Ruby Namdar: Judaism Unbound Episode 153 - Fiction Between Worlds


Novelist Ruby Namdar, author of the award-winning The Ruined House, which interweaves the stories of an American-Jewish professor and an ancient Judean priest, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation that straddles the Israeli and the American, along with the ancient and contemporary. The Ruined House won the Sapir Prize, Israel's highest literary honor, the first novel by an expatriate to receive the award. [1]

Image Credit: University of Illinois Program in Judaic Studies

Image Credit: University of Illinois Program in Judaic Studies

(0:01 - 15:36): To begin the episode, Ruby Namdar looks back at his life as an Israeli, and with respect to his Iranian-Jewish family background. [2] He explores how he has always questioned and straddled the divide between “secular” and “religious” Judaism. He then gives an overview of the two intertwining plots of The Ruined House, [3] emphasizing the ways in which they are sometimes parallel with one another, while at other points they exist in tension with one another. He explains why, of all the rituals of ancient Judaism, he chose to make the sacrificial rites of Yom Kippur a core part of his novel. In doing so, he argues that contemporary Jews make a mistake if they assume that there is little to learn from ancient iterations of Jewish tradition, and if they assume that a humanistic Judaism of ideas is inherently superior to a ritualistic Judaism of material substance.

(15:37 - 27:59): Continuing to ask important questions about ancient and contemporary Judaism, Namdar contrasts ancient modalities of meat consumption with those that are most common in the industrial world today. He looks at how, and why, the material Judaism of sacrifice shifted toward a Judaism revolving around words, which failed in certain ways to fully substitute for the depth of meaning that arose from the sacrificial rituals. He then turns to a frequently explored topic on this podcast — the idea of an “elite.” [4] He argues that “elites” are a necessary component of Jewish life, and of the world, and that the goal should not be to eliminate any kind of elite, but to create one that is not focused on its own privilege. He also looks at why his “insider-outsider” status, as an Israeli new to American-Jewish life, played a key role in shaping The Ruined House.

(28:00 - 45:52): Namdar takes on the question of language, arguing that we should hold two seemingly contradictory points simultaneously. First, he argues that it is challenging to lead a meaningful Jewish life without knowledge of Hebrew, and then he states that those who don’t have familiarity with the Hebrew language can and should still connect deeply to Judaism and Jewishness. [5] He clarifies that, even among Israelis that speak fluent Hebrew, there has been a widespread alienation from ancient Jewish tradition and its constituent texts. Closing the episode, he notices a seeming “slip of the tongue” from Dan in asking a question, arguing that his accidental phrase “secular religion” may actually be a profound comment, worth examining further in the future. [6]

[1] Learn more about Ruby Namdar by visiting RubyNamdar.com. Purchase The Ruined House by clicking here.

[2] Explore the history of the Jews of Iran here. For an NPR segment featuring Jews who continue to live in Iran today, click here.

[3] For a New York Times book review of The Ruined House, click here.

[4] Judaism Unbound has explored the idea of “elite” as it relates to contemporary Judaism in a number of conversations. To further explore this topic, see Episode 77: Folk Judaism, Episode 84: The Jewish Catalog, Then and Now - Riv-Ellen Prell, and/or Episode 85: B-Mitzvah Revolutions - Isa Aron.

[5] Our co-host Lex Rofeberg writes his thoughts on the conception of “Jewish language” in a Jewish Currents piece entitled “Every Language is a Jewish Language,” accessible by clicking here.

[6] For a deep look at the frame of “secular religion,” see Religion for Atheists, a book by Alain de Botton that can be purchased here.

Ariel Burger: Judaism Unbound Episode 152 - Elie Wiesel's Classroom


Ariel Burger joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to discuss his book Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, winner of a 2018 National Jewish Book Award. [1]

Image Credit: Boston University

Image Credit: Boston University

(0:01 - 15:11): To begin the episode, Burger provides an overview of Elie Wiesel’s life and accomplishments. [2] He emphasizes that, in addition to being a writer and an internationally-recognized activist, he took pride in his work as a teacher (an element of Wiesel’s legacy that sometimes remains under the radar). Burger reflects on his own first impressions of Wiesel, along with how their teacher-student relationship evolved and grew over time. [3] He asks an important framing question — “How does a teacher create a space for transformation?” — and considers some of the answers embodied by Wiesel’s classroom.

(15:12 - 32:28): Burger looks at the context in which Wiesel taught — an American university. He explores how universities prioritize their work, and how professors prioritize the various elements of their jobs, arguing that teaching often is under-valued in favor of research. Continuing along that thread, Burger examines the distinction between “professor” and “teacher,” along with the powerful relationship that can come when “teacher” and “student” are understood as relational terms. In particular, he talks about Wiesel’s difficulties with being seen by students as a person to be revered. Burger also looks at how Wiesel understood the uniqueness of the Holocaust, [4] along with the broader question of how particularism and universalism relate to one another. [5]

(32:29 - 43:16): When looking at figures who are largely understood to have led heroic lives, there is always a danger of mythologizing them. Burger names the tension between the exercise of hagiography — telling only the positive about historical figures — and on the other hand, of refusing to see the sacred in individuals who really led commendable lives. He also explores Elie Wiesel’s approach to Israel and Palestine, [6] along with how those who differ staunchly with him on that issue could still attempt to learn from his legacy. To close the episode, Burger calls listeners to embrace Wiesel’s distinction between “a hope of quietism” and “an active hope that gets you off the couch.” [7] He cautions against despair, as each individual works to do their part to improve a broken world.

[1] Learn more about Ariel Burger by visiting ArielBurger.com, and purchase Witness by clicking here.

[2] For a wide variety of books written by Wiesel and available for purchase (including Night), click here.

[3] Burger mentions Yitz Greenberg as one of the key individuals that helped Wiesel first attain a job as a teacher at City College of New York. Hear Greenberg’s appearance on Judaism Unbound by listening to Episode 100: The Third Era - Yitz Greenberg.

[4] Burger cites Wiesel’s opposition to the “banalization” of the Holocaust. Wiesel’s concerns about how the Holocaust’s uniqueness might be trivialized are noted in the book Holocaust Images and Picturing Catastrophe, written by Angi Buettner and available for purchase here.

[5] Wiesel’s aphorism of “And yet” comes up here. For more on the importance of that phrase for him, see this obituary in The Economist.

