About Jewish Renewal
Jewish Renewal is a totally egalitarian approach to Judaism. Those who have often been marginalized in Jewish life are welcomed and honored. Jewish Renewal draws inspiration from the Jewish mystical and Hassidic traditions. Chant, meditation, dance, and drama are encouraged as ways of connecting with God and Torah. The ultimate goal of Jewish Renewal is to help people achieve full mindfulness of G-d and renewed spiritual intention in their Jewish religious practice. There is respect for and often learning from other spiritual paths.
Jewish Renewal emerged at the height of multiculturalism in America in the 1960’s. It does not claim to be a formal denomination and in fact, describes itself as post-denominational, reaching beyond denominational boundaries. Jewish Renewal takes its members from all streams of Judaism and also includes many Jews who are unaffiliated or who are solely affiliated with Jewish Renewal.
Jewish Renewal is overall a grassroots movement. Initially created through the efforts of its founder, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, and his circle of students and colleagues, Jewish Renewal has, over time, spread slowly to a national and international movement.
Jewish Renewal draws heavily from Reb Zalman’s teachings. According to Reb Zalman, while we may be living in a time when a new spiritual model is being developed, this does not mean that we in Jewish Renewal need to abandon religious traditions. Rather, we must appreciate and incorporate new thought processes while still honoring our timeless traditions and heritage.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: Jewish Renewal’s Founder and Creator
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, or “Reb Zalman,” as he preferred to be called, was born in 1924, in Poland, spent most of his childhood in Vienna, and settled in New York City in 1941, after his family fled the Nazis. He received rabbinic ordination from the Lubavitch (ChaBaD) yeshiva in 1947, but as he became more involved with modern culture, egalitarian approaches to Jewish practice and the spiritual wisdom of other religions, Reb Zalman broke with the Lubavitch movement. He founded the B’nai Or Religious Fellowship (1976) which later became P’nai Or, the Jewish Renewal Community of Philadelphia. In the later 1970’s, Reb Zalman began to study Sufism and to reach out to those communities of Moslem-inspired mystics, whose teachings have many parallels to Hasidism.
During this time he also began to train and then ordain a small circle of students. This project of training and ordaining rabbis grew, and later morphed into the ALEPH Ordination Program, currently a thriving and respected Jewish Renewal seminary under the auspices of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
Reb Zalman was a pioneer in the field of spiritual eldering as well as in the area of working with other faiths. His personal approach to his multi-faith work is called “deep ecumenism.”
In 1995, Reb Zalman was invited to take up the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, the only accredited Buddhist-inspired university in the Western hemisphere. He retired from Naropa University in 2004.
Reb Zalman passed on to his “next assignment” (as he called it) on July 3 (5 Tammuz 5775), just short of his 90th birthday, and was buried in Boulder on Independence Day, 2014.
For a complete biography and many tributes, see https://aleph.org/reb-zalman.
Davenology: The Art of Prayer
Davvenen is a highly personal and subjective experience, one that is unique to the individual. A person needs to experience davvenen in order to know which techniques resonate personally for them and which parts miss the mark. According to Reb Zalman, davvenen needs to be learned from a davvener, from a “prayer coach.” Book learning is not enough to understand the emotional feelings associated with davvenen. Reb Zalman created the word davvenology to refer to “the art and science of prayer. Davvenology is “living the liturgical life in the presence of G-d.”
Over the past twenty or more years a rich array of Jewish Renewal prayers continues to be written. Some Jewish Renewal prayer leaders and clergy have chosen to rewrite and/or expand the traditional siddur with a Jewish Renewal “flavor.” Regardless of the additions or creative interpretations for some prayers, Jewish Renewal honors, though sometimes flexes, the traditional and classical structured sequence of prayers.
Reb Zalman and other Jewish Renewal rabbis also recognize the needs of those who want to davven but cannot do so in Hebrew. Siddurim have been developed through the Jewish Renewal movement to address G-d through movement, chant, drumming and contemporary interpretations of the traditional liturgy. Also, “simultaneous davvenen” in Hebrew and in English is often used in Renewal services.
Music – including traditional Torah/Haftarah/Megillah tropes, classic nusach, Chassidic niggunim and contemporary melodies – are integral to Jewish Renewal davvenen.
Deep Ecumenism/Multi-faith Work
Deep Ecumenism, a term invented by Reb Zalman, is a very unique approach to embracing and honoring our own faith tradition along with learning from other faiths. Deep Ecumenism comes from recognizing that on this planet we all need each other, and we need the best of what each of us can offer. While we need to learn from each other, each faith needs to retain its own distinct identities and personalities.
Reb Zalman advises us to begin our dialogues with those of other faiths by looking for the points of commonality between or among our faiths. In order to understand other religions, we need to put aside our own point of view and experience G-d from the other’s perspective. We need to try to enter the soul and mind of the other person. It is our responsibility to learn about faiths other than our own.
Sometimes we can’t enrich Judaism from within and at those times, we need to import things from other religions. If we can’t “invent” new things of our own, we need to borrow. For example, Judaism has borrowed the meditation practices of the Eastern faiths which we have taken and adapted for our own use.
There are two important thoughts to keep in mind in our Deep Ecumenical work. We must remember that there is prejudice found in all religions against other religions. Finally, we must not forget to ask other faiths what they feel they know that would be crucial for the rest of the world to know.
Kashrut and Eco-Kashrut
The traditional laws of kashrut (keeping kosher”) deal with: the separation of dairy and meat; with specific foods which can and cannot be eaten; and with the laws of ritual slaughter for meat.
In the late 1970’s Reb Zalman created the expression “eco-kashrut.” This form of kashrut combines traditional and contemporary approaches to Judaism, going beyond ancient Jewish teachings and traditions to explore our patterns of interaction with our environment. Eco-(ecological) kashrut examines important moral/ethical questions about the kashrut business itself. As such, it is also referred to as “ethical kashrut.”
Eco-kashrut does more than merely checking a label to see if something fulfills basic requirements of slaughter. It demands a deeper assessment of the ethics of our food and our possessions. Additionally, eco-kashrut views traditional Jewish practices such as kashrut through a lens of environmental activism, encouraging followers of eco-kashrut to be involved in the moral and political arenas of environmentalism in a Jewish way.