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).

Andrew Hahn: Judaism Unbound Episode 134 - God on a Desert Island

Continuing our exploration of a variety of views of God that might resonate with today's Jews, Andrew Hahn, known as The Kirtan Rabbi, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg in a conversation that introduces and explores the idea of Non-Dualism, the history of Judaism importing ideas and practices from other traditions, and hypothesizes about what Jewish theology and practice might look like outside the context of community, such as if a person were isolated on a desert island. [1]

 Image Credit: Broekman Communications

Image Credit: Broekman Communications

(0:01 - 16:04): To begin the episode, Hahn provides an overview of the concept of non-dualism, along with how entering into a conception of God that is non-dualist could affect the way that individuals operate in the world. [2] He argues that these conceptions connect to the idea that the self, and separateness, are illusions. [3] In other words, he argues that non-dualism relates to a belief that all beings on the planet (and beyond it) are actually one unified whole. Hahn converses with Dan about whether, if "Everything is God," it is also the case that "Nothing is God." [4]

(16:05 - 29:19): Hahn explores the tension between finding precedents from the Jewish past for novel Jewish ideas and, on the other hand, accepting that Judaism in the present and future may need to pioneer new ideas that were unknown to past Judaisms. He then boldly proposes that, if he were on a desert island, he might not retain all -- or even most -- elements of Jewish ritual and practice. He, and the two co-hosts, explore how, and why, Judaism has typically applied more easily forms of communal practice than individual practices of meaning-making. They also ask whether that could, should, or will continue to be the case in the future. In doing so, Hahn argues that there has never been a "pure" Judaism -- that Jewish ideas and practices have constantly been altered, affected, and even supplanted by rituals from other traditions. 

(29:20 - 42:39): Making a key point that people today are looking for experiences of direct connection to God, Hahn outlines his practice of Hebrew Kirtan, an avenue that, for him, achieves that sense of direct connection. He contrasts the uncontrolled, open practice of Kirtan, with ways in which Jewish prayer leaders often try too hard to steer the experience towards a particular destination. To close the episode, Hahn calls on Jews both to work for positive changes to Judaism and, simultaneously, to learn from the other religious traditions that are part of a shared, "global village." [5]

 Purchase  Achat Sha'alti (One Thing I Seek)    here  .

Purchase Achat Sha'alti (One Thing I Seek) here.

[1] Access a full bio of Andrew Hahn by clicking here.

[2] Learn more about non-dualism by checking out "Dualism vs. Non-Dualism," published by The Yoke.

[3] Hahn notes Freud's idea of "oceanic feeling" in his analysis. Learn more about this concept by clicking here.

[4] Hahn cites Jay Michaelson's book, Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, as a work that influenced him profoundly. Purchase it by clicking here, and hear from Michaelson on a past Judaism Unbound episode by listening to Episode 38: Judaism and Evolving Dharma - Jay Michaelson.

[5] Andrew Hahn has produced two CDs -- Achat Sha'alti (One Thing I Seek), Kirtan Rabbi Live, and Nondual — as well as a single, Shiviti. You can purchase them by clicking here.

Art Green: Judaism Unbound Episode 133 - God is One

Art Green, theologian and historian of Jewish religion, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for the third episode in Judaism Unbound's series exploring the role of God in contemporary Judaism. Together they explore the history and contemporary practice of Jewish mysticism, questioning frameworks of "mainstream Judaism" and a commanding, personal God in the process. [1]

 Image Credit: Hebrew College

Image Credit: Hebrew College

(0:01 - 17:41): To begin the episode, Green looks back on his rejection of the idea of a "fellow in the sky," along with his discovery of mystical conceptions of God that resonated more deeply with him. He encapsulates these conceptions, largely originating in Kabbalistic and Hasidic ideas, as the "oneness of being." He discusses the many layers of Judaism, and its many different forms of God-belief, which have evolved in a variety of directions over the course of Jewish history. He explores the idea that all religion is projection, analogizing the cosmos to a hall of mirrors. [2] Green also considers the construction of "mainstream Judaism" -- an idea he traces to the early 19th century -- and how it consciously erased traditions of Jewish mysticism. [3] He then names a process, unfolding for a number of decades, whereby Hasidism and Kabbalah have re-gained an important place in Jewish life. [4]