[6] For two different perspectives on Elie Wiesel’s relationship to Israel and Palestine, see “On Palestinians, Elie Wiesel Had Nothing to Apologize For” (featured in Ha’aretz) and “Elie Wiesel’s Moral Imagination Never Reached Palestine” (featured in Foreign Policy")

Joy Ladin: Judaism Unbound Episode 151 - Judaism from a Transgender Perspective


Joy Ladin, author of The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about being transgender, being Jewish, and how the two intersect. [1]

Image Credit: Joy Ladin

Image Credit: Joy Ladin

(0:01 - 14:33): To begin the episode, Joy Ladin reflects on her childhood, highlighting the challenges of growing up with a female gender identity, while society perceived her to be male. [2] Continuing on to the recent past, she looks back at the reaction of her employer (Yeshiva University), and her students there, when she came out as transgender. She names her struggles with depression and suicide, and how gender transition was not about becoming happy, but rather was the only way to survive. [3]

(14:34 - 33:48): Ladin explores the ways in which her gender identity and Jewishness flowed together quite seamlessly. [4] While surprising for many people, who ask about “reconciling” the worlds of being Jewish and being trans, the Torah (and God in particular) were actually modalities that provided a rare form of affirmation for her. In other words, because God transcended human gender categories, and struggled to relate to human beings, Ladin found in the Bible a role model that she failed to find in other realms of her life. She also considers the idea of being created “in the image of God,” arguing that, because God is incomprehensible, the part of each human being that is most “in the image of God” is the part that is most incomprehensible to one’s fellow human beings. [5]

(33:49 - 50:19): To look at the tension between individual identity and communal belonging for many Jews, Ladin looks at the case study of the Nazirite vow. [6] She explores what it means, in the Bible, for individuals to place their relationship with God over their relationships with human beings, and what we can apply from that ancient question to contemporary questions of gender identity. She then calls for Jews to understand and embrace their satisfaction with existing manifestations of Judaism, so that they can play a role in shaping more satisfying Judaisms of the future. Closing the episode, Ladin offers up the simple and related ideas that, first, being trans is a “flavor of being human,” and that, second, “being a transgender Jew is one flavor of being Jewish.”

[1] Learn more about Joy Ladin by visiting her website. Purchase any of her books, including The Soul of the Stranger and Through the Door of Life: a Jewish Journey Between Genders, here.

[2] To familiarize yourself with important vocabulary, we highly recommend this glossary of terms from TransStudent.org.

[3] Lex references the book Twice Blessed, which looks at related questions of being both Jewish and Gay or Lesbian. The book is available at this link, and you can access a previous podcast that explores some of its themes by listening to Episode 35: Twice Blessed - Joshua Lesser.

[4] Ladin references Moses Maimonides in this section. Learn more about Maimonides, and his theology, by clicking here.

[5] Learn more about what a Nazirite vow was (and in some cases, is!) by clicking here.

Judaism Unbound Episode 150: “Jews” of “No” “Religion”


Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg dig into conceptions of "Judaism,” “Jewish identity,” “Religion,” and a wide variety of other terms that should probably also be in quotation marks. [1]

(0:01 - 17:33): To begin the episode, Dan and Lex launch off from the previous week’s episode with Daniel Boyarin, exploring the “modern notion” of Judaism, and questioning the idea (as Boyarin did) that it should be understood through the lens of “religion.” [2] In the spirit of questioning key terms, they next look back at “Jewish identity.” In particular, they distinguish between the identification of Jews as Jews (“Who is a Jew?”) and the abstract conception of “Jewish identity” as something that Jews have — and something that can be strong or weak. In doing so, they look back at their recent conversation with Tobin Belzer, regarding the history of the term “Jewish identity,” and how it is deeply intertwined with existential fears about the end of Jews and Judaism.

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

(17:34 - 35:56): Dan and Lex explore the question of who-is-a-Jew, along the axis of both choice and dissent. [3] They critique the idea that looking at genealogy is the primary way to determine whether someone is Jewish or not, and advocate for a greater recognition of Judaism as a voluntary association. To flesh out that issue, they look at recent developments related to newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the news that she has Jewish ancestry. [4] They then dig deeper, not just at the answers to who-is-a-Jew, but at the weight we should impart (or not) to the question itself. Should the Jewish future be one where “who is a Jew” matters less, or should it be one where “who is a Jew” matters the same amount — but for different reasons? Dan and Lex debate that topic, and look at other forms of self-identification, including politically as a Democrat, to deepen and clarify how their approaches differ.

(35:57 - 51:32): Returning to an ongoing theme in the podcast, the two co-hosts explore the ramifications of these conversation threads for contemporary Jewish institutions. They argue that many of them will not exist — some in the very near future — but that that fact need not be perceived as a failure of 21st century Judaism. [5] To hammer home that point, they bring back the idea of “Judaism” as an ancient, largely unchanging thread throughout history. They argue that many basic elements of Judaism (as we understand and construct it) are perceived as ancient when they are actually quite new, and that fully internalizing that reality can lead us to feel less resistant to changes in Jewish tradition. [6]

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Image Credit: The Daily Beast

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Image Credit: The Daily Beast

[1] This episode rounds out a 10-episode series reflecting on 5 years since the Pew Research Center’s landmark study of the American Jewish population. Entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” you can look at the study and its findings here.

[2] Listen in to the previous episodes in this series at the following links: Episode 140: The Pew Study, Five Years Later - Len Saxe, Episode 141: Federations Facing the Future - Danny Grossman, Episode 143: Milk and Honeymoons - Avi Rubel, Mike Wise, Episode 144: Beyond Chrismukkah - Samira Mehta, Episode 145: Studying Jews Differently - Tobin Belzer, Episode 146: The Jewish American Paradox - Robert Mnookin, Episode 147: From Selling Pews to Temple Dues - Dan Judson Part I, Episode 148: Pennies for Heaven…and Building Upkeep - Dan Judson Part II, Episode 149: Judaism? - Daniel Boyarin

[3] One interesting take on the question of Jewish identification by choice versus dissent can be found in The Forward. Written by the late Leonard Fein in 2013, the piece is entitled “Are We Jews by Choice or Blood?”

[4] Explore recent developments around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jewishness by reading this New York Times piece, and/or this piece in The Forward, which includes Ocasio-Cortez’s own commentary.

[5] To explore the relationship between Judaism and Jewish institutions further, flash back to our pilot episodes. They can be accessed at the following links: Episode 1: Genesis, Episode 2: Genesis II, and Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe

[6] Lex alludes to the movie Prince of Egypt, and its motif of pharaoh refusing to be “the weak link in the chain.” For a key snapshot from that movie, which illustrates how pharaoh mobilizes that idea towards oppressive ends, view the video on the left.

Daniel Boyarin: Judaism Unbound Episode 149 - Judaism?


Daniel Boyarin, eminent Jewish Studies scholar and most recently author of Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion, part of a series on “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to ask whether Judaism exists (!!), and to explore what that question means — both for the study of Jewish history and for contemporary Jewish practice. [1]

Image Credit: University of California-Berkeley

Image Credit: University of California-Berkeley

(0:01 - 14:56): To begin the episode, Boyarin states that “There is Judaism…now.” But he also argues that “Judaism” did not exist in the ways we tend to talk about it, in the category of “religion,” until the last few hundred years — that the abstraction “Judaism” would not have meant much to Jews in any language until the 18th century. To explain what he means, Boyarin rewinds to a person (and topic) whose relevance may not be totally obvious — Paul, and the emergence of Christianity in the first few centuries of the Common Era. [2] Weaving these two questions together, Boyarin explores how Christians constructed and mobilized the idea of “Judaism” as a religion long before Jews did.

