Episode 58: Jewish Economics - Carmel Chiswick (Full Transcript)


Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 58—Jewish Economics. 

Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .

Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.

Dan Libenson: And we're here today with Professor Carmel Chiswick, who’s going to talk to us about a recent book that she wrote called Judaism in Transition on which she applies principles of economics to understand the present, past, and future of American Judaism. Professor Chiswick is a professor of economics at George Washington University. She was previous at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she’s now a professor emerita. Her focus is labor economics and development economics, and it’s a fascinating idea to apply economic principles to Judaism. So, we’re excited to welcome her to join us today. Thanks so much for being with us.

Carmel Chiswick: It's great to be here.

Dan Libenson: Thanks. So, let's just jump right in, and I guess it would be helpful if you could give us kind of a summary of the basic ideas in your book Judaism In Transition and perhaps also how you came to write the book.

Carmel Chiswick: Well, actually, it's kind of interesting. When I read Jewish history, everybody always says something about how Judaism adapts to different socioeconomic . . . well, to different sociocultural contexts, but they never mention the economic context. So, I started sort of thinking in the back of my mind, “What about differences in economic context?” and I realized that that sort of is underlying a lot of our notions of sociocultural differences, or economic differences. So, I began to think about it, and once I did, I said to myself “Well, you know, 19th and 20th century America, but in particular early 20th century America, was an economic environment unlike anything that Jews had experienced before —unlike anything that anybody had experienced before.

We had tremendous increases in productivity of our workforce, and freedom to move about, and to associate with other people, and to practice our religions as we wished. But, in particular, it was the economic progress. When I teach economic history, I always emphasize the sense of excitement that people had at the opportunities for economic progress, which meant to them raising wages, raising real income apart from higher wages, and . . . in part, because goods were becoming so much cheaper with factory production. So, I thought “Well, how would this affect Jews?”  And Jews were moving right up the occupational ladder, and they were going into higher education — many of them — and those that weren't going into the professions, because they [required] advanced degrees, were in businesses that were growing, and growing successfully, so they sent their children to college.

So, I thought “Well, this was a whole different economic environment than Jews had ever experienced before. How does it affect their practice of Judaism?  How did Judaism fit into this new life?”  And that's what started me thinking about it, and I realized that economics was a blind spot in Jewish Studies; and religion in general, and Judaism in particular, was a blind spot in American Studies and in Jewish history. So, I just began to think of that.

Meanwhile, at just about the same time, there was, in the economics profession a new field. An innovative researcher started studying the economics of religion, and he did so in some very interesting and exciting ways. So, there were several of us that sort of jumped on that particular issue, and I was the only one who was interested in applying it to Jews. Most of that research applies to Protestants, in part because most Americans are Protestants, and in part because when you have data on religions in America, it's always dominated by the Protestant experience, and you never have enough observations to do anything about Jews.

But then the Jewish community funded a National Jewish Population Survey — one in 1990 and another one in 2000 — and that gave us a lot of information about American Jews. So, I put two and two together, and I began applying my economics to this or that topic that I had data on from the population surveys, and one thing led to another, and I started going to conferences where I would be the only economist in the room full of Jewish social scientists — mostly Jewish sociologists — and one thing led to another, and I became active in that profession.

And here I am. What this book does is it synthesizes the research findings from all those conferences and all those decades into a book that is, I hope, accessible to a general reader who doesn’t have to have any background in economics, because our economic behavior is pretty much intuitive. It's not like we need to study economics in order to behave in ways that economics predicts.

Dan Libenson: So, first of all, I think Lex and I can vouch that your book is definitely accessible for the non-economic-expert reader.

Carmel Chiswick: Glad to hear it.

Dan Libenson: Could you give us some basic capsule summary of some of the main points?  I thought it was particularly interesting, some of the ways in which you explain to the lay reader that might think that economics is the study of money, that it's not only that.

Carmel Chiswick: Well, you have two budgets. Of course, you have more than two considerations in life, but you have two fundamental budgets from an economic point of view. One of these is your money budget, which is what everybody always talks about, and the other of these is your time budget, which recently, like in the last 40-50 years, has become extremely important in economic studies. Your time budget is different from your money budget in two ways. For one thing, it's fixed; there's nothing you can do to increase your time — it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week, etc. And that's just what you have to allocate. It's highly perishable — you can't really save it — because once those 24 hours are gone, they're gone. You can't borrow against it so easily. So, the time budget is fixed, whereas the money budget — there are all kinds of things you can do to make it grow or shrink.

On the other hand, the other thing that's important for your budget is the prices of the things that you want to buy. Now, money prices are the same for everybody — so, if you're buying a car, or you're buying a house, or you're buying day school tuition, or you're buying clothes . . . whatever it is, every buyer faces the same price, even though their incomes may be different. But in the case of time, it's the opposite. Everybody has a different value of time. There's nothing fixed about it.

As a first approximation, economists view the wage rate that you might be earning as the price of an hour of your time. There are various reasons for that, which I won't bother with you now — just take it, if you will, on assumption, but . . . I do explain it a bit in the book. But it's a theorem in labor economics. You start with the notion of a wage rate. If you're earning $10 an hour, then if you take an hour off from work, you have to give up $10 worth of goods and services. On the other hand, if you're earning $200 an hour, and you take off an hour of work, that means you have to give up $200 worth of goods and services. So, that's the easy approach to wages.

We know that a lot of people either don’t earn wages directly, or they earn them sort of indirectly — so, for example, a high school student may not have much of a . . . either doesn’t work at all, so there's no wage, or has a very low wage. But your high school studies are preparing you for a future career in which your wage will be high. So, you are investing —  even though you're not earning now, you are investing in your future. So, a high school student has a higher value of time than his wage rate would imply.

In some cultures, parents’ time is much more valuable than the children’s time, and the children just have to like it or lump it. And in other cultures, the children’s time is by far more valuable, and the parents make all kinds of sacrifices in order to conserve their children’s time. That might've been the case in the American Jewish community, in the immigrant community at the beginning of the 20th century, where parents were in low-wage jobs, but they wanted opportunities for their children.

And so they would work very hard and use their time in order to release their children from burdens and enable them to integrate into the American society, or to go up the educational ladder.

Dan Libenson: So, in terms of starting to apply these ideas to Judaism, could you give us some examples of how you see that viewing it this way makes a difference?

Carmel Chiswick: You have to squeeze your Jewish lifestyle into the rest of your lifestyle. And that's the fundamental problem. You've only got 24 hours in a day. And so, the question is: how do you do this?  We have well worked out, generally accepted economic theory about how consumers allocate their money budgets, and so . . . Judaism, of course, is one of the things that we spend our money on.

But we also spend our time on it, and allocating our time budget to include Judaism is a little difficult because Judaism is very time-intensive. Many religions are time-intensive, but Judaism is particularly time-intensive. Just as an example, synagogue services are short by traditional standards. Many people go into the synagogue either on Saturday morning or on Friday night, but not on both. People go to synagogue — some people go every Shabbat, but many people go every few weeks, or maybe once a month, or maybe once every six months if there's an occasion.

So, we conserve our time by . . . we reduce the time that we spend on Judaism in order to fit into our time budgets with all the other things we want to do. And our rabbis know this — dating from late 19th century and early 20th century up into the present, the rabbis talk with each other about the problem of how do you reach the spiritual needs of people when they only come to the synagogue three days a year, or when they don't know any Hebrew?

There was one couple that I was told about when I first started working on this that felt that to get the real flavor of Shabbat, you really had to spend the full 25 hours observing. But they couldn't afford that kind of time, they thought, so they only did it once every six weeks. And when they did, they had a nice Shabbat and they felt good about it, but they didn’t do it every week.

I know somebody else who says that “Well, there are four parts to the Shabbat service,” and she feels that she can miss any one or two of them and still have a satisfying observance, so she goes walking on the beach during one of the portions, or she'll do something else that she finds peaceful and relaxing. And that's her way of observing Shabbat.

People just fit the ritual into their lives in different ways.

Lex Rofes: As I'm thinking about the principle you're laying out — that time and money are both limited resources that we have to look at, as a Jewish community, as we think about how people allocate them, both their time and their money — I'm thinking about the ramifications of that. And when I look out at contemporary institutions, I think there's generally an understanding . . . they know that people have a variety of different amounts of money that they're willing to allocate into Judaism. People, as you spoke about with budgets . . . rabbis know that some of their congregants are willing to put in thousands of dollars a year, others are not. But what it doesn’t seem we've totally reckoned with is the time budget side.

And so, I'm curious if you could talk about what it would mean to think about . . . sort of, cheaper forms of Judaism, for lack of a better term, from a time perspective. So, what would it mean if three-hour services weren't three hours, but shorter?  What would it mean if shifts happened, such that the time of Judaism was less of a demand?  And is that a direction that you've seen communities start to take?  And is it one that maybe should be considered in the future?

Carmel Chiswick: Well, I think it was a much more important issue in the first half of the 20th century, or maybe the first three-quarters of the 20th century, than it is today. People at that time were upwardly mobile economically, and Judaism was not high on their list of priorities as to how to spend their time. And their time was becoming more valuable, and shorter services . . . it's not just the services that were shorter, but the holiday observances at home were shorter. People spent less time learning Hebrew and with . . . Jewish education, in general, was not a priority. So, you ended up with a generation that sort of had . . . the parental generation of the 1950s, who really just didn’t know very much, and couldn't practice Judaism very much just because they didn’t have the background. So, what we see towards the end of the century is a split in the community.

So, when you have children raised by parents who don’t know very much about Judaism, and don’t practice it very much, and don’t spend much time on it, one very, very economic response is, “This is really not worth my time, and so I'm not going to do it, or I'm going to do so much less of it that it's just a token.”  On the other hand, an equally economic response is to say, “Ooh, this isn't worth my time because I don't have a clue what's going on, I don't have the depth to enjoy it — I better take a course, or read a book, and see if I can learn what's going on.” 

So, you had what Jack Wertheimer calls “apathy and revival” going on at the same time. It was like of a renaissance of Jewish adult education and, for that matter, the growth of the day school movement from people who were saying, “We need to invest more in our skills — in our Jewish skills — in order to get something out of this experience,” and other people saying, “Well, I'm going to spend my time some other way.”

Dan Libenson: So, let me ask you first: is there, to your knowledge . . . or do you sense an economic difference between the Jews who respond to these feelings of lack of competence, etc., by investing in their education and spending more time on Judaism in order to become competent and then be able to spend even more time (because they now feel good about it) vs. the Jews who respond by exit or minimal participation or something like that — is there an economic difference between them, and or is it just, kind of, a personality difference between people who choose those two different routes?

Carmel Chiswick: I don't know that it's an economic difference particularly. I personally think . . . well, it's probably a personality thing as much as anything. Many of the people who choose to walk away were not really raised in homes that were deeply Jewish and just aren't interested in it. So, we talk about the intermarriage rate all of a sudden going up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but in fact a lot of the in-marriages in the middle of the 20th century were marriages between two Jews who had no interest in religion. And so, they raised children who had no Jewish background. So, technically, statistically, that was not an intermarriage, but in terms of the Jewish content in the home, it was equivalent.

Now what we're seeing is a lot of the Jewish intermarriage are children of intermarriage, or second or third generation intermarriage. So, it's leakage from the community. The community is smaller for that, but stronger for the educational side of things.

Lex Rofes: So, I'm really intrigued by so much of what you're bringing here, and I'm also flashing to a part of your book that speaks about not just the extent to which Jews will allocate time to Judaism, but which parts of Judaism they choose. Because that's a big question — you know, you could be a Jew and you could allocate your time to services on Shabbat, you could be a Jew and allocate your time to holidays, you could be a Jew and allocate time to something less particularly Jewish, something that's a a humanistic or universal kind of value, like social justice, through a Jewish lens.

And you speak a little bit about what leads some Jews to choose those universalist values and what leads others to choose other avenues, and I'm curious if you can expand on that. What is it about the economics of Judaism that pushes us towards . . . whether it's social justice or universalist elements of Judaism, or on the other hand the particularist?

Carmel Chiswick: We're talking about our Judaism as though we have to spend our time either on our Jewish life or on our secular life, with no overlap between the two. That is what we call “substitutes,” because you can spend your time . . . you're substituting Jewish time for secular time, and if you walk away from Judaism, you're substituting secular time for Jewish time.

But there's also the principle of “complementarity,” which is, I think, extremely helpful to think about. Complementarity is referring to synergies between the two spheres of our lives. So, I'm just trying to think of a synergy . . . well, social action is actually as good a one as any. If, in our secular lives, we feel that, from our political expression or our social expression, that it's really important to help the needy or to . . . I'm trying to think of some other social action . . . some sort of political activity — lobby . . . advocacy, some sort of political advocacy, is important . . . so, if we think those things are really important, then if we can find a way to make that a part of our Jewish life as well, then the time we spend doing these things has a double outcome. It accomplishes what we want to in the secular world, and it also enhances or sense of being Jewish.

In the case of tikkun olam [literally, “repair of the world,” often used as a term for Jewishly-motivated social action], that's pretty easy because that is an important part of Judaism and Jewish teaching — helping the needy, repairing the world. And it's being used today as sort of an umbrella for all kinds of social action — secular social action — and it makes us feel as though we were “doing Jewish” when we do these things. And that's okay. That's actually a good thing, and our rabbis have always valued that. The problem arises for the community when that tikkun olam becomes the only thing, or even the most important thing, because Judaism is a very, very rich heritage, and has many dimensions.

Dan Libenson: You talked about tikkun olam, which we've talked about before on our show — it's a Hebrew term that means “repairing the world,” but really is drawn from a kabalistic concept that, in its origin, meant something different from acts of social justice. And there's certainly an ancient prophetic tradition in Judaism that excoriated the kings of Israel for their lack of social justice. But it does feel that, in the last 2,000 years of Jewish history — let's say, between the destruction of the Second Temple and the 1920s or ’50s or ‘60s — that it wasn't actually a major concept of Jewish practice to work for the betterment of the larger world.

There was a sense of internal Jewish charity for other Jews in need — I mean, Jews were generally walled off and living by themselves, so there wasn’t even an opportunity — but it seems that the whole development of the concept of tikkun olam was actually, in large part, an American invention that came from the new context in which American Jews found themselves, and, as an example, it seems like that's one that has really taken off, right? I mean that's one that . . . we told the joke a few weeks ago — I'm not sure if it's a joke or it's an actual story —that one time a Jew came to his rabbi and said, “Rabbi, how do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?” — you know, because it's become such an ingrained . . . people don’t even realize that it's in Hebrew.

