Wednesday, October 10, 2007

how i became a post denominational mystic

(excerpt from a thoughtful blogpost):
I am, however, jumping the gun here. I will return to this mystical component momentarily, but I first want to explain the “post-denominational” bit. I initially discovered the term “Post-Denominational” a few years ago in an article in The Jerusalem Post. To my delight, it described an unusual phenomenon occurring in Israel. Secular Israelis who previously wanted nothing to do with Judaism were suddenly flocking in substantial numbers to study Torah and Talmud. Unlike the various outreach movements that have been active in recruiting new baalei tshuvah, those who return to the faith, these Israelis had no interest in becoming religious. Their sole motive was reclamation of their heritage which had been circumstantially hijacked and monopolised by orthodoxy.Simultaneously, a growing number of Orthodox Israelis had begun to explore the fascinating world of science and philosophy. Online forums such as the Israeli website Hyde Park gave these religious Jews the opportunity to exchange views in an open environment, many of them taking advantage of the Internet’s anonymity to express opinions they dared not utter on the streets of Bnei Brak or Mea Shearim. Furthermore, what was coined the Habakuk movement (after the prophet Chabakuk, but truly an acronym for Chabad, Breslav and Rav Kook), an eclectic, mystical revival indigenous to Israel, spanned the denominational spectrum in its constituency.Up until I read that article, whenever asked about my denominational status, for a while already I had begun to reply: “unorthodox”. While that adjective is possibly suitable for my personality, it is less than adequate in describing my religious affiliation. Post-denominational works much better. So I began using that.When I did a more recent Google search on the topic, I found the word post-denominational used critically towards Lubavitch in a JP article from July 2006 written by Marvin Schick, president of the Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, NY. Decrying the abandonment of halacha in the movement’s efforts to include Jews of all backgrounds, Schick writes: “As it grows, Chabad's options are in a sense limited by certain realities, primarily the wholesale Judaic abandonment that we are witness to, and which is accelerating. Increasingly, the movement operates in a framework of post-denominational Judaism.”In the past I have been critical of certain aspects of Lubavitch, particularly of its extreme messianic element. In this regard, however, I have to vigorously defend them.In 1981 I was employed as an English teacher in the Lubavitch Primary School in Safed. Nearly half of the school’s pupils were from families in Kiryat Chabad; the rest came from non-observant Israeli homes in the area. I recall how the Chabad families wrote the Rebbe ז"צל to request that they form their own school without the negative influences their children were encountering from their secular classmates. The Rebbe ז"צל refused; the positive influence inherent in the interaction between religious and secular children outweighed the potential negatives.During our recent 18-month stay in the Byron Bay area, I had the good fortune to befriend the Chabad shaliach (emissary) for the Gold Coast & Northern Rivers area. Rabbi Mosheh Serebryanski epitomises the concept of Jewish unity as expressed by the Jewish sages quoted above and emphatically reiterated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Byron Bay, of course, has a culture all of its own, and the many Israelis living there are both secular and alternative. Though there are many who consider “kiruv” (bringing Jews closer to their heritage) a means to provide quantitative fodder for orthodox culture, Reb Mosheh comprehended a deeper, antithetical significance: the ability to identify and come close to the spark of innate goodness in every soul. Whatever the Jewish occasion, the gatherings he organised never failed to manifest a certain character unique to the Byron Bay sub-culture. No doubt Schick would object to the occasional erosion of halacha which could occur under such circumstances nor would he fully appreciate the concomitant and contagious sense of simchah (joy).Two and a half centuries ago the Baal Shem Tov began a movement that was truly revolutionary in its day. It was a Jewish rebellion against a soulless rabbinate, an ivory-towered world of dry legalism insensitive to the peoples’ needs and suffering. Hasidism in essence shifted the Jewish focus from the head to the heart, allowing a larger number of Jews to connect to God, the Torah and commandments through heartfelt devotion and simple intent. In its early days the movement was actually excommunicated for what the rabbinic establishment viewed as breaches of Jewish law. Today, ironically, most of the Hasidic movement has itself crystallised into an exclusive establishment. Only Chabad stands out in bearing that original torch of inclusiveness, willing to guide the flocks in Byron Bay, Kathmandu, Dharamsala, Saigon, Bangkok and countless other remote places. Chabad has assimilated the Baal Shem Tov’s famous dictum, which Marvin Schick would no doubt find anathematic: “One can’t expect to save a person from sinking in quicksand without getting one’s hands dirty".

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