(14:57 - 24:11): Boyarin explores the idea, which first emerged in Germany in the 18th century, that one could be a “man in the street, but a Jew at home.” [3] He also looks at how Judaism grew to be understood as a “religion,” despite a variety of ways in which it isn’t quite a parallel category to Christianity. Furthering this point, he considers why it is that people tend to perceive two possible identifiers for Judaism — “religion” and “nation.” He names that, because of that duality, it tends to confuse people when he argues against the idea that Judaism has historically manifested as a “religion,” while he simultaneously identifies as an anti-Zionist. [4] He then speaks personally to how Jewish collectivity resonates deeply for him, across the centuries and millennia, despite his resistance to the idea that Judaism as we talk about it today has “existed” in a trans-historical sense. [5]

(24:12 - 42:50): Speaking not only to scholars, but also to rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, Boyarin talks through some of the problems that can arise in Jewish spaces as a result of framing ideas of what “Judaism believes” or “Judaism says.” He rejects that notion that Judaism has agency, such that it can “believe” or “say” anything universally, and states, as a corollary, that Judaism is not a religion, from which one could kick out heretics or dissenters. [6] To close the episode, Boyarin reflects on his upbringing in rural New Jersey, and how his local Jewish Community Center — which might host services one night and a socialist meeting the next — helped him to forge a lifelong relationship to yiddishkayt.

[1] Learn more about Daniel Boyarin by clicking here, and purchase Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion by clicking here. You can take a look at other books he’s written, and purchase them, by clicking here.

[2] To explore the emergence of Christianity further, we recommend The Ways that Never Parted (the “ways” being Judaism and Christianity), which features an essay by Boyarin, alongside others.

[3] Boyarin refers to Cardinal Lustiger. Learn more about him by reading this movie review, featured in The New York Times and looking at the 2013 movie The Jewish Cardinal.

[4] Learn more about Boyarin’s anti-Zionism by checking out this piece, written by past Judaism Unbound guest Alix Wall, and entitled “Daniel Boyarin: Talmudist, feminist, anti-Zionist, only-in-Berkeley Orthodox Jew”

[5] Boyarin names Bertha Pappenheim as one of his heroes, while also citing the problematic ways in which she conflated German Jewishness with Jewishness writ large. Learn more about Pappenheim’s life and legacy by clicking here.

[6] Learn more about rabbinic ideas of Yavneh, which Boyarin explores briefly toward the end of this episode, by reading “A Tale of Two Synods: Nicaea, Yavneh, and Rabbinic Ecclesiology,” which Boyarin wrote in 2000.

Dan Judson Part II: Judaism Unbound Episode 148 - Pennies for Heaven…and Building Upkeep


We continue our conversation with Dan Judson, Dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, in the second part of a two-episode series, turning our focus to more recent history and to the future outlook for synagogues in the face of the demographic and religious changes American Judaism has been going through. Judson is the author of the recent book Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money. [1]

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

(0:01 - 15:21) To begin Part II of this conversation, Dan Judson hones in on a phenomenon known as “mushroom synagogues” [2] — prayer services (largely for the High Holidays) taking place in bars or theatres, available for cheaper prices than the established synagogues’ services were. Their popularity infuriated synagogues to the point that synagogues eventually succeeded in lobbying to make for-profit services illegal in New York City. Moving forward to the mid-20th century, Judson highlights the synagogue building-boom of the post World War II era. Simultaneously, he argues that this boom actually created an unsustainable situation, such that many congregations should be looking to merge with one another today. [3]

(15:22 - 29:39): Judson dives into the present-day. In particular, he looks at the most common structure of synagogue fundraising — synagogue dues — and calls for a shift away from that model. He critiques the ways in which institutions take membership dues for granted and create a culture whereby those who can’t afford the full cost of dues feel less-than. Furthermore, he says that such models are out-of-step with our contemporary society, much as selling seats became out-of-step with the early 20th century zeitgeist of democracy (discussed in Part I). Anticipating those who argue that “pay what you can” models are unrealistic, Judson cites data demonstrating that such models actually have led to an increase in both membership and revenue. [4]

(29:40 - 41:56): Continuing the thread about synagogue dues, Judson creates a picture of what “pay what you can” models look like in practice, [5] including the ways in which they could potentially rely on a few wealthy donors for a much greater contribution than they are asked to commit through a traditional dues model. To close the episode, Judson looks at the question of rabbinic salaries — both in earlier eras of Jewish history and today — emphasizing how rabbis have consistently been paid far more than clergy of other religious traditions. He also plays a little bit of “futurology,” offering some educated guesses regarding how the rabbinic role may evolve over the next few decades. [6]

Image Credit: UJAFedNy.org

Image Credit: UJAFedNy.org

[1] Learn more about Dan Judson by checking out his bio, accessible at this link. You can purchase Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money by clicking here.

[2] Read more from Judson on the subject of “mushroom synagogues” in this 2011 piece he wrote for The New York Jewish Week.

[3] To think more about the role of synagogue buildings, and to hear about one community that has chosen not to have one (San Francisco’s The Kitchen), listen to Episode 23: Hello Mazel - Noa Kushner, Yoav Schlesinger.

[4] Read the full report that Judson co-authored with Lianna Levine Reisner on voluntary dues structures here.

[5] Learn more about what the New York Times terms “pay what you want” models in this 2015 piece, which quotes Judson.

[6] Think further about the present and future role of rabbis by listening to Episode 68: Rabbis Without Borders - Rebecca Sirbu.

Dan Judson Part I: Judaism Unbound Episode 147 - From Selling Pews to Temple Dues


Dan Judson, Dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, joins Judaism Unbound for the first of two episodes on the story of how synagogues have sustained themselves economically throughout American history and how they will have to adjust to the great changes in Jewish life we are experiencing today. Judson is the author of the recent book Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money. [1] [2]

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

(0:01 - 17:03): To begin the episode, Dan Judson explains that “when you look at religion through the lens of economics, you see things that you weren’t otherwise going to see.” He also talks about how, and whether, language from the realm of business can be helpfully applied to synagogues and Jewish life in general. Then, shuttling back in time to the 1800s, Judson begins to tell the story of the evolution of synagogue funding, [3] starting in a place that may be surprising: the auctioning off of synagogue honors. [4]

(17:04 - 34:34): Judson looks at another way in which synagogues raised money in the 19th century — the selling of seats (the farther forward in the sanctuary, the more expensive the seats). He explores the ways in which synagogue funding in the 19th century looked both similar to, and different from, the funding approaches used by American churches in the same time period. [5] Judson looks at the growth of the Free Church movement in American Christianity, and he investigates why it was that the idea of a God who wants, or obligates, people to give to their places of worship resonated for Christians but not quite as much for Jews.

(34:35 - 45:31): Looking at how the mechanism of selling seats disappeared (mostly) from Jewish life, Judson cites Stephen Wise’s “Free Synagogue” movement. [6] As selling seats faded away, and as World War I (The Great War) created a societal “zeitgeist of democracy,” many pushed for a model that would not allow for economic segregation in synagogues (where the wealthier members purchased better seats, toward the front, and those who had less sat toward the back). Judson also counter-intuitively links the end of purchasing seats to the construction of large “synagogue centers.” To close Part I of this two-part conversation, Judson explores how, in interesting ways, synagogues did both incredibly well and incredibly poorly when the Great Depression hit.

[1] Learn more about Dan Judson by checking out his bio, accessible at this link.

