I am in broad agreement with Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s propositions in Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. Indeed, I have seen at least one of these sentiments expressed in the vision statements of almost all creative Jewish endeavors over the years, including my for-profit publishing house (Print-O-Craft LLC) and the not-for-profit podcasting platform (Jewish Public Media) which I co-created. Both of these organizations are in the business of proliferating chochma and attempting to communicate emotional connection through remote (and still pretty non-traditional) means. The publishing house is very much geared towards conveying a sense of kedusha, which is normally only achieved through in-person interactions. We strongly believe that the marketplace sometimes needs to dictate what deserves publication and what does not without having the scales tipped by donor support (unlike some Jewish presses, our publications are not subsidized by third parties). While neither organization is explicitly working on tzedek-related issues at the moment, Jewish Public Media will likely be heading in this direction in the coming year as a result of the post-election zeitgeist.
For each proposition, however, I submit that a greater degree of radicality is in order. Rabbi Schwarz’s propositions amount to four translation efforts (the tzedek proposition is perhaps a shift in focus instead of a translation) in which the content of the past is rejiggered for the idiosyncrasies of the era. This is important work—but it is not enough. A Jewish future constructed out of translations of ancient concepts will comfort our ancestors (because it holds out to them the hope of reverting to the past; it is theoretically reversible and non-destructive), but it will always live in the shadow of the originals. It is only just innovative enough to ensure survival. In order to ensure a Jewish future in America, we badly need to head back to basics and re-litigate core questions of belief which have not been addressed in several decades. Man cannot live by Heschel and Soloveitchik (or Rosenzweig and Arendt) alone. We need to start again, creating a new American religious ideology (or ideologies) which provides strong answers to the following questions:
- What is God?
- What is the purpose of prayer?
- What is the purpose of Torah study?
- What is the theological significance of the American Jewish community given the presence of a Jewish state whose political culture is inexorably drifting away from American Jewish political culture? What is the religious significance of a permanent Diaspora community in an Israel Age?
- Despite the growing interest in social justice Torah, this new attempt to mine the tradition for texts with modern relevance cannot easily be integrated into the beit midrash. The laws of Passover or levirate marriage or witness testimony all succeed as subjects of lengthy, rigorous study in part, because most of their myriad rulings are neither intuitively moral or immoral. The absence of clear moral evaluations for each regulation provides a strong incentive to use the law to flesh out any ambiguities in that might arise. The same is not true for, say, the laws of charity. Here, our moral intuitions (whether or not they precisely align with laws as stated) are sufficiently strong that protracted pilpul sessions seem hardly necessary. Furthermore, much social justice Torah today conveniently cherry picks those texts which serve its purposes and ignores much of what now appears to be objectionable. This kind of selectivity does have a place, but it is not intellectual honest. Is there a way of really bringing social justice into the beit midrash—or bringing the beit midrash onto the street?
- Should rabbis have halakhic legislative/adjudicative power? If not—who should?
I believe that the recent election can serve as an important catalyst for the serious consideration of these questions. The urgency of this theology (if I may be explicitly political for the rest of this paragraph), has become clear with the growing divide between Israeli Jews and their American counterparts. Organizations like ZOA and AIPAC, which have so far remained conspicuously uncritical in the face of the many disasters and ethical failings of the Trump Administration and which have (literally and figuratively) applauded a man whose corruption, cruelty, and molestation of women is thoroughly documented, have communicated strongly to the rest of America Jewry that support for Israel is worth more than all other values combined, including even the value of speaking out against attacks on American Jews.
Despite Birthright, younger Jews are growing impatient with the Jewish state, and will only become less enamored of it as peace negotiations continue to deteriorate. Whether next generation Jews retain or cast off the label “Zionist”, it is becoming increasingly clear (to me, at least) that it would be folly to make American Jewish religious identity dependent on the existence of a democratic Israel. American Jews must do something which has not been seriously done since the first exile to Babylon–articulate the meaning of their community independent of the existence of a national home in Israel.
Answering the above-listed questions is a creative endeavor. Like all creative endeavors, it requires funding. While the funding reality for Jewish nonprofits often requires a demonstration of a program’s impact and outcome, it is vital that funding be identified for more theoretical efforts such as what I am describing here. This is especially true because of the way the academic job market continues to deteriorate. This means taking chances on the funding of young scholars and new books.
In pursuing these new ideologies, it is critical that we do not reduce these first-principles into problems of pedagogy. The Jewish conception of God is hard to communicate because our theologies are running on fumes, not because we are bad teachers (not to say that we’re not also sometimes bad teachers). We need new primary texts, new and compelling ways of thinking about God. These things can’t be cobbled together from past sources, though they can be inspired by past sources. Nothing short of this will do.
Through the two media organizations in which I am involved, I hope to be able to communicate the urgency of these ideological needs and, perhaps, facilitate the creation of some of the material described above.