But I think that that's interesting, right?  Because in a sense, you are raising this point, which I think . . . many of us would think, initially, that in order to fully embrace Judaism, you have to enter into the totality of it, and it's such a complex system that it has so many pieces, and that requires a tremendous investment in education — just as we would say that, if you want to be an economist, you have to get a Ph.D. in economics. There's no other way to do it. You have to master this material, right?  But I guess the question, though, that it feels to me that that doesn’t fully capture is the idea that maybe Judaism isn't like economics, in the sense that it's not this permanent thing that might . . . of course, there are always new discoveries in economics, that's why people win the Nobel Prize and whatever, so it's changing, but it's always this basic set of ideas, as opposed to something which is really just a realm of human endeavor that can change, that can be radically changed, just as it was when the Second Temple was destroyed and Rabbinic Judaism came about.

And I wonder what this conversation would've sounded like if we were talking about the economics of Second Temple Judaism, and folks would say, “Look, it's so complicated. You have to know exactly how to make the sacrifices and . . . .”

Carmel Chiswick: Let me just back up for a moment. To be an economist you need a Ph.D., but to behave economically, you don't need to know anything. As my mother-in-law likes to say, “Even a dummy is smart for himself,” right?  People figure out what's the best thing, regardless of their intellectual level or their education. You don't need a Ph.D. to be Jewish. And you don't even need a lot of education to be Jewish. For some people, it's a profession, but for many of us it's more akin to a hobby than it is to a profession. And so, everybody doesn’t have to be an expert in everything, but you want to be participatory in the things that you do. So, you can say you're an “amateur Jew,” maybe, rather than a professional Jew. You can think of it that way. You can think of it the way you think of sports or music or whatever — that there are different degrees of participation, but each person has to feel that they are participating enough to be satisfying.

At one point you said something about improving quality. When we talk about the economics of the family, and it sort of spills over into other fields, we have what the jargon refers to as a “quantity/quality tradeoff.”  So, think of having children, and how many children you have is the quantity, and how much you're going to be prepared to spend per child is a proxy for quality. If you want your children to have a higher education and good medical care while they're in your care, then you need to budget for that, you need to have a money budget for that. And the more children you have, the bigger that money budget has to be.

So, people who want those things for their children, who expect their children to go on to college, will not have as many children as people who don’t have that expectation. What we say is we just can't afford a large family, but of course poor people have larger families than middle-class people, and who's to say they can't afford it? Well, they can afford it because they don’t spend as much on these other things. And for American Jews, health and education are really high priorities for your children, and I would like to put some Jewish education in there as well. And so, we say we can't afford to have a lot of children. So, that's what we mean when we're talking about the tradeoff between quantity and quality.

Dan Libenson: I'm thinking . . . now I've got two things in mind, they go to the same place:  One is just thinking back to what if we had been having an analogous conversation back at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple? And we know that the Rabbis actually reinvented Judaism.

Carmel Chiswick: We were having that conversation at that time. During the Second Temple period you began to have this problem: suppose it was too expensive — too costly in time as well as money — to come to the Temple three times a year if you live in Babylon, given the technology of transportation in those days. So how can you be Jewish? How can you practice Judaism if you can't come to the Temple three times a year? That was the kind of problem that the Sages, the Mishna, say, was addressing and worrying about. And they developed alternative rituals and alternative celebrations of Jewish holidays and events that you could do if you didn’t come to the Temple, and it had gotten far enough along by the time the Temple was destroyed so that it could be codified and it could serve as a guide to all Jews. But it started before the Temple was destroyed.

Dan Libenson: As we look in our time, and we look at a time where, for example, we have the explosion of the internet and the idea of people being prosumers, the idea that many complex fields are able to be turned into apps that you don't have to be an expert in computer coding to do all kinds of things that you could never have done 10-20 years ago unless you had a computer science degree, are there ways in which we might look forward to a reshaping, a repackaging of Judaism that, rather than being something that you have to go to as a more passive participant, where it's really a question of how the clergy is presenting it, is it possible that, really, what we ought to be looking at is some kind of new form of Jewish “engineer” that would be able to create the prosumer version of Judaism that allows people to be empowered to be Jewish actors, but without necessarily having to master all of the complex and arcane knowledge that may have been necessary in a previous form?

Carmel Chiswick: Yes. I think that there are some really, really interesting changes afoot, and I personally don’t have a clue about where we're going to end up, but I definitely think that the change in technology that we are experiencing in our world will certainly affect the way we do Jewish. Now, I heard a really interesting talk at a conference that I went to last year, and unfortunately for this interview, I do not remember the name of the speaker. But his notion was as follows: If you study Talmud, it's not linear in its structure; it hops from one topic to another, it's not linear/logical, but it has its own kind of logic, but you have to sort of alter your mindset in order to really get into it.

He says that's really a lot like the internet. That's like using Google to find out what you want to know, and then you hop from one link to another link. Then he said that if you think about science, the logic of science is very linear — the analysis of science is very linear — and what we tried to do in the Enlightenment period was to subject Talmud study to that kind of linear thinking and to interpret the meaning of Talmud subjects in that fashion. And that's not a natural fashion— that's not the way the Talmud was written — but it's one way that we can understand it that complements our secular education and our secular knowledge.

And maybe in the 21st Century that's going to change, because maybe our secular knowledge — our children are learning — is more, sort of, train of thought. He said that we Jews are experts in that because we have Talmud, and that's what Talmud does, and that's the intellectual approach that the Talmud redactors used, and that we should be teaching our children Talmud because that's what's most complementary to the information systems that they're familiar with.

Lex Rofes: I have a question that might seem out of left field, but I'm curious . . . there are listeners out there — I would suspect there are listeners out there — who might be resistant to our tendency, in general, to use economic terms to discuss Judaism and religion, who see that step as maybe taking away some of the emotion or passion from religion and treating it like it's sort of a business. And I'm curious, since you've written a wonderful book on the subject, what would you say to folks out there who are resistant to economic language being used about Judaism or religion in general, and what would your case be that doing so can really elucidate important understandings that will enrich our tradition and our religion, not just take it in a direction that feels corporate or something?

Carmel Chiswick: Well, in my book I was really, really careful never to discuss theology. And in my talks also, I say this book is not about theology. It's about behavior of Jews with respect to their religion, but not about what they believe. The economics . . . one of my professors used to say, “Economics is not a subject; it's a discipline. It's a set of tools that you can use to study whatever subject interests you.” I am not saying that economics determines your religious behavior. What I'm saying is that there are economic incentives that affect your choices with regard to your religious behavior — not your belief, your behavior. So, that's definitely one kind of answer that I would give.

Another answer that I sometimes think of is I think of the story of the blind man and the elephant — the fable which says that one blind man feels the leg and says an elephant is like a tree trunk, another one feels the trunk and says the elephant is like a snake, etc. And so together, the moral of the story is they each see a part of it, but they don't get the whole thing. And I think that's true of any subject. My analogy would be suppose there was a blind person who was a zoologist, and he would feel around the relevant parts of the elephant and say, “Oh, this elephant is a mammal.”  Well, that tells you a great deal about the elephant, a great deal about the elephant. But it still doesn’t tell you what the elephant is —it's not a human being, it's not a mouse. It's a mammal — that's all it tells you.

So, I think that's the way to think of these different social sciences. We're all studying the same people, and people have many different dimensions to their behavior, and each of the social sciences looks at some aspect of that behavior to see how it gets influenced by their particular bag of tricks. But we're not determining what the behavior is. We're merely looking at some aspect of it.

If I go to the synagogue every week, it's not only because of the price . . . well, actually, let me give you a better example: When you go to buy a suit, you go to the store and you look at the suits. Now, what determines whether or not you're going to buy it?  Well, you're going to look at the style, you're going to look at the color, you're going to look at the washing instructions, you're going to think about how it fits with the other items in your wardrobe. You're going to try it on to see how it looks on you. All these things are relevant for the decision about which suit you're going to buy or whether you're going to buy it. But you also look at the price tag. Very few people will even think about making this decision without looking at the price tag. And that's what I'm doing — I'm looking at the price tag of Judaism and seeing how that influences our choices in some of the other dimensions.

Lex Rofes: Thank you so much for that. Are there any final thoughts that you have that we haven't been able to touch on yet that you want to communicate before we wrap up?

Carmel Chiswick: Yes. It would be unnatural for us to practice our Judaism the way they did in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, but that nevertheless is Judaism, and that Judaism has a long history of changing in response to changing economic environments.

Lex Rofes: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a fascinating conversation. We really appreciate you coming to join us and talk about Judaism In Transition.

Carmel Chiswick: You're welcome. Thank you for having me, and I look forward to future conversations.

Lex Rofes: Thanks again to Carmel Chiswick for joining Judaism Unbound today. We would definitely encourage folks to check out her book Judaism In Transition. You can find it on Amazon, and if you don’t to head straight there, you can head to our website, www.JudaismUnbound.com, look at the show notes for this episode, and you'll find a link to it there.

So, we want to close our episode as we always do, by encouraging folks to be in touch with us, and there's a few ways for you to do that: First, you can always head to our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound; give us a like there to follow what we're up to on Facebook. You can head to our website, www.JudaismUnbound.com, where we have show notes for this episode and all of our other episodes, and a variety of resources you can check out for holidays and all sorts of other goodies.

And last but not least, please, please, please shoot us an email. You can reach us at dan@nextjewishfuture.org and lex@nextjewishfuture.org. The last piece we always like to plug is to support us: we appreciate any amount of donation that you can give to help ensure that Judaism Unbound’s success continues, and you can do that at www.JudaismUnbound.com/donate.

So, thanks for listening, and with that, this has been Judaism Unbound.

Episode 57: Becoming Jewish On the Web - Juan Mejia (Full Transcript)


Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 57—Becoming Jewish on the Web. 

Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .

Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.

Dan Libenson: And we're here today with a fascinating guest. Rabbi Juan Mejia is rabbi-in-residence for Be’chol Lashon—that’s an organization, remember from back in December, when we interviewed Ruth Abusch-Magder, who also works there—it’s an organization that “grows and strengthens the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness.” They’re really focused on Jewish diversity, and Juan is an exemplar of Jewish diversity in his own life. We’re going to get into his story in of all its fascinating detail, but suffice it to say he grew up Catholic in Colombia (the country) and eventually converted to Judaism and became a rabbi. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary—that’s the Conservative Movement—in 2009, and Juan is an activist and educator on behalf of emergent communities in Latin America, which are communities of people who have embraced Judaism and want to join the Jewish people. He lives in Oklahoma City with his spouse and three children, and we’re thrilled to have him with us today on Judaism Unbound. Juan, welcome. Thanks for being with us.

Juan Mejia: Thanks, Dan. Thanks, Lex.

Dan Libenson: So, I think that the best place to get started, really, is for you to tell a little bit about your story, because I think it's a relatively uncommon one, and I think an extremely interesting and important one.

Juan Mejia: So, I was born in Colombia 39 years ago to a middle-class Catholic family. My father’s a doctor, my mother was an artist. And I grew up with the benefits of that class in a Latin American country, which is usually private school. In my case, it was an elite private Catholic School run by American monks. So, it's a Catholic school . . . and I always was very spiritually curious—for a while I even considered a Catholic vocation.

But when I was 15 years old I discovered that the family—my father’s family—had Jewish origins, and . . . very distant, like going back to Spain, but some measure of it had survived until the latest generations. My grandfather remembered that his grandfather self-identified as a Jew and had some odd practices that he really couldn't explain. And that really got me into a path of curiosity.

I reached out. I started to read about Jewish history, about Sephardic history that is the story of the Jews of Spain, where my family apparently came from. And when I graduated high school, I started studying philosophy at the National University of Colombia, and that gave me exposure to Maimonides and Spinoza and Hermann Cohen, and the wealth of Jewish philosophical tradition, which only deepened my interest.

And in 1998 I took a little break from college and started traveling through Europe, and ended up spending between two to three months in Israel. And for me it was a great revelation, because in Colombia—and it's very different from America—there's very little Jewish visibility and culture. There's no Yiddish in the television, there's no Hanukkah portrayed in the local series. People know that that building with the copper dome is a synagogue, but there's no representation in outside culture. There's about 3,000 to 5,000 Jews in the entire country of 40 million. And seeing Jewish life in Israel really being lived as a vibrant culture—religious and linguistic—was a game-changer and really led me to a lot of soul-searching.

When I returned to Colombia I started to research Judaism quite diligently, and in the end I said, “This is my spiritual home. This is the wisdom that I can really get behind. This is a way of life that I could endorse. It pleases my reason, it connects to my heart.” And, back then it was much more important, “It connects to my own personal family history.”

So, I decided to convert to Judaism when I was about 19 . . . 20 years old. And that's when a lot of the challenges that I am now addressing as a rabbi started to manifest. In such a culture, where Jews are not participating so openly in the national discourse, in a place with a security situation as complicated as Colombia—most Latin American countries have similar issues of urban violence and kidnappings—the Jewish community is not very open towards outsiders. So, I had to develop my own Jewish observance and my own Jewish life kind of on the margins of the community. Very different from America, it's very hard for an outsider, for example, to enter a synagogue and see a Jewish worship service. So, I had to do it kind of on my own, and find other like-minded people, both Jewish and seekers, who would lend me books, who would allow me to participate in their Passover Seders. And I realized that that was kind of an untenable situation if I really wanted to make this a part of my life.

So, when I finished college I decided to do my Master’s Degree work in a place where conversion was a thing. And there were only two places where that was a possibility. One was America and the other was Israel. And I applied to American and Israeli universities, and the first place that actually gave me a positive answer was the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. So, I did a Master’s Degree in Jewish Civilization and was able to attend services and go to classes, see what a yeshiva looks from the inside.

I did my conversion, enrolled in the Conservative Yeshiva, which is a center for lay leader Torah development in Jerusalem. There I met my wife, who's from America, and that is kind of like the first chapter of my Jewish story. I never expected to become a rabbi. I wanted to keep working in academia—very devoted to philosophy, especially Jewish philosophy—but something kind of woke me up from that complacency and led me to the work that I do now as a rabbi.

Dan Libenson: How did you get from the Master’s Degree at Hebrew University to becoming a Conservative-ordained rabbi?

Juan Mejia: So, this is all because of my landlady. When I married my wife, we decided to stay in the Conservative Yeshiva for another year of learning—not very different from the philosophical life. And we rented a little apartment in Katamon, and my landlady was American. So, I go to pay my rent, and she sits me down, she gives me tea.

The opening question is, “How come your English is so good?  You don’t sound Colombian.” 

