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Judaism and the Counterculture by Dr. Sanford Drob
Judaism and the Counterculture by Dr. Sanford Drob

Volume 2 , Issue 4

One sees and hears a great deal these days about the 1960's. Television programs, including, ?The Wonder Years,? ?China Beach,? and ?Thirty Something,? amongst others, capitalize, in one way or another upon our preoccupation with and nostalgia for this period of time. Sixty's fashions are selling again and the music of the 1960's, which has long been the mainstay of the huge ?oldies radio? industry, is now being used to sell everything from oranges to automobiles.

Much, of course, has been written, from a sociological point of view, about our intense fascination with the era of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and the ?counterculture,? but comparatively little has been written about the psychological impact of counterculture lifestyle and ideas on those who lived through the period and who were an integral part of it. Indeed, even less has been said about the continuing impact of this period on the psychology of American Jews, particularly upon the attitudes towards and participation in religious life of those men and women who are currently in their 30's and early 40's and who were once spoken of as the ?Woodstock generation.? It is for this reason that I offer a few observations which may shed some light on the relationship between the counterculture of the 1960's and American Judaism as it heads into the 1990's.

The Dream Dies

Before we can discuss the impact of the ?counterculture? we must be at least some-what clear as to what the counterculture was and when it was that it flourished. To answer the latter question first, we might say that the counterculture began to coalesce with the assassination of President Kennedy in November of1963, and that the flame of the movement went out with the murder of John Lennon in December of 1980. When John Lennon died, many of us who had not faced up to it as yet, finally realized that ?the dream? was indeed over.

But what was ?the dream?? What did the counterculture, in essence, consist of? What, we might ask, were its ideals? In spite of its excesses and, at times, its out-right destructiveness, the counterculture did, indeed, have ideals, many of which continue to have an impact (in positive or negative terms) on the lives of large numbers of American Jews, particularly in their expectations ofand relationship to their Judaism.

First and foremost, the counterculture represented a mistrust of American government and large institutions, particularly ?big business.? The ?military industrial complex,? as it was referred to, was a ?cabal?, whose sole purpose was, under the guise of democratic rhetoric, to augment its own power and fill the coffers of a select ?evil? few. Closely related to its anti-establishment stance, was the counterculture's anti-materialism. American society had, it was thought, reached the point where its only values were monetary and material. Human relationships, spiritual and even ethical values had become nearly extinct in American life and the ?counterculture? took it upon itself to restore them. There was in the earliest days, say prior to 1968, the belief that a new generation, rebelling against the establishment, could transform American society and with it the world. The counterculture, at least in its rhetoric and at times even in action, was a revolutionary movement, one that sought to redeem the world from the exploitative forces which presumably controlled it.

The counterculture, aside from being anti-establishment, anti-materialistic and revolutionary, was also egalitarian in spirit. Its members were attracted to socialist, even communist, forms of government, which promised a massive redistribution of personal wealth and power. While the Black Power and Women's Liberation movements caught the counterculture unaware (and in many ways hastened its demise), the emergence of these movements was aided considerably by the egalitarian spirit which the counterculture itself had introduced and fostered.

The Value of Human Relationships

The counterculture's emphasis on the value of human relationships, along with its dissatisfaction with the relationships and patterns of social organization in American life, prompted its adherents to engage in communal living, cohabitation without marriage, etc. An interest arose in non-traditional, intimate communities, as a means of expressing the desire to combat the impersonal nature of American life. ?Devotees? of the counterculture were quite willing, even anxious, to experiment with new ways of living and relating, from vegetarianism to sufism, and they undertook these experiments with what amounted to a religious fervor and passion.

A renewed introspective interest in the self developed within the counterculture; in ?finding oneself;? ?doing one's own thing;? and in a form of supposedly, enlightened individualism captured by the phrase ?tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.? As time went on, these factors became more and more prominent within it. Along with this came the unbridled hedonism and recklessness of the ?drug culture,? of marijuana, L.S.D., mescaline, hash, but also the interest in the East, in things foreign, exotic, spiritual and mystical: Zen, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, etc. Both the drugs and the Eastern philosophy were supposedly aimed towards the goal of expanding one's consciousness or achieving spiritual enlightenment (?cosmic consciousness?).

The ?culture? of the counterculture was dominated by music, initially folk, and then (and this hastened the counterculture's own commercialization and demise) popular music. The heroes of the counterculture, for example, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and later John Lennon, were all songwriters and performers who captured and immortalized the spirit of the age in song. Indeed, their songs frequently served as the impetus for new ways of looking at and relating to society. While film, theatre, and the fine arts were all transformed by the ?60's revolution,? none was so integrally connected to the spirit of this period as was the music.

Finally, the counterculture brought with it a radical change in appearance and dress. Long hair and beards on men, ?Eastern,? mod, hippie attire, bright colors, flowers, beads, all served as readily identifiable means of affiliation among those of like thinking and lifestyle. Early on, one could ?read? another's political and philosophical views by way of his or her appearance or clothing, but by the early 70's, the hippie style had become so commonplace that one could encounter ?rednecks? and bigots with shoulder length hair and beards, it was indeed the ?counterculture's? popularization and commercialization, as had happened with so many other radical social movements, that eventually contributed to its own demise.

