Jewish Revival: Where To From Here?
Secularization” is defined as the process in which those things religious transfer to nonreligious use, possession or control. To say that something is “secular” means that it is without religion or religious significance. Secularization has become a major concern to today’s Jewish community. It began with the Haskalah movement among Jews of Eastern Europe in the late 18th century and early 19th century.1
Haskalah (enlightenment) is that philosophy typified by Moses Mendelsohn. His book Jerusalem pointed Jewish people in a different direction and encouraged Jews to participate in the prevailing culture. Adherents of this movement opposed the domination of Orthodoxy, especially the restriction of education to rabbinic studies and the avoidance of culture. They substituted modern schools for the traditional cheder and promoted Western culture alongside Jewish tradition. Haskalah was an attempt to steer a middle course between Orthodoxy and assimilation, but it viewed religion as subject to human reason. This mindset remains the dominant framework in European and American culture today.
Most English-speaking Jews hold to a general secular philosophy. Even among Orthodox or observant Jews there would be some tendencies toward secularization. However in recent years, it has been conceded by many that secularization does not work.2 Many Jews are seeking to recover what they see as lost or dwindling spiritual values. In place of secularization, the Jewish community has seen the development of several new trends.
Three closely-related trends comprise the overall move from secularization to “return to Judaism.” Each touches on an area of Jewish life where a need is felt. Trends and their corresponding areas of felt needs are: (1) the development of the havurah, emphasizing community; (2) the increasing influence of Chasidism, especially of the Lubavitcher variety, emphasizing authority and experience; and (3) what I call the “New Orthodoxy” with its emphasis on observance, structure and tradition as a guide to what is good and right. There is some overlap between the three: the Chasidim study Torah , and observe mitzvoth, while many in the havurah movement have found a new dimension of worship experience. However, we will examine these trends primarily via three modern writers on American Judaism: Gerald Strober, Chaim Waxman, and Charles Silberman, each of whom has something to say about havurah, Chasidism and the New Orthodoxy.
The Havurah Movement
The roots of the havurah movement are ancient, but it was not until the early 1960s that exposure in the publications of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation brought it into American Jewish life.3
Gerald Strober’s description of havurah in the ’70s was as a community “organized on or close by a college or university campus,”4 thus suggesting that it was initially a student movement. Members of one havurah might all be observant, while another might have a mix of atheists and chasidic-minded.5 Strober quotes Jon Groner of the Beit Ephraim Chavurah at Columbia University regarding their motivation for beginning a havurah:
[There is] an unspoken root feeling which none of us can express or needs to express. we are longing for a home…out of a desire to experience Judaism as it was meant to be experienced.6
Groner presumes that there is a spiritual mover behind Judaism. This is a theistic assumption, but a more humanistic statement is made by Jonathan Stein in The Journal of Reform Judaism:
A congregationally-based havurah program designed in this way has the potential to help meet the four major areas of need which are too often unmet by other congregational programs: community and intimacy; authority and knowledge; participation and autonomy; ideology and meaning.7
Because it was viewed as an offshoot of the counterculture and it seemed communal life was for hippies, the new movement was criticized by establishment members such as Rabbi Wolfe Kelman. In the Fall 1971 issue of Conservative Judaism he says that the significance of the havurot (plural) had been ‘slightly exaggerated” by the early proponents.8 Yet the movement remains.
The needs expressed by Jon Groner have not disappeared. Nor is the movement to be dismissed as a relic of the Jewish counterculture.” Chaim Waxman cites a 1977 publication on havurot by Bernard Reisman of Brandeis University. Waxman gives weight to Reisman’s observations that most Jews do not join a havurah for “countercultural” reasons but because the existing institutions do not meet their needs.9
The “established” nature of the havurah was made even clearer by Charles Silberman in 1985:
The most characteristic expression of this spiritual hunger was the havurah, or religious fellowship, a group of ten to fifty (or, in a few instances, more) individuals and/or couples who met regularly for worship and study…several thousand were caught up in the movement, and they included some of the brightest and most creative members of their generation; many have gone on to become distinguished scholars, writers, and “Jewish civil servants”.…10
Rabbi Harold Schulweis [of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino, California], borrowing the most inspired innovation of the Jewish counterculture, has adapted the idea of the havurah to the needs of a middle-aged suburban congregation. The result has been the creation of havurot, usually involving ten individuals and/or families, within the synagogue itself, to provide a more intimate and less threatening setting for religious observance as well as a system of mutual support in time of need. In the fall of 1984 there were more than 60 havurot.…11 Silberman continues:
The old communitarian emphasis has largely disappeared as the founders have married, born [sic] children, and become immersed in their careers, but the havarot remain. There are at least 300 throughout the country and perhaps as many as 500.12
So although the havurah has not turned American Jewish life upside-down, it remains in some circles an ongoing institution. It would be difficult to say the havurah movement is either growing or declining. Its significance seems to be in the way it tries to answer problems rather than in any great solutions achieved by large numbers of people. But what then distinguishes a havurah from other forms of Jewish communal expression? Silberman again:
New or old, havarot continue to display most of the characteristics that distinguished them from conventional synagogue life. Specifically, they continue to be distinguished by their emphasis on celebration and joy (most havurah members reject the obsession with Jewish persecution and suffering that characterized their own religious upbringing); their insistence on equality of the sexes (women play the same religious roles as men) and on lay participation (members conduct religious services themselves, refusing to delegate religious worship or practice to rabbis and cantors); the importance they attach to study, especially of traditional texts; their experimentation with liturgy; and the worship style they have developed, which combines the warmth and fervor of Chasidism with the informality of American youth culture.13
One of the more visible signs of the early years of havurot was The Jewish Catalog. Its section “Communities” contains an “annotated bibliography” of over eight havurot, along with two sections entitled “How to Start a Havurah” and “Blueprint for a Havurah.” The following section on Chasidism and the need for community, was an indication of the growing popularity of the Chasidic movemeent, which, while stressing community, also called for authority and experience.
