Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bibliogestions: Godwrestling

Godwrestling was a bit of a head-trip for me. Part memoir, part midrash, part quasi-history of 60s and 70s social activism and the havurah movement, it's got a lot packed in there. Arthur Waskow is a good writer whose greatest strength-- and at time, challenge-- is his almost naive enthusiasm and passion in applying religious ideals to the contemporary stage. Sometimes this seems to border on the nutty, like when he gets involved in trying to apply the biblical concept of "Jubilee" to the American economy as a way of promoting economic justice. Still, if the worst thing you can say about a liberal rabbi is that they take Judaism too seriously, that can't be too bad.

While the memoir parts were interesting (and some were definitely more topical and relevant to today than others), for me the real draw was more Waskow's perceptive take on Torah characters and midrash. Waskow has a way of articulating, and meditating on, the real human dilemmas that come up in the biblical text, problems that pose genuine problems for modern Jews who want to take Torah seriously but can't check their brains or consciences at the door of the Beit Midrash. I particularly enjoyed his take on the rebels of Genesis-- not the celebrated rebels, like Jacob, but the scorned ones: Cain, Hagar, Ishmael, Esau. When Waskow writes about these characters, people who really suffer and who we do not have happy endings for, you get a real sense that he takes these stories seriously-- that he is troubled by these accounts and that he is unwilling to either ignore them in favor of prettier ones, or create silly apologetics to justify them.

Within this process, I think, lies the real magic of twentieth and twenty-first century Judaism, particularly of the non-Orthodox variety. Waskow and his havurah companions show a model in which people from a whole range of backgrounds can take Judaism seriously, and ask deep, difficult questions about the tradition-- even becoming angry or confrontational with it-- without throwing up their hands and walking away from the whole glorious mess. (One intriguing section documents Waskow's community, Fabrengen, reacting to the cultural shift, among Jews and non-Jews, towards long-term relationships as opposed to marriages. Rather than bemoan it or excuse it, they proceed to examine various relationship frameworks within halacha and how they may be adapted to the present-day, to formalize, if not sanctify, relationships that were previously unknown in Jewish law.)  Considering the "hippy-dippy", anything-goes reputation that Jewish Renewal sometimes has among other denominations, it was refreshing to read such thoughtful-- and sincere-- engagement with Jewish tradition from some of its major thinkers.

While Waskow's work and ideas are thought-provoking and inspiring, they're also instructive in demonstrating some of the weaknesses of the Jewish counter-culture of the time, and to a degree, Jewish Renewal itself. One gets the sense that in their incredible optimism about changing the world, Waskow and his compatriots let their hearts soar beyond where their heads-- or feet-- could keep up. Most of Waskow's circle, including himself, come across as dreamers, not necessarily doers. (The parts of Waskow's narrative that traipse into weird touchy-feely psychological areas don't help.) Principles are great, but it takes an incredible amount of work and dedication to create something that can perpetuate itself. To a degree, a lot of the havurah crowd come off more as self-centered dabblers trying to find themselves than people who have the discipline to make their convictions work in the real world.

In some ways, I suppose this echoes my larger bias/issue with Jewish Renewal as a movement: it seems very hard to nail down exactly what it is about, as well as what it actually does as part of implementing its program. It all seems to come down to creating good vibes and participating in some ephemeral "mystic"-ness. Even if some of that may feel appealing, at the end of the day I want a Judaism that touches me intellectually as well as emotionally, and my impression, at least, is that Renewal seems to swing too far over on the pendulum.

Despite my criticisms, I found myself happy for people like Waskow and his friends at Fabrengen. While their movement may not be my cup of tea, I admire their passion for Judaism and desire to engage with it in modern, even controversial, contexts. At its best, when it's working, liberal Judaism can, and in some regards, should, have a radical edge-- though I think it's to Renewal's benefit that it has had a few decades to help its founders mature and develop (and to help them better and  their ideas and create some stable institutions to spread their message).

Whatever faults Waskow may have had at the time, it's clear that he was-- and still does-- take his Judaism seriously. Regardless of whether you agree with him 100% ideologically, in a time of great Jewish alienation, people needed men like him-- and still do.

No comments: