A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Segel
288 pages. Riverhead Hardcover. $23.95.
The past decade has seen an explosion in the genre of Jewish how-to books, each written for an audience with little experience in Jewish life and each reflecting the particular ideology and religious outlook of the writer. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (known as Reb Zalman), the spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, adds his own contribution with his latest volume, Jewish With Feeling. Like others of its type, Reb Zalman's book offers a way into Judaism through spiritual and ritual practice. This book also presents a distillation of Jewish Renewal thought and an argument for a Jewish particularism that is grounded in universalism.
The first section of the book addresses itself to a theoretical reader who feels distanced from traditional Jewish practice, but who seeks spiritual meaning. To this reader, Reb Zalman introduces a Jewish practice that begins with kavvanah (intention) but which is also deeply ritualistic in nature. As such, Reb Zalman emphasizes spirit over law, encouraging readers to "get some Sabbath" by meditating, playing music, or relaxing with one's family. At the same time, he acquaints the reader with aspects of traditional ritual practice, such as reciting kiddush, refraining from using electricity or telephones, and abstaining from work. For his theoretical reader, just beginning an exploration of Judaism, Reb Zalman's approach and style will prove accessible and undemanding, while also offering a window into a more ritualistic practice.
Jewish Renewal in general, and Reb Zalman's work in particular, offers a translation and reconstruction of Judaism for the contemporary world. While deeply grounded in the Hasidic tradition from which Reb Zalman emerges, this Judaism is not bound or restricted by Hasidism. Reb Zalman attempts to create a new Hasidism for the present. By weaving into his text stories of rebbes of the past, as well as elements of his own biography, Reb Zalman establishes himself as a rebbe, firmly within the tradition of the Hasidic rebbes who have preceded him. When he innovates or reinterprets, he does so only in the footsteps of the great innovators of Hasidism, whose works serve as a model for his own.
In contrast to his earlier works, Jewish With Feeling makes little attempt to explain or to justify the ways in which Reb Zalman's theology and practice develop or depart from earlier Hasidic thought. Rather, as a Hasidic text in and of itself, the book presents Jewish renewal concepts developed elsewhere in a matter-of-fact way-as though these were standard elements of Jewish belief and not innovations. For instance, one of the innovations of his previous work, Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters,was the reinterpretation of the Hasidic concept of "bittul ha'yesh" or self-nullification, as "becoming transparent." There, he writes:
If you do bittul ha'yesh, if you take your "selfness," your ego, and you annihilate it, you "bash" it, that is going to take you closer to the love of God. But today I don't even think it is a good strategy to bash the ego. I think the better strategy is to make the ego "transparent.". and the whole notion of transparency is so that light should be able to shine through. This idea is a lot more consistent with where we are today.
With this explanation, Reb Zalman self-consciously introduces a new formulation of a Hasidic concept. He does not make a claim of linguistic or historical accuracy for this new interpretation, but rather openly rejects an existing concept in favor of one that better meets contemporary needs. Now, in Jewish With Feeling, Reb Zalman merely refers to the concept of transparency without presenting it as a reworking of an older idea, saying only "On Shabbos, we give our bodies pleasure and a rest so we can become transparent to nefesh, to soul. become transparent: instead of staying in your head, become transparent to what is happening." Similarly, the doctrine of pantheism, which is present in older Hasidic texts and which Reb Zalman elsewhere argues should form the core of contemporary theology, is simply integrated into discussions of God, without significant acknowledgment of the ways in which a belief in pantheism represents a departure from so-called "normative" Jewish thought. Once introduced into the Jewish lexicon, these terms and ideas no longer demand justification or explanation. Rather, like the Hasidic rebbes in whose footsteps he follows, Reb Zalman innovates while insisting on the authenticity of these innovations.
The second half of the book more consciously reconstructs traditional Jewish thought and practice in a way that struggles to find a balance between particularism and universalism. The crucial chapter of this section, and arguably of the book, responds to the question "Why be Jewish?" by suggesting that Jews have a particular role and responsibility in the world. Jewish ritual practice offers a means of responding to and fulfilling certain universal needs and emotions. At the same time-and this is perhaps the most radical element of Reb Zalman's theology-Judaism alone is not enough to fulfill one's spiritual yearnings. He writes, "We've gone about as far as we can go as separate and isolated faiths. God has given each faith some vitamins that the others need, and we won't be able to survive in health unless we exchange those vitamins." Judaism, in Reb Zalman's conception, provides many of the necessary elements for spiritual practice, but will never be complete on its own. This insistence on universalism as necessary to full spiritual fulfillment ultimately weakens his argument for Jewish particularism. In concluding this section, he writes:
The answer we have offered to "Why be Jewish?" then, is that Judaism has many deep teachings to offer that we still need today: Judaism reminds us to recalibrate ourselves by nature's clock. Judaism teaches us conscious consumption. Judaism helps us maintain faith and a connection to God despite powerlessness and uncertainty. These treasures are the birthright of each and every one of us. For these reasons, we can be proud of our heritage and feel that it is still something that the world needs."
The book's target reader, an unaffiliated Jew seeking spiritual fulfillment, is unlikely to be convinced by this answer. Jewish practice, according to this formulation, may offer guidance about how to live in the world. However, if Judaism alone can never fully meet the needs of the spiritual seeker without the addition of other "vitamins," there ultimately is no reason to cling to a particularistic Jewish identification. Rather, the seeker might be better served by drawing from the best of many traditions, without locating him/herself primarily in any one of these faiths.
Throughout "Jewish With Feeling," Reb Zalman illustrates his commitment to bringing other religious beliefs into dialogue with Judaism by interspersing stories of Jesus with stories of Hasidic rebbes, and by introducing the reader to concepts drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditions. At one point, he tells a story in which he recites the Shahadah, the Muslim proclamation of faith in God and acceptance of Muhammad as a divine prophet, and justifies this recitation by explaining that Muhammad brought the Muslims to "faith in the oneness of God" and therefore should be regarded as "a true messenger of God."
Reciting another religion's primary declaration of faith, or role-playing Jesus during an encounter with Christian clergy, as Reb Zalman does in another story recounted in the book, may cross the line of comfort for many Jews-this author included. At the same time, the challenge to understand both the ways in which other religions have influenced Judaism and the ways in which "a fuller, richer dialogue with those of other faiths" can make us "more fully Jews" is a serious one, and one to which anyone committed to living a particularistic Jewish lifestyle in a world with increasingly permeable boundaries must learn to answer.