Charismatic Leaders and Spiritual Seekers: A Review of Jews in the Age of Authenticity

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Yael Unterman

Aren’t these groups actually cults?” “Why are you researching this nonsense?”

It is fortunate for us that anthropologist Rachel Werczberger ignored her naysayers, who lobbed remarks such as the above at her during her PhD research period. Instead, she persevered in documenting the fascinating story of two now-defunct spiritual communities active in mid-2000s Israel. Her resulting doctorate has been printed in English as Jews in the Age of Authenticity: Jewish Spiritual Renewal in Israel.

The book is an exploration of charismatic leaders, spiritual seekers, and alternative religious expression in twenty-first century Israel. Hamakom (“The Place”) was founded by Ohad Ezrahi at Metzoke Dragot, in the Judean Desert near Ein Gedi, while Bayit Chadash (“New Home”) was set up by Mordechai Marc Gafni in Jaffa. The two movements stand together, though not identically, under the umbrella of “New Age Judaism” or “Jewish Renewal.” However, the fact of their sprouting in Israeli soil seems to demand another title, “Hebrew Spiritual Renewal”, and Werczberger indeed explores how they differ from their American cousins.

Gafni’s name is familiar to many due to the high-profile scandals attached to it. These include dramatic events occurring during the precise period of Werczberger’s research. As one who was for a short time pulled into this man’s compelling orbit in a professional capacity, for me to read about it through an academic analytical lens was fascinating.

Ezrahi and Gafni, both rabbis, have strong Orthodox elements in their biographies. Yet ultimately their orientation to Judaism came to stand in opposition to the rabbinic establishment, and take a spiritualizing/mythologizing approach as opposed to a halakhic one. Their grand aspiration was to heal Judaism and return it to its original “authentic” state; and only secular Jews could do this, not the rabbinic establishment responsible for the malaise to begin with. Thus, the two leaders espoused a spirituality that, while rooted in Jewish tradition, was open to practices from other cultures such as yoga, meditation, and more; and emphasized individual freedom and authenticity.

This was guaranteed to appeal to the secular devotees who gathered around Ezrahi and Gafni: Jews who rejected observance and halakhic commitment in favor of “authenticity.” This word, sitting at the heart of Werczberger’s analysis, is one of Western society’s ubiquitous buzzwords. Having made the long journey from existential philosophy to popular culture, it’s now used to sell anything from therapy to cars, claiming that these will help us to become more fully ourselves. Such advertising successfully plugs into the yearning many feel for this elusive state of being: the authentic life. Hebrew Spiritual Renewal strongly aimed to bring its adherents to that state; and hence its goal was not intellectual stimulation or increased observance, but embarkation on a personal journey of discovery. Everything, including study and ritual, was oriented towards that end.

Hamakom, a commune set in a desert location overlooking the Dead Sea, advocated for a connection with body and nature. Ezrahi’s vision can be seen in these words: “The Torah talks about a people dwelling in its land, a nation of farmers and warriors … who are gripped by the spirit of God, male and female prophets, through whom God’s word is rejuvenated.”

The schedule included classes in Judaism, mind-body techniques, and kabbalat Shabbat services based on chanting and dancing, along with various practices pushing social and sexual boundaries in ways very far from traditional Judaism.

More urban and less fringe than Hamakom, Bayit Chadash focused on Jewish wisdom and skills. Yet it was still a far cry from a the traditional beit midrash in its activities—for example, Gafni offered a form of semichah (ordination) that required personal growth and journaling as one of its main components.

Although when I met him circa 2002, Gafni had not abandoned halakhah altogether and still seemed to consider himself Orthodox, I recall how at that junction he made the intentional choice to play musical instruments on Shabbat, as being indispensable to the atmosphere he wished to create. He informed me that today’s rabbis were mistaken in not adjusting this prohibition and that he planned to write an article or responsum about it.

This decision, incidentally, gave me the excuse to leave the nascent movement, though, truth be told, the deeper reason was a sense of growing unease in Gafni’s leadership style and the sense of travelling at alarming velocity further and further from my comfort zone. I was relieved to part ways, despite his being one of the most intriguing and charismatic people I had ever met, with both profoundly moving insights on Torah and an ability to empower people to act upon their latent talents. I can say that in forcefully propelling me into running a Bibliodrama workshop at a beach festival, he changed my life. Facilitating Bibliodrama has since then been my passion and career, and for this I will forever be grateful to him, though I have refused all contact with him for many years.

While still conducting in-depth interviews and attending meetings at Hamakom, Werczberger ran into a snag: the disintegration of the community. She then turned to Bayit Chadash, only to see it too collapse some time later. The dissolution of both communities during the period she was researching them elicited quips from colleagues to the effect that she was a “community wrecker” and should come with a warning label! Joking aside, though, it led to her reflect why this occurred, when social cohesion, commitment to the collective, and a deep longing for spiritual community were present in both.

Ultimately it seems that hyper-individualism led to the disputes that precipitated Hamakom’s demise; while Gafni’s carefully cultivated cult of personality and subsequently betrayal of the community led to the traumatic collapse of Bayit Chadash and its founder’s hasty departure for a new life in Utah.

Blame has been placed on an obsession by both leaders with eros and sexuality. The centrality of eros has led some to suggest these were simply phony gurus with uncontrolled sexual appetites. For me, having worked closely with Gafni for several months, this is an oversimplification and does a disservice to who these complex figures actually were. Yet it’s illuminating to note, by contrast, Jerusalem’s Jewish Renewal community, Nava Tehila. Its leader Rabbi Ruth Kagan (perhaps not coincidentally female?) has avoided both the personality cult and the fixation on eros, and Nava Tehila is now a decade old and thriving.

I can say that I’d have enjoyed hearing more details about the activities, leaders, participants, and collapse of these communities, and also gaining more of a window on the author’s own background and her experiences.

A little slim for my taste, I might wish the book was as thorough as that of anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, which documents her two years spent in popular American evangelical communities and their personal spiritual processes. Werczberger’s volume could also definitely have benefited from another round of editing—though the English translation is overall excellent, the typos are jarring.

All in all, Werczberger has contributed a valuable body of research whose importance lies not only for those interested in these specific communities, but for all those who understand that these seemingly marginal phenomena are just the tip of the iceberg. For there is a much broader group of secular, traditional, and religious people for whom authenticity and personal journey is key, and who seek a relationship with Jewish tradition extending beyond observance, tradition, social justice, and history … people who yearn for a living, dynamic tradition that touches the heart and worship that feels right and true; who seek a haven from the corruptions or missteps of establishment religion, and a recapturing of the spirit of prophecy and mysticism.

I see the larger “neo-Hasidic” trend, today attracting young people to Breslov, Chabad, Carlebach, and other Hasidic paths in droves, as symptomatic of all this, and it is powerful and not to be ignored. Hamakom and Bayit Chadash carried with them certain energies that felt almost Sabbatean, and these made them magnetic, but perhaps also led to their inevitable burnout. However, the core of what they represented—the search for authenticity and spirituality—speaks on into the future, and represents an important force with which educators, leaders, parents, and thinkers would do well to reckon.