Posts Tagged 'The Counterculture'

The Sixties, Now

Rumors concerning the demise of the sixties are premature, as the following story will show.

I met a good friend a few days after Lag BaOmer of last year, and he was evidently discomfited. When I asked what the matter was, he told me that his two teenage sons had gone to take part in the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai festival at Mt. Meiron. When asked how they fared there he answered that they didn’t give too many details. It was crowded, dirty, exhausting, and it didn’t seem that they had done much aside geting squeezed among the throngs up the mountain, and shortly thereafter back down. But one thing was clear to them, he told me: Whatever happened there was “real”. At least to them. Meaning that’s how they felt. In short, “there was something powerful there” – powerful in the existential sense.

This friend is a modern-orthodox Jew, and so are his sons. Worshiping deceased saints is not a usual part of their religious experience, but that wasn’t what bothered him. What bothered him was that they hadn’t found that “something powerful” at the synagogue of the community in which they live. Rather, it was at a mass festival around a holy tomb that they found some unmediated encounter with the divine, some Truth. Together we hypothesized that perhaps God was not in the noise, nor in the fire, nor in the smoke and dust and dirt, but in the very nature of an irregular act. As is well known, the escape from routine is exciting in and of itself. But perhaps there is something additional here. Perhaps the irregular is particularly exciting when it derives from a rebellion against the regular, and even rebellion against the religious regular. This really got my friend worried.

We all rebel against the regular, and in a sense every young generation rebels against the generation preceding it, both generally and in matters of religion. But there’s something more to the excursion of my friend’s sons to Meiron than that, something in common with the reason many youngsters in Israel and abroad join new spiritual movements, or the spiritual quest of the new age in general. In fact, there’s a sort of continuation here to a tradition that began in the 1960’s in the United States.

Teen Rebellion – The Archetype

That decade in the United States is described as the forefather – and archetype – of every modern teen rebellion, and thus contains the seeds of the processes taking place in contemporary spirituality. In his fascinating book The Easternization of the West Collin Campbell analyzes the groups that made up the great cultural change that took place then, a change born of the values crisis attendant to the end of the great ideologies after WW2, a change which in his opinion included a revolution of thought equivalent to the Reformation or the Renaissance, no less.

According to Campbell, three distinct groups made up the youth wave that rebelled against society and became what would later be known as “The Counterculture.” The first group was made up of teenage delinquents. These were youths who, for the first time since the establishment of the United States had enough leisure time and money to be free of parental direction. They felt more independent than ever, proud of themselves, and felt that the adults around them were not respecting them and their needs. From here it was but a short distance to dropping out of the educational and occupational frameworks to which they belonged, and turning to rage-fueled rebellion. Think of the images of James Dean and Marlon Brando, wearing black leather jackets and hunkered over a motorcycle.

The second group Campbell identifies as part of the ‘counterculture’ includes all sorts of world-reformers. These were mostly students protesting against what they saw as moral wrongs: The war in Vietnam, the existence of nuclear weapons, and discrimination against women and African-Americans. These are the people who went on civil rights marches, peace protests and combined a Marxist social critique with the demand that American democracy meet its obligations toward all its citizens, and to stop bombarding the citizens of other countries. Think of those who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.

The third group is the one most similar to the phenomenon described at the head of this essay. This group included all the people who sought not only a social alternative, but also a spiritual one. These began with the Beat poets and continued with the hippies, the flower children, the acid-trippers, the followers of Zen-Buddhism and other Oriental religious movements. These are the people who sang about “The age of Aquarius”, about “peace and love”, who preached the need to “drop out” of the “system” and gathered in mass love festivals, mostly in the San Francisco area. Think (you already are thinking) of the characters from the musical “Hair.”

Of course there were individuals who stood on the boundaries between these groups, but in general it should be clear that these are totally different people. What do students protesting the wrongs of government have in common with juvenile delinquents? What do they have with the spiritualists who think that everything’s groovy? What connection do these latter ones have with those who pour all their energies into political battles? What do rebellious youths have in common with anyone at all? And yet, in order for the Counterculture to materialize as an encompassing, revolutionary social tidal wave, these three groups – all members of America’s younger generation at the time – had to unite into a single force. The reason this force was born has to do with similar phenomena of the time, and that reason is one: The search for authenticity.