(17:42 - 34:05): Green proposes that mysticism has risen in prominence largely because developments like the Holocaust, and the nuclear bomb, challenged the belief that science alone would be the salvation of humanity. He argues that the trend towards Jewish mysticism is related, therefore, to the embrace of teachings from Zen Buddhism, Hindu Gurus, and others who gained many followers in the mid, and late, 20th century. Green then pivots to look at the role that religion can play in instilling a sense of discipline, through the creation of regular practices or rituals. In doing so, he challenges the idea that God commands human beings, instead arguing that the commandments of Judaism are "a gift of the tradition has given me for disciplining and regularizing spiritual life," and that each of us chooses to what extent we accept them. He also asserts that Judaism needs a new religious language.

(34:06 - 49:52): Returning to his own personal story, Green tells the story of his discovery of Hasidism [5] and his life-long commitment to small, intimate Jewish forms of Jewish community. [6] He speaks of religion's call to open one's heart, and its imperative to determine how one will maximize the "split-second of planetary evolution" that each one of us calls our life. To close the episode, Green connects these ideas to the realm of politics, arguing that humanity needs to take more urgent action with respect to climate change, and that the denigration of Palestinians has been "a betrayal of Judaism at its best."

 Image Credit: Weiser Antiquarium

Image Credit: Weiser Antiquarium

[1] Read Art Green's bio by clicking here. Explore all of his books, and purchase them for yourself, at this link

[2] Green connects his ideas around mirrors, and projection, to a story by Franz Kafka. Click here to read it (its title is "An Imperial Message").

[3] For an introduction to Kabbalah from Green, listen to this 2004 interview on NPR.

[4] Green cites Gershom Scholem as a central figure in reviving the study of Jewish mysticism. Learn more about Scholem by clicking here.

[5] A 1910 essay by Hillel Zeitlin, entitled "The Foundations of Hasidism," was central to Green's discovery of Hasidism. Read an excerpt of it in translation by clicking here.

[6] Learn more about the Havurah movement, of which Green was a pioneering leader, by listening to Episode 84: The Jewish Catalog, Then And Now - Riv-Ellen Prell.

[7] For a lecture from Green regarding the present and future of Judaism, click the video below.


Eliana Light: Judaism Unbound Episode 132 - The God Gap

Musician and educatorEliana Light joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for the second conversation in our series on the role of God in American Judaism. The conversation explores topics ranging from God as metaphor, Light's interest in the many different traditional names for God, how music can dovetail with experiences of holiness, and whether ideas about God could be addressed in better ways in Jewish educational settings. [1]

(0:01 - 15:46): To begin the episode, Eliana Light lays out her thesis that we need to talk about God more, but use the word "God" less. [2] She examines a variety of traditional names for God, asking why "Adonai" (literally meaning "my Lord") has become the most commonly used word for the Jewish God, and suggesting that we might do well to utilize other names more frequently that capture metaphors more conducive to our values and to potential conceptions of divinity that could work for us. She argues for an expansive conception of God that transcends ideas of a "dude in the sky with a beard" and is better encapsulated by phrases like the "totality of being." She also paints a picture of a moment that occurs commonly for Jews (especially in Sunday School), where they look around and ask, about stories of God in the Torah: "Do the people in this room really believe in this stuff?" [3]

(15:47 - 32:53): Light considers the theology of the Torah, and argues that we need to supplement that God with other ideas of what God is in the world. In particular, she cites the liturgical poem Anim Z'mirot (sometimes called "Song of Glory"), which has a fairly complex understanding of the divine. [4] She then looks at the role that music can play as a form of connection to God, and explores how music for the purpose of prayer differs from music as it is experienced at a concert. [5]

(32:54 - 52:11): Turning towards her organizational name ("The G!d Project"), Light names a variety of interpretations for why she substitutes "G!d" for "God." She reflects on the role that God plays in educational settings, and asserts that there is a crisis in Jewish education. She calls for a shift that would grant greater permission to Jews (and Jewish educators) who feel discomfort, confusion, or uncertainty with respect to belief in God. To close the episode, at Lex's behest, she examines her own name -- Eliana ("my God has answered" in Hebrew) Light -- whose origins relate to God in a variety of ways, and explores how her own journey through life has led to the project of re-conceptualizing God in our world today. [6]

[1] Learn more about Eliana Light at ElianaLight.com. Learn more about the programs she offers through The G!d Project by clicking here.

