I’m doing a charity talk next week for Camp Wellmet – a Jewish-sponsored camp for urban kids. It’s being hosted by the United Jewish Appeal center in NYC, so everyone thought it would be a good idea for me to do an interview for the UJA website.
I just received an email from the interviewer, who told me that the “interview was removed from the UJA-Federation Web site. Although the piece had been previously approved, a heightened sensitivity to some of the topics we discussed emerged here at UJA-Federation once it was actually posted.”
Further, he went on, “Although it was only online for a day or two, it was included in our weekly email newsletter and I’m happy to report that it received many more click-throughs than the other items in the message. I am hopeful this evidence will compel us to promote a wider array of viewpoints and opinions in the future.
Thank you, again, for taking the time to answer my questions and I apologize for the final outcome.”
It was probably my questioning of the entire notion of “nation state” as something that God believes in that got me in trouble. I post the interview, here, as evidence of how little it takes to upset even a mainstream Jewish organization. —
What are some of the Jewish codes, myths, and superstitions that need to be cracked for Judaism to thrive?
Well, by “crack the codes” I was really just playing off an extended comparison to the computer hacker mentality. Judaism is not set in stone – it is a process in which we must participate. But, in order to do so, we can’t have any sacred cows. We have to know how Judaism works, how its texts are put together, and what it is we’re supposed to *do* about it.
So, the sacred assumptions that need to be cracked are different for everyone. Right now, I think we need to take a good hard look at our fear of assimilation, our obsessions with Judaism as a race (it’s not) and our relationship to Israel. Just mentioning that word makes so many of your readers think I’m saying we should abandon Israel. Of course I didn’t say anything of the kind, but the subject is not really even up for discussion, so people hear strange things. What I think we need to do, in the case of Israel, is to explore whether using Torah as a support of a land claim (God gave Abraham this, Isaac got this piece from that Pharaoh) is changing our relationship to our religion. Is it forcing us to interpret the Torah more literally than it has ever been interpreted before? I fear so.
Likewise, we need to engage in interpretation of our texts, together. This means accepting that rabbis aren’t more holy than regular people. They are not our priests, they are our teachers. They are not our parents, they are our partners. This is a scary thought to many people.
Anything in Judaism that seems inappropriate for consideration? Those are precisely the things that need to be looked at.
You recently launched an online initiative called Open Source Judaism that attempts to help a new generation define Judaism. What is the Internet’s role in invigorating Jewish life?
Well, I think the Internet is great for helping people find one another. Many young, smart Jews are afraid to walk into a synagogue, lest they be ministered to about issues that aren’t their own. The Internet provides a way for people to find others who want to get involved in the kinds of study and conversations that matter to them.
And I’ve started a bunch of “open source Judaism” websites, in an effort to help people engage with Judaism as authors, rather than just as readers. So I’ve got a site where people can create their own haggadahs, or upload their favorite translations and rituals. I’m also creating a hypertext Torah, through which people can click on any word and then add their own commentary. All this will need some funding, though…hint hint.
Other than that, I think the best thing about the Internet is that it provides us with a model for the kind of collaboration we need to revive as Jews. The Internet is very much like the open discussion that used to occur at the Beit Midrash. People are judged on the strength of their ideas – and everything is up for discussion.
What does or should Judaism contribute to society and civilization at large?
Well, it’s already contributed so much! Everything from social justice to the Sabbath. But I think Judaism’s main contribution has been the notion that human beings can make the world a better place. This isn’t just a social justice agenda, but a spiritual and religious one, as well. The Jewish difference – the proposition put forth in Egypt so many years ago – was the revolutionary idea that we arent’ dependent on our Gods for everything. No – the actions of people actually make a difference, and can improve the world. This is why we switched from a circular calendar to a linear one: so we could measure our progress.
The entire notion of human beings making the world a better place was sacrilege in ancient Egypt. We were supposed to get everything from those gods we were worshipping.
Do you think organizations like UJA-Federation can incorporate your vision of Judaism? Are the two compatible?
They’re absolutely compatible. I think the UJA-Federation is more crucial than ever, right now, because family philanthropies have taken center stage, and tend to dictate the Jewish agenda. They are much more subject to supporting whatever is fashionable, rather than looking at the big picture. Each family foundation wants to feel special, and corner a certain market. I don’t think the market will take care of everything that needs taking care of.
But the UJA-Federation must release itself from the responsibility of Jewish continuity as it is currently defined. We won’t get ‘more Jews’ by spending money doing advertising or rebranding. Just do Judaism – Judaism is so very “cool” all by itself. If we turned our attention away from what we can do for Judaism, and instead look at what we can do for the world, Judaism would end up getting many more members and becoming much stronger.
I know this is terribly hard to see – and it’s the source of most of the criticism I’m getting – but we must learn to see this simple fact: Judaism is at its best when its being practiced and enacted. When we spend our time and money begging young people to get involved, it has the reverse effect. Please, Federations, have enough faith in Judaism to just do it. They will come.
How is a sense of community formed in your vision of Judaism?
I’m not really comfortable talking about “my vision” of Judaism. I’m not a prophet, and what I think doesn’t really matter. I’m just trying to start a conversation.
I think communities form naturally when people feel invited to participate. Jewish communities flounder when they expect to be led or ministered to. When their agendas are set by others, the communities fail to be vital. They die out quite quickly.
We are now living in a world where people once again recognize that community is dependent on collaboration and active participation. Kids understand this because of the internet. So the invitation to join a community must come as a question: what do you want to get out of this? What do you have to author? What do you want Judaism to be?
