Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Empowered Judaism, Future Tense, and Radical Judaism: A Brave New Weird Jewish World

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2010 at 11:53 am

I’ve been away for ages, not for want of things to say, but of time to say them. I have, however, been reading contemporary books of Jewish interest for the first time in thirty years.  This was not a conscious choice, but one borne out of necessity. I didn’t get to the library and ended up plundering my son’s Bar Mitzvah stash. I also availed myself of freebies offered at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s “Why Be Jewish” annual gathering.

Why have I eschewed reading new Jewish books? Well, quite frankly, I would rather be learning Torah and if not, I would rather my “bitul zman” be spent on something I would quite frankly enjoy more.  Two of these three books did not require a book length treatment to say what needed to be said, while the third one could have been a bit longer.  Each one advocates for different ways to “save the Jewish people”, or at least save people who resemble these authors.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, is a fine writer, and in Future Tense, he argues for a Judaism open to dialog with other religious traditions.  He analyzes Jewish stubbornness and her dyspeptic attitude toward rabbis like himself in a curious albeit eloquent fashion. He claims that we are naturally individualistic and hence not so cooperative.  A strange analysis to say the least.  Here is a tradition that prefers liturgically the “we” over the “I”, that prefers duty to others over individual “rights”, but somehow, is culturally alien to cooperative community.  The problem of Jewish crankiness is real enough, but the analysis is spectacularly wrong.  Rabbi Sacks command of the latest thinking in sociology, philosophy, and psychology is profoundly impressive.  In Torah, however, one cannot help but notice that the quotations are not as numerous, fluid or forthcoming.  He is a spokesman for a new nuance in traditional Judaism, “Assimilationist Orthodoxy”.  For those more comfortable with western discourse, but still have deep attachments to keeping the commandments, he is a commanding voice, but not one who will challenge his more traditional counterparts. For me, many of the conclusions were ones that worldly Jews from traditional and liberal backgrounds could easily embrace.  The arguments were, however, less compelling.

Empowered Judaism a relatively short book describes and promotes the phenomenon of independent minyanim that have emerged throughout the United States. The flagship minyan, although not the first, is Kehilat Hadar. A community founded by committed, competent and knowledgeable volunteers who shared a particular vision for a shule community, and sent out an email to see if that vision was shared by others. Scores of people responded and the minyan was on its way.  The most engaging part of the book was its emphasis on competence and efficiency regarding all  community programming.  Not much is left to chance, and although the actual experience feels authentic, it is the result of meticulous planning, and deliberate decision making.  These twenty and thirty somethings know that people’s time is precious and that the theater of the davening experience requires–if not rehearsals–at least careful consideration that doesn’t allow for spontaneous decisions. Torah readers, Shlichei Tzibbur, and Gabbaim, are selected well in advance of a particular service, and are then vetted before they are accepted as leaders. Kehilat Hadar is completely egalitarian, but committed to traditional nusach with little variation. For those of us in the Orthodox community who are pleased with our davening experience, one is struck by how fraught this process has to be in order to get it ‘right’. I mean, why isn’t enough for the Gabbai to scout the usual suspects and pick the suitable candidate during Mincha for Kabbalat Shabbat?  The answer is that this is a new way of creating culture. This is the culture of consultants and MBA’s. This is the culture of dual income families where time is at a premium.  It is also instructive that the independent minyanim are not taking over, but are fulfilling the needs of an urban demographic of transient people from their twenties to early thirties. They don’t always have the luxury of knowing who their usual suspects are. Beyond that, these newly empowered Jews have the mandate to contribute to or transform existing communities.

Kehilat Hadar spawned Machon Hadar that became the headquarters for start up independent minyanim, of which there are enough to declare it a movement of sorts.  The most interesting part of this vision is Yeshivat Hadar. An egalitarian yeshiva that follows the rigors of a classical yeshiva with Gemara being the centerpiece. Complete halachic observance is required and assumed.  I was struck by how critically important the founders felt that Torah learning, especially learnng Gemara, needs to be in the center of all other considerations.  After all, one does not need to talk about gender roles if you have already made a choice for equal participation.  The Yeshiva has a chance to be more organic than the Kehila does.  If the Yeshiva can be sustained, it will be an interesting challenge for the Orthodox community to have a group of shomer shabbos egalitarian Jews who know how to learn.  Empowered Jews is a grand title for what one might call instead, competent Jews. Hadar has tapped into a small community of young Jews who crave community, intimacy and “authenticity” in accordance with some egalitarian principles that are not in tandem with normative halachic practice.  The Yeshiva is where the primarily aesthetic decision of davening with like minded skilled people at Kehilat Hadar becomes transformed into an experience of commitment and devotion.  Where a person goes to the Kehilla because they like the davening, they go to the Yeshiva because they are open to adopting, or already have adopted, a radically different way of life.  It is the latter that will transform the egalitarian community and not the former. Rabbi Eli Kaunfer has much to crow about here, and he is not reticent to do so.

Art Green in his publication of the Yale Rosensweig lectures wrote a theological tour de force that is poeticlly written, thought provoking and somewhat reductionist.  He offers what he calls a neo-hasidic approach to theology, where God is the source of being that is within all living things, a unifying force that is more within than without.  Not a God who rewards and punishes, or one who judges, but one who requires harmony and life affirming action, much of which some hasidic masters have certainly embraced.  I believe that much of what he decries in the Talmud as primitive is over simplifed, and his knowledge of Hasidut and Kabbalah places his ignorance of Gemara in particular and Talmud in general, in sharp relief.  He never claimed to know or be interested in the Halachic process, so this is not a criticism, it is only when he reduces the God of a Talmud as espousing a more primitive theology that I find him overstepping his bounds.  The seeds of the Zohar were sown in Gemaras that were later showcased and emphasized.  Nevertheless, his love of learning and his grounding in Hasidut is obvious. In a way, much more obvious than Rabbi Sacks’s commitment to Torah learning.

This serendipitous entry into the latest shenanigans of the Jewish community is now over. I claim contemporary insanity, and now go back home to my Talmudic tomes and my Medieval mesmerizers.  I have enjoyed my time with them, but I’ve had my fill for now.


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