I am very happy to announce that Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel, co-edited by myself and Prof. James R. Lewis (University of Tromsø, Norway), has finally been published by Palgrave Macmillan, as part of their ‘Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities‘ series.
This volume is the first English-language anthology to engage with the fascinating phenomena of recent surges in New Age and alternative spiritualties in Israel. It covers a variety of groups and movements, such as Theosophy and Anthroposophy, Neopaganism, Channeling, Women’s Yoga, the New Age festival scene, and even Pentecostal churches among African labor migrants living in Tel Aviv. Chapters also explore more Jewish-oriented practices such as Neo-Kabballah, Neo-Hassidism, and alternative marriage ceremonies, as well as the use of spiritual care providers in Israeli hospitals. In addition, contributors take a close look at the state’s reaction to the recent activities and growth of new religious movements.
Palgrave Macmillan have generously allowed me to upload the volume’s Introduction to this blog. You can read it here below (here is a link to the pdf on my Academia.edu page), and I hope it will leave you wanting more and help you in deciding to purchase the book 🙂
The study of New Religious Movements (NRMs) developed during the 1970s as a plethora of non-traditional religious movements were beginning to gain public visibility in the West in the wake of the decline of the Sixties counterculture. Initially, these movements held the attention of Western sociologists of religion, primarily due to the disputes that arose as a reaction to their rapid expansion. Religious studies scholars—who were then still in the process of establishing their discipline as a legitimate field of study distinct from theology and traditional biblical studies—for the most part showed no interest in the phenomenon, and preferred to leave NRMs to sociologists. This situation began to change in later decades, however, and presently NRM scholars from religious studies backgrounds outnumber those who hail from the social sciences; even historians have now begun to venture into the field.
Three academic journals currently focus on NRMs, Nova Religio, the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, and the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review. There are furthermore at least three book series dedicated to the study of New Religions, and annual conferences and workshops organized by CESNUR and INFORM have been held continuously since the 1980s. Recently, an academic association devoted to the study of NRMs, the International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR), was formed, and courses on NRMs are popular offerings in most religious studies programs of any size.
But despite the growth of this field of study, some NRM scholars—at least in North America—maintain that the longer-range prospects of the discipline are unfavorable, basing their argument, in part, on the perception that relatively few younger scholars are choosing to specialize in the study of NRMs. Instead, it seems that most new research continues to be produced by the same scholars who joined the field back in the seventies and eighties. In Israel, though, the study of NRMs seems to be developing with gusto, as younger researchers join the field and many graduate students present new findings from their dissertations yearly.
In recent decades, Israel has become home to a bustling scene of New Age and alternative spiritualities, ranging from homegrown phenomena to overseas imports that are either adopted wholly, or adapted in varying degrees to Israeli Jewish culture. These new forms of spirituality also differ in their level of penetration into contemporary Israeli society. Some, as shall be seen below, are the preserve of foreign refugees and work migrants, and their existence is virtually unknown to most if not all Israelis. Others—while practiced by Israelis—similarly remain under the public’s radar, while certain groups and practices (whether imported from the West or produced locally) have permeated deep into the Israeli mainstream. In response, three academic journals have dedicated special issues(1) to the study of these phenomena in Israeli society, and a short edited volume has been published in Hebrew (Tavory 2007). The present anthology, however, is the first of its kind to have been published in English. One of its goals, therefore, is to supply scholars with an opportunity to learn how New Age and alternative spiritualities—produced in Western countries within a predominantly Protestant or secular culture—transform and adapt themselves in Israel. Positioned in a strategic location connecting Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel is an ethno-national state which views itself as a Western enclave situated at the heart of the Arab Middle East, constantly attempting ‘to reconcile the two conflicting principles of a “Jewish and democratic state”’ (Ben-Porat and Turner 2011, 1).