Community is crucial. It’s largely what we’re missing. Judaism doesn’t happen to individuals. It’s a team sport.
You’re very critical of marketing Jewish culture. Is there a role for Jewish culture in your vision of Judaism?
Wow. Just look at yourself! It is because I love Jewish culture that I hate the marketing of Jewish culture. They are th
e opposite things! It’s like you’ve just said, “you hate prostitution. Don’t you see any role for sex in our lives?” Lovemaking with one’s wife, and sex with a prostitute are two very different things. Likewise, the marketing and packaging of religion in order to captivate young people is very different from offering the real Jewish culture to the world.
It’s the difference between those new Jewish magazines imitating black c
ulture, and real Jewish culture, like klezmer or cooking or literature. The only people who need to repackage their stuff as if it were MTV are people who know that their culture is terrible.
I don’t believe Jewish culture is terrible, so I see no need to market it. Kids are too smart to be fooled for very long by Jewish culture pretending to be goy crap, anyway.
Do you see a connection between your vision of Judaism and the early Reform movement?
Sure – the reform movement proposed that we revive the spirit of revision and evolution in Judaism. Some of their revisions, however, were designed to make Judaism look more like Christianity, and those revisions – such as putting the rabbis on a stage and having them wear robes, or engaging in stilted responsive readings – ended up distancing Jews from their texts, and turning rabbis into ministers.
I don’t think it’s a question of reforming Judaism or, heaven forbid, starting new movements. I just think it’s time to open up the conversation, and enliven Jewish study and practice with its core values.
How were you raised to think about Judaism?
Unfortunately, my early Jewish experiences had a lot to do with the 1967 War, and thinking about Judaism and Israel as the same thing. They’re definitely related, but Judaism goes beyond the establishment of a state, or the persecution we have endured.
Luckily, though, some “real” Judaism still came through the pages of stories and embedded themselves into my personality and the way I look at the world. I am definitely a Jew – I just feel it’s time we apply some Judaism to Judaism.
You advocate a Judaism that promotes an ethical vision with a more universal message. What would you say to people who find security in a strictly defined religious community?
I think they’re going to have some problems with a religion like Judaism, which demands that we remain iconoclastic to the end. Judaism is a real spiritual path. The further you go into Torah – if you do it honestly and in a thinking way – the less absolute it seems. Torah is so very powerful and multidimensional, that it looks a bit different to everyone, and it says different things every time you read it. It resists all strict definitions, the same way the Jewish God resists such strict definitions.
I understand the need for something solid to hold onto – that’s why it’s so hard to abandon one’s idols and practice Judaism. Alas, there are many cults arising to satisfy the need for absolutes, and they are calling themselves Judaism. They get many members, these days, because Americans are so confused about how to relate to the world, and they are so challenged by the relativism pervading our culture. But there is a way to find the true, unchanging values in Judaism without resorting to blind faith.
Do you accept that Jews represent a people, not just a faith, and are therefore deserving of their own nation?
I don’t think that just because a “people” may exist means that these people need a nation. The whole notion of nation states was invented. God didn’t invent nations. They are not a property of nature. They were invented by kings in order to have power. They drew boundary lines, and declared that everyone within them were the same “people.” So with the establishment of Italy, say, all of a sudden the Tuscans become “Italians.” And they’re supposed believe they have a shared ethnicity or racehood.
I do understand why, in a flawed world with very cruel religious nation states, there might be a need to create a safe haven for Jews. But I hate the idea that Israel gives European countries a way of justifying their two millennia of persecution. Religious states are inventions, and they’re wrong. I much prefer the American ideal of separating church and state – and having room in a nation (in a republic) for more than one kind of “people.”
You site Jewish participation in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies as a sincere attempt to connect with something more meaningful. How does this differ from rising interest in Jewish mysticism, which you have dismissed as superficial?
It’s hard to differentiate between a religion and a cult, isn’t it? But not impossible. Buddhism and Hinduism are real paths with genuine traditions. IN their proper implementation, they don’t ask practitioners to spend thousands of dollars or reject their families for being non-believers.
Rising interest in Jewish mysticism is very different from cults now offering courses in what they call Jewish mysticism. Paying a fake rabbi to tie a red string around your wrist is not Jewish mysticism – it is superstitious cultism.
The rising interest in Jewish mysticism is a result of the fact that so many people want to study Judaism, but don’t want to get entrenched in racial, patriarchal, and other wrong-headed pursuits. They are looking for a meaningful spiritual path, and don’t find it in the rigidity of most temple worship, or the concerns they see written about on the pages of the organized Jewish world’s newspapers and magazines.
In the modern world, a spiritual path needs to offer people a chance to break the artificial boundaries separating them from the rest of the world. They want to come to realize, for real, that individuality is an illusion. They want to transcend their own tribalism. They don’t currently see this opportunity in organized Judaism, so they look for alternatives. Sadly, there are many who know how to exploit this need, along with the need to connect with something that has the name “Jewish” attached to it.
In your op-ed “Don’t Judge Judaism by the Numbers” you say, “many American Jews have come to understand their Jewishness as an obligation rather than a privilege.” I understand what you mean by obligation. What are some of the privileges?
The privilege of being a conscious person. And a person of conscience. The privilege of engaging with the world’s greatest piece of mythic literature – a divinely inspired tool for inquiry known as Torah. It’s a privilege to form a havurah and debate what’s going on in the Jewish narrative and its many practice. It’s a privilege to participate in a minyan, as an equal. It’s privilege to learn with a great teacher.
Most of all, it’s a privilege to serve as a light to all peoples – as ‘or lagoyim’ – and to participate in the many-generation old project of making the world a better, more holy, place.