious community because of my views on Israel. I grew up in a household where thoughtful critique of Israel’s policies was allowed, even encouraged, largely due to my grandfather’s long-term work in facilitating peace building initiatives between the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, outside of my home, amidst the various Jewish organizations of which I was a part, I continually encountered opposition to the idea that Israel could be held responsible for its role in the conflict, or that Palestinians could be anything but monstrous terrorists.
After engaging in heated arguments with my religious instructors in day school and later in Hebrew school; after receiving an email from my religious friend (the one with whom I often stayed for Shabbat) instructing me, along with the other members of our Jewish youth group chapter, that it was our obligation as Jews to support Israel unconditionally, I lost faith that my Jewish identity could be reconciled with my progressive values. If refraining from critical thought when it came to Israel was a prerequisite for being a “good” Jew, then perhaps Judaism was not for me. Fortunately, since then, I have found people and organizations that have convinced me otherwise, proving that my core values are not just in contradiction to my religious practice, but often even mutually reinforce each other.
However, although I no longer feel so alone in my political-religious identity, my friends and I often lament how underrepresented we feel by current Jewish communal organizations. We find ourselves moving towards alternative organizations, such as Hebrew College, the recent aptly-named Lefty Jew Shabbaton, and the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network; while I am incredibly grateful for the work these organizations are doing to create space in the American Jewish community for meaningful conversations about social justice from a Jewish lens, I am also saddened by how small and grassroots these initiatives remain, and how often—quite ironically—traditionally observant Jews who are potentially attracted to these organizations feel that these groups do no adequately cater to their religious needs, or do so in a way in which they are made to feel like a burden rather than an asset to the community.
A Choice Between Politics and Religion
I believe the young, American, progressive Jewish community is at a crossroads between traditional Jewish affiliation and progressive politics. For many, who grew up in non-observant households and have long established their Jewish identity on such concepts as “Justice, justice you shall pursue”[vi] and “Love thy neighbor as thyself,”[vii] perhaps this choice—if it is even viewed as one—is simple. However, those of us who wish to remain connected to traditional Jewish observance experience this choice very acutely. On one side, we have members of the progressive community, such as student activist Joshua Leifer, calling for “our disaffection and disaffiliation” from American Jewish organizations due to their consistent disinterest in conversations that fall outside the bounds of mainstream and right-wing politics, and on the other, no clear alternative communities in which we can join to celebrate Shabbat or pursue Jewish learning, a painstaking dilemma which Leifer acknowledges but for which he offers no solutions.[viii] Why must these two paths be positioned as diametrically opposed to each other? Where is the movement that encompasses both liberal values and traditional Jewish observance?
Neo-Hasidism as the New Young, Progressive Jewish Movement?
For a long time, I thought that the answer to this question was Neo-Hasidism. The deep and resonating energy of Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s music, the embrace of passionate, unrestrictive song and dance as valid means of connecting to and communicating with G-d, the enraptured way in which the “hevrei” I would encounter at services and on rooftop gathering in Nachlaot would talk about life, seeming to bestow even the most mundane with a kind of mystical wonder, all resonated with me. This was a movement that spoke about connection to the Earth, to finding the G-dliness in everything in the world around us, of engaging in the process of dvekut—often in the form of meditation, song, and/or concentrated prayer—to become attuned to the G-dly forces in the Universe.
Neo-Hasidism was a language I could understand, one that seemed to share a common vocabulary and draw freely from the universalistic and liberal values with which I was raised. It is “non-Western, anti-modern,” characteristics that resonate with me as I discover how deeply flawed many of our institutionalized political and religious systems truly are.[ix] Even the long, flowing clothes favored by many Neo-Hasids reminded me of the free-flowing modes of dress symbolic of the counter-culture movements of 1960s and 1970s America, and of the many hippies founds across my liberal college campus. I made the dangerous assumption that between the long, colorful skirts and talk of discovering the holiness in each person, place, and thing, my progressive views on Israel would also be accepted, possibly even commonplace.
