Smadar Cherlow- Who Moved My Judaism: Judaism Post-Modernism, and Contemporary Spirituality

In 1964, Bob Dylan sang Times are a Changing reflecting the growing tide of youth wanting a different world than that of their elders. Five years later in 1969, Theodore Roszak published his classic work The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition explaining how the younger generation was a counterculture to excepted values. Roszak found common ground between political radicals, hippie dropouts and the Beatles by aptly linking Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Allen Ginsberg and Paul Goodman. In all of them, Roszak found a rejection of what he calls the technocracy–the regime of corporate and technological expertise that dominates industrial society.” This revolt was credited with reaching into the very meaning of life, sanity, reality, and cultural values.  Roszak was more a participant writing a manifesto than an abstract scholar, his work introduced a kaleidoscope of what was being read on many college campuses while at the same time offer a compelling vision of the entire movement for his readers.

Smadar Cherlow recently published Who Moved My Judaism: Judaism Post-Modernism, and Contemporary Spirituality [Hebrew] (Resling, 2016) showing the growing tide of change in the Religious Zionist community, comparing it to the American counter-culture. The book offers guidance for navigating these new trends, and like Roszak it is part reporting and part advocacy.

She herself recounts in interviews how she attended Gush Emunim rallies in the 1970’s and over time under the influence of Rabbi Menachem Froman and Rabbi Shagar came to her new position as advocate for a new religiosity. In short, the world of Gush Emunim, especially the Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook worldview broke down. She calls this breakdown post-modernism because of the loss of the grand narrative and she sees it replaced by a new spirituality.


The chapters of the book originate as independent talks given at Religious Zionist conferences and public forums. Cherlow acknowledges her dual role of academic observer of these trends and participant formulating an ideology,

Cherlow’s prior book presented Rav Abraham Isaac Kook as a mystic in touch with God who thought he had prophecy and a mission from God.  In the debate around her thesis, including a critic by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun. She declared that she gives more deference to personal experience over philosophy and thought, personally and in her reading of texts.

The vision of this book concerns the current prominent Hesder yeshivot in which the students spend at least half of the day studying Kabbalah, Hasidut, Jewish thought, midrash, meditation and prayer, academic books in Jewish studies and Western thought helpful to understand God and religion such as Plato and Spinoza Afternoon study time could be entirely Tania, Rav Nachman, and Lurianic Writings. Night time study can be Jewish Sufism, Feldenkrais, Franz Rosenzweig, and poetry writing. They can display their copies of Buddhist works next to their copies of Maimonides and have ponytails, dress in funky clothes, walk barefoot and plan their trips to India. These trends are not isolated phenomena in that even those attending the Yeshivot Ha-Kav, those strictly keeping to the Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook approach spend time visiting their friends and classmates in the spirituality yeshivot.

In order to make sense of this new phenomenon, I can recommend nothing better than the first chapter of Smadar Cherlow’s book. The chapter offers phantasmagorical and impressionist display of these new trends.  The chapter answers the basic questions that an observer would have on the new spirituality and it has extensive resources in the footnotes This chapter should serve as a basis for any further discussion because its strong intuitive weave from an insiders perspective of this new type of yeshiva.

In chapter one, Cherlow describes the importance of the beit midrash (study hall) as the crucial place of spiritual formation and religious life. Quoting Levinas, she claims that there is a level where we love Torah more than God, or at least our first commitment is to the life of the Beit Midrash, the life of the yeshiva.

But in the post-modern era there are no truth claims to this activity, or at least one cannot ask for truth claims or justifications; there is no grand narrative. Building on the Rabbinic homily of “we will do as prior to we will listen” becomes a greater commitment to observance and the life of Torah study than any justification or systematic theology.