[2] You can purchase Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money by clicking here. Hear more from Dan Judson by listening in to his appearance on The Moth: True Stories Told Live, available here.

[3] In his reflection on 19th century synagogue funding, Judson alludes to a variety of reforms underway by the burgeoning Reform movement. For a fuller telling of the history of Reform Judaism, see another two-part Judaism Unbound special, featuring Daniel Freelander. Episode 87: Reforming Judaism - Daniel Freelander I, Episode 88: Reform or Revolution - Daniel Freelander II

[4] For a fascinating case study of auctioning off synagogue honors, click here.

[5] Learn more about the Second Great Awakening, a fascinating period in American religious history, by reading A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837.

[6] Learn more about Stephen Wise, and his Free Synagogue, here.


Robert Mnookin: Judaism Unbound Episode 146 - The Jewish American Paradox


Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg are joined by Harvard Law School professor Robert Mnookin to discuss his new book, The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World, which explores what it means, and what it ought to mean, to be an American Jew in the 21st Century.

Image Credit: Memphis Daily News

Image Credit: Memphis Daily News

(0:01 - 17:08): To begin the episode, Robert Mnookin reflects on his own life, and how his experiences, from growing up in Kansas City to becoming a grandfather, led him to write The Jewish American Paradox. [1] Then, as an introduction to the content of his book, he explores the case study of Erik Erikson, a scholar of identity whose own identity — interestingly enough — opens up a wide array of questions about Jewish identity and how it is ascribed. [2] To explore the topic of those who choose not to identify as Jews, even as they acknowledge the Jewishness of their parents or grandparents, Mnookin goes on to describe the story of Madeline Albright and her Jewish roots. [3] [4]

(17:09 - 26:38): Mnookin looks beneath the question of “Who is a Jew?” to the meta-question of “How much should importance should we impart to the question ‘Who is a Jew?!’” He then outlines a proposed two-pronged approach to answering who-is-a-Jew questions. With respect to Judaism writ large, he advocates for an expansive answer, that accepts anyone who self-identifies as a Jew. With respect to individual institutions, he advocates for a freedom to draw exclusive boundaries, so long as no institution in particular has the right to enforce its definition on others.

(26:39 - 42:51): Pivoting slightly, the conversation turns toward the question of “Jewish-And.” In what ways might the who-is-a-Jew question become complicated when addressed toward individuals who identify as both Jewish and another religious tradition? Mnookin looks at this question from the angle of contemporary Jewish life — in JCCs, synagogues, and even film festivals — along with bringing up a different case study from his book: a man known by the title “Brother Daniel.” [5] To close the episode, Mnookin looks briefly at some of the baseline differences between Judaism in America and Judaism in Israel. [6]

[1] Learn more about Robert Mnookin by reading his bio, accessible by clicking here. Purchase The Jewish American Paradox here.

[2] Mnookin alludes to an incisive New York Times article, critiquing Erik Erikson’s decision to change his given name to one that sounded “less Jewish” (among other criticisms). You can read the article, published in 1975 and authored by Marshall Berman, here. For Judaism Unbound conversations that look at the idea of “looking Jewish” in greater detail, see Episode 16: Intermarriage and the Future - Paul Golin and Episode 33: JewAsian - Helen Kim, Noah Leavitt.

[3] For a Washington Post piece that brought Albright’s Jewish family roots to light, click here. For a more expansive look at her story, see a piece written by Peter Margulies a month later, entitled “The Identity Question, Madeleine Albright’s Past, and Me: Insights from Jewish and African American Law and Literature.”

[4] In this section, Mnookin cites a very different case study — Angela Buchdahl’s — as a contrast to Madeleine Albright’s story. Learn more about Buchdahl by clicking here.

[5] Learn more about Brother Daniel by clicking here.

[6] The Jewish American Paradox was reviewed, along with a number of other books, in a recent New York Times piece that can be accessed here. For a response to this piece, due to its failure to include any works written by women, click here, and for a list of books written by women about contemporary American Judaism, click here.

Tobin Belzer: Judaism Unbound Episode 145 - Studying Jews Differently


Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg are joined by Tobin Belzer, an applied sociologist, for a conversation about why it might be time to re-conceptualize the study of American Jews and their identities. [1]

(0:01 - 16:43): To begin the episode, Tobin Belzer explores the lens through which she does her work as an applied sociologist, citing the idea of “strong objectivity” (pioneered by Sandra Harding) [2] as an important influence. She also reflects on her own life experience, as a Jew and otherwise, emphasizing her enduring identification with being both an “insider” and an “outsider,” often simultaneously. Belzer contrasts quantitative and qualitative approaches to sociology, and she argues that in Jewish life, there has been a predisposition towards the quantitative, leaving a great deal of room for growth in the qualitative realm. [3] She then explores some of the historical phenomena that contribute to that emphasis on the quantitative, asserting both that the conception of “Jewish identity” was created by sociologists — it has only existed for a short time — and that the fashion in which it was constructed dovetails closely with anxieties about the “ever-dying” Jewish people. [4]

(16:44 - 27:34): Belzer explores how sociological ideas of Jewish identity have evolved over time. In this analysis, she offers a new framework of Jewish identity, based on the presumption that Jewish selves (and all selves!) exist only in relationship. She explains why this idea, though subtle in its distinctions from some others, actually could contribute to a drastic re-evaluation of how Jews understand themselves and the practice of Judaism. To further demonstrate the point, she cites her finding that often, people who aren’t Jewish play a huge role in the construction of Jewish identity-narratives for those who are.

(27:35 - 42:52): Through examining questions of intermarriage and Jewish authority, Belzer provides examples of how her ideas about the social self could have an impact on a variety of hot-button issues in contemporary Jewish life. She also spotlights the tendency of many participants in her studies to frame themselves with the pre-amble “I’m not religious but…” along with the strong pre-disposition of post-Baby-Boomers against religious triumphalism. [5] To close the episode, Belzer and Dan each explore moments in their own Jewish identity construction that, perhaps counter-intuitively, manifested through the rejection of Jewish labels, or honors, that were offered to them by well-meaning people, but which did not resonate with them.

[1] Learn more about Tobin Belzer by reading her bio, accessible here. For a short overview, written by Belzer, of her approach to studying American Jews, click here. We also recommend a 2013 piece by Belzer, entitled “Putting Aside the Study of Individualism.”

[2] Gain an understanding of Harding’s framework of strong objectivity by reading “‘Strong Objectivity’: A Response to the New Objectivity Question.”

[3] For more conversations looking in-depth at the role that quantitative data has played in American-Jewish life, see Episode 7: Numbers- Barak Richman and Episode 8: Numbers II.

[4] Belzer mentions her colleague and co-author Ari Kelman. Listen in to a conversation with him about Jewish identity in Episode 74: Beyond Jewish Identity - Ari Y. Kelman. For a podcast on the idea of being a “bad Jew” — a modifier Belzer applies tongue-in-cheek to herself — see Episode 97: “Bad Jews” - Jenna Reback.

[5] We highly recommend reading Belzer’s (and 4 co-authors’) essay, entitled “Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers,” as a follow-up to this podcast episode.