The more I learned about Neo-Hasidism, though, the more I realized I had once again entered a community in which I would be forced to make the same decision I have been confronted with my entire life: religion or politics. Neo-Hasidism understands there to be a metaphysical relationship conjoining the three fundamental pillars of the Jewish faith: “the People, the Teaching, and the Land.”[x] Many Neo-Hasids living within 1967 Israel or in the West Bank speak of a spiritual, living relationship with the land itself, believing that “the Land of Israel is not necessarily a political value as a territorial region but rather an expression of G-d’s relationship to the Jewish people, abstract and inexpressible, and only to be fully realized on the future horizon in the time of the Messiah.”[xi]
It is from this perspective that the desire to settle in the Palestinian territories—rooted in a narrative which I understand, yet ultimately disagree with because I see it as presenting an obstacle to peace—originates. If our relationship to G-d can only be developed to its fullest potential when living in our historic homeland, then territorial sovereignty becomes necessary to maintain that condition. Too often, though, I see this criteria being fulfilled at the expense of the rights of others, namely the Palestinians. It is at this moment that the religious becomes political, and I question my place in a community that proclaims that beauty of all human beings, yet seems to only apply this teaching to Jews in practice, that places the sanctification of the Land over the sanctification over the lives of the Palestinians living in the next town over.
As I delve more into the history and ideology of the Neo-Hasidic movement, I have simultaneously been learning more about the development of the Jewish Renewal movement, a close sibling of Neo-Hasidism. Jewish Renewal, founded by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a close colleague of Carlebach’s, combines Neo-Hasidism’s desire to pursue a “spiritual practice” grounded in “Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions” with a commitment to “fully include all Jews and to respect all peoples,” along with “promoting justice, freedom, responsibility, caring for all life and the earth that sustains all life—tikkun olam,” according to the movement’s website.[xii] Their official stance on Israel is no different from the inclusive and open-minded attitude they employ with regard to other topics, such as prayer, women’s participation, and theological interpretation. They state:
We affirm the continuing historical and spiritual connection of the Jewish people with the land of Israel and support the existence of Israel as an autonomous state open to the ingathering of Jewish people. We are advocates of Israel's need to engage in dialogue with all of its neighboring peoples to hasten the peace we all yearn for.[xiii]
However, just as with the other progressive Jewish organizations I named earlier, the Jewish Renewal movement, in seeking to encompass universalistic, liberal values, often deviates from traditional Jewish observance.
This paper in many ways is both a personal reflection on my spiritual, religious, and political journeys, and a proposal for my vision for the future of the Jewish community. I speak largely about my own experiences because that is the only area in which I am a true authority, yet I know from conversations with friends that I am not the only one that finds myself in this seemingly paradoxical space between progressive values and traditional observance. I still feel connected to neo-Hasidism in many ways, and I still value many of its teachings and its ability to reinterpret ancient practices for our modern times. It is precisely because of this connection that I am writing. Neo-Hasidism is the closest movement I have encountered that has been able to span the disconnect between the two spheres of my identity in a substantive manner; I refuse to accept the idea that its views on Israel present a final and insurmountable barrier to this melding of worlds.
I believe that neo-Hasidism truly has the capacity to transform and emerge as a movement that stands consistently for the pursuit of justice and the spiritual healing of the world; the values are there, the open-mindedness is there. It is time to apply the liberal values usually reserved for music and environmental stewardship to the lives of other human beings. It is time to see that political sovereignty in this land and delving into its metaphysical properties are not necessarily synonymous. It is time to see that the Palestinian’s olive trees have the same Creator, the same infinite holiness, as the olive trees planted by Jews. Once again, I write because I believe we are capable of more, of fulfilling our collective purpose as a nation in covenant with G-d in ways that reject violence and oppression. Neo-Hasidism is the only movement I currently see with the power to engage an entire generation of Jews longing for a strong connection to their Jewish identity, yet refusing to give up on their (ironically very Jewish) progressive values.
[i] “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, October 1, 2013. Web. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/
[iii] Or at least the values that tend to be promoted by the traditionally observant community; I do not mean to imply that the two are mutually exclusive out of necessity, but rather in practice.
[iv] “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”
[v] Maya Shwayder and Sam Sokol,“Conference of Presidents Votes Against J Street Inclusion.” The Jerusalem Post. May 1, 2014. Web. http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-Features/Conference-Of-Presidents-votes-against-J-Street-inclusion-350972
[vi] Devarim 16:20
[vii] Vayikra 19:18
[viii] Joshua Leifer, “For Young, Progressive Jews, Opposing the Occupation is an Inter-Generational Struggle,” new_partisan. July 16, 2014. Web.
[ix] Steinhardt, Joanna. (2007). American Neo-Hasids in the Land of Israel: Paradigms and Strategies in the Jewish New Age. Hebrew University, Jerusalem. 157.
[x] American Neo-Hasids in the Land of Israel, 157.
[xii] “About Jewish Renewal,” ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, 2014. Web. https://www.aleph.org/renewal.htm.
[xiii] “ALEPH Communities,” ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, 2014. Web. https://www.aleph.org/communities.htm.