“Oh, I went to this elite Catholic school, taught us English—monks from North Dakota.” 

She said, “Really?  How come a nice Jewish boy like you went to Catholic school?”

And I tell her I was not always Jewish. So, I tell her my story, and she says, “That's a really good story. I want to interview you.”  And she does this interview for the Sokhnut—for the Jewish Agency—kind of a PR piece. They feature students in different academic institutions in Israel in the yeshivot.

And the next month that I go to pay my rent, she says, “I got some emails for you.” 

“What do you mean?”

“You got fan mail.” 

This is because these stories, since they go on the website of the Sokhnut, are published in Hebrew, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. So, my story about finding my Jewish roots and going back to them and engaging in Torah learning in Jerusalem apparently hit the internet pretty hard in Latin America.

And the emails that I was being forwarded were all the same, like:

“My name is Mario, I like to be called Moshe, I love Torah, I love Israel, I love the Jewish people. But I'm in Guatemala, nobody gives me the time of day.” 

“My name is Maria, my ancestors lit candles in the closet, and I really want to come back to my ancestral knowledge, but I live in a place with no Jews.” 

Those were the two scenarios that would repeat themselves. Either people were in complete isolation— “I'm living in the middle of a little town up in the Andes in Peru, and there's no Jews, I can't learn, I can't go to a community.” Or, actually the more common case, where you would have people from the big cities with access to the internet—access to internet ten years ago is not what it is today—people who are a little bit learned, who could find the website of the Jewish Agency and find the story, said, “Look, I am really interested in Judaism,” either because “I just love it, I think it's true, I think it's beautiful,” or “I think my ancestors were Jewish, and I can't get the local Jewish community to engage with me.”

And my wife, who is a very, very smart rabbi—but she wasn’t a rabbi back then—she said, “Look, we've studied Pirkei Avot together,”—we've studied The Ethics of the Fathers—“and ‘In a place where there is no mensch, you be the mensch.’ ‘In a place where is not a man, you be that man.’”  It's a great saying from Hillel—the Hillel, from the Mishna. And I really took that to heart. She said, “Look, this is a rabbinic problem—the communities, the rabbis down there can't or won't engage with these people, so you become the rabbi that engages with them, and you can get your Ph.D. in Rambam [Maimonides] later in life, but right now I think there's this calling for you to be a liaison between the established Jewish mainstream and this periphery that is being created by the web.”

And it's really . . . I cannot stress enough how much of this spiritual revolution is being web-based. When I decided that I had a real deep interest in Judaism, I went to my university’s library, and I checked out all the books they had on Judaism. This is the biggest university library in Colombia, the largest university in my country, and they had seven books about Judaism. And it was only through the internet, which was then in its infancy—we're talking late ‘90s—that I was able to, kind of, live Judaism on my own, which is what I had to do while I was still in Colombia. It was all web-based.

And right now this is what is creating, I think, both this interest in Judaism—people find Judaism on the web. It's creating resources for them to learn. But most importantly, also the internet is allowing these lonely people to find community, whether it is virtually—and I still have people in the middle of the Andes whose Judaism is exclusively, kind of, lived online—or through Facebook, through Yahoo! Groups, through whatever tool they have, they find other like-minded people in their proximity, and they create communities.

I have a running map of communities—what I call emergent communities in Latin America. I have about 100 communities documented. Every single one of those started online. The internet is a key player on what is happening with conversion, in general, and conversion to Judaism, in particular. Because it's not just conversion to Judaism. Religious migration is one of the key elements of contemporary spirituality. The Pew report of a couple of years ago says that 50% of Americans die in a different religion or denomination than the one that they were born into—one in two.

Latin America’s always a little behind the curve in social and spiritual phenomena. But I see it in my own graduating class. I keep in touch with my high school classmates. There's 108 of us. And I see who has become evangelical, and I see who has become secular—like atheist, like militantly secular. I know who's dabbling in Buddhism and in transcendental meditation. And there's me, and there's another guy who's now also saying, “Maybe this is a path for me.”  Conversion to Islam is also on the rise, to Buddhism, to Hinduism.

Can the Jewish community reach out to these people who are seeking from the outside?

Dan Libenson: Juan, that is so fascinating. We have a million questions to ask you after that. But just to sort of put a bow on your story, can you just tell us, when did you graduate from JTS and what did you do after graduation?  Basically, what are you doing now exactly? 

Juan Mejia: So, I was ordained in 2009. My wife went to school with me. She was ordained 20 seconds before I was, so she is my senior, and I need to listen to everything she says. It's alphabetical. She's Jacobson, I'm Mejia—there's only so much we can do. And then she got the job at the Oklahoma City community. So, we moved here in 2009. I've been helping at the synagogue, I'm now the education director in her synagogue, but I've also been engaged since then at nights, during the weekends, during the summers, in this outreach work, which I do through Be’chol Lashon, mostly online, but I also travel quite a lot to these communities, visit them, bring them rabbinic services. So that is what I've been doing for the past eight years.

Dan Libenson: Can you just say a little more—who are these folks that are reaching you, what is it that they're trying to achieve, and then what do you do for them?

Juan Mejia: I think the conversation has changed a little bit. In the beginning, in 2009, 2008, there was overwhelmingly people who thought they had Jewish roots. It's what's called anusim—other names for that is marranos (although that's a derogatory term), conversos. That was kind of like the hot narrative for these communities in Latin America when I was ordained and at the beginning of my work.

How did they find me?  They found me online. I had a piece written about me in Ha’aretz. I had a piece written about me in the Jewish Week, in one of the Latino Jewish newspapers in Uruguay. And when you put “rabbi”, “marrano,” and “anusim,” my name would come up.

So, I opened up a website in 2009 to teach Torah, said “I'm going to be teaching parashat hashavua [the weekly portion of the Torah read in synagogues on Shabbat] and Mishna. I'm a rabbinical student. And this is going to be in Spanish.” Because I saw that there was a need. There's great Torah learning in English. A lot of these people have decent English, they can access this Torah, but for people who don’t have the linguistic ability, there is a huge handicap.

So, my goal then—and it's I think it’s the only goal that I have continued to uphold from my early rabbinate—was I want to create good Torah in Spanish, that's out there and that's available and that's accessible, and that also takes into account the reality where people are.

A lot of the Torah that gets put online is put there kind of from the perspective of the community that produces it. What am I saying?  If I'm a rabbi in Long Island, and I have a blog, who is my expected audience? The people in Long Island that are my congregants, and if I'm a little bit more entrepreneurial, maybe I want to take this nationally. Same thing with stuff in Spanish. The main centers of Torah-teaching Spanish Jews are, on one hand, Argentina, and on the other hand, Mexico, and Jerusalem—mostly coming from the Orthodox world, mostly from the ultra-Orthodox world, and reflecting these values.

What I saw a need for was: I need a Torah that is able to speak to people who don’t have access to a synagogue, who don’t have access to Jewish institutions.  It's not just that I am teaching in Spanish, but I'm always cognizant of this do-it-yourself kind of aspect of the Torah that they need to embody, if they are going to eventually become Jews and join the Jewish people.

I had this great conversation in 2007 with one of my early students—a guy who was from Colombia—so, I'm texting with this guy motzei Shabbat [on Saturday night, after the end of Shabbat], I was [texting], “Shavua tov [wishes for a good week ahead], how was Shabbat?” 

He said, “Oh, Shabbat was terrible.” 

“What do you mean Shabbat was terrible?”

The president of the little havurah [prayer group] that this guy went to in a city in Colombia took the siddur [prayer book].

“What do you mean the siddur?” 

“Yeah, we only have one.” 

“What do you mean you only have one? It's ridiculous. I can send you a box of full of siddurim. I work at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary—I have tons of stuff that is going to get genizahed otherwise”—is going to get put in the closet [for books of sacred writings that are no longer being used but cannot be thrown away or destroyed under Jewish law because they contain the name of God].

He said, “Yeah, you know what, that’s great, thank you for your offer, but the book that you're offering me—it's in Hebrew. We don’t read Hebrew yet. The translation’s in English, which doesn’t help us, and it's Ashkenazi [using the approach of Jews with Eastern European origins], and we're a Sephardic congregation [using the approach of Jewish with Spanish origins].” 

I go, “Oy! What do I need to do?” So, the first idea, that gave me the root that I've been developing for the past decade, is I needed to create a siddur that was in Spanish, with transliteration, that followed the Sephardic tradition, and that could go anywhere.

So, for the next year and a half, I developed the siddur that I decided to call Kol Tuv Sefarad (all the wealth, or the goodness, of Spain. I thought it was a cute name, and I created a PDF of a siddur—transliterated, translated, commented Sephardic siddur for Friday night, because that was the service that I saw that most of these emerging havurut [prayer groups] were really focused on. And I posted it online, and I said, “You are free to download it, you are free to make as many copies as you want. Just don’t change it, and don’t sell it.” 

And through that, people started to reach out, said, “We love the siddur, thank you, it really helped us out.” And people started saying, “We really want to learn with you.” So, I started teaching—every Sunday—basic Judaism, and more people started to come. Once you have social . . . social media started to kick in 2008, 2009, the word spreads, and I create a group of people who are regularly studying with me.

And among those people, there was a group from a city in Colombia by the beach in Santa Marta. They said, “We really love your Torah, we really think that you are the rabbi for us. Would you work with us for conversion?” 

And I said, “I don't know. So, rabbinical school . . . I don't know how to do this, this has never been done. Let's wait a little bit.” 

So, I learned more with them, and then I was visiting my father, who was still alive back then, and I went to Colombia, and then I went and visited them, and we spent a week together with these people, and I saw how they lived, and I fell in love with them, and I said, “You guys are awesome. You guys been . . . .” They'd been doing Jewish on their own for six, seven years before I got to them.

So I said, “I really want to guide you in this process.”  So again, we started studying for conversion with this pilot community in Santa Marta, and after two years and a half of learning every week for two, three, four, five hours sometimes, I thought “you are ready.”  Why is it taking so long?  Because this is do-it-yourself Judaism. These people don’t have an established synagogue where there's printed siddurim. Nobody knows how to lead the prayers. So, we have really to take it from zero and give these people the tools to be autonomous, even though they still have my guidance, but my guidance is always remote. So, they need a level of autonomy that most Jewish communities that have been started and developed—these brick and mortar communities—don’t have.

So, that really set the pattern for the work I do. I only work with four small havurot, and I really can't do more than that because it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. But the outside rim of the work, which is the Torah that I'm creating in Spanish, and also the networking . . . .

A lot of people say, “Look, we really enjoy your classes, but we really want to be Orthodox, and you're not an Orthodox rabbi.”

I say, “I understand that. I am very cognizant that I'm not an Orthodox rabbi—I will try to put you in touch with a rabbi who might help you.”

Or on the other hand, “We really like your parashat hashavua, but we're really Reform.” 

“Okay, I'll put you in touch with a colleague who I trust can help you down that path.”

Lex Rofes: It seems like there's a general theme to you that I'd love to unpack a little more. You break barriers. So, you've spoken about linguistic barriers, you've spoken about communal barriers . . . . Llinguistic barriers—people who literally can't enter into a text because of the language it's written in, can't listen to a text. Communal barriers—people who can't enter into a particular space because they are seen as an outside in that community. And also geographic barriers—people who are located in places that just don’t have access, so you've entered into a digital forum where you can overcome that barrier.

And I want to sort of hold that and hone in on that piece for a second, and ask—we've seen those barriers . . . what other barriers might there be or have there been in your work that has proved challenging?  Have there been folks resistant to the kinds of conversions that you help perform? You mentioned a resistance to work online—I'd love to hear more about that, because I get the sense that there are even more barriers that you're helping to overcome than those that have come up so far.

Juan Mejia: Quite so. Long distance training for conversion is a hot topic. The rabbinic establishment across the movements is not really comfortable with it. It has taken me about a decade to convince colleagues, look, this work can be done. It is ripe with blessing. It's also very . . . it's tricky. The borders, the periphery, the frontier is always dangerous. Right?

In the Wild West you had, for every Lone Ranger that was doing good, you had twenty mustachioed bad guys. So, in the periphery things get fuzzy, and since we're doing things that are new, we don't have the benefit of experience. So, there's been resistance. I think that resistance is eroding.

Once the internet becomes more pervasive and the leadership of the Jewish mainstream is Gen Xers and Millennials and people for whom the internet is not a secret and it's a neutral tool—it's actually more than a tool, it's kind of like our natural environment—so, it becomes easier to persuade people, look, you can have deep spiritual connections online.

There's limitations, but, look, I've visited people in the hospital through WhatsApp. WhatsApp is what they use in Latin America. Here in America, it's FaceTime. While people are dying, I've said viddui [the Jewish confession prayer before death] with people who are dying in the hospital through FaceTime. There's not a rabbi within 1,000 miles—I'm their rabbi, they're dying. I'm FaceTiming, and I'm saying viddui with you, and I'm holding your hand through the web, and I'm crying and they're crying, and it's not less of a spiritual relationship.

Another barrier has been, really, the definition of what a Jewish community is. And I think this came to . . . the best example I have is very recent: At the beginning of this year, I was helping one of my communities in Venezuela—wonderful people, I've been working with them since 2011. They converted in 2014. Soon after that, they managed to gain access to one of the established communities in Venezuela. They did not have to do, like, their own living room havurah anymore, although that was their natural option—saying, “This is what we're going to do, we're going to do Jewish together.” They got an opportunity to go to one of the regular synagogues. They went. And then things in Venezuela got really, really bad, and they decided, “You know what, I'm sick of my kid only eating one meal a day—I want to make aliyah [move to Israel].”

And the Ministry of Interior [of Israel] said, “No, you can't make aliyah.” Why—what was the reason that the Ministry of Interior adduced? It said, “You did not convert in an established community.” So, there's no problem with the rabbi, because rabbis, in the Diaspora—all the denominations can do conversions and have their converts make aliyah. It was not that the process was wrong. The Ministry of Interior said, “You're Jewish. But your framework was wrong. The framework is that you should convert in a place that was already Jewish.” 

But that is a framework that is very quickly becoming obsolete. People outside of the analog web of relationships of the established Jewish communities are going to find our message compelling. We have the most beautiful example—the community in Uganda. My rebbe [rabbinic master] and one of my colleagues, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu . . . the entire community converted in 2000. They have a yeshiva, six synagogues, a hospital. Through their actions, they have reduced the deaths of malaria in that area from 2,000 to zero—kiddush hashem, sanctifying God’s name, sanctifying the name of the Jewish people.