Samira Mehta: Judaism Unbound Episode 144 - Beyond Chrismukkah


Continuing their exploration of the families Jews are creating in the 21st Century, Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg are joined by Samira Mehta, scholar of American religion and author of the book Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States. [1]

Image Credit: Samira Mehta

Image Credit: Samira Mehta

(0:01 - 17:05): To begin the episode, Mehta describes the phenomenon known as “Chrismukkah” in order to lay the groundwork for moving “beyond” it. [2] She explores the origins of the “December Dilemma,” [3] a framework that has been applied to interfaith families’ observances of winter holidays, and the meanings that such families ascribe to their celebrations. To further examine some of the premises of her book, she tells the story behind the image on its cover. She then lays out a few specific case studies, of how interfaith families have navigated questions about Christmas trees, creches, and other symbols and traditions.

(17:06 - 28:43): Mehta looks at a variety of examples of Jewish-Christian interfaith relationships as portrayed in movies and on TV, [4] and she examines how those portrayals have shifted over the decades. She opens up a conversation about the framing of “religion” and “culture,” arguing that “all religion is culture” and challenging the commonplace assertion that Christianity is exclusively built around religious belief and not cultural traditions. [5]

(31:30 - 45:52): Continuing the conversation about religion and culture, Mehta looks at the role of food — and, specifically, kosher food — as it is often framed by Jewish communities and individuals. Spotlighting the book Miriam’s Kitchen, [6] she asks whether it would be beneficial to complicate the manner in which kosher practices are discussed, in which Orthodox practices are privileged as most authentic. She addresses the different ways in which she would respond to the book’s arguments — on the one hand, as a Jew, and on the other hand, as a scholar of religious studies. She then contrasts the tensions inherent to Jewish-Christian relationships that do not manifest as much for Jewish-Hindu or Jewish-Buddhist relationships, for example, and closes the episode by calling on institutions to act out their values — not their fears.

[1] Learn more about Samira Mehta at www.samiramehta.com, and purchase Beyond Chrismukkah by clicking here.

[2] Hear more from Mehta on other podcasts by listening to her appearance on New Books in Jewish Studies and/or on Sexing History.

[3] For early articles on the “December Dilemma,” see this 1986 piece in the New York Times or this 1991 Washington Post article.

[4] Mehta cites the plots of two movies (“Annie Hall” and “The Way We Were”), along with two TV shows (“The Nanny” and “thirtysomething”). For more information on each of those movies and TV shows, to gain context, click any of the following links: Annie Hall, The Way We Were, The Nanny, thirtysomething

[5] In exploring Jewish culture, Mehta cites the idea of Ashkenormativity. Learn more about it (Ashkenazi normativity), and its ramifications for Non-Ashkenazi Jews, by clicking here.

[6] Engage further with the book Miriam’s Kitchen here.


Avi Rubel, Mike Wise: Judaism Unbound Episode 143 - Milk and Honeymoons


Returning to our exploration of the 2013 Pew Study of Jewish Americans, Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg are joined by Avi Rubel and Mike Wise, co-founders and leaders of Honeymoon Israel, the only major national initiative that we know to have been conceived and created as a direct consequence of the findings of the Pew Research Center’s population study, called “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” [1]

(0:01 - 14:19): To begin the episode, Rubel and Wise tell the origin story of Honeymoon Israel, describing how the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” published in 2013, played a major role in its creation. [2] They talk about core components of the trip itself, including Shabbat experiences, opportunities for participants to engage deeply with the concept of identity, and the incorporation of well-known tourist sites in Israel. They also emphasize the importance of their work “post-trip,” geared towards helping participants build “micro-communities” in their city (each trip is made up of 20 couples, all from the same city). [3]

(14:20 - 28:17): Much of the public conversation about Honeymoon Israel has focused on the high percentage of participants who are in interfaith relationships. Rubel and Wise explain that they see the organization differently from an “interfaith organization.” [4] Calling for new and more precise language around “interfaith” relationships, which would reflect the fact that such relationships are commonplace in Jewish life today, they propose that any work with Jewish families, in today’s world, will involve work with families where one or more individuals are not Jewish. In conversation with the two co-hosts, Wise and Rubel also engage with the question whether Israel is the only location where a project like theirs could effectively operate, or if alternative Jewish experiences could arise elsewhere and resonate powerfully as well. [5]

(28:18 - 45:06): Rubel and Wise address the questions and conversations that arise specifically as a result of their trip’s location in Israel. They look at the challenges around creating a context where discussing the occupation, or obstacles to Jewish pluralism in Israel, can occur comfortably, and where seeds can be planted for participants to explore those issues more substantially after the trip. [6] They return to the conversation around the “post-trip,” exploring how they have sought to translate the experiences of the trip into ongoing Jewish engagement among their participants afterward. To close the episode, they implore Jewish communities of all stripes to move beyond the idea that interfaith families are a “problem” to be confronted.

Image Credit: Honeymoon Israel

Image Credit: Honeymoon Israel

[1] Learn more about Rubel and Wise by reading their bios, accessible here.

[2] Check out the full findings of the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans by clicking here.

[3] In introducing their “post-trip” work, Wise cites Avraham Infeld’s philosophy of the “Five-Legged Table.” Explore its tenets by clicking here.

Image Credit: PewForum.org

Image Credit: PewForum.org

[4] Lex alludes to an article that the two guests co-wrote, responding to the idea that they are an “interfaith organization.” Entitled “Honeymoon Israel is not an ‘Interfaith Couples’ Trip to Israel” and published by eJewishPhilanthropy, you can read it here.

[5] Dan cites Simon Rawidowicz’s philosophy of two “foci” — Israel and the diaspora. See another contemporary application of Rawidowicz’s “foci” framing here. Explore the relationship of his famous “ever dying people” premise to the 2013 Pew Study here.

[6] Rubel and Wise each compare the Jewish people to a “family.” For more commentary, and critique, of the metaphor of “family” for Judaism, listen to Yehuda Kurtzer’s guest appearances on Judaism Unbound — Episode 41: History and Memory and Episode 121: Homecoming and Arrival.

Judaism Unbound Episode 142: After Pittsburgh


Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg mourn the devastating murder of 11 Jews, during Shabbat services, at the Tree of Life - Or L'Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. They explore the ways that this moment requires Jews to stand both with one another and in solidarity with other marginalized groups.

Image Credit: Matt Rourke, Associated Press

Image Credit: Matt Rourke, Associated Press

Full shownotes will be available soon. Click any of the links below to access material relevant to the content of this episode.

[1] To learn about the stories of the 11 individuals who were murdered, click here.

[2] Tweets indicate that the murderer specifically saw HIAS: the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) as an organization that threatened his white supremacist ideology. Learn more about HIAS’s work here.

[3] For a Judaism Unbound conversation looking at historical context around antisemitism and immigration, see Mid-Week Episode: Antisemitism, Nativism, and Immigration - Eli Lederhendler.

[4] Dan cites Florida Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, and the idea that “Racists think he (Gillum’s opponent) is a racist.” Read an article discussing that context further by clicking here.

[5] Learn more about the racist murder, by a different white supremacist, of two African-Americans in a Kentucky grocery store, by clicking here.