The Search For Authenticity

Authenticity means consistency between heart and mouth, between inside and out, and between thought, emotion and action. Campbell shows in his book that what united these three groups was their disappointment in the dishonesty of society around them: Adults who preached initiative and independence did not respect the independence of teenagers; a country presuming to be free and democratic discriminated against women and blacks; a society that claimed to believe in lofty ideals was interested in nothing but money and profits. From finding fault with specific issues the critique of the three groups became a wholesale disqualification of “the establishment”. Old society is hypocritical to the core, they deduced, and we must all shun it.

In turning their back on general society the members of these groups found what they were looking for in each other. Whether they were rebellious youths, discontented students or tripping hippies, they all had one thing in common: They were authentic. The ‘counter-culture’ in fact expressed a rebellion against Western society in the name of authenticity which it couldn’t actualize. It was the largest attempt to date to realize authenticity in practice.

It’s important to understand how innovative this attempt was, definitely in the mass scale on which it appeared. Young people discovered their inner worlds: ego, conscious, soul – and demanded that the outside world align itself with the truth they lived. Older generations, used to the ethic in which what matters is what you do and not whether you mean it, couldn’t understand what the youngsters wanted. The youngsters, for their part, declared a new ethos, with the demand to be true to yourself and the rejection of all forms of hypocrisy at its center. Such a nuclear motivation can fuel not only a cry against the wrongs of society, but conversely also an interest in self-inquiry which is expressed through Buddhist meditation, or in spurning the traditional forms of Western monotheism and finding a new spiritual home at ‘Hare Krishna’.

Teen Rebellion – The Next Generation

hill-top youth - from WikipediaLet us return to my friend and his two sons. Recently a new book came out collating essays by Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l, called Tablets and broken Tablets (Yedioth Ahronoth Press). Rabbi Rosenberg is among the greatest thinkers of Religious Zionism, and definitely the one who has delved most deeply into post-modern thought and crafted a response to it form within the world of Torah. In an essay titled “Experience, Mysticism and the Renewal of Prophecy” he addresses the growing variety within the Religious Zionist youth, including a renewed interest in Hassidism and the search for religious experience. According to Rosenberg, all these are not necessarily signs of great devotion. Sometimes they indicate the opposite, a sort of rebellion and alienation.

There’s that rebellion again, and again the interpretation which holds that the escape from the irregular isn’t much more than turning one’s back on the regular. Undoubtedly, there is much truth to this interpretation, but I think that in light of the above this rebellion it can be understood in another way. When religious youngsters “rebel” against tradition and challenge the preceding generation, it’s not just in search of thrills or a teenage attempt to annoy the folks. This is also a deep critique of what the youngsters see as the hypocrisy of the adults. It’s also about the search of religious authenticity.

Rabbi Rosenberg would have known exactly why these youngsters are disappointed in what they see as hypocrisy in the behavior of their elders. The latter tell them about fear of God and worship, and mumble their prayers unthinkingly. They preach Jewish values, and live bourgeoisie lives in upscale bourgeoisie communities. They swear allegiance to the tenants of the faith, but are in no hurry to renew the daily sacrifices or truly expect the coming of the Messiah.

Seeing the behavior of adults as hypocrisy and demanding authenticity of oneself is an inner fire that propels a life of seeking and action. This is the fire that pushes the “Hill Youths” to seek proximity to nature and the land. This is what moves those who travel to Uman seeking true prayer, powerful and heartfelt. In fact, this is in large part what fueled Gush Emmunim back in the day. The charge of youngsters upon the hills of Judea and Samaria aimed not just to realize God’s promise to the patriarchs, but no less to show their own private patriarchs that their meandering religiosity was lacking. The youngsters demonstrated what they saw as full, unapologetic religiosity, as opposed to the stammering observance of their parents.

Therefore we must understand that this rebellion is not against the Halakha per-se. It is true that it can appear against the background of a lack of authenticity that youngsters find in the repetitive observance of commandments and their desire to find a deeper, more ‘alive’ religious experience. Then it is another shade of the new-age experience. But many times it comes from a critique of what is seen as the older generation’s disrespect of Halakha, and therefore manifests as over-insistence and a tendency towards strictures. In such cases this rebellion carries within it an interesting paradox: It is extraneous to tradition, yet strictly observant of Halakha. From the sixties to the feast on Mt. Meiron, the single line of the search for religious authenticity connects the spiritual aspirations of the young rebels. Some of those dancing at Meiron, therefore, are the spiritual descendants of the hippies, in more ways than one. I’m not sure that’s the insight to put my friend’s concerns to rest.

First published in Maariv newspaper, 3.5.13


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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