Beautiful community. And only at the beginning of this year, did the Israeli government give full confirmation that they are a recognized Jewish community. So, the issues of recognition and who has the authority to declare that this community belongs to the Jewish people is something that is still in flux. But it is a conversation that we need to have, and Judaism is resonating in places that we don’t imagine, and in places that we can't control.

And the third barrier, which is, I think it's the most fascinating part of the work, is the barrier of ethnicity. Because—and this is what fueled the great shift in my work:

In the beginning I was really focused on anusim, on the descendants of people who were forced to convert in Spain. And while I was doing some fieldwork and getting to meet the people, I realized that most of the people that I was working with were just taking this as a kind of an identity marker, something to give their Jewish narrative a hint of authenticity, to justify it to themselves, and that, on the other hand, it was also bringing in a lot of baggage, because the story of the anusim, the story of the Spanish Inquisition, of the exile from Spain, is a very painful one. And I was seeing that people were getting stuck in the pain, and I sat down and I had a real, like . . . do I really care if these people are descended from Jews from Spain? If I could just turn back the clock to 1491, am I doing these people a favor? Like, they're not living in Spain anymore, they're living in Latin America. Should their Judaism just be focused on the past, or should it be reaching out towards the future?

And what came out of that inner conversation was that I really didn’t care if people were descended or not from Jews, that the ethnic component, if there is—and there's many cases in which, indeed, people are descended from anusim—is so distant that it's not affecting people’s lives, and that I don't want them to be carrying this pain. What I want to do in Latin America is create a Judaism that is post-ethnic, in the sense that it's not Ashkenazi and it's not Sephardi; it's Mexican, it's Columbian. These people are taking the tools of Torah, the tools of Judaism, and retooling it and creating a Judaism that fits them, but that is not connected to any particular ethnic model.

Lex Rofes: You've used the pronoun “we” a great deal, and you've also occasionally used the pronoun “they.” What's clear to me is that the work you're doing—that you in particular are doing—as far as I can tell, could not be achieved by somebody who had not experienced . . . who was not from a cultural context where you shared an understanding and familiarity with a set of issues that certainly are not universal to all Jews in South America or Central America or . . . but that you have enough of that framing to do that work; and it connects to a theme we've touched on in our podcast in the past, which is that people seem to be most driven and most successful to succeed when they're focusing on problems that they themselves had.

I mean, you spoke about your own struggles as a young man with spirituality, and now you've come to a place where you are, in an incredibly inspiring way, helping people have a mentor, a guide on some of those same struggles that you did not have somebody to guide you with. So, I wanted to flag that.

And also, just in terms of bringing the conversation a little bit full circle, to what extent do you think your work really does come from a deeply personal place of your own history and your own life experience? And to what extent might it not?

Juan Mejia: I suffered lack of access to Judaism when I started in my quest to find a spiritual home for me. And I was blessed that, although I found limitations, I also had the tools—i.e., I could read English, I had the academic credentials that allowed me to get into Israel through, like, an academic gate. And it certainly drives my rabbinate. My story of being unable to access Judaism motivates me to create a Judaism that is accessible, and, ideally, also create communities that are accessible.

I don't think it's the only source of empathy. There's other rabbis doing this work, and they are Ashkenazi American rabbis. There's also Sephardic rabbis in Israel who are doing this work. And their empathy is fueled by something else than personal narrative.

The only thing that I would want to caution, because this work is beautiful—when you are there in a community of people who love Judaism so much, it's an incredible spiritual high—but in other places, in the past 20 years, there's been cases of, I would call it, almost spiritual colonialism—of people who are coming in with no knowledge of the culture, no knowledge of the inner workings of society, and they've offered a Judaism that is a foreign . . . it's foreign. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

But when I speak of my work with emergent communities and with peripheral Jewish communities with colleagues—with rabbinic colleagues—I always warn them, “This is great. Support this work, open your congregation’s or your organization’s minds to the possibility of a Judaism that transmits itself not through—using a biological metaphor—not by sexual reproduction, but by spores.

We are now . . . Judaism is now reproducing, yes, in the traditional way, but we also have this new disruptive element of the internet, which is creating sporical Judaism, which is you have these bits of Torah flying around, and they fall on the ground, and people will flock to them and retool them and adopt them. If you're getting involved in this, make sure that you're doing it from a place of openness.

Dan Libenson: It shouldn't surprise us to imagine that there are a lot more non-Jews in the world than Jews, and probably a large subset of non-Jews who have some interest in Judaism might actually be interested in quite traditional forms of Judaism in ways that the Jews are not so interested in. It just stands to reason, just playing the percentages. And so, it's interesting to think about . . . people who are concerned about the longevity of traditional forms of Judaism might do well to really move strongly into this world of seeing if there are folks in all kinds of countries and cultures that might be really interested in versions of that more traditional Judaism. But it seems that they're kind of stymied by the kind of notions of Judaism as an ethnicity, as a family. A lot of people take pride in this idea that Judaism doesn’t proselytize.

And in a way, what you're describing is an accidental proselytization, right? I mean, just by putting the material out there, people get interested in it. And once they come to you and they express interest, it's not proselytizing anymore. If more Chinese people want to convert to Judaism than the total number of Jews that exist in the world today, which is very easily possible given the number of Chinese people that there are in China, what's going to happen? And how do you think about that, and how do you talk about that with people who are more used to thinking in traditional terms about Judaism?

Juan Mejia: I think the best metaphor for addressing the proselytization accusation, which gets leveled against me quite often, is the movie “Contact”—Jodie Foster and a very young Matthew McConaughey. We throw messages into space, right—that's the premise of the movie. We've been broadcasting, from Arecibo and the large array, this message to aliens. Guess what? Somebody listened, and now they want to be in contact with us.

That's . . . it's either a spore, or we've been broadcasting, and it's not been intentional. I really . . . these rabbis that are posting blogs are doing it for their flock, and they're doing it for what they see as the extent of the Jewish people, and it's been completely a kind of side effect of Jews taking to the web.

One of the great things about working for Be’chol Lashon is that I've been able to connect with the other “Juans”—the African people who are doing this work in Kenya, in Uganda—Gershom Sizomu is one of my rebbes, one of the most amazing rabbis I know. The people who are doing this in Asia, in the Philippines. The motto of Be’chol Lashon is “we are a global people,” which we tend to forget.

Why do we tend to forget? Because right now we are in a process of de-diasporization, if that is a word. We are a global people because Jews went everywhere, created Judaism that is extremely diverse and rich, but now we're seeing kind of a centripetal force that is bringing everything back to the two big centers—America and Israel—and everything else gets thrown by the wayside.

What I envision is that we truly are a global people, but that with the tools we have right now, we can transcend that and become a global religion. Which is a very different thing. Being a global people means that we have Jews from one core that have expanded and are now everywhere. But being a global religion is having the same values and stories and rituals being replicated throughout the world in slight variations, without this necessary connection to ethnicity.

But I still think that the ideal is that all the members of the Jewish religion are members of the Jewish people—that is the definition that we have of Judaism. I don't want to disrupt that.

Dan Libenson: What if I was an Orthodox rabbi, and I found out that there are 100 million non-Jews out there who are desperate to convert to Judaism and would all be Orthodox?  You know, they wouldn't jump at that opportunity because there's something deeply embedded in their understanding of what it means, I think, to be an Orthodox Jew, that ideally you come from a Jewish background. And sure, we accept converts, and if there would be a few converts, that would be okay. But I just think that there's something fundamentally . . . I'm not sure that I can describe it . . . something fundamentally ingrained that would say, even if this would solve our demographic problem forever, we wouldn't jump at it.

And I think that should be puzzled out, because, again, I think that in terms of the theme of our show, that the traditional Jewish movements or traditional Jewish practices, whether that's Orthodox, Conservative, or even Reform, that are struggling with the Jews sort of bleeding away and looking for something different, nevertheless, certainly are not actively seeking converts, and maybe they ought to. I mean maybe that's a disruptive innovation within traditional Judaism that could actually be very effective. Maybe that's a sustaining innovation, but of incredible power.

And I think that that is adjacent to another question that I wanted to ask you—so I think you can answer both—is that there's this idea of safety, this idea that let's not jump into doing things that have the potential to destabilize the whole system. You know, it would be better to risk, maybe, not growing as much as we might or whatever just to make sure that it's sort of more predictable. And like you said, we don't know what's going to happen with all of the global Jews, right?  They might be Orthodox, but they might invent some completely different form of Judaism.

And I'm wondering how you think, particularly as a Conservative rabbi, kind of, about the laws of unintended consequences. It seems like it's going to be hard to avoid the laws of unintended consequences unless you want to completely buckle down and shut off the internet, which most people don’t want to do. But there's also a question of how much to embrace the unintended consequences. And it seems that anything that we might do that's actively putting stuff out there really does have to contend with the fact that, even if I believe that I'm doing it in a particular way that's extremely responsible, that's extremely patient and slow, it's probably opening up a chain of events where people are going to jump in that are going to take it further than I feel personally comfortable with. And I'm wondering how you think about that.

Juan Mejia: I have a group of friends—we have our secret little space—and we're all converts who became rabbis, which is a growing demographic, by the way, and it's a demographic that I think is going to be really important in America in the coming decades, because it's a growing number.

Between female ordination and LGBT ordination, the curve started to go up for converts going into the rabbinate. And it was not as publicized or as controversial, but I think it does have a great, great power of change. Imagine that a sizeable number of Jewish leaders, within a decade . . . a third of the entering class at JTS [the Jewish Theological Seminary—the rabbinical school of Conservative Judaism] in this year were converts—a third!

So, the numbers are going to pile up, and these are rabbis who might not have one single bubbe or zayde [the Yiddish words for grandmother or grandfather]. What does that mean—that they don’t have a Jewish grandparent? What does that mean for their Judaism? What is their Judaism about?

So we talk and we commiserate that all this talk in the Jewish community about demographic erosion is so frustrating because what we're seeing is the wave.

People are crying over spilled milk on the beach with their backs to the tsunami.

And the tsunami is not intentional—it's inevitable. We don't have to seek converts, we don't have to knock on doors. What we have to do is to institutionally be ready to deal with a massive spike in Jewish interest. And part of what that means is being willing to admit a level of discomfort of Jews who are not like us—ethnically, politically, racially.

We are here in Oklahoma. This is a slightly right-of-center state, to put it mildly, and we have a very robust number of converts in our congregations throughout. When my wife invites rabbis from other places in the country to sit with her in batei din [rabbinic panels] for a conversion, sometimes it's uncomfortable. These people are really . . . they don’t vote like Jews . . . what they recognize as political and social patterns of integration. They believe in Torah, they believe in Jewish history, they see themselves connected as it, and once they go through conversion, they're halachically [according to Jewish law] members of the Jewish people.

One of the things that I see as the greatest boon that American Judaism has provided is because most of American Jews have a non-Jewish grandparent—at least—and have non-Jewish friends and family and coworkers and spouses . . . and this also is now going to apply to rabbis as well—I know tons of rabbis who have a Catholic grandmother, an Irish grandfather, who have Native American, African-American narratives also on their part—is to transcend this adversarial relationship with the gentile that we have had over 2,000 years of tragic Diaspora history.

Let's rethink the “goy” [Hebrew word for non-Jew], because the gentile is no longer the Cossack coming to burn down my village—might be, there are some anti-Semites in the world—but the goy is also my grandfather, my mother, my father, the people from which I learned Torah.

People are really surprised when I tell my conversion story and say, “How did your family take it?” And I say, “Look, my family—it was hard for them, but at the end of the day when I sat with them, I said, like, ‘The religious values you gave me brought me here. I am living out your ethics and your love and your passion for God in a different way, but I could not be . . . you're still my rabbeim [my religious teachers].’”

One of my rebbes, in a deeply spiritual way, is the headmaster of my Benedictine school in Columbia. This guy taught me everything I know about devotion and hard work. So, I can bring part of my Benedictine upbringing to my Judaism. That doesn’t make me Christian. That enriches my Judaism.

Lex Rofes: Thank you so much for all of what you've brought today. It's just really inspiring and beautiful—I feel comfortable using both of those words—to hear your story. Are there any final thoughts that you'd like to bring related to any of the issues you've touched upon, or new topics that you think are important for listeners out there to hear?

Juan Mejia: One of the areas of my work that doesn’t usually come to the fore is, people almost always think that I am doing Judaism in Spanish south of the border. And there is an incredible amount of Spanish-speaking Jews here. It's one of the things that we're starting to realize. The immense amount of Latino Jews, both by choice and by birth and by immigration, that are currently making part of the American Jewish world, is something that gets ignored. And it's a demographic that relates very differently to institutions, to Torah, to community.

And in many cases, they have been innovators. Where are the rabbis from B'nai Jeshurun in New York from? They are from Argentina. They brought the kind of Judaism that Marshall Meyer, of blessed memory, created in Buenos Aires that was very musical and very spiritual. And, being incredibly talented guys, they brought it to New York, where it flourished.

I would just emphasize the great opportunities that we find in cross-pollination.

Lex Rofes: Thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us such great insights today.

Juan Mejia: It's been my honor and my privilege, and I'm a devout listener as well.

Lex Rofes: All right. We love hearing that. It's always fun when the guests we have are our listeners. And, as an aside, this episode largely came together because Juan actually was in touch with us after hearing some of our past episodes, and that's the perfect segue into how we like to close every episode, which is a request for you to be in touch with us, and there's a few ways for you to do that.

One is you can head to our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound. The second is you can head to our website, www.JudaismUnbound.com. And last but not least, you can always hit us up via email at dan@nextjewishfuture.org or lex@nextjewishfuture.org.

And last but not least, we'd always like to request that you support us with whatever kind of financial contribution you can spare, and you can do that at www.JudaismUnbound.com/donate.

So, thanks so much for listening, and with that, this has been Judaism Unbound.

 

Episode 56: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva - Benay Lappe (Full Transcript)


Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 56—A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.

Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .

Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.

Dan Libenson: And we're really excited to be starting our second year with the first guest that we ever had in our first year. Rabbi Benay Lappe is the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. She was the first guest that helped us launch Judaism Unbound a year ago, way back when, and we're really excited that, even though Benay has been helpful to us over the last year in analyzing our big questions, we haven't had a lot of chance to talk about her work on the ground as an entrepreneur.

She's one of the most exciting Jewish educators on the ground today. She recently was awarded the Covenant Award by the Covenant Foundation—that's kind of like the Nobel Prize of Jewish education—and she was also recently selected by the Joshua Venture Group as one of only two people in the country to receive an investment from them in their dual investment program, which helps entrepreneurs accelerate their work. So, today we're super excited to jump into the meat of what SVARA is all about, and Benay, thank you so much for joining us again, and welcome back to Judaism Unbound.