Judaism Unbound Mid-Week Episode: Antisemitism, Nativism, and Immigration - Eli Lederhendler


After 11 were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Judaism Unbound pre-emptively releases a conversation that was initially slated for mid-November, due to the urgency of our moment. Eli Lederhendler, the Stephen S. Wise Chair in American Jewish History at Hebrew University, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about antisemitism, nativism, and immigration in the early 20th century. It's a conversation centered in the past, but it couldn't be more relevant to our contemporary context.

A note from our featured guest: Eli Lederhendler wanted to add the following thought, connected to this episode - “A climate of distrust aimed against foreigners a century ago proved politically detrimental to the country and especially to potential immigrants, but I do not claim that anti-immigration sentiment, in and of itself, is tantamount to the commission or the condoning of murder, nor did it include any incitement to commit murder."

Image Credit: Matt Rourke, Associated Press

Image Credit: Matt Rourke, Associated Press

SHOWNOTES FOR THIS EPISODE COMING SOON

Danny Grossman: Judaism Unbound Episode 141 - Federations Facing the Future


Danny Grossman, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, joins Judaism Unbound to look at the Bay Area as a case study for how Jewish federations address demographic and other changes in the Jewish community of the kinds revealed in the 2013 Pew Study and more recent population studies. [1]

Image Credit: SFJCL.org

Image Credit: SFJCL.org

(0:01 - 16:06): To begin the episode, Grossman gives an overview of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco’s structure and work. [2] He introduces a landmark 2018 study that they helped to facilitate, called the “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,” [3] which examined the Jewish population of 10 local counties that collectively constitute the Bay Area. He highlights a few key elements of the portrait’s findings, including the discovery that 1 in 4 Jewish households in the Bay Area include at least one person of color, and only 3% of the community identifies as Orthodox. He also cites elements of the community that may be similar to many other areas of the country, including a fairly high rate of inter-group marriage (he uses the term “inter-group” marriage as opposed to “interfaith”) and a great deal of ambivalence about Israel.

(16:07 - 34:09): Grossman discusses in greater detail the process his federation has begun to better engage Jews of color moving forward. [4] He distinguishes between the sense of being “welcome” in a community and, more deeply, feeling as if one truly belongs. He then explores the strengths and weaknesses of metaphors comparing Jewish Federations to a kind of city hall for the Jewish community, and assesses the extent to which Federations should understand their role as assisting others in innovation work, innovating themselves, and/or a combination of both.

(34:10 - 50:11): The role that class dynamics play in the bay area has been the topic of a great deal of public discourse. [5] Grossman speaks to the ways in which the Federation has looked to addresses issues of wealth inequality in the area, creating pathways for people to connect to Judaism in affordable ways. [6] He then turns to the Wexner Heritage program, [7] an initiative that played an influential role in Grossman’s own path to Jewish Federation leadership, highlighting it as an example of how Federations can partner with pioneering programs outside of their own auspices to do meaningful work for their communities. He provides his take on the issue of Jewish representation, arguing that his federation is not “the voice” of San Francisco’s Jewish population, but “a leading voice.” To close the episode, he names the fact that it is both incredibly challenging and energizing to serve Jews of vastly different ages, life experiences, and perspectives.

Image Credit: JewishDataBank.org

Image Credit: JewishDataBank.org

[1] Learn more about Danny Grossman by checking out his bio, accessible by clicking here.

[2] After this conversation was recorded, a number of developments related to the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco have garnered headlines, on the topic of its relationship to a project called Canary Mission. Learn more by reading this initial article, authored by Josh Nathan-Kazis of The Forward, this follow-up, also written by Nathan-Kazis, and this statement, from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.

For up-to-date news on Jewish life in the Bay Area (and Northern California more broadly), visit  JWeekly.com  or check out print copies of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

For up-to-date news on Jewish life in the Bay Area (and Northern California more broadly), visit JWeekly.com or check out print copies of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

[3] Explore the Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities by clicking here. For a short article about it, see “The 2018 Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities shows us just who we are,” written by Rob Gloster for J: The Jewish News of Northern California.

[4] For an article that looks in particular at the racial diversity of the Bay Area’s Jewish population, see “Jewish organizations playing catch-up to racially diverse community,” written by Maya Mirsky for J: The Jewish News of Northern California.

[5] For analysis of the Bay Area’s economic climate, click here.

[6] See “Why are Jews abandoning San Francisco?" (also written by Mirsky) for a piece that explores the economic dynamics of the Bay Area for Jews in particular.

[7] Click here to learn more about the Wexner Heritage program.

Leonard Saxe - Judaism Unbound Episode 140: The Pew Study, 5 Years Later


Len Saxe, Director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg, to kick off a unit of episodes reflecting on the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 Jewish population study, entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” [1] in honor of the fifth anniversary of its publication.

Image Credit: Brandeis University

Image Credit: Brandeis University

(0:01 - 13:14): To begin the episode Saxe names a few key takeaways from Pew’s 2013 study: “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” [2] emphasizing that there are more Jews in the United States than many had previously believed (nearly 7 million), and that the Jewish population is incredibly diverse — in both practice and identity. He speaks to the difficulty of measuring how many Jews there are in the United States, citing longstanding policy to avoid asking about religious identity in the census as a major reason for that difficulty. [3]

(13:15 - 30:26): Saxe gives his take on the widely analyzed conception of “Jews of No Religion,” arguing that it may have been less of a blockbuster discovery than many others perceived. He looks at the role that funding can play in the social sciences, highlighting the importance, in any study, of being transparent about funding sources. Through the example of Hillel (centers for Jewish life on college campuses), he explains how institutions often have estimates for their number of Jewish constituents that are drastically different from the real number, when investigated in a local population study. [4] Saxe also provides his perspective on a recent (2018) Pew study on American religion that was not focused only on Judaism. [5]

(30:27 - 46:32): Responding to Dan’s question about whether denominational movements have misread the Pew study in some respects, Saxe argues that one key point to internalize is that — whatever amount Orthodox Judaism is growing — it is still a very small percentage of the overall American-Jewish population. He sheds light on another growing group — those who self-identify as “just Jewish” — and asks whether the connotations of that phrase may have shifted in recent generations. [6] He also looks at another phenomenon that has developed and shifted a great deal over the past few decades: interfaith marriage and its role in contemporary Judaism. Through the lens of local population studies that Saxe has led, he describes five different forms of Jewish communal participation that can be found in communities all around the country. To close the episode, he argues that Jewish institutions and leaders have been too “crisis-focused,” and that a shift towards the idea (pioneered by Daniel Kahnemann) of “thinking slow” would be well-advised. [7]

Image Credit: American Jewish Population Project (Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies)

Image Credit: American Jewish Population Project (Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies)

[1] Learn more about Len Saxe by reading his bio. Check out the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies’s American Jewish Population Project, with population estimates for almost every metropolitan area in the United States, by clicking here.

[2] “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” can be accessed here.

[3] Learn more about the historical reasons for the absence of questions about religion in the United States census here.

[4] Read more from Saxe regarding discrepancies between Hillel’s Jewish population estimates and his studies’ numbers here.

[5] Explore “The Religious Typology,” a new way to categorize Americans by religion, released by Pew in August 2018, and investigate its “Sunday stalwarts” designation (one of its categories, discussed in this episode), by clicking here.

