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  • Folklore and History
  • Chava Weissler (bio)

As a folklorist, I study the expressive culture—rituals, prayers, music, and crafts—of ordinary people (in my case, ordinary Jews), rather than the intellectual or artistic creations of cultural elites—rabbis, philosophers, and classical composers. In practice, of course, these are not distinct categories, and I have often found that my most productive material comes from those who mediate between religious elites and “ordinary Jews.”

Throughout my career, I have moved back and forth between ethnographic and historical research. My dissertation research was an ethnographic study of the havurah movement, groups of Jews who come together for fellowship, study, and prayer. I followed this with a historical study of the piety of eighteenth-century Central and Eastern European Jewish women. My present project, once again based in ethnography, is a study of the Jewish Renewal movement in North America. My study focuses on the organization now called ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, with forty-four affiliated communities, primarily in North America, and administrative offices in Philadelphia. It has its roots in the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former Lubavitch Hasid and emissary of the Lubavitcher rebbe. Reb Zalman, as he is called, is still the “rebbe” of the Jewish Renewal movement. More specifically, I seek to understand the varieties of Judaism created in this movement through a study of the expressive culture of participants in ALEPH—their rituals, art, dance, and worship—as well as their writings. Members of ALEPH often quote the words of Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, describing their movement as “Hasidism meets feminism.” I am particularly interested in the way women and feminism figure in Jewish Renewal.

I’ll address each of the discussion questions in turn.

1. How does the history we choose to engage with shape the ethno-graphic tale we tell, and what type of historical consciousness do we bring to the work?

While Jewish Renewal can be described as a “neo-Hasidic” movement, it can also be understood as part of the contemporary drive toward varieties of religion that stress intense experience and “spiritual practice.” Indeed, Jewish Renewal can be set into both of these historical frameworks: the history of Kabbalah and Hasidism and the history of American religion. [End Page 9]

What difference does it make if I tell this as a Jewish tale or as an American tale? The study of Jewish Renewal started out for me very much as a Jewish story. I got interested in the topic because of my previous research on Jewish women’s piety in eighteenth-century Europe; I discovered kabbalistic motifs in writings for and by women. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was doing this research, scholars thought of Kabbalah as an elite mysticism, exclusively the province of learned Jewish men. I was among a cohort of scholars asking whether women and non-learned men could know Kabbalah, and how they learned it. In the course of that research, I encountered a literature in Yiddish that popularized Kabbalah. Although women were still excluded from learned circles of Kabbalah study (and the inner circles of the emergent Hasidic movement), they read and used this literature in the vernacular to gain some knowledge of kabbalistic ideas and symbols, and to use these as a resource to shape their own prayers and practices.1 Searching for a new research topic after I completed that study, I looked around, saw news about the pop star Madonna and her interest in the Kabbalah Centre,2 as well as other varieties of popular Kabbalah, with a whole literature in the vernacular—English, in this case—explicating Kabbalistic ideas. Jewish Renewal, which draws on Hasidism and Kabbalah, intrigued me as a site to investigate what I came to call contemporary, “vernacular Kabbalah.”

What are the questions that emerge from this approach? First, they suggest a traditional “philological” methodology: What are the textual sources used by members of Jewish Renewal, and how are they interpreted or changed? How do contemporary works about Kabbalah and Hasidism in English compare with the earlier Yiddish works? Further, who has access to kabbalitic materials and concepts, how do they have access, and who has the...


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