Benay Lappe: Thank you. It's great to be back.

Dan Libenson: So, Benay, actually, today what we wanted to talk with you about . . . you know, it's funny that you're one of the most exciting innovators in the Jewish space today, and what we've spoken about with you in the two times that you've been on Judaism Unbound previously hasn’t been, really, the work that you do, but, really, having you to help us think about the big picture. And today we actually want to put you on the other side and interview you as just somebody who's doing some of the most exciting work in the Jewish world today, and to really understand deeply what your organization, SVARA, is all about. So, we're really excited to take a deep dive into SVARA with you.

Benay Lappe: Great. It's my favorite topic.

Dan Libenson: So, we wanted to start out . . . if you could just, for the sake of our listeners, describe briefly what SVARA is as an organization, and then we'll jump into the analysis of it.

Benay Lappe: Okay. So, SVARA is a “traditionally radical yeshiva.” And what that means is it's a learning-centered community, centered around the experience of learning Talmud, for the purpose of . . . it actually has a number of purposes: One purpose is to create “players”—to create people who are confident, informed, steeped in the ways the tradition works and the values and the principles of the tradition, in order to “play” with the tradition, and make it better, and bring their insights to it. Another reason SVARA exists is to create a distribution system for what I think is the smartest version of Judaism that we have.

And lots of unexpected things have happened since I started SVARA, which have taught me what actually is happening—not only what I hoped to make happen, but what actually happens. And one of those things is that people are falling in love with Judaism because of what they see in the Talmud. It may turn out, at the end of the day, that what SVARA is really about is a way to get people to fall in love with Judaism.

But another unexpected thing that's happened is that we've seen that people come to SVARA, they learn and they find a community which becomes their home, and learning Talmud becomes their way of doing Jewish. And I really never set out to create a new way to do Jewish, but that's what's happened, and I'm finding it really interesting, and it's shifting how I see the future of SVARA and the future of Judaism in general.

I grew up in Skokie, where there was a shul [synagogue] on every corner, and part of what I see in our future is that there may just be a beit midrash [house of study] on every corner, and instead of going to shul, some people might go to the beit midrash. It may become a spiritual practice the way prayer caught on as a spiritual practice after the destruction [of the Second Temple].

Dan Libenson: Can you explain just a little bit about how studying Talmud at SVARA is different from studying Talmud in more traditional yeshivas, which . . . I think probably a lot of our listeners are familiar with the idea of what a yeshiva is—basically, all these people studying Talmud—and probably say, “That's not something that I could imagine myself doing.” And yet, you have rooms full of people that are a lot like our listeners, studying Talmud.

Benay Lappe: So, I think one of the ways that SVARA is different from a traditional yeshiva is our lens—our lens on the Rabbis and what's going on in the Talmud and the tradition—and I would call it a “Queer lens.” And what I mean by “Queer” at this moment is not LGBT, but queer in a much bigger sense, meaning: coming from and influenced by a profound experience of marginality or otherness, which informs—if we're talking about a person—how that person walks through the world and the critique that that person brings to the world.

So, a person can be “Queer” even though they may be heterosexual if they happen to have an experience of marginality that comes from, perhaps, a disability, or the color of their skin, or any number of other ways in which they are not in the mainstream.

As a Queer person myself, when I learned Talmud, it was so screamingly obvious to me that the Rabbis were Queer—not LGBT Queer, I'm not talking about, you know, Jonathan-and-David and Ruth-and-Naomi stories. I'm talking about . . . that's Queer 1.0. I'm talking about Queer 2.0—in other words, inheriting a tradition or a story that you know very well doesn’t work in this or that regard, and being willing to bring your life experience to bear on that story to change it.

And I saw the Rabbis, who inherited a biblical story that not only couldn't work in many ways because of the destruction, but even while the Temple was standing, wasn’t working for them in so many ways. And because of what I think had to have been experiences of otherness for them—and I'm really curious exactly what that looked like—they upgraded the tradition and made it better, even overturning Torah.

And that's what I see in the Talmud. It's this enormous document recording example upon example upon example, case upon case upon case, of where the Rabbis bring that outsider insight to bear, whether it's to improve the lives of women or poor people or children or you-name-it.

Dan Libenson: Before we just jump into a little bit about the founding of SVARA, I just want to bring out one other point in your pedagogy which I think is very interesting and significant in this, and I think it would be surprising, which is that a lot of your programs that you run these days are these six-week one-night-a-week sessions, where people come for two, three hours and study.

And you insist that people read the text in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. There are no translations allowed in your room. You give people dictionaries so they can look up words, but no book Talmud translations. And as a result, of course, it's very slow going, and—you tell me—but, over six weeks, how many lines or how many words do people actually cover? This is not a way of learning Talmud that's covering a lot of ground. And so, the question is, then, kind of, why do you insist upon that style—which has been very successful and beloved by people? (I think it's really important to note that people come into your sessions not knowing a word of Hebrew, and certainly not a word of Aramaic, and they love it.)

Benay Lappe: Ooh, there are so many parts to the answer to this. The first is, if you want to know what the Talmud says, if you're really interested in the content, you should probably go to Barnes and Noble and get a book called Wisdom of the Talmud, and you can read it in a couple of hours, and you'll know a lot about what the Talmud says. And at the end of those couple of hours, you'll be no different, fundamentally, than you were before.

There's an epidemic lack of confidence among liberal Jews, and one of the things we're trying to do is to instill a sense of confidence, because you don’t become a bold, courageous, risk-taking player until you feel confident and until you feel you have a sense of authenticity and authority. That's one of the reasons we learn in the original.

And another reason—and it could be that at the end of the day this is really what drives all of us to learn Talmud and why Talmud has survived as one of the core Jewish practices for 2,000 years—is that it's fun. But it's not just fun. It's joyful.

It creates an experience that is deeply, deeply pleasurable. There's a professor, who used to be at the University of Chicago, I believe his name is Csikszentmihalyi, and he wrote a book called Flow, and he studies those experiences that people find most pleasurable and rewarding, that create a sense of total involvement, in which you completely forget what is going on in the world around you, and where there's just enough challenge to keep you engaged, and you have just enough skill, but you're always trying to be better. There's this narrow window of balance between your skill and the demandingness of the task, where you are absolutely present and focused when you're doing it. And people find that while they're doing sports, or playing chess, or learning Talmud. And it's a very rewarding experience.

But in the beit midrash, add to that you're doing this with another person, which becomes a very intimate experience, and you're doing it—that's your hevruta [literally, companion, but with the meaning of study partner in the beit midrash]—and you're doing it in a roomful of people who are doing the same thing.

And that becomes a very intimate experience among the group of people, and very community-building. I've had students who have described to me running into another student from the beit midrash out in the street or at the grocery store, and when they see each other, even if they didn’t talk much in the beit midrash, they feel like they both climbed up Mount Sinai together.

And the learning as a spiritual practice shapes us into people who think differently.

As for another goal of the Talmud—or of Talmud study—which is understanding those mechanisms of radical change in order to be able to utilize them when you need to, that can be conveyed in a relatively short period of time.

You know, I audited once—with your help—a law school class at the University of Chicago, and the required textbook was about three inches fat, and it was a casebook, and . . . it was a torts class, and in this torts casebook, there had to have been 300 or so cases. And in the entire semester of torts, we covered a few dozen cases. First of all, the content of the cases was not the point of the cases. Many of the cases were 100 years old and they dealt with steamboats and ferries and trains, that, it was obvious, weren't meant to teach us about the laws relating to steamboats and trains and ferries, but rather how to think about complex issues.

Dan Libenson: I think that that's actually a powerful statement, and something that I think you're trying to say, which is that you could look at the Talmud and say, “This is full of a million different laws about a million different things, and that's what this is—it's a library of Jewish facts and figures, and rules and regulations.” And I think that what you're saying is that it might just be that the Rabbis are actually only telling us like two or three important things, and they're telling it over and over and over again in different examples, and . . . maybe it's more than two or three, but it's—

Benay Lappe: No, I think it's probably two or three.

Dan Libenson: Yeah? Well, I want to know what they are, because if the real task here is to, you know . . . different people might need to read different numbers until they kind of get it, but maybe one of the innovations is that we figured out a way to connect people with it fast, and to really understand the big, deep idea.

Benay Lappe: Yeah, I think that's true. And another reason that we don’t learn Talmud the way it's learned in traditional yeshivas is that, if the material is working for you, you want to learn the material for practice. But if it isn't working for you as you have received it, that's not when you teach for content; that's when you teach for process of change.

And that's one of the reasons we don’t read the Talmud for content. Although I think even those who do . . . Talmud is not the best way to get content; that's why codes were written. If you really want to know the laws of kashrut [kosher food], you shouldn't be going to the Talmud to learn that; you should be going to the Shulchan Aruch [a major Jewish law code] to learn that, or to Rambam [Maimonides] to learn that. That's never what the Talmud was for, and to the extent to which it's used for that, to me it seems like a shame.

Lex Rofes: One curiosity I have—and I've heard bits and pieces of this from you, but every time I do, I feel like I gain a new level of insight both into Talmud and to you, so I'm itching for another chance to do this—but what is it that led you to find Talmud?

Because, for people who are entering into SVARA, they have this organization and they have this platform that they can enter into and grow through. You didn’t have that—you built it. So, I'm curious what brought you to this place and what is your narrative that led you to found an organization devoted—I'm almost hesitant to say devoted to Talmud study, because it sounds like it's devoted to something bigger than Talmud study—but that uses Talmud study to channel some really important concepts?

Benay Lappe: All right, I'll start a little bit from the beginning. I think an important part of my story that connects to where I've ended up is that I was raised in a traditional home. We actually weren't that observant, but we went to an Orthodox shul, I went to an Orthodox Hebrew school, and we knew the Judaism that we were supposed to follow. We didn’t always follow it, but we knew what we were supposed to do. We actually didn’t keep kosher in my home, and we kept a kind of “Friday night Shabbos,” and Saturday was going to the mall. But we observed all the holidays very carefully, and the tradition was very much a part of my life.

And when I was a teenager, and I came out, I felt estranged from the tradition and felt that the tradition also was not very happy with me. And so, I left, and that was very painful. And I became a very happy, devout Buddhist, and I lived in Japan for nearly ten years, and Buddhism became my practice, and that was wonderful, until it started . . . you know, until I started to miss what, it became obvious, was a part of myself, that I couldn't set down and that I couldn't leave. And that was my pintele yid [a Yiddish term meaning, essentially, “Jewish essence”]—you know, that part of me that was Jewish.

And I realized I was born Jewish for a reason, and I was probably not going to ever be a whole human being until I found God in a Jewish way. At least, I suspected strongly that that was the case. And I was on the verge of becoming a Buddhist monk, and I thought, okay, I know more about Buddhism than I know about Judaism—before I make this decision, I'm going to learn more about Judaism so that I can reject it in good conscience.

And I went to the rabbi in Tokyo, and I told him that, and he handed me Pirkei Avot. So, this is a very thin little volume of the Mishna [part of the Talmud]. And from that point on I was just totally screwed, because the Mishna is a really accessible book that shows how wise Judaism is. And I realized that Judaism was as smart as Buddhism and that I needed to know more.

And, being the slightly obsessive-compulsive person that I am, I decided to go to rabbinical school. JTS [the Jewish Theological Seminary], at that time, which is the seminary of the Conservative movement, did not accept openly gay and lesbian students. And I remember having read at that time something that Art Waskow had written, and it was about the idea that all of us stood at Mount Sinai—every one of us, any person born Jewish or converting to Judaism who ever would live stood at Mount Sinai, and that the Torah was the inheritance of all of us. And I thought to myself, “Right, this is mine too, and they can't keep this from me.”

I decided to go into the closet—to go into hiding—to get the Torah.

And in my first year of rabbinical school, there's a Talmud class. And as soon as I began learning Talmud, it became very obvious to me that, as I said earlier, the Rabbis were not believing what I had been taught as a kid: that says so in the Torah, and that's the last word. And I think that's a dangerous myth that we perpetuate when we teach people about Judaism—that if it says this in the Torah, this is what God said, and that's the end of the story. And that just hasn’t been true for 2,000 years, and the Talmud is a record of that not being true. And I thought, wow!

The Talmud also . . . it made me feel smart, and I didn’t feel very smart. And it gave me a lot of confidence, and as a woman and as a lesbian and as a person in hiding, and as someone who, I knew, would be challenged on my authenticity, it gave me a lot of confidence to learn Talmud and to feel like, you know, I know my shit.

And then the last part of the story, which resulted in SVARA as an institution, as a yeshiva, was one day I was sitting on a train—it was June 27th, 2003—and I was in New York, on the subway, and I opened up the newspaper, and there in three-inch-high letters was the headline “Supreme Court Overturns Sodomy Laws.” It was the Lawrence decision, that had just been passed the day before.

And I sat on that train and I cried. Because when I came out, I knew two things:  I knew, number one, they put people like me in jail, because when I came out . . . when I was born, it was illegal to live as a gay person in all 50 states. And when I came out, it was still illegal in half the states of our country. So, I knew that.

And I knew that, number two, being gay was against God and Torah. I just somehow had soaked that in, even though I don't remember any one of my Hebrew school teachers ever saying that or my parents ever saying that. I just understood that. And I cried because I realized that no kid was ever going to come out and think, “They put people like me in jail” ever again, and I knew the world had just changed. And I knew that case had come to the Supreme Court because Lambda Legal, a gay legal advocacy organization, had brought it forth.

And I realized that the world had just changed because Queer people went to law school, and I knew the Jewish world wasn’t going change until Queer people went to yeshiva.

Lex Rofes: There's a lot of thoughts swirling in my head, but I wanted to come to a point that you made, that I think came up a couple times, which I had never thought about, but which rang very true to me, which was the point you made that there's sort of a sweet . . . there's, like, an achievement, there's a deep pleasure in learning Talmud because it's a challenge enough that you have to wrestle with it, but you succeeded, and you achieve something, and that pleasure is very real.

And you compared it to playing sports, and that's exactly where my mind was, because it felt like sort of winning a game that you've fought hard and . . . . And looking back at my own experience, like you, I had sort of a distancing period. It wasn’t as long, I didn’t live in Japan, but I had a distancing period from Judaism, and my entryway back was actually Mishna, and it was deeply important for me to experience this text for the first time, that I had heard the name of, but never actually read a page of.