[6] Read more about growth in the quantity of Jews identify as “just Jewish” or “non-denominational” here.

[7] Purchase Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, here.

Judaism Unbound Episode 139: The Future of God


Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg close out their multi-episode series on God by asking what role God might play, and might not play, in the future of American Judaism. [1]

(0:01 - 13:19): To begin the episode, Dan presents his idea that something akin to a translation project is necessary in order to effectively re-map ancient Jewish concepts, built on or intimately connected to ideas of God, that may not resonate with today’s American Jews, into concepts and language that do resonate. Lex compares the ways in which God is addressed explicitly and implicitly in contemporary non-Orthodox Judaism; he also argues that God, and God-belief, are “tools” that can be leveraged by Jews — like many other elements of Jewish tradition. Dan and Lex also discuss whether God is taking up too much, or not enough, “bandwidth” in Jewish life. [2]

(13:20 - 30:05): Citing the example of the Book of Esther, Lex asserts that, even when God is not named as a core character in Jewish stories or narratives, many interpreters feel the need to find a way to center God anyway. Dan floats the idea that, from a historical perspective, many of the powers that human beings (Jews included) associated with God in the past are now in human hands, and thus perhaps “walking in God’s ways,” that is seeking to act as Jews of previous ages have begged God to act, might provide valuable guidance for human living in our time whether one believes in God or not. Lex then offers a distinction between human beings as “images of God” and human beings (and all matter) as part of God itself. Dan ties these ideas to the idea that God’s name, and perhaps identity, has changed time and again throughout Jewish history, and we read our contemporary version of God into the previous versions; it might be time to do so again. [3]

(30:06 - 42:32): As the episode arcs towards its close, Dan re-iterates the point that it is important to hold on to important Jewish ideas, even though many of them have been formulated in forms of God language that need to be re-formulated. As a final coda, Dan and Lex explore the ways that theology intersects with politics, [4] and they re-visit an important theme from Rachel Adler’s guest appearance — that the central role of metaphor in Judaism, especially with respect to God-language, is worthy of deep thought and analysis.


[1] To listen to any of the previous episodes in Judaism Unbound’s series on God, click any of the following links: Episode 131: Protesting God - Dov Weiss, Episode 132: The God Gap - Eliana Light, Episode 133: God is One - Art Green, Episode 134: God on a Desert Island - Andrew Hahn, Episode 135: Putting God Second - Donniel Hartman, Episode 136: God? Optional - Judith Seid, Episode 137: God of Love - Shai Held, Episode 138: God and Gender - Rachel Adler

[2] Dan cites Lab/Shul, a congregation in New York City known for framing its programming as “God-optional” (that frame traces its roots to Judith Seid’s book “God-Optional Judaism”). Learn more about Lab/Shul, and hear from its spiritual leader Amichai Lau-Lavie, by listening to Episode 29: Lab/Shul - Amichai Lau-Lavie.

[3] Learn more about the many names of God in Jewish tradition by clicking here. Check out a collection of relevant Jewish sources that Dan assembled on Sefaria by clicking here.

[4] Lex cites the Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning, as an example of a collision between theology and politics in Jewish text. Hear Dan and Lex’s perspective on that reading by listening to Bonus Episode: Yom Kippur Unbound - Morning Haftarah Reading.

Rachel Adler: Judaism Unbound Episode 138 - God and Gender


Theologian Rachel Adler, of Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, explores Judaism through lenses of metaphor, liturgy, theology, and more, in a conversation with hosts Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg. [1]

Image Credit: Rachel Adler

Image Credit: Rachel Adler

(0:01 - 14:02): To begin the episode, Adler examines the important role that metaphor plays in almost any theology. [2] She highlights metaphors ranging from God as a divine judge to God as a “rock of Israel,” exploring the ramifications of each. [3] She also looks at the idea of otherness, arguing that human speech is indelibly tied to the realization of individual separateness from other human beings.

(14:03 - 30:00): Adler distinguishes between essentialist and constructivist models of gender and sexual orientation. She argues on behalf of a constructivist model, and considers the implications of such a model when they are mapped onto Jewish liturgy and thought. Tying together the ideas of theology and ethics, she states that “A theology that does not result in concrete action out in the world is nothing more than hot air.” She also reflects on her own life experience, and in particular on those moments in which men (often rabbis) have told her that she is ignorant, or arrogant, for wanting to pursue Torah study and Jewish leadership.

(30:01 - 44:39): Furthering her analysis of metaphor, she express concern at the “problem of literalizing.” She critiques the tendency to equate “feminine” characteristics of God with ideas of nurturing, motherhood, and being a “tidy housewife,” and calls for a broadening of Jewish liturgical takes on what femininity might mean. [4] [5] She also discusses the ways in which women of the bible may have been more central characters than later interpretations suggest, citing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) as one example — traditionally associated with Moses, while Miriam only gets a small footnote, Adler notes that many biblical scholars believe Miriam was initially the song’s central character. [6] To close the episode, she calls for Jewish communities to prioritize integrity over marketing, and emphasizes the fundamental need to understand that not all human beings identify as men or as women. [7]

[1] Learn more about Rachel Adler by clicking here. Purchase her book Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics, winner of the 1999 National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought, by clicking here.

[2] Adler cites Susanne Langer on the importance of metaphor. Explore Langer’s ideas further by clicking here.

[3] For a short video from our co-host Lex Rofeberg, regarding the metaphor of God as a “rock of Israel,” click here.

[4] Adler mentions an article entitled “If God is God, She is Not Nice.” Access it by clicking here.

[5] Adler also cites an essay written by Margaret Wenig. Entitled “God is a Woman and She is Growing Older,” you can read it here. For a source sheet by Sienna Lotenberg, exploring pieces of liturgy authored by Wenig and others in the 1970s (through the Brown University Women’s Minyan), click here.

[6] Learn more about Miriam’s role in the song of the sea, along with how she was pushed aside in favor of Moses, by reading this Judith Dowling essay, entitled “Lost Voices of the Feminine: The Song of Miriam Arises.”

[7] If you are looking for resources that will serve as an introduction to understanding gender beyond the binary of male-female, we recommend any of the following links: LGBTQ+ Definitions (from Trans Student Educational Resources), Everything You Never Knew About Being Genderqueer, Separating Out Gender Identity From Gender Expression

Shai Held: Judaism Unbound Episode 137 - God of Love


Shai Held, the President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar, [1] joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about God, love, and the ways in which the two are indelibly connected. [2]

Image Credit: Hadar, via JTA

Image Credit: Hadar, via JTA

(0:01 - 19:46): To begin the episode, Held summarizes some of his theological beliefs, referring to himself as a “metaphysical realist.” [3] He cites, in particular the idea that God is the creator of the universe and that God has a consciousness and will. He then contrasts himself with those theologians who identify as panentheists, including Art Green. [4] He also explores his conception of God’s love in the Jewish tradition, asking why, and how, many Jews came to assume that love is more of a Christian theological category than it is a Jewish one. [5]

(19:47 - 34:20): Held critiques the tendency, among many theologians, towards an “apologetic impulse.” He also calls on theists to wrestle with the devastating truth that God-belief has not in the past, and does not in the present, always correlate with moral goodness. He then distinguishes between, on the one hand, the question “Do you believe in God,” and, on the other, “What kind of God do you believe in” and/or “What consequences does belief in God yield for you?”