Yet, we all seek personal meaning and experience as primary in our lives. Rav Shagar taught us to treat the study hall in a multi-perspective way of different styles of learning, bringing academic and contemporary topics as well as mysticism. The texts studied have changed, the purpose of learning has changed and the style has changed. (see my prior post on Rav Shagar  & Torah Study)

She writes that now we spend much of the day in the new Yeshivot studying Zohar, hasidut, song, midrash, philosophy, and poetry. We seek an embodied spirituality that includes sessions of body movement and Feldenkrais Method in order to repair impaired connections between the brain and body and so improve our psychological state. We also have sessions devoted marriage therapy especially to Imago Therapy created by Harville Hendrix in his 1988 book, Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for Couples.

The new yeshivot are built in a circle to show that we are a collective not a hierarchy. The learning is more dialogical and a conversation. It is therapeutic and transformative. These new yeshivot follow Martin Buber’s ideas of mutuality between participants seeking an I-thou relationship in all interactions.

They encourage free reading of Bible, Talmud and Midrash without any commentators. How does the text speak to you? What to you hear in the text? How do you apply it?

In both Breslov Hasidic texts and Izbitzer Hasidic texts, there are passages that said that there are new innovations in Torah every day. The goal in the new Yeshivot  is to hear them and write them. You have to have an intimate relationship with the text, an eros toward the text, so that it will speak to you. There are now  musar lectures in these yeshivot about the need to  get the text to speak to you. In turn, the lectures (shiurim) of the Rabbis are to be psychotherapeutic. They are to offer what people need psychologically, with a free play of language and ideas.

The new Beit midrash embraces mediation and new age practices. They eagerly read and follow the writings of the renewal rabbi, Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi and his followers. She praises Rabbi Dov Zinger who teaches meditative and spiritual practices to aid prayer in his Beit Midrash leHitchadshut. And she points out that the schools accept that the guys with have long hair, and pony tails, and earrings.

Cherlow asks: If we do all these things and follow Reb Zalmann then how is our approach not renewal or new age? She answers because we stay in the beit midrash, that it is the importance of the beit midrash and texts to ground us and give us context. We remain a beit midrash movement focused on learning Talmud and halakhah and the study is done under trained Rabbis. We are learning Talmudic texts but we can also pray on a topic or turn a text into a prayer.

She asks: Is it still Torah study?

Cherlow answers that the study method of Volozhin Lamdanut was a modernist project of rationality to make Torah study scientific and analytic, the goal was to make Torah methodical, rational and orderly. Now in the era of New age – Post-Modern world, we use different language and have different goals. Learning now is more an act of playfulness and a language game. Today Torah study is more similar to the multi-vocal subversive play of the Carnivalesque as presented by a Bakhtin, an open performance, speaking in different registries and different languages.   It is now the New Age as presented by the academic work by Paul Heelas who describes it as “an eclectic hotch-potch of beliefs, practices, and ways of life” which are put together in radically individual and democratic ways.

She says that one can see this change in Torah as is a change of era between modern and post-modern or if one does not accept a change of era then it is two different games with different completely different rules.

Is this major change progress or a regression?

Cherlow notes that for the world of Yeshivat Har Etzion and those it influenced, this is clearly a regression. Amnon Bazak wrote an article, or maybe a screed if you disagree, rejecting all these changes, their method and their results.  But Cherlow responds that this new method is transformational and gives greater meaning to Torah. We change Torah in different times. In this new method of learning Torah for our era, we are creating a transformative new self.

Chapter one has an important appendix on the importance of Rav Shagar for this new method.

In Smadar Cherlow’s encapsulation, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik taught his students not to look for meaning and Rav Shagar changed everything by telling his students to look for meaning.  This quest for meaning and religious experience may seem close to the Hasidic quest for God but Rav Shagar helped us realize that the actual historical phenomena and practices of Hasidism as well as the current Haredi Hasidic community is not a path for the religious Zionist world which embraces the world. This is a new Post-Modern & New Age theology not another form of Neo-Hasidism; Americans take note.

