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Generic Spirituality and ALEPH’s Mission

by Susan Saxe

At the shiur (teaching) with Reb Zalman and ALEPH leaders at the ALEPH Leadership Conclave in Denver, January 2003, I responded to what I think is a crucial thread in our discourse as Jewish renewal manifests more strongly in the world and as it draws more and more on “second generation” leaders and reaches out to new groups of people whose point of entry into Judaism is through renewal but who have not been and will not be impacted by direct contact with its founder, Reb Zalman. The thread has to do with paradigm shift and structure–tradition, forms, boundaries.

I observed that “generic spirituality” – religion stripped of its cultural “baggage” naturally tends to attract new baggage, new minhagim (customs), forms, values and expressions, from the surrounding culture. The historical example I used was Christianity. Early Christianity, as Reb Zalman has pointed out, was “Judaism for export,” a stripped down version of Judaism. It was the core messianic message of love and redemption, but divorced from the tribal markings (circumcision), dietary taboos (kashrut), other special practices such as Shabbat observance. It was also divorced (some would say liberated) from a whole body of halacha (Jewish law) that governed everything from prayer to marital relations to business dealings. And, as my teacher Uziel Weingarten has pointed out, it was in its time an antidote to the Priestly strand of Torah that dominated with a stress on ritual observance and a judging G-d. The idea was to make Judaism palatable to the nations by removing its particularity and lowering the entrance barriers. But it didn’t quite work that way.

Some Christians like to say, “we have the Love and they (the Jews) have the Law.” But there is no love without law. Law (whether in the form of externally imposed rules or internalized morality) naturally attaches to Love, form to content, like DNA to RNA. The early Christians supplanted the central, driving imperative of Judaism to be a mentsch (fully self-realized person) in this world with their overriding focus on the messianic hope for the coming of the next. But when the forms of the Jewish tradition–ritual and lifestyle practices based on a bedrock belief in the holiness of each human as created in the divine image, and the overriding imperative to pursue justice and compassion–was stripped away, it made room for the accretion of forms and mores from the surrounding culture.

What was the surrounding culture? The Roman Empire, a vast military power, violent, patriarchal, ruling the known world through unrestrained state terror. The result? This “daughter religion” of Judaism grew into the Holy Roman Empire, a triumphalist juggernaut careening through European history bringing with it the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, imperialism and a 2000 year matricidal frenzy culminating in the Holocaust. (None of this is to deny that there were always some people manifesting the “love” piece of the equation, but they could never gain sufficient critical mass to become the governing power of the whole. This may be only partially attributable to the phenomenon we are discussing and partially to the inherent human condition. The purpose of this paper is not to dissect this question.)

Moving to the present day, “designer” or “generic” religion is the modern equivalent. We are now seeing eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism stripped down for export to the west as well as the popularizing and designerizing of Judaism and Christianity. But take away the old forms and what will accrete will be the forms of the surrounding culture. One look at western culture, particularly American culture, will explain why we are seeing the commodification of spirituality, a “spiritual marketplace”–and what its shortcomings might be.

Case in point – From time to time there are discussions among the chevre (our group of friends) about other organizations such as the Kaballah Centers run by Phillip Berg that seem to be doing better than we are financially. At the Leadership conclave, we even heard the suggestion that we might thrive by imitating their marketing techniques which include peddling designer water (supposedly charmed) a clothing line, and who knows what else. I hope they were joking.

As I said on our e-list and will say again and again no matter how many times this comes up. If you want to know the validity of a teacher’s teaching, don’t look at his popularity or material success–look at the behavior of his students. Are they becoming more generous, kind, modest, trustworthy, faithful in marriage, honest in business…? They don’t have to be perfect, but are they moving in the right direction? If not, then the teacher is a fraud–dishonoring his tradition and cheating his students.

I don’t care if Berg and others are rolling in money. If Madonna holds a press conference announcing that she is giving millions to charity and embarking on a campaign to abolish child labor because of his influence, that’s one thing. But if all she has learned from her study of Kabbalah is to make soft core porn videos exploiting Jewish symbols….yecch! A few years ago all the trendy stars were claiming to have multiple personalities. Now it’s Kaballah. Feh! We’re not in the business of pseudo-spiritual entertainment.

None of this bears on how nice our brochures look or how responsible we should be about financing our work. That is all fine as long as we work within the ethical precepts of our tradition and keep ourselves clearly focused on our real goal which is not to be popular by following the trends of the moment. Neither does this mean that we have to lock ourselves into the forms that no longer work as the restorationists are doing. To me this is just another kind of marketing – take text literally, follow both halacha and minhag (which they treat as if it were halacha) exactly as we tell you and you get to believe that you’ve got it right and everyone else has it wrong, and justify anything you do because G-d is on your side.

What we are about is paradigm shift, not marketing or “turning people on” (nice as that is) or inventing things out of thin air. We are much more than “Jews with drums,” but that’s all we’ll be unless we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to something much deeper. We have been given an awesome legacy to live into. We need to study, discuss and understand concepts like paradigm shift and the psycho-halachic process as Reb Zalman has so brilliantly articulated, and see to it that the rabbis and lay leaders we are educating understand these as well and are deeply and seriously rooted in the old as they weave it into the new. If newcomers enter our circles and are put off by high standards, ethical positions, regard for text or demonstrations of esteem for our teachers, our job is to educate them, not modify ourselves so as not to offend. It is also our job to model the values we teach so that they permeate every aspect of our work. We may disagree about how best to do this, but we need to be engaged in the conversation.