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Folklore and history.

As a folklorist, I study the expressive culture--rituals, prayers, music, and crafts--of ordinary people (in my case, ordinary Jews), rather than the intellectual or artistic creations of cultural elites--rabbis, philosophers, and classical composers. In practice, of course, these are not distinct categories, and I have often found that my most productive material comes from those who mediate between religious elites and "ordinary Jews."

Throughout my career, I have moved back and forth between ethnographic and historical research. My dissertation research was an ethnographic study of the havurah movement, groups of Jews who come together for fellowship, study, and prayer. I followed this with a historical study of the piety of eighteenth-century Central and Eastern European Jewish women. My present project, once again based in ethnography, is a study of the Jewish Renewal movement in North America. My study focuses on the organization now called ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, with

forty-four affiliated communities, primarily in North America, and administrative offices in Philadelphia. It has its roots in the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former Lubavitch Hasid and emissary of the Lubavitcher rebbe. Reb Zalman, as he is called, is still the "rebbe" of the Jewish Renewal movement. More specifically, I seek to understand the varieties of Judaism created in this movement through a study of the expressive culture of participants in ALEPH--their rituals, art, dance, and worship--as well as their writings. Members of ALEPH often quote the words of Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, describing their movement as "Hasidism meets feminism." I am particularly interested in the way women and feminism figure in Jewish Renewal.

I'll address each of the discussion questions in turn.

1. How does the history we choose to engage with shape the ethnographic tale we tell, and what type of historical consciousness do we bring to the work?

While Jewish Renewal can be described as a "neo-Hasidic" movement, it can also be understood as part of the contemporary drive toward varieties of religion that stress intense experience and "spiritual practice." Indeed, Jewish Renewal can be set into both of these historical frameworks: the history of Kabbalah and Hasidism and the history of American religion.

What difference does it make if I tell this as a Jewish tale or as an American tale? The study of Jewish Renewal started out for me very much as a Jewish story. I got interested in the topic because of my previous research on Jewish women's piety in eighteenth-century Europe; I discovered kabbalistic motifs in writings for and by women. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was doing this research, scholars thought of Kabbalah as an elite mysticism, exclusively the province of learned Jewish men. I was among a cohort of scholars asking whether women and non-learned men could know Kabbalah, and how they learned it. In the course of that research, I encountered a literature in Yiddish that popularized Kabbalah. Although women were still excluded from learned circles of Kabbalah study (and the inner circles of the emergent Hasidic movement), they read and used this literature in the vernacular to gain some knowledge of kabbalistic ideas and symbols, and to use these as a resource to shape their own prayers and practices. (1) Searching for a new research topic after I completed that study, I looked around, saw news about the pop star Madonna and her interest in the Kabbalah Centre,. as well as other varieties of popular Kabbalah, with a whole literature in the vernacular--English, in this case--explicating Kabbalistic ideas. Jewish Renewal, which draws on Hasidism and Kabbalah, intrigued me as a site to investigate what I came to call contemporary, "vernacular Kabbalah."

What are the questions that emerge from this approach? First, they suggest a traditional "philological" methodology: What are the textual sources used by members of Jewish Renewal, and how are they interpreted or changed? How do contemporary works about Kabbalah and Hasidism in English compare with the earlier Yiddish works? Further, who has access to kabbalitic materials and concepts, how do they have access, and who has the authority to use and transform them? Traditionally, women were excluded from learned kabbalistic studies. What happens when, in Jewish Renewal (as well as in contemporary academic scholarship), they have that access?

This way of telling the story leads us to seek the sources of Jewish Renewal feminism. From its early years until today, a strong strand of Jewish Renewal feminism has been what is called "essentialist": Women and men have different spiritual essences, and what we need to do is to value women's spiritual essence. An obvious root of this kind of thinking is the American women's spirituality movement of the 1980s. However, as scholars of Chabad Hasidism have shown--most recently, Elliot R. Wolfson, in his recent work on Chabad messianism (3)--there is a strand of Hasidic thought going back to the eighteenth century in which the revaluation of the divine feminine principle and its emergence into right relationship with the masculine is essential to the revelation of the Messiah. Thus, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, saw the contemporary American feminist movement as an indication of the coming messianic era. It's clear, as I listen to adherents of Jewish Renewal, that these redemptive tropes, and the symbolism from Lurianic Kabbalah upon which Schneersohn drew, are an important part of their understanding of feminism. (4) Schachter-Shalomi and other early influential figures in Jewish Renewal came through Chabad, and they clearly brought these ideas with them.