She tells the story of the early Hasidic master Zusha who never got to actually learn Gemara since the moment he started to read Tractate Berachot which open with the words “From when can we recite the Shema?”   he would immediately ask: ‘From When’  means that God makes requests on us. So he would then ponder: What does God want from us in life?  Cherlow answers that there is a fine line between too much focus on meaning and too little focus. We are coming to correct a lack of focus on meaning.

To find meaning we turn to the wider world and a wider grasp of the world. We try to talk less and experiment and pray more. Sometimes Feldenkrais, sometimes Rav Nachman, sometimes song, and other times current events. The goal is to foster a different relationship with students that is more open in order let them find their own path.

Rav Kook responded to modernity and now we respond to post-modernity.  Rav Kook’s idea of a new Torah of the land of Israel (Torat Eretz Yisrael)  for our time means to incorporate love, play , and imagination. She returns to this topic in Chapter 5 where she explains how we need to replace Rav Kook with Rav Nachman in our studies. And we need to be open in our approach, not judgmental.

All that was in chapter one. It may not reflect any one Yeshiva and it may not be an anthropological description of what you would see in these yeshivot, but it captures an ethos.

I will briefly look at the other chapters which are specific stand-alone papers.

Chapter 2 deals with prayer after modernity.  Modernity killed prayer but Postmodernity brought prayer back. Modern man was like Prometheus challenging God with his belief in his own powers, in response religion was about the divine sanction for human accomplishment and at the same time it sought to overcome alienation from God. In contrast, in the postmodern period we look to Rav Nachman to turn completely to God. We now have new forms of prayer, we have integrated meditation and we call out to God from the heart in our own words.

Chapter 3 deals with messianism. Zionism was a great messianic project. Now we no longer sense that God is controlling history or that we live in a messianic age. We now live in an age of the eclipse of God as described by Martin Buber and we have no grand history or theodicy after Auschwitz as taught by Emmanuel Levinas. We no longer have a national sense and national redemption as taught by of Rav Kook. Rather, we now seek a mystical self-liberation.

Yet, she acknowledges that some in the community still have a messianic sense. However, rather than continue the older messianism of Rav Kook, they seek a radical apocalyptic messianism in active quest of the end of time, seeking to bring the end through their own hands such as Rav Yitzhak Ginzburgh. For Cherlow, Ginsburgh’s fusion of Chabad messianism with settler messianism is extremely potent. They aspire to make Israel into a Jewish monarchy as a return to its ancient glory. Believers must commit themselves to act on behalf of the “wholeness of the land of Israel” and awaken mystical-messianic sparks by their actions. Those actions must include violence against the Amalekite enemy. Required actions also include “revenge” as a means to making the King Messiah live and hastening the coming of his kingdom.

Chapter 4 entitled “From Prometheus to Badulina charts the transition from modernist goal of changing the world to the new age idea of changing ourselves.

She says we now live in a new age of post modernism, post science, and post collective, quoting the aforementioned Paul Heelas on the New Age which she connects to Post-modernism. Rav Shagar offers us a new age of authenticity and individuality (Both of which are classic modernist tropes.)

We are given a glimpse here into Cherlow’s litany of books that are currently being read including Tal ben Shahar on happiness, James Redford, Celestial Prophecy on the change of human consciousness, Jack Kornfeld on creating an engaged and ethical Buddhist meditation practice, the Existentialism of Buber, and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s paradign shift.

Today, we believe in fantasy, the irrational, expecting an apocalyptic appearance of the messiah, traveling to Uman, or seeking personal liberation. Crucial to this chapter is a little book from 1999 called Badolina by Gabi Nitzan which caught the sensibilities of a generation in Israel. Nitzan, once one of Israel’s most promising young journalists who then dropped out and moved to India

Badolina is the story of a kingdom without laws, without politics, without marriage and without wars. Every resident of Badulina can be the next king. And everyone is brought up on the belief that there are only two ways to live in this world: as a king or as a victim. By projecting their best thoughts and fantasies outward, Badolina’s residents can use mind over matter and transform reality. The national motto of Badolina – “Better be well and happy than sick and miserable.” So people choose to be happy.