Founded in 1948, Israel was built on an overwhelmingly secular vision. While Orthodox Judaism was (and still is) designated as the state religion, most Israeli Jews did not identify as religious, and were quite disinterested in either mainstream or alternative forms of spirituality. This situation changed in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which substantially destabilized the secular, modernist Zionist ethos on which the vast majority of Israelis based themselves (Ariel 2010, 4).
During the 1970s, several New Religious Movements were imported into Israel, and homegrown alternative spiritualities began to form as well. Masua Sagiv’s Chap. 7 demonstrates, from a Legal Studies point of view, how the state reacted to NRM phenomena through the actions of its legislative, executive and judicial branches. Building on Marianna Ruah-Midbar’s and Adam Klin-Oron’s work (2013), Sagiv outlines governmental attempts to control the activity of NRMs by inter-ministerial reports examining the ‘phenomenon of cults’. She illustrates the existing legislation and proposed bills involving NRMs, and describes the judiciary’s approach to NRMs, as reflected in three central criminal law cases from the last decade. In trying to curtail or control the activities of NRMs and New Age religiosities, government authorities are obviously fighting a losing battle. In Chap. 5, Nurit Zaidman analyzes the recent growth of the spiritual care movement and its incorporation into core institutions of mainstream Israeli society—hospitals and homes for the elderly. Zaidman shows how this phenomenon is embedded within New Age spirituality in Israel, and is shaped by the specific characteristic of Israeli society on the macro level, as well as by the particular features of specific organizations.
The last 25 years have featured an explosion in both the variety of different groups and the sheer number of participants. Indeed, each year dozens of New Age festivals take place, with the primary festival drawing over 50,000 participants (Ruah-Midbar 2006, 144–146), enough to populate an average Israeli town. Ruah-Midbar and KlinOron (2010) suggested recently that New Age phenomena in Israel are located along two axes: one ranging from shared global (Western) forms to homegrown cultural products, while the other focuses on the relational approaches between New Age spirituality and traditional Jewish praxis, ranging from indifference and opposition to adaptation and preservation. Global New Age discourse is thus adapted in many cases into an Israeli ‘Jew Age’ through the use of Jewish symbols and practices. This ‘Jew Age’ spirituality is a direct outcome of Israel’s unique and complicated politics of identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. A good example of such mingling of New Age alternative spirituality and Judaism in Israel can be found in Joseph Loss’ (2007) research on Jewish-Israeli practitioners of Buddhism.
In Chap. 2 , Tomer Persico focuses on expressions of Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli society, and describes the rise of what he terms the ‘Utilitarian Self’—a social reality which originated in late nineteen-century American religiosity, and began to play a significant role in Israeli contemporary spirituality in the 1990s. Einat Ramon’s chapter presents the story of Yemima Avital (1929–1999), a female mystic and student of psychology, who is recognized today as the leader of a contemporary ‘female – Hassidic’ movement. Avital developed a spiritual discipline known as ‘cognitive thinking’, which she taught in Tel Aviv during the 1990s. She left no manuscripts, and her teachings were later published by her various students.
Chapter 1, written by Rachel Werczberger, focuses on the ways in which Jewish history is recovered, reinterpreted and remolded in Israeli New Age Judaism. New Age Judaism, argues Werczberger, maintains a spiritual neo-Canaanite narrative of the past by reformulating the biblical period as a sacred time, distinguished by non-institutionalized forms of religious experiences, indigenous pagan and nature worship, prophecy, as well as direct divine revelation. This reconfiguration of the past underpins New Age Judaism’s radical ideas and provides them with a sense of cultural continuity and authenticity. Its narrative emulates and subverts the ‘classic’ Zionist narrative, and ignores its particularistic and nationalistic constituents, emphasizing instead a universal spirituality, realized by indigenous religions and practices. This strategy caters to the identity needs of contemporary, non-Orthodox Jewish Israelis. Non-Orthodox forms of Judaism—which make up the majority of Jews in the USA—are not recognized as legitimate by the State of Israel, which grants Orthodox Judaism a monopoly in all official matters pertaining to religion in the country.