Tremendous Impact

There can be little doubt that the counterculture left a tremendous impact on many of those who were in their teens or early 20's during the 1960's and 70's. One often encounters individuals who, having made an outward adjustment in terms of profession and appearance, still retain the ideals and many of the ways of the 1960's in their private, intimate lives: accountants, lawyers, physicians still listening to Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, who, on weekends, may meditate with a guru in an ashram, and who, when queried about their philosophical or spiritual beliefs, come up with some version of a counterculture ?rap.? Some of these individuals have even voted Republican in the last three national elections. It is almost as if their ?Yuppie selves? have been grafted upon an earlier ?hippie self?, this earlier hippie self showing itself in places such as religion and philosophy where no new psychological structure or way of living has replaced it, like older buildings dotting the landscape of a new, modern city.

Of interest to us here, however, is the fact that it is precisely in their engagement with Judaism that the remnants of a counterculture mentality can be found in so many Jews of the ?baby boom? era. It has indeed been during the 1980's that this, the ?after-school Hebrew School? generation has begun to have children, become involved in thinking about their children's religious education, and come to reinvolve themselves in a Judaism which they once considered to be just another part of the ?establishment.? The result, in many instances, is an encounter, albeit 20 years delayed, between Judaism and the counterculture. I think that several, otherwise baffling phenomena can be explained through an understanding of this belated encounter. I am thinking about the baal teshuvah movement, the social upheavals in non-Orthodox (and to a certain extent Orthodox) Jewish religious life, and the enormous energy and vibrancy of intellectual and creative life which one sees abounding in nearly every corner of contemporary American Judaism.

Counterculture as Religion

For many, the counterculture served as a religion. Indeed, its anti-materialistic, egalitarian, communal, introspective, and mystical aspects, lent themselves to enormous religious fervor and passion. When the movement began to be attacked from within its own ranks by feminists and Black power advocates in the early 70's, and when it began to dissolve in its own confusion, apathy and commercialization shortly thereafter, many felt abandoned. They felt abandoned by a universalistic religion of youth which had burst on the scene and cut across ethnic, racial and economic boundaries, but which had, indeed, consumed itself in what was nothing more than a moment of historical time. The tremendous outpouring of grief which so many experienced with John Lennon's death, was a grief not only over the loss of one of the movement's last ?prophets,? but also grief over the loss of the movement as religion itself.

It was, I believe, in the 1970's and especially in early the 1980's, that the energy of so many Jewish individuals who had been involved in the counterculture began to become invested in Judaism. Many, of course, had already reinvested this energy in the ?personal redemption? offered by the psychotherapies and other philosophies of the ?me decade,? and for many, Judaism was, and still is, an unlikely receptacle for this energy; for the Judaism that so many of us were exposed to in the Sunday and Hebrew schools of the 1950's and 60's was, indeed, just another reflection of the tired, self-satisfied establishment which the counterculture had rebelled against. When the whole goal of Hebrew school it seemed, was a lavish bar or bat mitzvah at the ?Sands Beach Club? or at ?Leonard's of Great Neck,? how could one take Judaism seriously as a redemptive, mystical or even religious movement?

It was thus, quite by accident, that many Jews seemed to stumble upon the true meaning of Judaism, and began to recognize their religion as embodying many, if not most, of the 60's counterculture ideals. For some, it was the renewed interest in their heritage sparked by the passing of an older, ?old world? relative; for others, it was a seemingly chance, positive encounter with a ?shaliakh? (emissary) from Lubavitch, and, for others still, it was a visit to Israel which awakened their interest. (Israel had always been a source of static for the Jewish counterculture mentality. After all, the greatest, and perhaps only, source of Jewish pride for young American Jews was the incredibly swift, miraculous, victory in the Six-Day War in June, 1967, at the beginning of the so-called ?summer of peace and love.?) Whatever the reason, many Jews began to see Judaism in a way they had never seen it before. They saw that Judaism, particularly in its Orthodox and Chasidic manifestations, was itself a counterculture, a community guided by values, that was itself mistrustful of, or at least separated from, the establishment. They saw that Judaism elevated the spiritual over the material; that it was in a sense ?revolutionary? in its faith in Messianic redemption, and in its view that human acts could hasten and even bring about the redemptive process; that it was egalitarian in its belief in the infinite value of each human soul; that it was communal as opposed to individualistic; that it advocated alternative styles of living, dressing and relating; that it was mystical and meditational; that it was permeated with a spirit of creativity and song; and, above all, that it promised the individual an opportunity to find his true ?self,? in fostering his capacity to serve man and God.

Those of us who participated in and who were ultimately abandoned by the counterculture felt, in the end, that we had been participants in a grand dream or myth. And, indeed, we were participants in a recreation of the great saga of personal and national redemption, for which Judaism, is the fundamental archetype. It was no accident that those of us who turned to Judaism in the 1970's and 80's, found the ideals and values of the counterculture already embodied in our ancient faith, for the counterculture as a redemptive movement in Western history, however brief, took on the elements of all such redemptive movements, for which Judaism serves as the basic model.

Yet, American Judaism was, and continues to be, reinvigorated by the energies of the counterculture. The reason for this is simple: for the American, Judaism, which so many of us experienced and abandoned as children and adolescents was estranged from the very redemptive, counterculture ?myth? which is its whole raison d etre. Those who came to Judaism from the counterculture were in many cases able to reignite this redemptive flame, a flame which today burns in the baal teshuvah movement, the renewed interest in Jewish mysticism, and, for all one hears about the divisiveness within the Jewish community, in the dawn of a golden age of American Jewish involvement, learning and religion.

Sanford Drob holds doctorates in philosophy and clinical psychology.



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