And what I try to communicate to people is that, for me, I set a goal of learning my way through this big text called the Mishna, and I achieved a goal, and everything changed, because Judaism at that point was like a landmark in my life, almost like sort of a graduation moment. I could point to something concrete that Judaism had done for me, and that I had grown from . . . and I didn’t get any certificate, nobody patted me on the back, but it was very real. And pleasure is the right word.

So, I'd love to hear, what is it about that pleasure that you see? And, if maybe you have anecdotes of particular people who have experienced SVARA and articulated this, but what is it about the Talmud and the achievement of learning your way through a difficult text that is particularly meaningful for people?

Benay Lappe: There's an enormous sense of accomplishment in learning Talmud. A lot is left out, so it requires a teacher, and it requires a lot of concentration. And as one of my students says, it requires more than a single brain to do it. It requires a second brain, it requires two people to create a dynamic that will allow ideas that neither could have had alone to come out. And that's a very exhilarating experience.

I believe we all walk around with half-completed discernments and insights. We walk around with, kind of, the shards of our life experiences that are not yet completely processed and integrated and understood, and usable. And when you learn a text with a partner, as you're trying to figure out what the text says, you'll say something, your partner will say something else. You'll then say something, they'll say something else. And something about the text that you're trying to figure out will trigger a memory, will trigger one of these half-figured-out insights, and all of a sudden it will become whole, and there will be a light bulb, there will be a click.

That's a beautiful moment, and it's a wonderful feeling. And that's one of the ways that a text, which can be about who-knows-what—can be about the laws of lost and found, it can be about, as I was saying earlier, truth-telling and lie-telling, but it's triggered for you something that has created now a full insight, about yourself or about the world, that may be completely unrelated to what the text was about. And that's very satisfying.

For some people, the satisfaction is, “I did this really, really hard thing, and I can do it.” And for others is how much I've learned. And I think at the end of the day, what SVARA is about is just that we figured out a way to take this material, this experience that's been used by not even one percent—it's probably more like a tenth of one percent of Jews—and we figured out a way to make it accessible to the other 99.9%.

Lex Rofes: So, I have a question that relates to a question Dan and I have been talking about a lot lately, which is the issue of Jews and those who aren't Jewish, and the ways in which that boundary between the two is becoming blurrier, and lots of people are converting to Judaism, and people are becoming less connected to Judaism who are born Jewish—all of these interesting questions. And I guess I'm curious . . . from what you described, SVARA’s work is all about taking a text, the Talmud, which happens to be native to the Jewish tradition, and bringing a Queer lens to it, and finding the elements of the Talmud that speak, in particular, to Queer people.

And first off, that mission is so inspiring to me, even as I'm not LGBTQ-Queer, but what's interesting about it is that it seems like it could apply not just to Jews, but anyone who comes from a Queer lens, who comes from an LGBTQ lens. So, I guess I'm wondering, do you work with folks who aren't Jewish, but who are interested in connecting to this ancient text from the Jewish tradition through a Queer lens? And, if so, what does that look like, and is it different for somebody to come at this from a Jewish lens in particular?

Benay Lappe: There's nothing about learning Talmud that requires you to be Jewish to do it. I think there's . . . for Jews, there is, sort of, a redemption that happens that's probably absent among non-Jews who learn Talmud—is that moment when you realize that your tradition is really smart, and you trust it, and it trusts you, and all of a sudden I feel better about myself as a Jew, that I don't think is at work when non-Jews learn Talmud.

But there are lots of people who are not Jewish in the beit midrash at SVARA. And if we're right that learning Talmud actually can shape who you are as a person, this is something that should be available and accessible to the whole world as a practice, and I would love that to happen. We have lots of seminarians from other traditions, and seekers, and people are just curious who are not Jewish, who come to the beit midrash, and if they don’t already have their aleph-bet [that is, know the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet], we put them through a one-day aleph-bet marathon, and they're ready to go.

It only enriches the conversation. I think, as Dan has talked about in the past in his observation that the early Rabbis were disproportionately converts or children of converts, the role of people who are not even on the map in the Jewish world right now, or in any world after a crash, is very significant.

Dan Libenson: There are a couple things that you said a while ago connecting to this that really both moved me and got me thinking. Like, when you were telling your story, and you said you had to “go into hiding to get the Torah,” something like that. I'm thinking about people who are sort of living out there with this sense that, “I don't have access to this material, so I don't even know if it's for me or not for me. It's probably not for me in the traditional way, but there are probably ways that I could understand this stuff that would move me.” Actually, we interviewed Shai Held a while ago, and I asked him how he felt about translating the kind of things that he was saying about God, that I actually found very moving if I would translate into kind of my language of God is a metaphor or something like that, and I asked him is that okay with him? And he said, it's not how he thinks about it, but yeah, different people can take what he says and take it where it moves them.

And the difference is that we have access to what he's saying because we had him on our show. But somehow it feels like for people out there, the only way to get familiar enough with the material of Judaism to know sort of what your feelings about it are or what you might want to do with it, are either to, like you said, go into hiding, like somehow to sort of play the game among the people who you know don’t see it the way you do, and that's the only way to really absorb the material. Or you leave with a heavy heart, sort of like you did, maybe, in Japan. And I think that that actually starts to define a continuum, then, where Jews are not necessarily all that different from non-Jews, because the non-Jews—it might not have occurred to them to seek access to this Jewish stuff. And that may be the only difference, because they, too, if they wanted to have access to it, would have to either somehow hide or blend in. And we know cases like that, where there are non-Jews who kind of come and join traditional Jewish communities and kind of “pass,” so to speak, until they've absorbed enough, and then maybe they'll decide to convert, or not.

And I guess that when I hear you describing the later history of SVARA, where you create this thing that comes out of your story and out of the story of Queer—LGBT-Queer people—and you're trying to solve that problem, and it turns out that it's solving a problem for this huge category of people who, turns out, their block is not because they're LGBT, but it's for some other reason. And so, I'm curious if you could talk more about your experience over the last five years or so, having discovered that, and how you think about it in terms of the good about that right now—what you have discovered in the LGBT community is, turns out, so much more relevant to others—but also, I think it loses its distinction, and it loses its capacity, maybe, to also be that home for LGBT people. And how do we sort all that out?

Benay Lappe: It's a very live question for me right now. As we become more and more successful—that is, as more and more people come to SVARA to learn, we attract not only more and more Queer people, but more and more straight people—some Queer-headed, some not Queer-headed. It's very gratifying to see that the Queer lens and a Queer-normative space have something that everybody needs.

You know, the first year that we did a summer retreat, we called it SVARA Summer Talmud Retreat or something like that. Lots and lots of Queer people came, and they all dubbed it “Queer Talmud Camp,” and it became, I don't know, it's probably 95% LGBT-Queer, and there's a very, very special feeling there, and a sense of very deep, deep community. And in other of our programs, we don’t put the word Queer on them—there's “Queer” all over our materials, our marketing, our website, but we don’t call the programs specifically Queer this-or-that. And those programs are about half and half straight and gay. And the feeling in the room is different. At least it is for me. And I think it is for some of the LGBT-Queer people as well. And I think it's a really hard thing to figure out. I think the majority of the people in the room have to be LGBT-Queer.

Their lived experience as Queer people is, as much as I play with the word “Queer,” significantly different than that of Queer-headed straight folk, and that's a challenge because I think we've got something—we figured out this technology for learning Talmud, for bringing Talmud to everybody, that, on the one hand, gives me fantasies of millions of people learning Talmud, but on the other hand, I'm really inspired by and committed to raising up Queer people as players, because I think Queer people have the courage and the boldness and the audacity and the willingness to pay whatever price to put their truth out into the world, and I think that's the kind of leaders that we need.

So, it may just be that right now the investment has to be with those kinds of people. And eventually the Talmud, or the whatever-technology you're working on, can go super-big, but maybe it shouldn't go super-big, even though it could, for a while.

Dan Libenson: You know, in terms of the vision of everybody studying Talmud and a beit midrash on every street corner, I wonder if . . . what is the task that's before us? Is the goal that we should all be studying Talmud, or is the goal that we should all be discovering the message that's hidden within the Talmud, which fundamentally frees us to write the next Talmud, the next version, whatever it is, the next book or—probably won't be a book—but the next iteration of Judaism.

Because the message of the Talmud, at least as I think I've heard it from you in the past, is that we can be audacious in the way in which we treat what's come before, and that there's a way to do that in a way that is honoring the tradition, but nevertheless a significant departure from it, in order to also honor the Queerness—the things that, maybe, that older version considered “queer,” in a pejorative way, and now we're calling that Queer a good thing.

And so, we need to build a society in which, ultimately, those people . . . they might still call themselves Queer, but they're not queer anymore, in the sense that it is their society that they have built. And that, when you talk about the Rabbis as having been “queer”—yes, that's true in their time, but then they built a whole society in which they were central.

So, what would it look like if the people today who are called Queer, whether that is for LGBT reasons, or just because they are different from the norm, become the new center? And would that be a world in which everybody’s studying Talmud, or would that be a world in which everybody’s studying that next iteration?

Benay Lappe: You know, the trans community, I think, is a really good example of how there will always be another community of people who get it better, who get it bigger than the Queer folk who came before them. And in my generation, what we got was that not everybody’s straight. And we thought we, like, totally had it—we thought we understood it all. And now we're kind of straight compared to the trans folks, who are saying, “You guys totally missed this really big part of life, which is that gender isn't binary.” And now they're the Queer folk, or the Queerest folk. And when the world gets that gender isn't binary, they're going to be kind of straight, and there's going to be another community of really Queer people who are gonna show them that there was something that they didn’t even think of and that they had no idea was coming.

And those people who are on that Queerest cutting-edge are the ones who should always be learning Talmud, because they're the ones who need to know that the tradition has always anticipated them—not in the specifics—and that the tradition gets that there's always going to be a crash that needs to be responded to, there's always going to be a bigger insight that the tradition is going to need to accommodate, and here's how you do it. These are the rules of the game.

I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign, and there's the alma mater statue in front of the Union building, and there's . . . engraved on the statue, it says something to the effect—and I know I'm going get it wrong—but it was something to the effect of, “To the children of the future, the children of the past send their greetings. Class of 1921.” Something like that. And when I began to see the Talmud for what I think it is, that alma mater statue came back to me, and it comes back to me all the time, because that's what the Talmud is.

The Talmud is this gift of the Rabbis, who lived through an enormous crash that was undeniable, but which they had actually anticipated. The Temple, for them, had crashed long before it was destroyed. That way of doing Judaism didn’t work for them when it was working still for a lot of people. And they developed a system that would allow for the good in what was still working of traditions to be saved, while the tradition was also radically reworked to incorporate the insights of the “queer folk.”

Lex Rofes: Did you have any final thoughts to bring to the episode as we come to a close, just about SVARA the organization, or Talmud in general, that you would want to communicate to our listeners?

Benay Lappe: I think my ultimate takeaways from my experience of learning Talmud are that the tradition is really, really smart. It's smarter than you can imagine. We should trust it, we should recognize that it's not perfect, and it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be made better, but that it trusts us, even though we may get it wrong now and then—but it trusts us, ultimately. It believes every human being has svara [moral intuition].

We shouldn't be afraid to mess with the tradition. What SVARA, the yeshiva, is about is giving people not only the confidence, but the learning that it takes to mess with the tradition in a responsible way. The Rabbis never thought that you needed the title “Rabbi” to do that.

You needed to have two things:  You needed to be gamirna and savirna—you needed to be learning/learned, and you had to have svara. And everyone can have that.

Lex Rofes: Well, thanks so much for coming on.

Benay Lappe: It's been my pleasure, thank you. I love talking to you guys.

Lex Rofes: And we love having you on. For those who are new to the podcast, definitely go back and look at our earlier episodes with Rabbi Benay Lappe. She is a fantastic guest, there's a reason that we chose her as our very first guest ever, our first two-time guest, and now with today’s episode, our first three-time guest.

And as we always do at the end of our episodes, we want to close by encouraging you to be in touch with us, and there are a few ways for you to do that. You can always head to our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound. As we record this, we're closing in on 3,000 likes, so you could be the 3,000th if you're the one to like the page next—who knows? And you can also head to our website, www.JudaismUnbound.com. And, last but not least, you can hit us up via email at dan@nextjewishfuture.org or lex@nextjewishfuture.org.

And, last but not least, we really do appreciate all the financial support that folks have sent our way, and you can do that at www.JudaismUnbound.com/donate with either a monthly recurring donation or a one-time donation.

So, thank you so much to all of you out there for listening. And with that, this has been Judaism Unbound.

Episode 54: Judaism's Job - Irwin Kula Part II (Full Transcript)


Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 54—Judaism's Job.

Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .

Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.

Dan Libenson: Lex, we've made it! This is the last show of our first year, but our listeners shouldn't worry. This is not the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning. We'll be back again next week with another show, and we intend to keep going.

So, we're jumping into Part 2 of our two-part interview with Rabbi Irwin Kula. Just as a reminder, he's the president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center in New York City. I should mention that Rabbi Kula, in addition to having been deemed for many years by Newsweek Magazine as one of America's most influential rabbis, is also an eighth-generation rabbi, which makes it all the more interesting that he has the perspective on rabbis and Rabbinic Judaism that he does. We're excited about jumping into the second part of our interview, where we explore some more applications of Clayton Christensen's theories of disruptive innovation to the future of Judaism, and without further ado, here we go with Part 2 with Rabbi Irwin Kula. . . .

Dan Libenson: I want to ask you about the term “religion” because you've used it freely, as well as using a term something like “wisdom tradition” that is about human flourishing. I'm wondering whether you could define what you mean by religion in a way that it's something that could speak to all of those people that you describe that don't believe in this—I don't remember—“man in the sky,” however you put it, and the “tribal fetish,” as you put it, and the various things. So, what does “religion” mean to you, and is there a reason to retain religion as the organizing concept of what we're talking about? Or, would it be better to talk about religion as the previous manifestation of Judaism, and the future one will be something else?

Irwin Kula: That's a great question. I want to be very Woody-Allen-like—chameleon—and, that is, it all depends on the group that I'm talking to. For me, very simply, religion is a technology of human flourishing. That's how I experience it now. “Technology of human flourishing” means that it has wisdom and practices designed to help you flourish as a human being. Now we can talk about the wisdom and practices, and we can talk about what means to flourish—but that's what it is: it's a technology of human flourishing.

And that tells you exactly what the job—its wisdom and practices, or the technology—is designed to do. It is designed to help you flourish, and that's what we should be measuring. Does it help you flourish?

Dan Libenson: So, Clayton Christensen talks about this idea of “jobs to be done,” which he really develops fully now in his most recent book, called Competing Against Luck.

