...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Friday, November 17, 2006

And now back to your regularly scheduled reflections on the Lubavitcher Hasidim

About two months ago I spoke with Kugler, my Religious Studies advisor, about an idea for my thesis that I'm really excited about. I want to interview individuals within both the Lubavitcher Hasidic Jewish community and the Jewish Renewal community about how they understand themselves to be living within the tradition of tikkun olam, the Jewish theological concept that holds that the Jews have a God-given duty to bring healing to the broken world. Kugler said that it sounded like a good idea but that since ethnographical research is going to be a huge part of my thesis, I needed to talk with Paul, my Methods professor and the faculty member who's probably got the best sociological background, about how to ground my paper within a methodogical and theoretical framework. Kugler also thought that Max Weber would be the most applicable theorist for my project, and Paul, as we know, loves Weber. For various reasons, mostly intimidation-related, I never scheduled an appointment with Paul before this afternoon. I'm glad I finally did, though, because not only was it totally not intimidating, but Paul gave me some excellent ideas.

Weber, like the good structuralist he was, saw most religious life as fitting into one of two categories, or general orientations towards the world. It was either inner-wordly, or world-rejecting. Inner-worldy activism and practice is characterized by asceticism, Western religious traditions, and a commitment to activism within the world and within human society. World-rejecting practice is characterized by mysticism, Eastern religious traditions, and a focus on the unity of the soul with God/the divine. World-rejecting religion generally lacks to commitment to social activism that characterized inner-wordly religion. As I was explaining to Paul the differences in tikkun olam that I perceive between the Lubavitchers and the Jewish Renewal, the applicability of the inner-wordly/world-rejecting structures became more and more apparent. As Paul pointed out, it seems as though tikkun olam motivates those in the Jewish Renewal movement to a kind of inner-wordly activism that encompasses reconciliation in the Middle East, petitioning the government to raise the minimum wage, environmental convservation, interfaith dialogue, etc. On the other hand, tikkun olam among Lubavitchers tends to be focused on rekindling the sacred light of the neshama, or Jewish soul, within non- or less-observant Jews. The end goal of tikkun olam for Lubavitchers is the return of Moshiach, the Messiah. According to Sylvia, the Jewish Studies professor, the kind of environmental awareness and conservation that characterizes the Jewish Renewal movement is almost entirely absent among Lubavitchers.

Paul also mentioned that it would be interesting to look at which group is more rationalized or secularized, according to Weber's framework. Each group bears some of the characteristics of Weberian secularization and rationalization: the Lubavitcher concept of God tends to be more transcendent (and therefore rational) in scope than the Jewish Renewal, but on the other hand the Lubavitchers also place a much higher emphasis on orthopraxy (correct practice) than the Jewish Renewal folk do. An emphasis on orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy is a characteristic of more traditional, less rational (again, in Weber's terms) religion. Paul basically made the point that my likely conclusion will be that Weber's categories are too simplistic--he was a structuralist. But even if that's the case, the analysis will be interesting and fruitful.

All things considered, I think it's impressive how many days in a row I was able to update my blog without mentioning the Lubavitchers. Can I help it if Hasidic Judaism is one of my very favorite things to talk about??