[2] View Light's ELI Talk, entitled "The God Gap," by viewing the video on the right.

[3] In one of his questions, Dan cites the role that metaphors play in shaping our thinking. Explore these ideas further by reading Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

Judaism Unbound longer.png

[4] If you'd like to hear more about Anim Zemirot, listen to these resources from The Hadar Institute.

[5] Check out Light's albums by clicking the following links: A New Light (2013)Eliana Sings (About Jewish Things) 2017

[6] Read more about Eliana Light's framing of the God Gap by reading this piece, entitled "The God Gap: What It Is and How to Bridge It."

Judaism Unbound Episode 131: Protesting God - Dov Weiss

As we launch a series of episodes on the subject of God, Dan and Lex are joined by Dov Weiss, associate professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism[1] In their conversation, they look at how ideas of God have changed over the course of Jewish history, discuss the Jewish tradition of disputing its God, complicate the idea that God has always been understood as perfect, and explore a concept Weiss dubs "protest ventriloquism."

(0:01 - 13:23): To begin the episode, Weiss looks at back on how Jews of different eras have conceptualized God, arguing that Jewish understandings of God over time have changed not merely incrementally, but drastically. He introduces the core concept of his book Pious Irreverence -- protest against God. [2] Weiss asserts that, contrary to what many may have been taught, protests against divine action can be found all over the Bible and Rabbinic literature, and the idea that God is infallible, or perfect, does not present itself until much later. Weiss emphasizes the shift, in Medieval times, from understandings of God as a person-like character to the idea that God is a concept. [3]

(13:24 - 29:18): Weiss explores the idea of a God that suffers, a conception espoused by Rabbi Akiva within the Jewish tradition, and one that is central to Christianity. He argues that a conception of a suffering God correlates negatively with critique of, or protest against, God, for a variety of reasons. He then introduces the subject of "protest ventriloquism," whereby rabbis obscure their own struggles and critiques by ascribing them to famous heroes from the Bible. Weiss considers early Christian debates surrounding the morality of the "Old Testament's" God (and whether that God even is God at all) [4] and circles back to provide an example of how protest ventriloquism plays out in the Talmud. Weiss then outlines why, when discussing God, he uses "He" and "Him" pronouns, connecting his answer to broader questions about the existence (or not) of a personal God. [5]

(29:19 - 47:27): As the definition of God has changed throughout Jewish history, Weiss argues, so too has the definition of monotheism. More than that, Weiss critiques the idea that there has been one eternal, essential Judaism, which has remained largely unchanged from the Bible until present day. He then looks back at his own personal journey, highlighting his departure from Orthodoxy and entry into the academic study of Judaism. In this telling, he highlights how seeing the Torah as written by human beings, and not by God, actually helped make the text more meaningful for him. [5] To close, Weiss offers up ways in which his book can be utilized by those looking to think expansively about the concept of protest not only with respect to God, but in our personal relationships and societies. [6]

[1] Dov Weiss's bio can be accessed by clicking here.

[2] Click here to purchase Pious Irreverence. Learn more about it by checking out this article, or listening to his guest appearance on the New Books in Jewish Studies podcast.

[3] Weiss discusses the philosophy of Maimonides (also known as Rambam) in this section. To learn more, especially around the ways in which Maimonides draws from the ideas of Aristotle, click here.

[4] One of the key figures in these Christian debates was Marcion of Sinope, who argued that the Old Testament's god, filled with wrath, was not equal to the New Testament's god of love and mercy. Learn more about Marcionism by clicking here.

[5] For more on the human authorship of the Bible, see Episode 27: Who Wrote the Bible? - Richard Elliott Friedman.