In Chap. 4, Anna Prashizky deals with an issue that has become highly contested in Israeli society in recent years—unorthodox wedding rituals. Prashizky explores the central characteristics of these ceremonies in modern Israeli society from a post-modern and post-secular perspective, and finds that they combine secular and antireligious components with religious components of Jewish orthodox rituals, basing their inspiration on Jewish texts and ritual practices. Her principal claim is that in contrast to the orthodox wedding rituals, which remain within the province of the Jewish collective and are replete with collective meanings, alternative rituals manifest a process of individualization, and mostly focus on the individual’s biographical memory, which joins or replaces collective Jewish memory.
To assume that the Israeli ‘enclosure’ remains unaffected by its ‘othered’ neighborhood would be tragically wrong—as the last 70 years would attest. Both mainstream (Jewish) religion and alternative spiritualities generally shy away from engaging with (primarily Muslim and Christian) practices or beliefs that either originate in the outlining Arab nations or are maintained by the country’s significant Arab minority. The interest in Sufism is a notable exception to this rule (Bram 2014). Indeed, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is frequently covered by world media, outsiders generally forget that Israel proper (meaning, if we excluded its contested hold in large parts of the West Bank) is not a religiously-monolithic state, and that roughly twenty percent of its population is (predominantly) Muslim, Christian or Druze. One hundred and thirty thousand adherents of the ethnoreligious and esoteric Druze faith live in Israel and have maintained a close alliance with the country’s Jewish population since the foundation of Israel. The Druze, however, do not accept converts (both in Israel and worldwide), and most Druze do not undergo the initiation that would entitle them to view the religion’s holy scriptures. It should also be noted that Haifa—Israel’s third largest city—functions as the World Centre of the Baha’i faith, though its adherents do not proselytize to Israelis.
In light of the above, we accept that one of the drawbacks of the present anthology—one that will hopefully be amended by future scholarship—is its lack of coverage of engagement with alternative forms of spirituality among Israeli Arabs. This lacuna was caused largely due to a shortage of available contributions that would be based on original research during our canvassing stage, but it should be noted that in recent years there has been some pioneering work done among traditional women healers in Israeli Arab society, as well as Israeli Arab women who engage in complementary medicine (Popper-Giveon 2009; Popper-Giveon and Weiner-Levy 2013). Israeli Arabs, however, generally do not take part in the country’s buffet of alternative spiritualities. This seems to be due to the fact that Arabs usually come from a lower socio-economic and relatively traditional background (Israeli New Age culture appeals mostly to the middle classes), but also because New Age festivals reflect a Jewish-Israeli sense of belonging. Dalit Simchai’s study of Israeli New Age festivals, presented in Chap. 6, attempts to problematize the ways in which the organizers of the Israeli New Age festival construct their identity as distinct from those whom they perceive to be part of Israel’s dominant society. They view the festival as an opportunity to meet with Israeli hegemonic society and influence it from within, without being limited or influenced by its containment and exclusion mechanisms. The organizers’ concerns for ‘authenticity’ and the ‘commercialization’ of the festival are also discussed.
Many of the NRMs and alternative forms of spirituality active in Israel are overseas products, and don’t necessarily adopt Jew Age values and ideas in order to compete in the local alternative spirituality market. Space limitations prevent us from devoting specific chapters to most of them, but individual studies can be found on Israeli Shamans (Yavelberg 2004), Rainbow festival goers (Tavori and Goodman 2010), Neo-pagans (Feraro 2014b) and ISKCON (Zaidman-Dvir and Sharot 1992). In Chap. 8, Isaac Lubelsky provides a pioneering survey of Theosophy and Anthroposophy in Israel. He elaborates on the unique interest that both doctrines and movements have gained, and summarizes both movements’ current status in Israel. In Chap. 11, Orly Salinas Mizrahi examines the ways in which Israeli Neo-pagans reinterpret and adapt the Mabon festival—a Celtic- inspired seasonal festival developed and celebrated by British and North American Neo-pagans—into the local Israeli climate and agricultural setting. Adam Klin-Oron’s research, presented in Chap. 9, examines eschatological inclinations among Israeli Channelers, while Chap. 10 features Carmit Rosen Even-Zohar’s research into discourse about menstruation in Israeli Yoga for Women courses. Rosen claims that this new discourse attempts to ‘re-enchant’ the menstruation experience and to ritualize it. Simultaneously, she argues that the Israeli social order limits this new discourse and shapes it to conform to such principles as fertility and the modern project of self. Rosen’s chapter is also exploratory in its examination of this important facet of the country’s emerging women’s spirituality scene. A fuller examination of it remains to be written, but a short historical description of its development since the early 1990s can be found in Feraro (2014a).