(34:21 - 54:01): Through a Talmudic exploration of one of Dan’s questions, Held argues that religion has served, and continues to serve, a wide variety of positive purposes in the world. [6] He introduces the concept of living in an “atheological time,” asserting that it is actually only a minority of contemporary Jews who are interested in deeply examining questions related to God and divinity. To close the episode, Held looks at the theological ideas lurking beneath assertions that “the world is not supposed to be this way,” and examines the connection between God-belief and deeply-held, passionate worldviews.

[1] Learn more about Shai Held by checking out his bio, accessible here. Learn more about Hadar by visiting Hadar.org. Additionally, you can listen to Held’s previous appearance on Judaism Unbound by clicking here: Episode 49: The Prophetic Voice - Shai Held.

[2] Shai Held is the author of two books, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence and The Heart of Torah. You can purchase them at this link.

[3] Learn more about the conception of “metaphysical realism” by clicking here.

[4] Listen to Episode 133: God is One - Art Green to get a better sense of the ideas to which Shai Held is responding.

[5] For more regarding Judaism’s contemporary relationship to love, click here.

[6] Held critiques, in particular, a quotation from Steve Weinberg in a 1999 New York Times article. Click here to read that article, written by Carey Goldberg and entitled “Crossing Flaming Swords Over God and Physics.”

Judith Seid: Judaism Unbound Episode 136 - God? Optional


Judith Seid, author of God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community, joins co-hosts Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about God, from the perspective of Secular Humanistic Judaism. [1]

Image Credit: Judith Seid

Image Credit: Judith Seid

(0:01 - 14:44): To begin the episode, Seid explores the ways in which Secular Humanistic Jews reject ideas of supernatural power. [2] Relatedly, she looks at the evolution, within Secular Humanistic Judaism over time, of the term “spirituality.” She claims that, contrary to the framing of many, it is not necessarily true that God has historically been located at the core of Jewish practice. She talks about the vast diversity (and sheer quantity) of Jewish Secularist groups in the early 20th century, [3] and considers how Secularist and Humanistic Jewish ideologies came together to form Secular Humanistic Judaism. [4]

(14:45 - 30:09): Seid further examines the realms of religion and culture, along with the role that authority plays in distinguishing the two. [5] She argues that relating to Jewish tradition and practice through the lens of “cultural language",” rather than authority, may be an important shift. Seid also discusses how Secular Humanistic Jews re-map the traditional idea of God, and blessing, into different, contemporary forms. [6] She also emphasizes that, in many Secular Humanistic communities, there are people who do believe in God — it’s just that they find something other than theism in these communities that adds to their lives.

(30:10 - 48:18): Shifting gears, Seid explores some of the challenges facing her movement today, along with obstacles to inspired forms of Jewish life in the 21st century more generally. Along with the two co-hosts, she re-visits a frequent Judaism Unbound theme, asking what Judaism’s relationship could be, or should be, to the duality of the individual vs. the community. To close the episode, she calls on Jews of all stripes to customize Judaism in ways that most deeply speak to their passions, such that they can be — completely and unabashedly — their authentic selves.

[1] Learn more about Judith Seid by reading her bio, accessible by clicking here. Learn more about the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism by visiting www.IISHJ.org.

[2] For more Judaism Unbound episodes featuring the voices of Secular Humanistic Jews, see Episode 16: Intermarriage and the Future - Paul Golin and/or Episode 44: A Secular Humanistic Hanukkah - Adam Chalom.

[3] Learn more about Secularist Jewish movements of the early 20th century by clicking here.

[4] Seid cites Sherwin Wine, an intellectual framer of Humanistic Judaism, as she looks back at the 20th century evolution of Jewish Secularism. Learn more about him here.

[5] In her analysis of religion and culture, Seid cites Horace Kallen. Learn more about Horace Kallen, and cultural pluralism, by listening to Episode 13: American Post-Judaism - Shaul Magid.

[6] Gain a deeper sense of what it looks like to re-conceptualize God, and blessings, through a Secular, Humanistic, and Jewish lens, by reading We Rejoice in our Heritage: Home Rituals for Secular and Humanistic Jews, written by Seid in 1989.

Donniel Hartman: Judaism Unbound Episode 135 - Putting God Second


Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute[1] joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about religion's "auto-immune disease," the concept of "God-intoxication," and other key ideas from his book Putting God Second. [2]

Image Credit: Jewish Broadcasting Service

Image Credit: Jewish Broadcasting Service

(0:01 - 14:46): To begin the episode, Hartman lays out his framing question: rather than asking what (or who) God is, he asks "What does God do to a religious person who says 'I believe?'" He argues that, in many cases, God-belief can be analogous to an "auto-immune disease," causing people to disregard their fellow human beings, in favor of the divine. He then contrasts on the one hand, those who see God as provoking entirely negative actions by individuals and groups (such as the New Atheists), and those who understand God as only a positive force in the world. He claims that those in this latter category suffer from "God-intoxication." Hartman explores how an auto-immune disease that he himself had affected the lens through which he sees God and religion.

(14:47 - 33:16): Hartman provides three key examples of God-intoxication from the Jewish textual tradition -- Abraham and his binding of Isaac, [3] Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his cave, [4] and the death of Rabbi Akiva. [5] He questions the widespread idea that human history consistently marches forward, arguing that in many eras humanity has regressed. He then explains why he chose the title "Putting God Second" for his book, distinguishing it from the idea of "putting God first," but also from the conception of "putting God 130th." Hartman also explores his own personal theology, asserting that for him there really is a God who created the universe and cares about human beings.

(33:17 - 47:12): Responding to Lex's proposal that Judaism is, today, better described as "ambitheistic" (ambiguous/ambivalent about God-belief" than as monotheistic, Hartman considers the questions of whether and how one who does not believe in God could still be a "good Jew." Shifting gears, he then outlines his framework of "Genesis Jews" and "Exodus Jews." [6] Relatedly, he argues that we could learn a great deal from the Bible's 12 tribes, which simultaneously allowed for a sense of unity (among all the Israelites) and diversity (due to the distinctions between tribes). To close the episode, Hartman calls on all of us to avoid wallowing in our failures, but instead to ask "Who should I be?" [7]

[1] Read Donniel Hartman's bio by clicking here. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute by visiting Hartman.org.il.

[2] Click here to purchase Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself.

[3] Hear Dan and Lex's takes on the binding of Isaac by listening to Bonus Episode: Rosh Hashanah Unbound - Day 2 Torah Reading.

[4] Explore the story of Shimon Bar Yochai and the cave in-depth, with the full text of the story and questions for discussion, by clicking here.

[5] For the Talmudic story of Rabbi Akiva's death, and his excitement to be able to sacrifice his life for God, click here.

[6] Explore the idea of Genesis and Exodus Jews further by listening to Episode 41: History and Memory - Yehuda Kurtzer (Kurtzer is the President of the North American branch of the Shalom Hartman Institute).