Irwin Kula: Right.

Dan Libenson: And just to lay it out . . . let me lay it out a little, and you can add anything that you want, and then let's jump into the question of what is the job to be done, or what might they be.

He basically conceptualizes that when you are talking about a disruptive innovation—perhaps any kind of innovation, but surely when you're talking about disruptive innovation—you're trying to create something that, as you said earlier, is “good enough” for what people need right now, and that will develop over time and get better and better and gain all kinds of new functions, and then, over the course of time, it'll be just as good as the thing that we used to have, etc., etc. But, right now, we're looking for something that's good enough for what people need.

And he says a way to conceptualize what that looks like is: imagine the person out there is a corporation and has a job opening. What is that job description? What do they need to hire to accomplish some job that they need in their life? And then the question is, are they going to hire you? Is your product, or your thing that you have, is that capable of doing the job that that person needs in their life? So, the first thing you have to understand is what the job is, and then you have to ask yourself—use some introspection—and say, "Do I have that? Can I do that job?" And as we know from our own lives, there are a lot of jobs we don't apply for.

Irwin Kula: I’ll just add one piece to that framework because . . just a little background on that book because I can't help it: So, Craig—we'll get back to Craig Hatkoff—Craig Hatkoff and I were made by Clay Christensen . . . he designated us as his advance research team on the anomalies in disruptive innovation. And for five or six years, we worked on: what were the anomalies that kept disruptive innovations in certain domains from diffusing the way they were predicted in his business theory? And amongst the many things we came up with was that jobs that impinged upon people's world views, values, and beliefs . . . the infusion rate of the innovation was going to be much, much slower. And, therefore, not surprisingly, disruptions in things like taxi cabs, disruption in things like listening to music, disruptions in how we view entertainment—the diffusion of those disruptions actually were predictable in business theory.

But, in education and in health, where he wrote two very important books—the books were barely read and had almost no effect because health and education have many more stakeholders and are much more connected to people's world views, values, and beliefs. And then we made the suggestion that, similarly, in religion, we were going to see a much slower-paced . . . and there were probably some things that weren't going to happen in disruptive innovation theory applied in these domains. But, most important, the jobs to get done were much more complex in these domains, and if you notice in the book, he says, yes, jobs to get done now have social and emotional tasks that he did not take as seriously in The Innovator's Dilemma—let's put it that way.

The only other thing that I would say here is: it's not only what job . . . what are you hiring the product to do? Another way that I conceptualize it is: what progress in your life do you want to make? Those of us who have products, and services, and delivery systems, or are trying to develop those—we need to be really, really sensitive to, yes, the job a person's getting done, but what we really mean by that is: what progress is a person in their life trying to achieve? And does the product and service, and the delivery system that I have—and, obviously, it has to be aligned with my values—but does it actually get the job done?

The most important question, then, becomes . . . is asking: if this is a technology of human flourishing—if that's what “religion” really is—then what progress do we hire the products, services, and delivery systems of religion to get done in our lives? And that’s a very, very . . . I don't think the question is hard, but I think the answer to the whether the product, service, and delivery systems are getting that job done—I think that's a terrifying question.

Lex Rofes: I'm itching to ask a question, because it's one that I spend a lot of time thinking about and that I have a lot of conversations with some listeners and others about, which is: when we're talking about the jobs to be done, and the paradigm of hiring—whether it's a religion or a business—to achieve a particular function, it tends to be that we're talking in singular tense, we're talking about individuals, but basically how . . . ? Because the frequent critique of the disruptive innovation world is that it's sort of individualistic . . . people throw around the term “neoliberal,” and these kinds of things. So, how would you talk about collectives, communities, approaching these same kinds of questions— because, after all, we're looking at Judaism, which is a collective?

Irwin Kula: Let's not confuse our anxiety about individualism with some abstract version of “The Jewish Community,” okay? The reflex to go to The Community is an old reflex that is a defense against—it's completely understandable, but it's defense against—whether any of this stuff actually works for me. You're not going to be asked at the end of your life, "Were you a good member of The Jewish Community?" There's not one communal question there. You're going to be asked if you were an asshole or a good guy, so in that way, in relationship to people . . . you're going to be asked if you have intimate relationships, and not only—ethical relationships in your business world . . . that's true. But you're not responsible for The Jewish Community—The Jewish Community is an abstraction.

Let's also be clear that when we use the word “Jewish community,” we actually . . . that is a power word used by a small group of people who have tremendous authority in that community. The average synagogue has 10% of its membership that shows up regularly. It isn't anything that could be measured in any conventional way as a community, right? It has a business model in which 90% pay for an experience of community for 10%. Those 10% actually don't even like the other 90%, don't enjoy when they show up—it is not a community. It is a business model that . . . we can pretend Temple Beth-El is a community, but of 1,000 families, 80-90% are not part of any organized community there. That's the same thing when we talk about “the Federation community”—a Federation community that has 25% of the members of that Jewish community, or Jews in that catchment area, who give to that Federation—they aren't even in a community simply because they wrote anywhere from a $25 check to a $100,000 check. We have to be very clear about what we mean by “community.”

If you say to me, "Does everybody, as an individual, just decide which practice works and which practice doesn't work?" So, I say yes and no. One, that is how effectively it does work, right? A practice that doesn't work for a person, they are not going to do long-term. Bu it turns out, almost all practices in wisdom that have to do with human flourishing happen within a web of relationships. It's very difficult, because we are social animals, because we are always in webs of relationships, to flourish independent of positive relationships and engagement with other people.

So, when I say it's a “technology of human flourishing,” what I mean is that it's a technology that helps us understand the truth about ourselves, and that helps us be in relationship to each other and the world in a healthier, more ethical, more inspiring way. There's no such thing as a person who just decides on their own . . . they have to get the practice from somewhere, right? They have to test it with other people, and I don't care if that's an individual meditation technique, which then has to affect how they operate with other human beings, and if it turns out they operate with other human beings in their webs of relationships—their lovers, and their friends, and their business colleagues—and those people say, "My God, Irwin, what happened to you? You act so much calmer now and so much more centered, and you're so less angry," and you say, "Well, you know, I’ve got to tell you this, I'm using this practice that’s helping me in my life to understand who I am and to be in the world," the person says, "Well, can I hear about that practice?" And if it turns out that I have a meditation technique, and I'm using it, I'm using that practice, and I seem to still be a son of a bitch, then that meditation technique is not a technology that is functioning.

Dan Libenson: So, what is your working hypothesis about the jobs to be done?

Irwin Kula: The most important lens, I think, available to us right now on flourishing is—it's a 20-year-old field, Marty Seligman out of Penn started the field—it's called the field of positive psychology, or the science of human flourishing, or the science of character strengths. This seems to be the most important new science of human flourishing.

And there, it's pretty clear that, whether you use Seligman's PERMA or you use his 24 character strengths—which are really 24 virtues—if you want to be a flourishing human being, here's the sort of things you have to have:

One, is you have to have positive emotions [P]. You have to be able to feel joy. You have to be able to feel a, kind of, genuine happiness. You have to be able to feel a certain excitement and exuberance about life, positive emotions. Second, you have to be engaged with life [E]. You have to feel like you're in the flow. You have to be doing stuff that has a sense of purpose, that maximizes your capacities and talents and contributions. You also have to have positive relationships [R]. You have to have intimate relationships. You have to have relationships where you feel obligated to other people, where you care, and are compassionate, and where you forgive, and where you are forgiven and cared for, when you're vulnerable. You also need meaning in your life [M], and meaning means that you have to be connected to something beyond your smallest self. And then, you need achievement [A]. You have to have a sense of accomplishment and achievement in your life. You maybe don’t have to reach the Promised Land, but you have to move towards the Promised Land, whatever that Promised Land is.

And so, you look at that science, PERMA. And then you look at the character strengths that kind of underlie PERMA, and you say, "Gosh, here's what you need, the sorts of character strengths that you have to develop if you're going to be a flourishing human being—curate creativity, and curiosity, and a sense of open-mindedness, and a love of learning, a sense of courage, and bravery, and persistence, and resilience, and grit, a sense of love, a capacity for love, and kindness, and social intelligence, and perspective, a sense of fairness and justice, a character strength of forgiveness, and compassion, and humility, and a sense of transcendence and awe, and appreciation of beauty, and excellence, and gratitude, and hope.

These are the building blocks of a flourishing human being. Now, what we have to do is, in a sense, reverse-engineer Jewish wisdom and practice—for those of us who care about Jewish wisdom and practice, because you can get this done without being Jewish. You can get this done without Jewish wisdom and practice, and it may be that it'll turn out that there will be easier, more accessible and usable ways to get it done than Jewish wisdom and practice. And then, we will not make it. And cultures don't make it. It's not the end of the world, right? The end of the world is not whether the culture makes it or not. The end of the world is: how am I in the world? That's the world. How am I in this world with other people? My job is not to keep this system alive.

Now, as a rabbi, I care about the system, and I found that it works for me, so what we have to do is develop . . . so now we have to reverse-engineer. All right, you're telling me about Shabbos . . . Don't tell me that “more than the Jewish people have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jewish people”—I don't want that answer, because that is a lie, it is a rhetoric for people who are no longer observing Shabbos, and other people say to them, "Okay, I know Shabbos is stupid this way, but, you know . . . you care about the Jewish people . . . you don't care about Shabbos anymore, you care about the Jewish people, so, ‘more than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, it's the Shabbos that has kept the Jewish people,’ so keep the Shabbos.” Nice rhetoric. It worked for about 50 years, doesn't work anymore.

So, now I . . . look, I say Shabbos: okay, I say, Shabbos is a very interesting technology—think of Shabbos as a platform. Shabbos is a platform. It has 500 apps. It has the Lighting Candles app, which, by the way, can be completely disintermediated from the Kiddush app. And then, it has the Kiddush app, which can be completely disintermediated from the Grace After Meals app, let alone the Motzi app . . . which can be completely disintermediated from the Tablecloth app . . . which can be completely disintermediated from sitting down at the table and blessing your wife, or blessing your children, or offering gratitude—tov l’hodot (it’s good to give thanks). Or, it can be completely disintermediated from Shabbos morning, and anything that happens in the Shabbos morning apps. It can be completely disintermediated from a Shabbos nap.

So, what we have to do is we have to look at something like the technology of Shabbos and say, oh my gosh, there's like a thousand practices—forget about the wisdom yet—there's a thousand practices in this very, very complex platform called Shabbos. And what we have to do is literally start trying, and using, and hypothesizing: what does this practice do for me and my family first, or me and my webs and relationships? What does it do for me? And we don't know. We have hypotheses. We have hypotheses.

Here's a hypothesis: Light candles, and you will have more shalom bayit—you'll have peace in your home. Okay, let's see. Let's see. Let's have people light candles with the intention that the light of the Shabbos candles are supposed to enlighten us, and let's see if it works. Let's see if it works. It's very easy. You can take a survey if it works. If it works, I think it's very important for us to witness and teach that. "Here I have a practice. I have a practice that can help you. You know how, like, sometimes during the week you're a little bit sharp and a little bit on the run and there's no . . . Let me give you a practice." Not Shabbos, because it may be that the practice is not only going to be disintermediated from the Sabbath—it's going to be disintermediated from the rest of Sabbath practices—it's going to be disintermediated from the Sabbath day. It may be that Yom Kippur has . . . Yom Kippur is a platform. It's a platform designed, let's say right now, for forgiveness. It could be that it's going to be completely disintermediated into 500 different practices, that are going to be separated and not all on Yom Kippur—we don't know.

It's like we're in the year 71. We're not in the R&D stage yet. We're still recovering from the trauma of the Shoah, of the Holocaust. You can see that we haven't dealt with that trauma at all. We have explosions of trauma triggering right now all over the Jewish space. Until the last survivor—and may every survivor live till 120—until the last survivor is gone, and until we loosen the vicarious connection, the historically contingent radical importance of the State of Israel in Jewish identity and Jewish practice and human flourishing, until we loosen that connection, we can't even get to the R&D on the products and services and delivery systems of Judaism. But, people are beginning . . . people are beginning.

I'll tell you two things that is the newest stuff that CLAL is doing. One is we have a collaboration with the VIA Institute, which is the most important foundation studying the science of character strengths—so, that's part of the positive psychology movement out of Marty Seligman at Penn. We went to them and said, look, no religion is willing to put their wares under the microscope of this science. And it turns out that one of the weaknesses in positive psychology is there's a dearth of protocols and interventions—that's what they call them—besides journaling and meditation, there's almost no protocols and interventions, which isn't surprising because psychology itself is practice-adverse, and it's embedded in a Protestant culture, and Protestantism has a practice deficit. And so we went to the Institute and said, "Here's what we'd like to do. We need to immerse of bunch of very creative rabbis in the science. And then what we want them to do is to use the science to redesign their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience in 2017 for their congregations. They need congregational buy-in, and actually to have hypothesis about how much Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur is supposed to work, and then we want you—VIA—not only to immerse these rabbis in this science, not only to provide coaching, and then we'll take care helping them create and invent new intentions and applications of Jewish technology in light of the science, but what we need you to do is to do evaluations of the impact relative to human flourishing. And we don't want to touch that because we want it IDR-approved, we want it to affect the domain of what we might call “positive religion” (just like there's positive health, there's positive work, there's positive education).

Let's create a new field called “positive religion.” And, let's just use Jews as proof-of-concept because we have access to rabbis who are very creative and congregations where 1,000 people may be present. They said yes. We had our first retreat—five days of immersion in the science of 10 or 12 rabbis. They are in the process during this year, between now and high holidays of 2017, designing and redesigning—and here I think design thinking becomes another important lens—designing how does Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur work in light of their hypothesis of the job to get done, which here is going to be about forgiveness, and optimism, and hope, and perseverance, and perspective, the capacity to change. And they're going to be looking at . . . let's say there's 1,000 apps on Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre is one app. Shofar-blowing is one app. Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die is one app. Ne’ilah [the conclusion service for Yom Kippur] is 50 apps, and how do you parse it as micro as possible to understand what job . . . what progress do people want to make, and how does this particular liturgical moment actually help people make progress? Have any hypothesis—there's only two hypotheses not allowed: One, is this helps the person feel more Jewish—that's a fucked-up hypothesis that we're not allowing anymore. And two, somehow God commanded me, because even that has . . .  "Okay. Tell me what happens to you. How does it help you flourish that you are experiencing observing God's command?"