[6] Weiss briefly mentions the Greek concept of parrhesia, related to Jewish ideas of protest and rebuke that he discusses in more detail. For an article on how the idea of parrhesia, and its relevance to political theology, click here. Michel Foucault also wrote about the topic of parrhesia, and a 1983 lecture of his can be found here.

Judaism Unbound Bonus Episode: Elul #1 - Why is This Month Different from All Other Months?

In the first of four bonus episodes, Dan, Lex, and guest co-host Wendie Lash argue that Judaism can be a technology of self-improvement. They explore how, in particular, the month of Elul provides an opportunity to experience that possibility. [1]

[1] Experience Elul Unbound, through daily emails from Judaism Unbound, by clicking here! Explore our digital Elul Unbound resources by clicking here

[2] Learn more about opportunities for spiritual direction, introduced by Wendie in this episode, by clicking here.

Judaism Unbound Episode 130: Israel-Optional Judaism

Dan and Lex close out their unit on the relationship between American Jews and Israel. In their conversation, they explore a wide range of issues, ranging from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, to civil disobedience in American-Jewish life, to the idea of loving Israel.

Dan and Lex Squarespace Square.png

(0:01 - 15:35): To begin the episode, Dan gives a shout-out to our friends at Clal, and encourages listeners to look into its Spark Fellowship, along with the Shift and Start programs (6-weeks and 20-weeks respectively) that it offers through the GLEAN Network. [1] He also puts out a friendly reminder that anyone can bring us to their community to discuss the future of American Judaism. He and Lex then begin their reflection on their 14-episode series on the relationship between American Jews and Israel. [2] They offer up a number of different ways in which American Jews relate to Israel, and they also name that for many, Israel is not such an important issue. Dan argues that a key problem that manifests around Israel is that people label each other as espousing beliefs that, when really engaged, they do not actually hold. 

(15:36 - 32:34): Lex draws a distinction between those who question particular Israeli policies and the growing group of American Jews that question whether Jewish statehood can ever manifest in a way that is democratic. [3] Relatedly, he and Dan both argue that no Jew should be barred or sidelined from Jewish institutions due to their orientation to Israel and Palestine. They also examine the set of Jewish institutions, in particular, that claim to be representative bodies. Lex argues that such organizations cannot honestly claim that they are both representative of an entire Jewish community (local, regional, or national) and permitted to draw red lines barring the opinions of some of those constituents from their ideological tents. [4] 

(32:35 - 49:04): The two co-hosts explore the question, and language, of antisemitism. They push back on the idea that, because some antisemites support boycotts, divestments, and sanctions towards Israel, that BDS is an antisemitic ideology. They similarly push back on the idea that, because some antisemites admire and support the state of Israel, that support for Israel constitutes an antisemitic ideology. Dan calls for increased conversation and dialogue, by those who strongly disagree with one another, around Israel-Palestine, and Lex calls for forms of Jewish education that primarily look to instill knowledge about Israel, and not an emotional connection to it. To close the unit, Dan and Lex re-visit the idea of loving Israel. They argue that it should be entirely permissible for Jews to feel love towards Israel or not, without any fear that their connection, or lack thereof, will be treated as inauthentically Jewish. [5]

[1]  Learn more about Clal's Spark Fellowship by clicking here.  We also encourage you to check out Shift and Start.

[2] To listen to any (or all!) of our episodes in this unit, head to our Find Any Episode page. This unit consists of episodes 117-130.

[3] In this section, Lex cites recent controversy around Israel's nation-state law. Explore that issue further by reading this piece, by Allison Kaplan Sommer, in Haaretz

[4] For an example of how the question of representation can loom large for Jewish institutions, especially around Israel and Zionism, see "Hillel does not represent all Jewish students, Open Hillel informs federal court in Amicus Brief." For the full text of the brief, click here.

