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Renewal Judaism

Updated February 1, 2012


Jewish Renewal does not consider itself a formal denomination like Reform, Conservative, or Orthodoxy. Rather, it calls itself trans-denominational, a movement that embraces Jews from all of the denominations as well as unaffiliated Jews, Jews that were finding spiritual homes in Eastern religions, and non-Jews. Dating to the 1960s, the movement is based on the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a hasidic-trained rabbi who sought to renew the spiritual meaning of American Judaism.

Renewal communities find meaning through nurturing the inner spirit and a global vision of a better world, including ethical and ecological practices.

As part of that lack of formality, there is no one way that Jewish Renewal communities are structured. They operate as a network of synagogues and havurot (independent communities), and are organized under ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. ALEPH, based in Philadelphia, offers conferences and retreats, a rabbinical ordination program, and a variety of other resources. In many cases, the practices and ideas they have developed have easily found homes in a variety of streams of Judaism.

Jewish Renewal is dedicated to both nurturing the inner spirit and a global vision of a better world. It places Judaism within the context of greater concerns, which translates to ethical and ecological practices in everyday life. The goal is to apply Jewish values to the practice of dietary laws (kashrut) and to personal relationships instead of confining this behavior to holidays, praying, or studying Jewish texts.

Practice and Beliefs

The practices of members of Jewish Renewal congregations vary widely. If they attend a Renewal havurah, synagogue, or prayer group, worship will often be characterized by repeatedly singing a Hebrew verse to a compelling tune, which enables people with less familiarity with liturgical texts to participate easily and fully by focusing on the repetitive tune or "mantra" aspect. Meditation may be part of the prayer service, and there also may be discussion of mystical and social justice issues. God is likely to be referred to by feminine names or names not stressing sovereignty (i.e. taking out "king of the universe") during worship. Some communities may talk about neo-hasidism, and incorporate hasidic melodies, stories, or methods of worship.

Views on Intermarriage and Conversion

ALEPH is the only rabbinical school in the country where people can become rabbis if they are married to a person from another religion. This says a lot about their view on intermarriage, as those who have partners from other religions can formally be role models and leaders. Non-Jewish partners are likely to be fully welcomed and to be able to participate in the service, and their life experiences are respected. People with Jewish fathers and mothers from other faith traditions (i.e. those who are Jewish by patrilineal descent) are welcomed as full and equal participants.

For those who want to deepen their commitment to Judaism, the movement has developed a path to membership in the Jewish people that typically involves rituals such as immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) and brit (circumcision) for males. Overall an intermarried family is likely to find Jewish Renewal to be extremely welcoming to many kinds of families and individuals.

Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
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