On the other hand, looking at Jewish Renewal as part of American religious history also leads us in fruitful directions. Aspects of Jewish Renewal that seem odd through a Jewish lens look perfectly normal through an American lens. For example, why are there more women than men involved in Jewish Renewal? Men have been the public religious actors in Judaism for so long that one tends to assume that their relative absence is unusual and alarming. Members of the Jewish Renewal movement themselves worry about this. But, as American religious historian Ann Braude argues, women's history is American religious history. Women have been the majority of participants in American religions since colonial days. (5) It is thus no surprise that more than half of the participants in ALEPH events are women.

Jewish Renewal is clearly part of the recent American trend toward deeply experiential spiritualities, both on the religious right (evangelical Christianity) and the religious left (the turn toward Buddhism and meditation). But what few realize is that this is far from a new phenomenon in American religious life. As American religious historian Leigh Eric Schmidt has shown, the turn toward mysticism and spiritual experience in America began in the mid-nineteenth century, with the Transcendentalists and others. Schmidt cites the writings of New Thought religious leader Horatio Dresser, one of the "architects of the spiritual phase of American progressivism" around 1900, to outline what was then called "liberal religion." (6) Point by point, it mirrors my own description of the major characteristics of Jewish Renewal. (7) American spiritual progressives sought individual mystical experience, just as members of Jewish Renewal speak of devekut (experience of the divine presence) as central to their lives. Both the spiritual progressives of the early 1900s and members of Jewish Renewal value silence and meditation, and they regard the transcendent as immanent in each person and in nature. The cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety as well as unity in diversity is very similar to the "deep ecumenism" articulated by Renewal Jews, while ethical earnestness in pursuit of justice finds its parallel in Jewish Renewal's value of tikkun olam (healing of the world). Among both groups, we find an emphasis on creative self-expression: Music, art, dance, and storytelling are all important in the Jewish Renewal movement, forming part of its value of tikkun ha-lev (healing of the heart). The only points found in the Jewish Renewal list and missing from this list are gender equality and openness to lesbian, gay and other queer varieties of sexuality.

Is the story of Jewish Renewal a Jewish story? One can locate the roots of almost all of these characteristics in Kabbalah, Hasidism and other Jewish sources. Or is it an American story? Are the promulgators of Jewish Renewal descendants of the Transcendentalists and other spiritually progressive movements? Clearly, it is both, and both frames can help us to understand the movement.

2. The ethnographic research we do often focuses on Jews written out of history--Hasidim (in an earlier time), women, youth, etc. What are the histories we draw on to understand those actors, and how do we rewrite Jewish histories?

How do we rewrite Jewish histories? My first answer is political: by standing our ground and resolutely treating our subjects as worthy of study. I have tended to pick topics that, at the outset, invite a sneer or a chuckle, whether the supposedly trivial topic of women's Yiddish prayers, or the supposedly flakey topic of Jewish Renewal. As Jewish scholar and sociologist Shaul Kelner has suggested, historians will one day use our ethnographies as sources, and thus our writings will lead to a more inclusive history.

These are still battles that need to be fought. A few years ago, I was chatting with a graduate student in American Jewish history, someone I like and respect a lot. When I mentioned to her that my current research project concerned the Jewish Renewal movement, she asked, "Are you going to separate the wheat from the chaff?" That is, she assumed that there was something wrong with Jewish Renewal, and that I would critique it, rather than write about it as a form of contemporary Judaism worthy of study.