It might seem that the counterculture of the ’60s and the apathetic resignation of the ’80s would mitigate against a need to seek more authority and structure. Consider Myriam Malinovich’s chronicling of women who made a return to Orthodoxy via the route of Chasidism.14
Malinovich decided to investigate this phenomena because a friend had become ba’al teshuvah, that is, made a return from nonobservance to Orthodoxy. Her curiosity led her to an “Encounter With Chabad Weekend.” [Chabad is another name for the Lubavitcher Chasidism movement; Chabad Houses are frequently found at university campuses.] Her observations are illustrative of the need for community:
As the weekend progresses I become aware that many of the young women attracted to this place are reacting to sexual promiscuity…Most of these women share a feeling that women are treated more seriously and with more respect in this environment than in the liberated world of tight jeans, see-through blouses and one-night stands…In addition, many are reacting against what they consider excessive and burdensome freedom.15
Perhaps the issue is summed up by Malinovich’s quote from an anonymous woman at the Chabad weekend:
America is a place of nothing.
Nothing is handed down except freedom.
You can die of freedom.16
Chaim Waxman says that modernity “promotes a crisis of meaning [and] also precipitates a loss of and subsequent search for community.”17 Jonathan Stein adds that “the struggle to find community and intimacy stems, in part, from the transient and frenzied nature of our American society.…”18
The struggle was a reaction against the loss of authority and structure. The renewed interest in Chasidism is due, in part, to their strong emphasis on authority. Chasidism has struck a responsive chord in the hearts of Jews who feel inadequate in a society that stresses that we “do our own thing” and rewards those who find loopholes in the system. The authority which Chasidism offers is personified in one man simply called “Rebbe.” He is part of a dynasty of supposed seers, miracle workers, sages, saints and otherwise elevated men. Gerald Strober writes:
Like other leaders of Chasidic groups, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is accorded the greatest respect and adoration by his followers. Rabbi Samuel Schrage, a Lubavitch member who has made his mark as a competent official of the [New York City mayoral] Lindsay administration, sums up the awe in which Rabbi Schneerson is held, “We regard the Rabbi as a saint,…his beliefs are very important.”19
The Lubavitcher’s exaltation of the Rebbe in their book The Rebbe, exceeds Strober’s observation. Consider the evidence from the source itself:
Therefore, on beholding the Rebbe’s countenance…one immediately feels liberated from the material bonds that shackle his body, as he is released from confinement to the infinite spiritual space of divine holiness.20
The Rebbe, may he live long and happily, endowed with vast knowledge and with the greatness of Torah, wisdom and sanctity, extolled by myriads who follow his every utterance.21
Without being aware of it, [visitors] are immediately drawn into this atmosphere. The visitor joins in the spirited singing of the multitude, as the Rebbe “conducts” the throng; he hangs on to every word the Rebbe utters, and as he says lehayyim to the Rebbe, his face glows in the light of the Rebbe’s acknowledgment.22
The Rebbe’s face is the epitome of the cohesion of man with his Maker, and the experience cannot fail but leave its impression on the spectator and his spiritual outlook in the future.23
The above is from the Chabad’s own publication. One wonders whether the legitimate need for authority is being addressed in an inappropriate and unJewish way. This certainly sounds more like the Hindu or Buddhist version of a holy man rather than a Jewish religious leader.
This adoration and veneration accorded him border on idolatry. The Rebbe strictly regulates all the lives of his followers and is accorded a status far above that of even the Pope of the Catholic faith. This sort of person veneration of a living religious leader is more characteristic of cults than of Judaism.
Neither Waxman nor Silberman devote much room to discussions of Chabad or Chasidism in general. They do, however, give much attention to what they call the “Orthodox revival” and what I call the New Orthodoxy.
The New Orthodoxy
Lubavitcher Chasidism has not been nearly as influential as the New Orthodoxy, yet it does overlap with Chasidism inasmuch as it stresses authority. The New Orthodoxy goes hand in hand with structure, and the return to “observant Judaism” is an attempt to recover a lost sense of structure, and a proper sense of external authority. While the Chasidim submit to the authority of the Rebbe, the New Orthodox look to the authority of tradition.