The story line follows a visit to Israel by the king and queen of Badolina, who try to teach Israelis to stop seeing themselves as victims and begin taking responsibility for their lives. If you crave a gourmet meal while wandering in the desert, wish and it will happen; if you want peace in the Middle East, let go of your fears and allow your optimism to create it.

She says that not all of this is good illuminating it by quoting various critics: the critique of neo-liberal consumer capitalism from the Israeli author Gadi Taub (2002), the  critique of the American 1970’s from the classic work by Christopher Lasch The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979) and the critique of contemporary spirituality Jeremy R Carrette, Selling Spirituality (2004).

She compares all of this to the American 1960’s Age of Aquarius. But is it similar to Roszak description of the counterculture?

We see a problematic pattern here among Israeli authors on New Age and Post-Modernism. Whereas we in the United States do not consider the spirituality of the 30’s 60’s 70’s, 80’s. 90’s and 00’s as all the same proto -new age and proto-post modernism, most Israeli authors have a clean before and after, the nation building collective modernism of Zionism and Rav Kook’s Religious Zionism transformed into a new age post modernism of individualism.

But, no educated American would consider Buber, Kafka, Freud, or pop-psych as postmodernism. In addition, we in the United States do not associate spiritual optimistic anti-scientific new age thinking with our age of globalization and media technology.

In fact, British- American culture threw off the world of post-Hegelian idealism before WWI with William James, Franz Boas, James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. It then had many decades of modernism.  In contrast, Religious Zionist culture labels the 19th century modernism including the 20th century rationalists but they place all 20th century romantics and Existentialists with the post-modernists.

And as I have noted elsewhere, many Israelis consider everything 1960-2016 as New Age based on the abstractions in Paul Heelas The New Age Movement. The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (1996) which characterized the New Age movement as “an eclectic hotch-potch of beliefs, practices, and ways of life” which can be identified as a singular phenomenon through their use of “the same (or very similar) lingua franca to do with the human (and planetary) condition and how it can be transformed”. For an academic treatment of New Age in Israel with a sensitivity to sociological method and local concerns, one should see the dissertation and articles of Marianna Ruah-Midbar.

Concerning Post-Modernism, for Cherlow it seems to hinge on Lyotatd’s saying the grand narrative has broken, which in their case means the Rav Kook narrative broke. But they certainly do not accept in any way the death of self, the construction of reality, or the turn to text over self. Nor would one confuse Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard with anything New Age. One of the work’s most egregious misunderstandings of the book is thinking that Foucault would only consider political authors like Rabbi Y. Ginzburgh as concerned with power, when in fact his critique is that everything ever written including this book is about power.

In the 1960’s, the American counter culture as described by Roszak was about running from centaurs to safety, the best minds were being driven mad by the establishment and studied “Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah….”; they sought out alternative realities in India, Jerusalem, and Naropa.

Here in these new yeshivot, we do not have a fleeing mad from a perceived dying civilization, they love the yeshiva and they love learning. Rather, They are a turn to plurality and individualism after idealism. No one is taking over a campus and demanding change of the teachers.

This was a slow change, done over 25 years, led by the students and friends of Rav Shagar and Rav Froman, who since the 1980’s slowly changed yeshivot. The students of the two illustrious Rabbis are already mature teachers in their own right. Even institutions such as Migdal Oz, the woman’s program associated with Yeshivat Har Etzion brings in many of these authors, thinkers, and speakers in order to expose the students to the new trends.

Popular American outreach and pulpit rabbis can teach motivational literature, pop psych , New Age, and Evangelical ideas as eternal Torah,  and still be conservative religiously. Here too, they are still in the study hall (beit midrash). Besides, even a local Orthodox synagogue here in NJ has started weekly Feldenkrais, in lieu of the more traditional zumba classes.

Currently, there is a new generations of yeshiva teachers who grew up entirely in this system. They are now giving their own yeshiva lectures and training a new generation. I await to see what they produce.

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