Historians of Kabbalah have, for the most part, privileged the writings of learned religious virtuosi, and students of contemporary Kabbalah tend in the same direction. Israeli Kabbalah scholar Jonathan Garb, in his book on twentieth-century Kabbalah, writes that he believes "implicitly in varying degrees of creative excellence ... Therefore I propose a differentiation between qualitative phenomena (innovative and complex kabbalistic works) and quantitative phenomena (the popularization of Kabbalah). I have no sympathy for certain phenomena associated with the rise of contemporary mysticism ..." And thus he proposes to limit his detailed study to the phenomena he deems worthy. (8) In a new study that deals extensively with Jewish Renewal, religious studies scholar Shaul Magid writes about the thought of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and other scholarly teachers. Indeed, what Magid means by "Jewish Renewal" is the theology of Schachter-Shalomi, not the practices and convictions of those who participate in the movement, the majority of whom are women. (9)

Yet taking women seriously requires that we revalue the old hierarchies. Jewish studies scholar Ada Rapoport-Albert, in her pioneering work on women in Sabbatianism and Frankism, has probably thought more deeply than anyone about the exclusion of women from Kabbalah and Hasidism. (10) She shows that, from rabbinical Judaism on, the identification of women with the body and the material leaves no way for women to have access to a spiritual dimension that can be validated by the elite system. Only when Sabbatai Zevi explicitly opened prophecy and divine inspiration to women as well as men, and when Sabbatianism and Frankism explicitly revalued the importance of the physical body and materiality, could women become full participants in Jewish mysticism, and only in heretical forms of Jewish mysticism, at that. Rapoport-Albert's findings suggest that the explicit revaluation of embodiment found in Jewish Renewal is crucial to the way in which women transform Kabbalah and Hasidism in Jewish Renewal. Indeed, Jewish Renewal's view of material existence as holy is in line with its emphasis on the immanence of the divine in the human body and on the importance of creative expression through dance and music that were mentioned above. The arts in particular de-emphasize textual literacies, and privilege competence in other fields of spiritual expression. Thus, a course entitled "Dancing in the Light of G!d" allows the teacher (a rabbi and dancer) and the students (all women) to learn, internalize, and express the kabbalistic and Hasidic teachings of the Four Worlds in a completely different fashion than is allowed by simply studying kabbalistic texts.

3. How does one recognize "social change" in the moments of fieldwork, and how does Jewish history help to locate this?

As ritual studies scholar Catherine Bell argues, ritual can be seen "as a particularly effective means of mediating tradition and change, that is, as a medium for appropriating some changes while maintaining a sense of cultural continuity." (11) Feminism in Jewish Renewal has undergone substantive change over the decade and more I have spent following the movement, and the evolution of the Eshet Hazon/Women of Vision ceremony crystallizes some of these changes. (12) This is a ceremony in which a community of women in Jewish Renewal (not all of the women in Jewish Renewal) recognize the spiritual gifts of anywhere from four to a dozen women. The ritual is sensually rich, with flowing robes, meditative chants, aromatherapy scents, crystals, and deeply felt spoken testimony about those honored. We can see in the development and alteration of this ritual the changes that have taken place in Jewish Renewal feminism, as well as in the organizational history of the movement. Specifically, we can see a change from an early, essentialist feminism to its relative decline and the recent rise of new feminisms, some influenced by queer theory.

Women created Eshet Hazon in the 1980s to honor the unique gifts of particular women who had emerged as leaders, and the ceremony celebrated their "spirituality of heart and hand, rather than head, of weavings and birthings," rather than the textual study undertaken by their husbands and other men in the movement. (13) At first, it was understood as an alternative women's path to something like rabbinical ordination.

In the early days, the ritual occurred spontaneously and occasionally, among women who were close friends and closely connected to the emergent Jewish Renewal movement. Over time, the movement grew and became an organization with conferences and rules. Its biennial conference, the Kallah, eventually drew hundreds of participants. While at first, Eshet Hazon was celebrated openly at the Kallah, the ceremony went "underground" as the organization became larger. It was never an official ALEPH function. The first time I was invited to attend an Eshet Hazon initiation, in 2005, it was held more or less secretly, by invitation only. In addition to organizational growth, another challenge had emerged: Many women were now ordained as rabbis, and ALEPH had its own rabbinical program. What now was the purpose of Eshet Hazon? The secret meetings allowed women who still held to their traditional essentialist views to gather together, and they honored those in the same mold, even though a number of them were now also ordained as rabbis.

