More Ashes on Fire

New Traditions Adopt

The rabbis on this list represent two new traditions (Reconstructionist, Renewal) and two established traditions (Conservative, Orthodox). The tension between new traditions and established ones has led to tremendous innovation among all traditions. Reconstructionism, which formed inside the Conservative movement, stresses sociology over history as the process that shapes Jews and Judaism. This article considers both Reconstructionism and Renewal to be liberal Jewish traditions. To what extent, or even what “liberal” means, is open to debate. The purpose of all new traditions is to get reactions from the old traditions.

What Do We Mean By New Traditions?

What we mean by new traditions is also open to question. Halacha is a universe, it covers a great deal of ground, as we know from Black Fire on White Fire. Reconstructionism over time made Reform more Zionist, Conservative Judaism more secular, and secular Judaism more religious. Renewal is a new tradition that deeply questions halacha. In some sense it is a Chasidic version of Reconstructionism, a new tradition for a new tradition. Perhaps the deepest halachic question it asks concerns kashrut. The notion of “eco-kosher” endures and influences modern kosher inspection agencies, which are generally under Orthodox auspices.

Ira Eisenstein (1907-2001) was born in New York, where he graduated from Columbia University with a PhD. He was ordained by JTS. He served Reconstructionist congregations in New York and Chicago. He felt his role in Reconstructinism, which was a trend within Conservative Judaism for almost 50 years until the formation of the Reconstructinist Rabbinical College in 1969, was to popularise the theories of his mentor and father-in-law, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Rabbi Eisenstein wrote Creative Judaism, What We Mean by Religion and Judaism Under Freedom.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) influenced two generations of rabbinical students between 1946 and 1972 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the most significant theologian since Solomon Schechter. Heschel was descended from prominent European rabbis; his father was a Hasidic Rebbe in Poland. He earned smikha while still a teen and asked his father for permission to attend the gymnasia. He continued his studies at the University of Berlin, where he earned his PhD and obtained a second smikha from the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums opens a new tab or window in your browser.

Heschel escaped the Nazis by leaving for England, then departed for America. He was on initially faculty at Hebrew Union College, but left for JTS because halakha was not observed at HUC. Heschel disputed civilly with both Orthodox and Reform. He stressed observance and crticised the Reform tradition that halakha was no longer normative but held that Orthodoxy valued legalism over law.

Heschel was a Chasid and mystic on a faculty that valued scientism and rationality. His main disputant at JTS was Mordecai Kaplan, who taught Reconstructionism – a reinterpretation of Judaism so it could survive the challenge of the modernism. Heschel’s method was to speak of tradition to a post-Holocaust generation that lacked faith in modernism. Heschel’s influence began to be felt in the 1960s, when he became a civil rights activist and mentor to Martin Luther King. He marched with King in Selma and publically criticised the Vietnam War. Heschel wrote prolifically. His most widely-read works are Man is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, The Sabbath, and The Prophets. He used to say: All it takes is one person…..and another…..and another…..and another…..to start a movement.

Dr. Samuel Belkin (1911-1976) was President of Yeshiva University from 1943 to 1975. Dr Belkin proposed that Judaism is a “democratic theocracy”: God Is “King” but each individual has intrinsic human worth. Raised in Poland, he studied at Mir and Slonim, the premiere yeshivot of Europe and was 17 when ordained. R. Belkin came while still a youth to America. He enrolled at Brown University and obtained his PhD in classics. His thesis was on Philo, the 1st century Alexandrian Jewish philosopher and rabbinic interpreter. He succeeded Dr Bernard Revel as President in 1943 and presided over the inaugaration of Yeshiva University in 1945; he further presided over the establishment of a liberal arts program and professional schools in medicine, law and social work.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), widely known as Reb Zalman, is the founding rebbe of the Jewish Renewal movement. Originally ordained at Yeshiva Tomché Tamim Lubavitch, under the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Ytzhak Yosef Schneersohn, Reb Zalman was among the first shluhim sent by the Rebbe in the early 1950s. Reb Zalman also attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He began a Chabad program in Winnipeg and served also as the Hillel director at the University of Manitoba. Reb Zalman’s Yiddishkeit combines the intellectual mysticism of Chabad and contemporary New Age spirituality. He openly endorses Qabbala as a potent Jewish spirituality and promotes the concept of eco-kosher, a synthesis of ecology, environmental ethics, and the Jewish tradition of kashrut. Reb Zalman is open to many different spiritual paths and has pursued Native American, Buddhist, and New Age spiritual knowledge. He travelled with an American Jewish delegation to visit the Dalai Lama. Among his suggestions to the Tibetan Buddhist leader was to incorporate a storytelling liturgy into his community’s practices similar to the Passover Hagada.

The personalities covered in this section either fostered new traditions (Reb Zalman, Ira Eisenstein) or reacted to them (Dr Belkin, A.J. Heschel). We have a few more personalities to consider in the next section, which looks at the differences between what Arthur Green terms Orthodox and Heterodox approaches to Jewish observance.

Modern Traditions Adopt Rabbi Ira Eisenstein Modern Traditions Adopt Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with the Rev. Martin Luther King New Traditions Adopt Rabbi Samuel Belkin New Traditions Adopt Reb Zalman