Jewish Studies New Age Judaism
by
Rachel Werczberger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0230

Introduction

New Age Judaism, sometimes also called “Jewish Renewal” or “neo-Hasidism,” is an umbrella term used here to describe the loose assemblage of various cultural initiatives and collective individual practices that have emerged in North America and in Israel since the late 1960s under the influence of the counterculture and later the New Age spiritualities. In the framework of American Judaism, New Age Judaism is often used to refer to the style of discourse and practice offered by the Jewish Renewal movement founded and led by the late Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi (b. 1924–d. 2014). However, in this article, the term refers to a much broader phenomenon and includes New Age Kabbalah (neo-Kabbalah); neo-Hasidism; the North American Jewish Renewal movement; New Age–styled hybrid practices such as Torah yoga and Jewish shamanism; and new types of non-affiliated Jewish, spirituality-inclined communities and fellowships. These cultural modalities differ from each other in terms of their commitment to the Jewish law, their emphasis on renewal and personal and collective transformation, and the universalization of Jewish mystical tradition. At the same time they all share the following aspects: a (re)turn to Jewish mystical lore, especially to Kabbalah and Hasidism; eclecticism and hybridity (i.e., openness to non-Jewish spiritual traditions and the willingness to integrate them into the Jewish practice); a critical outlook on institutionalized Judaism; an emphasis on spiritual experiences (i.e., highly personal, subjective, and unmediated experiences of the sacred); and a therapeutic approach and a focus on self-help, self-realization, and development. Some scholars suggest that New Age Judaism is the product of the global New Age culture and postmodern spiritualities pointing to intersection of this new form of Jewish discourse and practice with the broader contemporary spiritualties. Others prefer to study it through the notion of “Jewish spirituality” and its relation to Jewish mystical traditions, namely Kabbalah and Hasidism. Because such cognate topics are represented by separate Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies entries, this article does not directly cover Modern Kabbalah, Hasidism, and Bratslav/Breslev Hasidism. Attracting the attention of anthropologists and ethnographers of contemporary Jewish life, New Age Judaism is often studied using ethnographic methods. Other scholarship takes a more textual and philosophical direction and focuses on the writings of leaders of Jewish New Age groups.

Early Precursors

According to Salkin 2000, the American counterculture of the 1960s played a major role in reviving Jewish American life. Kaplan 2011 provides a general overview of the development of New Age Judaism from the sixties until the early twenty-first century. Ariel 2003 focuses on the endeavors of Rabbi Shlomo Carlibach and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the Bay Area during the early 1970s and the establishment of the House of Love and Prayer (HLP) in San Francisco. The ethnography Prell 1989 describes the Havurah movement of the 1970s and the effort to reinvent Jewish communal worship and social life outside the framework of traditional synagogue, denominations, and structures. Similarly, Weissler 1982 describes the Dutchville minyan and its members’ attempts to construct meaningful Judaism out of their ambivalence toward the tradition. An important insider’s view is offered by the online The Jewish Counterculture History Project, which offers twenty-five video interviews with key members of the Havurah movement. Roper 2003 focuses on the evolution of New Age Judaism and the institutionalization of the new Jewish spirituality by following the biography of Rabbi Ted Falcon and the founding of Makom Or Shalom congregation in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.

  • Ariel, Yaakov. “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius: The House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, 1967–1977.” Religion and American Culture 13.2 (2003): 139–165.

    DOI: 10.1525/rac.2003.13.2.139

    Describes the HLP, a Jewish outreach center that operated in San Francisco between 1967 and 1977 and promoted a mixture of traditional Hasidic Judaism with the counterculture.

  • The Jewish Counterculture History Project. Penn Libraries, University of Pennsylvania.

    Documentary record of Jewish counterculture through the video-recorded interviews of twenty-five key members of the Havurah movement, focusing primarily on Havurat Shalom, the New York Havurah, and the Fabrangen Havurah.

  • Kaplan, Dana E. Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    Follows the transformation of American Judaism and the history of Jewish Renewal from its postwar suburban roots and the hippie revolution of the 1960s to the beginning of the millennium and the creation of postmodern Jewish identities.

  • Prell, Riv-Ellen. Prayer & Community: The Havurah in American Judaism. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.

    An ethnographic exploration of one of the earlier Havurot, Havurat Or Shalom, and its members’ rejection of hierarchy and institutions and the attempt to create meaningful community and experience.

  • Roper, David. “The Turbulent Marriage of Ethnicity and Spirituality: Rabbi Theodore Falcon, Makom Ohr Shalom and Jewish Mysticism in the Western United States, 1969–1993.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 18.2 (2003): 169–184.

    DOI: 10.1080/1353790032000067509

    Examines the distinctive community that coalesced around Rabbi Ted Falcon in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s and offered meditative and self-reflective techniques that were allegedly rooted in Jewish scripture and Kabbalistic texts.

  • Salkin, Jeffrey K. “New Age Judaism.” In The Blackwell Companion to Judaism. Edited by Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery‐Peck, 354–370. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    Describes the development of New Age Judaism from the late 1960s and the Havurah movement. Points to the alleged spiritual hollowness of the suburban middle-class synagogues, which led young Jews involved in the counterculture to search for new forms of spiritual meaning and community.

  • Weissler, Chava. Making Judaism Meaningful: Ambivalence and Tradition in a Havurah Community. New York: AMS Press, 1982.

    An ethnographic focus on the processes by which members of the Dutchville minyan constructed meaningful Judaism out of their ambivalence toward tradition; explores their history, worship practices, celebrations, and conflicts.

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