The New Orthodoxy is both visible and widespread. According to Strober, its adherents come from the ranks of “some of the most influential Jewish religious philosophers and authorities.”24 But what of the movement in mainstream Judaism? The momentum of the ba’al teshuvah movement was not yet apparent when Strober made his assessment in the early ’70s. Strober did speak of the Lubavitcher Chasidim’s “considerable success”25 in motivating young people to adapt a Jewish lifestyle in the Lubavitcher mode. But he concluded, “the prognosis for the future of Jewish religion in America is not promising.”26
Silberman, while initially in agreement with this prognosis, later conceded:
When I began my research in the summer of 1979, most observers doubted that a return to Judaism was under way; by 1984, articles describing the return had become almost commonplace.27
According to Chaim Waxman there was a pendulum shift between 1965-1975 which involved a “new, distinctly American Orthodoxy.” He concluded this based on the following observations: One, there was an increase in the number of Orthodox Jewish immigrants to the U.S. between 1937-48. Two, there were changes in American Orthodox institutions, such as the Day School movement. Three, there were changes in American society, such as a five-day work week (which made it easier to be upwardly mobile and still observe the Sabbath). And finally, the rise of “religious consciousness.”28
What kind of religious revival is taking place? What brand of Orthodoxy is being followed? The term ba’al teshuvah literally means “master of repentance” or more colloquially, “one who returns” to the fold of Judaism. Since this “return” takes on a variety of forms, Silberman prefers the definition of Charles Liebman: “anyone of college age or older who is more observant than his or her parents, teachers, or childhood friends would have predicted.”29
According to Liebman this includes anybody, for any reason, doing just about anything, to be “more Jewish.” The specific reasons for returning to Judaism vary from person to person, as do the routes the returnees have followed, the particular forms their new-found observance takes, and the intensity and seriousness with which they approach their religion.30
What is the practical outworking of this? Is the degree of Orthodoxy one practices a matter of personal preference? The New Orthodoxy may or may not resemble the Orthodoxy of our grandparents, even when it comes to such fundamental issues as the existence of God. Perhaps it is better to speak of this revival as “neo-observance.”
This pick-and-choose approach to Judaism, creates a problem. Silberman highlights the problem as noted by Sara Bershtel and Allen Graubard in the Summer 1982 issue of Dissent:
In their view, the essence of the problem—the reason Jewish renewal will not last—is that it is the product of individual choice rather than a response to communal or divine demands…The emphasis on individual choice makes the revival fragile, Bershtel and Graubard believe.…31
As a case in point, Silberman makes an example of the anonymous “X” who turned from “humanism” to “the Jewish tradition.” Yet X remains an atheist who “would like to” believe in God but does not. Furthermore, “he wonders whether his observance of ritual can be sustained without the belief he does not (or does not yet) have, but he is ‘prepared to see what happens.'”32
Although Silberman takes issue with Bershtel and Graubard and applauds this emphasis on “individual choice,” he does admit that:
The emphasis on self can slide all too easily into narcissism—a worship of the self that Judaism can see only as another form of idolatry. Among those recently returned to Judaism, moreover, as well as among the members of the havurah community, there is another danger, which might be termed idolatry of the group.…33
Footnotes 1See “Haskala.” Encyclopedia Judaica 7:1433-1452.
2For a critique of secularization in keeping with the conclusions of this article, as well as of other contemporary trends, see Os Guiness, The Dust of Death (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973). While not specifically addressed to Jewish concerns, the book interacts with trends that have affected the Jewish community as well as larger society, both in Europe and the United States.
3Chaim I. Waxman, America’s Jews in Transition (see bibliography).
4Gerald S. Strober, American Jews: Community in Crisis (see bibliography), 233.
7Jonathan Stein, “In Defense of the Congregational Havurah,” (see bibliography), 44.
10Charles E. Silberman, A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today (see bibliography), 206.
14Myriam M. Malinovich, “A Haven Among the Chasidim” (see bibliography), 41-44.
20The Rebbe (Sifrit Mairev, 1979).
35Tuvya Zaretsky, “Turning to God” discusses the biblical idea of teshuvah, “returning” (see bibliography below). Bibliography
Blocher, Henri. In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis. Leicester/Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984.
Guiness, Os. The Dust of Death. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973.
Malinovich, Myriam M. “A Haven Among the Chasidim” in Present Tense 11:1 (Autumn 1983), 41-44.
Siegel, R.; Strassfeld, M.; Strassfeld, S., eds. The Jewish Catalog. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973.
Silberman, Charles E. A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today. New York: Summit Books, 1985.
Stein, Jonathan. “In Defense of the Congregational Havurah.” Journal of Reform Judaism 30:3 (Summer 1983), 43 ff.
Strober, Gerald S. American Jews: Community in Crisis. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1974.
Waxman, Chaim I. America’s Jews in Transition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.
Zaretsky, Tuvya. “Turning to God: Good News for God’s Chosen People.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985.
The Rebbe. Sifrit Mairev, 1979.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.