[5] For another voice on the idea of loving Israel, see this piece, entitled "Why I Love Israel But I Am Not a Zionist," written by past Judaism Unbound guest Shulem Deen

Judaism Unbound Episode 129: Women of the Wall - Lesley Sachs, Susan Silverman

Dan and Lex are joined by Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, [1]and by rabbi and author Susan Silverman, a member of Women of the Wall's Board of Directors and an activist on behalf of African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. In their conversation, they discuss the efforts of Women of the Wall to fight for women's rights to pray as they wish at the Western Wall, explore questions related to religious pluralism in Israel, and consider how a Jewish state ought to deal with non-Jewish asylum seekers. They also consider the roles that American Jews might or might not take on in dealing with these issues and the nature of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

 Image Credit: The Post and Courier

Image Credit: The Post and Courier

(0:01 - 15:02): To begin the episode, Lesley Sachs looks back at the modern history of the Western Wall as it relates to Jewish prayer at the site. [2] She also reflects on the thirty-year history of Women of the Wall, discussing why it emerged, what its goals are, and how it does its work. Susan Silverman connects discrimination against women at the Western Wall to broader issues of sexism in Israeli civil law. [3] She also argues that elements of ultra-Orthodoxy are both anti-Jewish and anti-democratic, especially as they relate to definitional questions of "Who is a Jew?" 

 Image Credit: RabbiSusanSilverman.com

Image Credit: RabbiSusanSilverman.com

(15:03 - 28:54): Silverman calls for an end to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate ("The Rabbanut," in Hebrew) and its immense power (clarifying that this is her personal belief, not necessarily that of Women of the Wall). Sachs looks back on her recent experiences on American college campuses and considers the growing number of young Jews for whom Israel is not high on their priority list as activists. Sachs and Silverman engage with critiques of Women of the Wall and argue that issues of religious pluralism within Israel should not be pitted against work related to the issue of Palestinian rights. Silverman then explores the issue of African asylum seekers and calls on the Israeli government to radically shift its orientation towards those who arrive from abroad -- often from situations where they have faced dire oppression and poverty, analogous to what Jews have suffered throughout history. [4]

(28:55 - 41:41): The ongoing question of why it is important for American Jews to care about Israel arises. Silverman calls for progressives to become active in Israeli politics, precisely to change the government in ways that will make it more closely mirror their values. Sachs calls for a spirit of optimism, arguing that a wide variety of progressive changes, once considered inconceivable, have become reality over the years. [5] To close the episode, Sachs envisions a relationship between Israel and American Jews that is built on love and mutual respect.

[1] Learn more about Women of the Wall by visiting WomenOfTheWall.org.il. For bios of both Sachs and Silverman, click here. Purchase her most recent book, Casting Lots, or her earlier work, Jewish Family & Life, by clicking here.

[2] For a timeline featuring key events in Women of the Wall's history, click here. For a response from Sachs, shortly after the Israeli government reneged on its deal with Women of the Wall, click here.

 Image Credit: Times of Israel

Image Credit: Times of Israel

[3] See this 2015 article in The Nation for more on how Israeli civil law treats men and women differently.

[4] Read more from Silverman regarding African asylum seekers in a piece she wrote for the New York Times, entitled "How Did Israel Become a Place of No Refuge?"

[5] Sachs highlights a woman named Tsvia Walden, and her reading of the Mourner's Kaddish (with some liturgical alterations) at the funeral of her father, Shimon Peres. Learn more about that story through this 2016 article in Haaretz.

[6] Click the video below for an interview of Susan Silverman by her sister, comedian Sarah Silverman.


Judaism Unbound Episode 128: Zionism 3.0 - Zack Bodner

Dan and Lex welcome back Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. In their conversation, they explore his organization's "Zionism 3.0" conference, along with broader questions regarding the ever-evolving relationship between American Jews and Israel. [1]

(0:01 - 13:58): To begin the episode, Bodner lays out the framing behind Zionism 3.0. [2] He outlines some characteristics of Zionism 1.0 and 2.0, and reflects on changes in today's world that have led to a new kind of Zionism in the 21st century. He looks back at the events in his own community that led to the creation of the Zionism 3.0 conference, and names directly the vast diversity of Zionisms that manifested in the early 20th century, including some that were not focused on the idea of Jewish statehood. [3]

(13:59 - 29:42): Like many of Judaism Unbound's past guests, Bodner provides his take on approaching Israel, and world Jewry, through the metaphor of family. Like some of them, and unlike others, he endorses the idea. [4] He also looks at the topic of "red lines" in Jewish communal institutions, distinguishing between individuals he would welcome as attendees at organizational events and those whom he would offer a platform as a guest speaker. [5] Next, Bodner calls for a relationship between American Jews and Israel that is truly a two-way street --  where, in addition to diaspora support for the Jewish state, Israelis seek to learn from American Judaism.