Finally, Galia Sabar’s Chap. 12 deals with new forms of spirituality among African labor migrants living in Israel and centered mostly in Southern Tel Aviv, which takes on a distinct Pentecostal character. This Afro-Israeli Christian arena, Sabar maintains, has proved to be flexible and fluid enough to accommodate the majority of its varied members (albeit within certain limits), juxtaposing global trends with local realities and the needs of its members. One of the groups on which Sabar concentrates— the Nigerian-based Brotherhood of the Cross and Star—can arguably be construed as an NRM.
James R. Lewis
- See Nova Religio (2010), Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (2014), and Israel Studies Review (2014).
Ariel, Y. (2010). Paradigm shift: New religious movements and quests for meaning and community in contemporary Israel. Nova Religio, 13(4), 4–21.
Ben-Porat, G., & Turner, B. S. (2011). Introduction: Contemporary Dilemmas of Israeli citizenship. In G. Ben-Porat & B. S. Turner (Eds.), The contradictions of Israeli citizenship: Land, religion and state (pp. 1–22). London: Routledge.
Bram, C. (2014). Spirituality under the shadow of the conflict: Sufi circles in Israel. Israel Studies Review, 29(2), 118–139.
Feraro, S. (2014a). “And not a word about the goddess”: On processes of making and displaying a pagan identity in Israeli women’s spirituality festivals and workshops by Israeli pagan women. Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review, 5(1), 9–30.
Feraro, S. (2014b). Two steps forward, one step back: The shaping of a community building discourse among Israeli pagans, 1999–2012. Israel Studies Review, 29(2), 57–77.
Goodman, Y., & Tavory, I. (2010). Crafting selves, building community, erasing the nation: A pragmatist reading of New Age gatherings in Israel [in Hebrew]. Israeli Sociology, 12(1), 29–56.
Loss, J. (2007). Universal experiences in Israel: On local modes of adaptation of the global path of the Buddha [in Hebrew]. PhD dissertation, University of Haifa.
Popper-Giveon, A. (2009). Adapted traditions: The case of traditional Palestinian women healers in Israel. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 10(2).
Popper-Giveon, A., & Weiner-Levy, N. (2013). Returning to ourselves Palestinian complementary healers in Israel. Qualitative Health Research.
Ruah-Midbar, M. (2006). The New Age culture in Israel: A methodological introduction and the ‘conceptual network’ [in Hebrew]. PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University.
Ruah-Midbar, M., & Klin-Oron, A. (2010). Jew Age: Jewish praxis in Israeli New Age discourse. Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies, 5, 33–63.
Ruah-Midbar, M., & Klin-Oron, A. (2013). “Tell me who your enemies are”: Government reports about the “cult” phenomenon in Israel. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 52, 810–826.
Tavory, I. (Ed.). (2007). Dancing in a Thorn field: The New Age spirituality in Israel [in Hebrew]. Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuhad Press.
Yavelberg, Y. (2004). Shamanism, rationality and womanhood in contemporary Israel [in Hebrew]. M.A. thesis, Tel Aviv University.
Zaidman-Dvir, N., & Sharot, S. (1992). The response of Israeli society to new religious movements: ISKCON and Teshuvah. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31, 279–295.