There is a new study from Synagogue 3000— The New Jewish Spirituality and Prayer: Take BJ, For Instance Ayala Fader & Mark Kligman S3K Synagogue Studies Institute. This one looks at the success of BJ in NYC. I have picked out the theological sections. BJ preaches a spirituality of finding God in one’s own life through an emotional religious experience. Their deity is a therapeutic deism with psychological elements- it seems the true fulfillment of Arthur Green’s theology in Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology (1992) or the undated pop version Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (2002).
Central to BJ is the claim by members and rabbis alike that in order to experience God, individuals must “let go” of rationalism and the intellect. The goal is to access an emotional part of the self which opens the individual to experience the “energy” of God, something which is found within each person. When it comes to prayer, comprehension of Hebrew (loshn kodesh), Jewish ritual or traditional Jewish music is less important than kavanah (“sincere intention”). By privileging kavanah, the emphasis of prayer shifts from “obligation” (the mitzvah) to what congregants describe as the “freedom” to choose those aspects of Judaism that best speak to each individual’s experience of God.
[The] aim is to have religious practice create opportunities for what they call “spiritual experience,” meaning the experience of God; but God must be re-conceptualized in order to be relevant in the contemporary world. Marcelo explains: “We have to change the paradigm from the idea of God to the experience of God.” The paradigm for today’s Jews requires what the rabbis describe as a “God of love.” Jews today, suggest the rabbis, need a “reason of love” or they will abandon God. [Their ] “God of love” is not necessarily a supernatural figure. As an entity found inside the self, God is, in effect, human.
To find God, each person must search inside the self. This concept of God echoes humanistic beliefs, but is clearly distinct from secularism. The rabbis elaborate a post- rationalistic God, located in the emotional interior of each individual, not the intellect. The point of the commandments (mitzvot), claim the rabbis, is not to force us to “give up things” but to “open us up and purify us for God.” Jewish ritual practice, particularly prayer, is an individual choice one makes in order to experience the divine.
Self-exploration is often expressed in therapeutic language, but with the goal of personal transcendence. When there is closeness to, and individual experience of, God, an individual can become more holy in the sense of ascending to a higher level of humanity. As the rabbinic intern said: “It’s not separating the two, God and psychology. We’re not going to pass it over to the therapists…it’s about finding out where God is in your life… It’s about how you can grow holy in this thing… It’s co-opting psychology and lacing it in spiritual terms.”
Now the contextualization in studies on Spirituality and Evangelical Churches. It confirms that much of the Neo-Hasidism of liberal Jews shares much in style with Conservative Evangelicals.
Embodied religious practice comes also through the use in services of practices from a range of minority religions. A number of people talked about the use of “breath” and meditation techniques. Others adopt metaphors of “healing and wholeness” drawn from therapeutic contexts. This kind of combinative religious practice is a common feature of New Age spirituality (Rothenberg and Vallely, 2008). Individualized picking and choosing from world religions in order to satisfy personal needs is a feature of postmodern religiosity, a “tradition” favored by Jewish baby boomers (Cohen and Eisen, 2000). But at BJ, combinative religious practice is institutionalized, not left to individual personal spiritual journeys; it is part and parcel of the synagogue, modeled publicly by authoritative spiritual leaders, and framed as the revitalization of Judaism’s authentic and shared religious heritage.
BJ shares many goals and practices with North American megachurches and evangelical seeker churches. These churches focus on Christian spirituality in large settings where members can be part of a growing, successful and innovative ministry (Thumma and Travis, 2007:158). Like so many at BJ also, evangelical seekers, predominantly baby boomers, decidedly depart from the denomination of their upbringing, searching out religious fulfillment through individual choice and a therapeutic ethos with an anti-institutional bias (Sargeant, 2000:163-4).
However, BJ has a distinctive definition of what individual fulfillment means. Seeker churches satisfy therapeutic concerns for self-fulfillment through an evangelical understanding of Christ’s salvation (Sargeant, 2000). At BJ, individuals encounter God through individualized and, often, embodied expression of affect. Conceptions of God, too, differ of course. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrman’s description of a “new paradigm” church (2004), for example, describes how congregants learn to conceptualize Jesus as a “buddy.” BJ members, by contrast, find God inside themselves. However, God only enters the emotional, non-rational, vulnerable aspect of the self.
Regardless, what makes BJ seem modern to so many is the way that the traditional liturgy is made to engage modern forms of self-construction, including introspection, self-cultivation, and personal freedom as the path to happiness.
I was at BJ one time for a Friday night service. What I saw was indeed very impressive, but not exactly as conceptualized in the article. The first thing I noticed was the theater in the round quality and the use of a string quartet. If every shteibel in America had the acoustics of that room and a similar group of talented musicians they could achieve similar effects with much less than a minyan of 500 people. This is a let out all the stops performance. If normal yekkish -litvish davening is like a German lied this is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita or maybe even Bob Fosse’s Cabaret.
A second thing that struck me was the change from the urgency and emotional punch of Rabbi Meyer’s activities during the junta and the Save Darfur banner that was strung across the width of the synagogue. I am not convinced Carlebach and left liberal politics are natural partners. This crowd didn’t accomplish much in Darfur and I doubt if they will be much more successful in saving the planet.
I also question whether the Art Green model of kabbalah describes what’s going on. The davening is hugely enjoyable, I agree. If this was my regular shul, I would imagine after davening I would be in the mood for a good meal with family and friends or maybe a long walk with a lot of banter and schmoozing. Transcendence I would leave for some other time. I don’t think my reaction is atypical.
Having made all these picky-picky comments I believe Conservative and Reform congregations have a lot to learn from BJ for all the obvious reasons.