(29:43 - 47:31): Bodner explores some tensions between ideological pluralism and moral clarity, through the metaphor of a tent. He argues that, while it is important for communal institutions to create a "big tent," built on ideological pluralism, it is also crucial that such tents have "poles" marking the boundaries of discourse. [6] He also asserts that institutional red lines will naturally evolve to look different in different time periods. To close the episode, Bodner returns to the frame of Zionism 3.0, stating that a defining difference between Zionism 2.0 and 3.0 is that the former was built on Americans having "a stake without a say" in Israeli government policy, while Zionism 3.0 will involve American Jews who have both a stake and a say.

[1] Zack Bodner's bio is accessible by clicking here. Learn more about the annual Zionism 3.0 conference here.

[2] Check out a blog post that Bodner wrote about Zionism 3.0 at this link.

[3] Lex alludes to "jOS 4.0" in one of the questions he asks Bodner. Learn more about this frame by listening to Episode 21: jOS 4.0 - A New Jewish Operating System?.

[4] For a different take on the role that familial metaphors play in the relationship between American Jews and Israel, see Episode 121: Homecoming and Arrival - Yehuda Kurtzer.

[5] Bodner cites a friend of his, who argues that American-Jewish institutions should be as ideologically diverse as the Israeli k'nesset. For a piece expanding on that idea, see this 2017 article in The New York Times, written by Lisa Goldman and entitled "Anti-Zionists Thrive in Israel, Why Not in the U.S?"

[6] Over the course of this conversation thread, two other past episodes of Judaism Unbound are cited. Listen to them by clicking the following links: Episode 66: Jewish? Community? Center - Zack BodnerEpisode 120: A Less Toxic Conversation - Melissa Weintraub



Judaism Unbound Episode 127: A Synagogue Without Flags - Brant Rosen

Dan and Lex are joined by Brant Rosen, founding rabbi of Tzedek Chicago, [1] an intentional congregational community based on core values of justice, equality, and solidarity. In their conversation, they look at the central role that nationalism, and Zionism in particular, has come to play in many Jewish communities, and explore strategies for institutional change within American-Jewish life.

 Image Credit: ChicagoMonitor.com

Image Credit: ChicagoMonitor.com

(0:01 - 13:21): To begin the episode, Rosen explores the ongoing question of this unit of podcast episodes - the relationship between American Jews and Israel. In particular, he looks at the twin concepts of homeland and diaspora, calling on Jews outside of Israel to embrace the idea that "homeland" refers not to Israel, but to whatever land in which they live. He then reflects on his own political journey over the past few years, especially as it relates to Zionism. [2] To open up that conversation further, he links it to the symbolic decision, made by many American synagogues, to feature Israeli and American flags at the center of their sacred spaces. [3] He then explores the origin story behind Tzedek Chicago, along with the central values that ground its work.

(13:22 - 28:39): Rosen looks at the history of Zionism, including forms of Zionism that were proposed before the state of Israel was created. He argues that, despite the diversity of Zionisms that manifested in the past, it is important to focus on the Zionism that manifests in reality today. That Zionism, he states, is embodied by the state of Israel and its oppression of Palestinians. [4] He then shifts gears, providing his take on the "inside game" and the "outside game" -- strategies of Jewish institutional change focused on change from within, and change from without, respectively. He also looks at developments of the 20th century, analyzing how, and why, they led to a situation in which love for Israel became the "ikar" -- defining principle -- of Jewish institutional life.