For a variety of reasons, protests arose against the "secrecy" of the ceremony, and it became, at the next Kallah in 2007, an official ALEPH activity. At first, it blossomed into a vigorous, beautiful ceremony, with both women and men in attendance. But as it became more public, those women activists, often a different sort or style of feminist, who had never been honored as Women of Vision were hurt and offended. In addition, more lesbian, gay, and queer Jews had become active and valued participants in the Jewish Renewal leadership. To oversimplify a bit, the essentialist paradigm was weakening, questioned both by some in the ranks of ordained women rabbis and by a younger cohort of women leaders with a greater variety of feminist approaches. Most recently, the original creators and movers of this ritual did not attend the Kallah of 2011, and the ritual itself seemed pale and lacking in power. Nonetheless, among those women honored was Rabbi Lori Klein, the new head of the ALEPH Board, who explicitly preferred the complexities of the play of genders in queer theory to the simple division of masculine and feminine that was foundational to Jewish Renewal feminism. Gender remains an arena of struggle in Renewal. Yet we can see changes, if not yet a new consensus, emerging within Renewal. The 1980s and 1990s were times of women's libertion and creativity. Women seeking to find a place for themselves within the Judaism they had inherited, and influenced by the women's spirituality movement of their day, adapted Kabbalistic mythology, created new prayers, rituals, and symbols, embodying a tremendous surge of creativity and powerful spiritual experiences.

Now the torch may be passing within Renewal from "women's liberation" to "queer theory." In critiquing the dominant essentialist paradigm, lesbians and other queer activists are reaching for a more complex understanding of divinity, one that plays with hierarchy rather than simply trying to expunge it. This change reflects a larger societal shift, in which homosexuality has become far more accepted in American culture than it was two decades ago, and is now seen as a cultural resource. It also reflects the growing presence of lesbians, gays, and other queers in ALEPH and its leadership; recent rabbinical classes have had an ever higher percentage of students from this group, and suggests that their teaching, thinking, and leadership have become important resources for the movement as a whole.

(1.) Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), especially chapters 6-8.

(2.) For a study of the Kabbalah Centre, see Jody Myers, Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest (Westport, CT: Praeger: 2007)

(3.) Elliot R. Wolfson, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneersohn (New York: Columbian University Press, 2009) chapter 54.

(4.) For example, some Jewish Renewal feminists draw on the texts and explication in Sarah Schneider, Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine (Northvale, N.J.:. Jason Aronson, 2001).

(5.) Ann Braude, "Women's History is American Religious History," in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed., Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) 87-10.7

(6.) Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper, 2005) 12.

(7.) See, for example, Chava Weissler, "Meanings of Shekhinah in the 'Jewish Renewal' Movement" in Women Remaking American Judaism, ed., Riv-Ellen Prell (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007) 51-81, especially 54-55.

(8.) Jonathan Garb, The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in Twentieth-Century Kabbalah (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009; original published in Hebrew in 2005) 7.

(9.) Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013). There are no entries for "feminism," "gender," or "women" in the index.

(10.) Ada Rapoport-Albert, Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666-1816 (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012).

(11.) Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 251-2.

(12.) See my article on the ritual as celebrated in 2005 and the changes in 2007, "'Women of Vision' in the Jewish Renewal Movement: The Eshet Hazon ['Woman of Vision'] Ceremony," Jewish Culture and History, vol. 8, no. 3, Winter 2006, (published 2008), pp. 62-86; also published in New Age Judaism, eds., Celia E. Rothenberg and Anne Vallely (London and Portland, Ore.: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008) 52-72. Later changes are discussed below in the text.

(13.) Several of the early honorees were married to rabbis.
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Author:Weissler, Chava
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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