As part of a lecture series at the National Museum of American Jewish History, this past Tuesday evening was a session titled, “Challenges to American Jewish Leaders Today.” The featured panelists were Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and winner of the esteemed Covenant Award for her work in Jewish education, and Dr. Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU.
Brown started the conversation with a quote from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic: “American Jews are the spoiled brats of the 20th century.” Cohen explained that viewpoint as such: American Jews are ignorant and they don’t even know it. But he, Cohen, is not as concerned about Jewish literacy– as defined by the ancient rabbinic texts– but chooses to define and measure Jewish engagement and identity. Brown declared that American Jews have accomplished a tremendous amount for American culture, but less for the legacy of Judaism. Once they are finally introduced to their Jewish legacy, they do learn to appreciate the reservoir of Jewish wisdom that is applicable and relevant to their communal roles. Cohen countered thus: Jewish knowledge comes from being effective. It’s not essential to know the rabbinic texts. Furthermore, he said, Jewish knowledge also includes cooking skills. So, would you come to a program on chicken soup? quipped Brown. Yes, but only to taste, retorted Cohen, I cannot cook and that makes me a deficient Jew.
Turning to Israel as another indicator of Jewish identity, Brown noted with dismay that American Jews cannot have a civil discourse over issues these days. Cohen, who’d made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) in 1992, considers himself a learned Jew because of his intimate knowledge of Israeli life and politics. He outlined the two camps of Jews in America thus: one that feels an obligation of loyalty to Israel and the other that is concerned primarily with human rights. The former is concerned that the human-rights camp undermines the security of Israel while the latter camp is worried that the Zionist hawks undermine the democratic and moral character of Israel. (Cohen considers himself a security-driven dove.) Brown regards incivility as representative of American politics today, as shown in vituperous anonymous exchanges on the Internet and sometimes even in person. Cohen was more concerned about the lack of knowledge of policies than incivility. Later, he noted that three comparison groups- American Jews of old (early 20th century), the Orthodox, and Israelis– are all defined by strong passion. It’s not incivil to be passionate about an issue.
In Cohen’s 2000 book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, he refers to “sheilaism,” a term coined by Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen in their monumental study, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life to encapsulate the egoistic adoption of ritual– Brown called it “the religion of one”– and the resultant breakdown of communal religious life. Another term they bandied was “journeyism,” to refer to the expectations of the disaffected to be supported in their journeys of spiritual exploration. They, and we, lose the communal and social reasons for religion. So, how do we create community for these disaffected youth? Cohen advocates the growing success the Jewish community has achieved in delivering personal meaning through new venues, such as minyanim and havurot. Drawing upon semantics, he noted that observant Jews used to greet each other with chag kasher v’sameach for Pesach (Passover), but now we tell each other, “Have a meaningful fast.” He was wowed by the inclusion of “meaningful” in the Artscroll machzor (High Holiday prayer book) that is widely accepted in the Orthodox community. According to Cohen, we have moved from the normative system of “This is the right way to live” to an aesthetic system with an enriching culture.
A hot topic is conversion; current debates focus more on who has the right to determine who is a Jew than who is Jewish. Brown cited Joseph Caro’s 16th century seminal work in traditional Judaism, The Shulhan Aruch, for posing the test question: Are you willing to accept the fate of the Jewish people? If so, then the proselyte can be taught the mitzvot (commandments). She claimed that there is a big price to be paid for taking out the Jewish content. Cohen said that we should welcome more converts. He estimated that 10% of intermarried couples will have grandchildren who identify as Jews and only 50% of Gentile inter-married partners do convert. He proposed cultivating conversionary-minded rabbis. Brown retorted that a lack of teachers was not the obstruction but communal lack of acceptance. She taught that the Biblical Ruth was ignored by the women of Bethlehem when she arrived there with her mother-in-law Naomi– and this was after Ruth’s dramatic and poetic declaration of faith. Cohen agreed that prejudice against converts was morally wrong but its removal would be insufficient to increasing the incentive for conversion. He thinks there is a sizeable cohort of non-Jews who are connected but would not convert.
Cohen then proposed the radical idea of dropping the God part of Ruth’s oath and calling for Jewish affirmation, not conversion. Brown protested that this would unfairly narrow the definition of who is a Jew. Cohen said that it would be gambling a loss of people choosing the cheaper, more accessible product– Birthright, for instance, instead of the more intensive and demanding six-weeks’ stay in Israel– but we’ll be compensated by a wider reach to those who would not have been tempted outright. Brown quipped that he was offering wholesale instead of retail. Cohen admitted it’s a half step toward conversion. It’s thus not a burden for rabbis and teachers, but we have not yet shown the love to motivate these non-Jewish partners for further engagement. What is most important is inclusion, to keeping the tent opened wide. Brown bemoaned the current culture of self-esteem and consumerism, in which our youth do not see themselves as stakeholders, but treat Judaism as “fee for service.” They will attend High Holiday services but they would not pay dues, which cover the rabbi’s salary and the utility bills.
Regarding Jewish leaders under the age of 40, Cohen noted a major shift from people to purpose, from belonging to judging everything– family, institutions, Israel– according to our interests and passions.
What does it mean to be a Jewish leader nowadays? Without minimizing Jewish literacy, Cohen extorted us to also recognize other forms of Jewish knowledge. More than the rabbinic texts, there is an additional corpus of knowledge not recognized by our Biblical scholars and seminarians, but is represented within the gallery space of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. That is also Jewish content, Jewish knowledge.