(28:40 - 44:09): Shifting gears, Rosen and the two co-hosts look at some of the challenges of synagogue life. They begin by looking at Jewish education, and asking whether, and how, the role of Israel-Palestine in educational contexts could change in the future. More generally, Rosen suggests that American synagogue life may be a sinking ship, comparing it to the process of "re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic." To close the episode, he reflects on the energy that was present in the room, when Tzedek Chicago gathered its first ever High Holiday services. As a final word, he calls on Non-Zionists, wherever they are, to look for, and create, their own vibrant Jewish communities, working towards justice and built on universal values. [5]

[1] Learn more about Tzedek Chicago by visiting www.TzedekChicago.org, and explore its core values at this link. Read Brant Rosen's full bio by clicking here, and check out a Chicago Tribune profile of his congregation at this link.

[2] For an in-depth reflection from Rosen on Judaism, nationalism, and more, see Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity, a book that he wrote in 2012.

[3] Explore the history of American and Israeli flags in synagogues in this JTA article, entitled "Why synagogues started putting American flags in the sanctuary."

[4] To hear more about competing visions for Zionism in the early 20th century, listen to Episode 119: The Histories of Zionisms - Noam Pianko.

[5] Towards the close of the episode, Rosen cites a Baltimore project, called Hinenu, as the kind of justice-driven Jewish community that could become more common in the future. Learn more about it at HinenuBaltimore.org.

Judaism Unbound Episode 126: Open Hillel - Rachel Sandalow-Ash, Eva Ackerman

Dan and Lex are joined by Rachel Sandalow-Ash and Eva Ackerman, two organizers with Open Hillel, [1] an organization that works for pluralism and open discourse around Israel-Palestine, in Jewish spaces on college campuses.

(0:01 - 15:23): To begin the episode, Sandalow-Ash looks back on the history of Hillel International, beginning in the early 20th century. [2] She explores its evolutions over time, along a wide variety of axes, including its relationship to Israel-Palestine. Nearing the present-day, she highlights its introduction of the Standards of Partnership for Campus Israel Activities in 2010, [3] along with the beginnings of Open Hillel, which arose in response to them. Ackerman discusses her own entry into work with Open Hillel, emphasizing the ways in which the Standards of Partnership, in addition to restricting programming around Israel, foster a culture where many other forms of social justice activism are stigmatized as well. 

(15:24 - 28:56): Sandalow-Ash looks back at a few key moments in the history of Open Hillel, which was founded in 2012. In doing so, she cites Open Hillel's national civil rights tour, which featured the voices of a number of Jewish veterans of civil rights movements in the 1960s. [4] Lex talks about why that tour became particularly illuminating for his activism in Jewish life. Ackerman expands the conversation by asking how we conceptualize the Jewishness and Judaism of such activists, questioning the tendency to emphasize forms of Jewish life that they are not involved in, as opposed to the justice work that often does relate to elements of Jewish history and identity. She also looks at how college students can (and do) work for positive change within existing Hillel structures, along with ways in which students can create lively forms of Jewish campus life outside of Hillel. 

(28:57 - 40:27): The metaphor of college campuses as "battlegrounds" arises, and Sandalow-Ash states why she believes such metaphors are problematic. Ackerman argues that political litmus tests around Zionism in Jewish spaces contribute to a culture in which many Jews who really would love to take part in Jewish campus life do not feel that they can authentically do so. To close, Sandalow-Ash and Ackerman look at the question of "safe spaces" -- as they relate to Jews, to college campuses, and more generally. [5]

[1] Learn more about Open Hillel by visiting www.OpenHillel.org. For a timeline of significant events in its history, click here.

[2] For an in-depth look at the history of Hillel International, and its relationship to Israel, see this 2014 piece in the New Republic, written by John Judis.

[3] You can familiarize yourself with Hillel's Standards of Partnership for Campus Israel Activities at this link.

[4] For more on Open Hillel's national civil rights tour, see this 2015 article in The Forward, entitled "Shame on Hillel for Shunning Civil Rights Veterans," written by four Jewish civil rights veterans who spoke as part of the tour.

[5] For a piece exploring a moment of Open Hillel's history that garnered a great deal of publicity, see "Members of Jewish Student Group Test Permissible Discussion on Israel," published in December 2013 in The New York Times.