Meanings of Shekhinah in the "Jewish Renewal" Movement
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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 10 (2005) 53-83



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Meanings Of Shekhinah In The "Jewish Renewal" Movement1

"Jewish Renewal is Hasidism meets feminism."
Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank
"Renewal is a well-spring of women's energy."
Nan Fink Geffen
"God is coming through the women this time."
Barbara Breitman

Encountering a feminist conception of God can transform a life. In Los Angeles during the 1980s, Joy Krauthammer encountered feminism through the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center, with such Jewish Renewal teachers as Savina Teubal and Sue Elwell, and later with Judith Halevy. "Feminism gave me the ability to worship a God who isn't the Lord. . . . I can pray to the Source of All Blessings."2 Not long after, she began to attend the Aleph Kallah (the biennial week-long gathering of Renewal Jews) and Elat Chayyim (the Jewish Spiritual Retreat Center), where she learned how to shape her spiritual practice to her new understanding of divinity:

I start the morning by greeting the sun. . . . I go out in my bare feet and dance in the garden as the sun is coming up, and say the Modah Ani [a prayer said on awakening]. I learned it from Shefa Gold3 at the Kallah in 1993. I learned that I could be free and liberated to express myself in ways I didn't know I could.

A spiritual seeker for most of her adult life, as well as a musician, photographer, and artist, this woman, coming from a secular Jewish background and [End Page 53] married to an Orthodox man, had been involved in both Hare Krishna and Chabad (Lubavitch Hasidism) before settling into Jewish Renewal in the early 1990s. While she still maintains connections with the Orthodox and Chabad communities, Krauthammer is so identified with the Jewish Renewal movement that she introduced herself to me by saying, "I am Renewal!" In addition to her work with women teachers, Krauthammer formed deep connections with male Renewal leaders: Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Shlomo Carlebach, David Zeller, and Stan Levy.4

How does one speak of (or pray to) "a God who isn't the Lord," in Krauthammer's phrase? This article, after giving some background information on "Aleph: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal," will discuss the use of God language in Renewal and explore how it is implicated in the competing versions of feminism expressed and created by women such as Joy. While the theological meanings of God language are important, the focus here will be on its social meanings, that is, on the implications of this mode of constructing gender for the lives of women and men in the Jewish Renewal movement. Renewal Jews insist that God cannot be comprehended in human language and must be addressed in multiple images. However, one of the most revolutionary moves they make is their reshaping of the mythological figure of the Shekhinah, the feminine divine of Kabbalah. Jewish Renewal's understanding of Shekhinah will be compared to the figure of Shekhinah in classical Kabbalah and to other forms of God language in Renewal. Further, I will argue that the Shekhinah of Jewish Renewal can only be understood if we take into account Renewal's emphasis on artistic avenues for spiritual expression.

This article is part of a larger study of the religious world of the Jewish Renewal movement. My primary research methodology is ethnographic, including participant-observation at a variety of events, ranging from synagogue services to national conferences, and interviews with Renewal members and leaders.5 I have also read a good deal of the literature, both print and electronic, produced by Renewal Jews. Of central importance to the present essay was participant-observation at the sixth annual conference of the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal (known as OHaLaH), held in January of 2004. That year, the conference was entitled "Tachat Kanfei Hashechinah! (Under the Wings of the Shechinah)," and it was devoted to an exploration of the feminine divine in Jewish Renewal. Because those who...