The Thursday before Halloween, Melissa Oringer participates in the traditional rituals of her Wiccan coven. She carves pumpkins and she scrys, or peforms a sort of "magick" (a spelling that differentiates it from modern associations of magic) that uses something tangible, like tarot cards, runes or other tools to delve into someone’s psyche. Halloween, known as Samhain among Pagans, celebrates the Pagan New Year, the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest and, therefore, a day for honoring your beloved dead. Oringer’s coven does so by sharing stories, or making food related to the person being remembered.
But Oringer does another ritual as well on Halloween, a more private one: she lights a yahrtzeit candle to remember her own beloved dead. The Jew and Wiccan high priestess said she melds Jewish and Wiccan traditions in a manner that she finds meaningful. "I’m Wiccan and I’m Jewish," she writes on her
Web site, jewitchery.com. And she’s not the only one.
There are some 200,000 Pagans in America, according to Margot Adler, author of "Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today." A fraction of this group is Jewish — and why not? Like a growing number of Jews who personalize religion to suit their needs (think JuBus, or Jewish Buddhists), many Pagan Jews see their practice as just another niche in the wide spectrum of being "The Chosen."
But is it possible to follow both the second commandment and a religion based on polytheism? What is lacking in Judaism that causes spirituality seekers to turn away from their own traditions? And: Can Jewish Paganism be good for the Jews?
First things first: A short tutorial. Given its controversial history, it’s probably most appropriate to begin with what Neo-Paganism (the official term) is not: 1) It is not a cult. 2) It does not involve Satanism or devil worship. 3) Its goal is not to visit harm on others. 4) While rituals may be performed "skyclad" (naked), it is a religion devoted to the natural world, not to sexual hedonism.
Neo-Paganism is a polytheistic, anarchic religion that elevates nature, utilizing magick and ritual to end people’s alienation from nature.
In some ways at least, it’s not too far from Judaism, which also fosters an appreciation of nature and of human life, and also focuses on ritual, uses a lunar calendar and celebrates seasonal holidays. Some have even argued that certain Jewish traditions stem from early Pagan practices, though their relationship is steeped in ambiguity and, therefore, controversy.
Consider the Shabbat challah: A potato version was called berches by Northern European Jews, perhaps owing to the practice among Northern European non-Jewish women of offering braided bread loaves to the Teutonic goddess Berchta. Other links have been cited between the celebration of Rosh Chodesh (the new month) and of Chanukah, which corresponds with the Pagan winter solstice. Where Paganism leaves off, however, Judaism continues to enrich, argued Rabbi Danny Landes, director for Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
"Where Paganism sometimes gets it right is in a notion of the appreciation of the force of life, force of nature," Landes told The Journal. But, he added, "I think Neo-Pagan religions are at best an ethical hedonism in which we say ‘I’ll live my life and you’ll live yours….’ There is a lack of great desire for justice … and for loving kindness. I’m not saying they’re all evil. It just doesn’t go far enough."
For Adler, it does. To her, Paganism’s appeal lies in ritual. Adler’s own upbringing was in an atheist Jewish household that had "almost no Jewish resonance."
"I don’t think there was ever a rejection of Judaism because I didn’t think of myself as having a Jewish resonance," she said. "The only thing I could really reject was atheist Marxism. But I knew there was some powerful stuff in ritual."
When she went searching in her 20s, Adler found "most of the Christian and Jewish ceremonies were, from a ritual ceremony [perspective], really boring. I wasn’t exposed to Chasidism … or Sufi dancing," she said. "I hadn’t seen Jewish religious juice or Christian religious juice. So I was looking for the juice and mystery of ecstatic religious experience but without the price of losing one’s intellectual integrity."
What she said she found was, "a way of living in this world and yet being attuned to this ecstatic tradition."
She’ll still occasionally attend a feminist Passover seder.
"You can see Passover in this incredible civil rights and political way without looking at the religious aspects," she said.
Today, she describes her Pagan tradition as "eclectic," "polytheistic" and earth-centered, following seasonal celebrations and using the goddesses as metaphor.
"I don’t know how much is real and how much is metaphor," she said.
Juicy or not, with Judaism’s ban on idolatry, how much is metaphor becomes a more than minor question, at least for Pagans still claiming their Judaism, like Oringer, or Devin Galaudet, who described his practice as "a cross-section of kabbalah, and perhaps I will throw in magick, general hermetics and a little bit of Eastern philosophy."
His reconciliation goes like this: "Those different god names in the Bible all serve different purposes. I think perhaps the difference is that Judaism has the different parts, but does not embrace the parts in different ways. I think there’s value in embracing the different sides that God is. It’s wonderful that God is an all-powerful being or entity, but it’s also nice that God makes the flowers and there’s a specific part of God that does that, and makes the wind blow, and everything else."
But Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Project Next Step, warned of the dangers of polytheism within the Jewish faith.
"God doesn’t like mistresses," he said. "Not that it matters to Him, but in our relationship with Him, which is what will give us happiness as Jews, putting our focus elsewhere is not going to cement our relationship with Him."
That Adlerstein uses the masculine pronouns to refer to God exemplifies Oringer’s personal conflict with the Judaism in which she was raised.
"For me, the writers of Judaism didn’t resonate with me. I felt left out of that because I was a woman," Oringer said.
Indeed, for a good number of Jewish Pagans, their spiritual blending can be seen as one of many varied attempts among Jewish women to reconcile a patriarchal Jewish tradition with modern feminist ideology.
In her essay, "Challah for the Queen of Heaven," in the book "Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism," Ryiah Lilith offers a similar position:
"As buzzwords and phrases such as patriarchy, masculine God-language and blood taboo crept into my vocabulary, the lure of Orthodox Judaism diminished. In Conservative services I was distracted by the gendered and often sexist prayers and felt little connection to either Adonai or other congregants and although the Reform ‘Gates of Prayer’ was explicitly nonsexist, I noticed that the rabbi, cantor, congregational leadership and most of the board were men."
The feminist orientation and emphasis on the goddess led both women to the Craft. But in the end, they chose to incorporate rather than abandon their Jewishness.
Lilith writes, "there are a number of Jewish women within the Pagan community who worship the goddess and who want more feminine and feminist liturgy and ritual than Judaism currently allows."
"I have never stopped being a Jew," Oringer writes on her Web site. "That’s simply who I am. It’s my family, my tribe, my people. I don’t always agree with them … but they’re still my family, for better or for worse. I incorporate the tools of my family into my practice (the Kiddush cup, the menorah, the braided candle, the candlesticks, the spice box, the hand of God…). I have a fondness for challah."
Jewish goddess worshippers like Oringer and Lilith may also invoke the names of goddesses like Asherah, who, according to controversial texts like Raphael Patai’s "The Hebrew Goddess," was worshipped by the Israelites before Jewish idol worship ceased completely. They might also summon Shekinah, the female name of God.
"I think the crisis is Jews of all ages with insufficient knowledge of the depth and beauty of their own religion," Adlerstein said. "There’s a real quest for spirituality. It’s nothing new that people using misplaced yetzer tov (good inclination) rather than bad inclination often assume that the spirituality they’re looking for doesn’t exist in Judaism. So they look elsewhere."
Even among Neo-Pagans, Adlerstein’s point rings true.
"If Jewish renewal had been around at the time [I began my approach], I might have felt differently," Oringer said. "But I certainly had nothing to identify with."
In Devin Galaudet’s Cor Lucis tradition, the focus is more on ritual and meditation, and less on spellcasting. They use a framework of the classic text "The Golden Dawn," as well as the kabbalistic Tree of Life and the tarot. But he also still celebrates most of the Jewish holidays and holds a particular affinity for more ritualistic holidays like Passover.
"It’s one of the holidays where the ritual is performed at home… When I go to synagogue someone else is making that connection or they’re portraying the connection on my behalf, but … it waters down the experience for me," Galaudet said.
Growing up in the Fairfax district, Galaudet considers his background as culturally Jewish, but secular. But in his 20s, he began studying Kabbalah at the Kabbalah Centre, as well as various forms of Paganism and just about every other religion before deciding on his unique combination. The things he thinks are missing from Judaism are ritual and the personal power to connect with God.
"Ultimately … the hierarchy of Jewish temples … doesn’t seem to work for me," he said. "Rabbis aren’t necessarily approachable, and frequently they don’t want to answer questions. Ultimately it’s a very Christian sort of power struggle. I don’t need the rabbi’s help to make the connection."
For Galaudet, making that connection will sometimes involve "Qabalistic" (an older variation on the spelling) tarot reading. He may have learned about the Kabbalah at the Kabbalah Centre, but, said a Centre representative, not about Qabalistic tarot reading. According to Billy Phillips, the organization’s director of communications, "It’s not part of the Judaic understanding of Kabbalah. Throughout history there have been countless sects that have liberated and taken from Kabbalah and tried to adapt it to their own purposes."
Adlerstein believes that this kind of dual citizenship is bad for the Jews. He placed the blame for it on a lazy approach toward religion resulting in pop spirituality.
"Part of what we’re looking at are the same reason people turn to the Kabbalah Centre," Adlerstein said. "It’s like fast food spiritualism — getting it without the work, the counterculture part of it."
But Lillith still sees a place for her approach to Judaism:
"If ‘Jewish’ is a sufficiently expansive and flexible marker to describe the overlap or commonality — no matter how slight — between Reconstructionist, Israeli, transgender, Chasidic and Ethiopian Jews, then it can certainly include Goddess-worshipping Jewish witches as well."