Everything has to get to a real job—no fake jobs. They had to hire a set of evaluators from out of the social sciences who will be visiting all ten congregations post-High Holidays and doing interviews of people on the impact of the High Holidays. And that's literally to start . . . it's the first time this is ever being done in religion in America. The only thing that's ever been studied is meditation techniques, compassion meditation and insight meditation. That's basically only because the Dalai Lama's paid for it. He is the only religious leader that has said, "Okay. Put this under the microscope because if it doesn't work, we shouldn't be teaching it, and if it does work, we actually need to know how it works."

So, our goal is to create a new field there so that ten years from now no one's measuring how many people came to synagogue. People are measuring what happens when you use the Kol Nidre practice. What happens to your sense of honesty and obligation to people? What happens to your capacity to make promises, break promises? What does that mean? That's the reverse engineering.

And at the same time we're doing that, we just announced a partnership with Columbia Business School to develop the first spiritual entrepreneurship program. We're going to be launching a disruptive religious innovation incubator. The ideation stage is going to be a 12-week course taught by Columbia Business School to spiritual entrepreneurs. That means, you know, entrepreneurs need to . . . The average rabbi, or the average spiritual person, who has an idea doesn't even know what a business canvas is, doesn't know what jobs to get done is, doesn't know what customer development is, doesn't know what's the unique value proposition . . . .

So, we actually have a partnership. A professor of business is giving us his entire platform—it's his global leadership platform—and he's teaching the first iteration of this. We have twelve rabbis in the program—actually ten rabbis and two non-rabbis, so that they develop . . . what does it really mean to be a spiritual entrepreneur?

And in defense of people who are unnerved by this, I have a lot of respect for them. I've thrown my lot into not having anxiety about this, but I understand that it could be that what we discover is: this doesn't really work anymore. And that happens. Bloodletting worked until it didn't, and it took about 30 years, when we first began to recognize bloodletting wasn't working, for the AMA to decide, uh-oh, bloodletting doesn't work anymore. We had a president who died because . . . Garfield, who died because the AMA was still holding on to bloodletting when the young doctors in France on the front lines were learning, "Yikes, if you wash your hands, you'll save a lot of lives."

So, it is possible that we are moving towards a post-Jewish, post-Christian, post-religion world, and that that's even why we have so much backlash. And I get that there's always been—in religions, and in Judaism in particular—there's always been two strands: there's been the Maimonidean strand of “the entire Torah actually has a real utility—its goal is to help you have correct, truthful opinions about life and help you develop virtue”; and then, there was the Rabbi Judah Halevi, which is, you really don't ask about the reasons for the practices because . . . God has God's reasons, and once you do that, once you ask a utility question, if it doesn't have utility, it becomes a very precarious practice to transmit, and I get that.

We have used Jewish wisdom and practice for . . . surely the last 50 years in the United States, but actually much more than that—since the beginning of modernity, we've essentially used Jewish wisdom and practice to affirm group identity, a sort of Durkheimian way of understanding religion, and that's over. That really is over. You can't have 71% new marriages for two generations now in which the other comes into your family, and you come into the other's family, and think this is going to be a nice little group attachment game. So, Durkheim was right for his time, and, yes, rituals do help us establish webs of relationships, but those webs of relationships now are mixed, and blended, and bended, and switched, and that changes everything. That really changes everything.

So, people . . . they have a reason to be concerned. The only thing is, it's bad faith to be concerned and then to live a postmodern life. If you're really concerned, then you have to take a remnant ideology, a purist ideology, saying, "It's time to turn insular, and it's time to protect because it's a very dangerous time of mixing, and blending, and bending, and switching." And I get that. I have deep respect for the insular communities who are protecting their inherited traditions at all costs. I get them.

What I don't get is people living completely embedded in the postmodern technological information age and then preaching some kind of fetishized preservationism.

Dan Libenson: I want to go back into the description that you were giving of what this exploratory R&D approach to a disruptive innovation looks like, because one of the beauties, as I understand it . . . or the elegance of Christensen's theories are their simplicity and their understanding that it's precisely because of the great complexity of the existing system that is why disruptive innovations are the successful ones—because they essentially restart from scratch in a world of non-consumption.

Metaphorically, I've also thought about the reasons why there were so many of the early rabbis that were either converts or children of converts, because they were fundamentally not from a Jewish culture, and so, they didn't have the same baggage, and they didn't have the same nostalgia, and they didn't even necessarily have the same social connections, and they were able to be the ones who could look at the totality of what there was and not become overwhelmed by the gazillion apps but to say, there's like three of these apps that I think could still work, and I'm going to take those three, and . . . that's going to be Judaism, right? And then, it's going to grow . . . and, again, the elegance of Christensen, I think . . . it also is to say, and that doesn't mean that the ones that we didn't pick will never come back . . .

Irwin Kula: . . . no . . .

Dan Libenson: . . . we might take them at a later stage, right? And that’s why, again, from a systematic . . . I think that one of the great virtues of Judaism is this idea of studying practices that we no longer engage in—you know, the idea of studying Torah for its own sake—because we always know of something that we might want to bring along at a later stage. And so, you end up with a Rabbinic Judaism that at an early stage looks very different from Second Temple Judaism, and then as it evolves it looks a little bit more like it over time.

There’s that wonderful story of Moses at Mount Sinai wondering what Judaism is going to look like in the future and being brought forward to Rabbi Akiva's Yeshiva and not understanding anything and not recognizing it as Judaism, but then when Rabbi Akiva says, "This is what Moses got from Sinai," Moses is, like, "Oh, that's great—I see the way this works."

I felt like there was a disconnect between the framing and then the description of how we're going to tweak the High Holiday service—you know, we're going to play with this app and that app. Because that sounded to me more like either a sustaining innovation or . . . not so much a sustaining innovation, but sort of the story where Kodak developed the digital chip in their R&D Center, so I can imagine that in synagogues various important innovations will be discovered—and maybe it's the most fruitful place to do a lot of this experimentation because there's already a group of people that are wanting to play with this stuff—but also understanding that what's discovered there may not ultimately flourish by becoming the new center of synagogue, but somehow it will be brought out . . . maybe those two things that you described, the synagogue R&D work and the . . .

Irwin Kula: . . . spiritual entrepreneurs . . .

Dan Libenson: . . . spiritual entrepreneurs—maybe they go together in the sense that certain innovations that are found in the synagogue can be brought out by these entrepreneurs into the other . . . .

I'm just curious about you thinking about the simple question of the jobs to be done—can we describe them in a simple way? What are people missing in their lives? Most of these Jews, who have positive sense of being Jewish, but they're missing something important in their lives that maybe Judaism can help them with—and can we describe that very simply?

Irwin Kula: First thing, the spiritual entrepreneurship program is classic disruptive innovation. There's a whole set of specs for that that have to do with non-consumers, non-incumbents, etc.—that's where we're being haredi [ultra-Orthodox] on disruptive innovation. And with the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur—that is a first attempt to simply measure any impact of any practice. Eventually what happens is as you develop ways in which, ah, this really does work, it can be pulled out and used in multiple places. And the spiritual entrepreneurs have an emerging new metric to use for their own products, and services, and delivery systems for non-consumers of the existing "Jewish legacy institutions." We're at the very beginning of both of those, but ideally, they should be feeding each other.

I think that your point about non-consumers of the existing product is really, really, really serious. We take that so seriously that the next iteration of the spiritual entrepreneurship program will not allow rabbis in. The first round we're doing with rabbis because we're trying to learn what it even means to create a spiritual entrepreneurship program. And we're taking rabbis, not one of whom is in an existing legacy institution. But the next iteration—the second iteration—will be non-rabbis. The third iteration is going to be people who aren't Jewish, from other religions.

That's a larger sense of what does a field of spiritual entrepreneurship look like in a place like America. And this gets to your questions . . . What is it that human beings—not Jews, because flourishing is a human being question—what is it that we human beings, and not human beings out there because we're the users . . . If we're not the users of it, it's not going to work—we’ve got a lot of people programming for other Jews, programs that they themselves would never go to. That is, basically, the entire continuity industry—let us in here, we're the good Jews, we're the inside Jews, we're the non-assimilated Jews; let's go develop programs that'll fix those Jews, and the only thing that's 100% clear is that we won't go to those programs. That's what we call bad faith.

So, I always ask, "What are the jobs I need done in my life?" There, I can get them down very, very simply. One is, I do need connection, and friendship, and webs of relationships. I need people who care about me. So, where is it? What are the products, and services, and environments, and delivery systems that can help me strengthen my webs of relationships? And there's not a human being on the planet that doesn't need more of that.

Two, I need to personally grow. I need to grow ethically, and I need to grow psychologically for my own mind, and heart, and body, so that the treacherous places of my own psyche, I can navigate better. So, is there any products, and services, and delivery systems that help me grow as an evolved—psychologically, spiritually—human being?

Three, I want a little bit more purpose and meaning in my life.

Four, I want to be a little bit more creative.

Five, I want to somehow make a contribution to make the world a little bit more just. Not mind-boggling more just, as some kind of messianic character, but a little bit more just.

That is what religion is supposed to help us do. There's a lot of different ways to say that. I mean, if you want to use religious language on the community or connection and friendship, it’s we try to turn strangers into people who feel at home, both internally . . . I'm strange to myself, how can I become more at home with myself? There are strangers around, how I make strangers feel a little bit more at home? There's ways to say it in religious language, but those are the jobs.

Dan Libenson:   I think that's really a core important point—that people have relatively simple, straightforward needs in their lives that we all know about. I would add to that: How do I be a good parent? How do I be a good spouse . . . ?

Irwin Kula: That's in the webs of relationships and personal growth.

Dan Libenson: It is, but I would even call it out because, again, just to be really concrete and to say: Who in the world knows how to be a good parent? If there was a system that somebody told me about that, if you follow this system, you will be a good parent, I would want to know more, like you said earlier.

Irwin Kula: I’m married for 34 years, how can I be a better husband? Right? As my parents got old, and they both passed away in the last four or five years, how could I be a better son as they get older? I think that these things can get broken down into very, very simple . . . and that's parsing the job in a very, very . . . very, very . . . here we'll use the terms that you understand perfectly—a user-centric way. Right? The best way to test user-centric is, here it’s—I'm the user, first and foremost, if it's not a real problem for me, it's not a real problem for other people, probably.

Dan Libenson: Right, and by the way, that's something that’s one of the things that struck Lex and me the most in our year of talking to entrepreneurs . . . has been how often the most successful ones are ones who were trying to solve a problem that they themselves personally had.

Irwin Kula: But that's a really important point because if you get the problem wrong, you're probably going to get the innovation wrong. So, if you think the problem is assimilation, or you think the problem is attachment, or you think the problem is lack of observance, or you think the problem is illiteracy . . . no one wakes up in the morning and says, "Oh, shit, I'm assimilated!" No one gets up in the morning and says, "Oh, shit, I'm intermarried!" Okay? Or, "Oh, my God, I don't know Hebrew!"

A lot of people get up in the morning and say, "My God, how do I get through this day, because my job sucks?" Or, "How do I get through this day, because I'm actually a little scared about a new president of the United States? Or, "How do I get through this job, in which my colleagues don't seem to respect me, or I find myself so resentful of them." Or, as you said, "How do I raise kids in an environment in which it seems so nasty?" Now, those are real jobs. Now, whether Judaism has anything to say—I don’t know. That's where we have to be playful.

Dan Libenson: Well, that's the question. What strikes me as I listen to you describe these and think about them is that not a single one—maybe you could argue that the relational one is the only one where you could really argue this would somehow land on Jews differently than others . . . you could argue that Jews, as a particular group of people, that we want to have relationships with—but otherwise, these are simply human problems, at least in America. These are the problems that Americans have, and if it turns out that the problems that the Jews have are the problems that everybody has, and it turns out that Judaism does have the capacity to help people with those jobs to be done, there might be a lot of people who would want to join.

Irwin Kula: We already know there are some practices that clearly have tapped into something. So, you could put in “faux bar mitzvah” into Google, and you'll see that there are liberal Protestant churches that are beginning to play with bar mitzvah ceremonies. Obviously, they're not entering a Protestant kid into The Jewish People, but what's happened is, as over the last 20 years, 25 years, a third of many guests at a bar mitzvah are people's non-Jewish friends—right?—and people say, "Oh, my God, what a beautiful practice. Actually, my parents are getting older. I'd love for my parents to somehow come together and see that my child is, is . . . everything is going to be all right. Just as this child is spreading his wings and becoming independent, I want my child to know that the values of my parents somehow are being transmitted. That sounds really cool." So, you wind up with “faux mitzvah.” And why? Because it's tapping into a real need. The need isn't that you remember the Jewish people. The need is this moment of transition as a child becomes this next thing, and there's no practice like that in America. You go right from getting into middle school to driver's license, so there's no practice, so that's an opening in the culture.

It's the same with mezuzah. We're beginning to watch, and you can see the mezuzahs being sold in stores now, like Neiman Marcus, etc., as an ancient practice—put this on the doorpost of your home, and when you walk in and when you walk out, you will feel a peacefulness of your home. If it turns out that that works, and it helps people, then is the world better because more people use mezuzah? Some people will know it was originally a Jewish technology, some people won't know it's a Jewish technology. For Jews, it may have this extra value thing—that this is mine. But, “this is mine” has to be done very, very carefully in the next world, in the next era, next epoch. “This is mine” doesn't mean you have proprietary . . . . “this is mine,” meaning in an open source world, I take pride in having contributed to the open source world, but it's not mine in any proprietary way. That means you can't use it as a Jewish tribal marker anymore. You have to use it as a human flourishing practice. That's difficult, but we have no choice given the demographics.

Dan Libenson: Yeah, and that's one of the ways in which Judaism may well evolve. We don't even have the language to describe that yet, right? What does it mean for Judaism to still be a thing, and an important thing, and yet not exactly tribal, not exactly a membership . . . ? Yet, it really just makes me think of . . . you know, you imagine some of these podcasts during the waning days of the Second Temple period where they were saying, "You know what? We're going to do a lot of experiments to see: is it the evening sacrifice or the morning sacrifice that's going to make it."

And it's like, no, neither one is going to make it. But, it turns out that this background stuff—little songs that the Levites were singing—that's going to be the center. "No way. That's not going to be the center. That's like the background music to the center." "No, no that's going to be the . . . . " You know, so, the mezuzah maybe that's . . . of all things, if the bar mitzvah makes it, I'll be surprised—meaning, we're fighting about the bar mitzvah all the time, and it turns out that's being taken by others.

Irwin Kula: Yeah, I think that part of it is those of us who are on this side of the innovation divide—how do we give enough? Here's a, sort of, organizing challenge. How do we give—and this is where I think your podcast is so central, and I'm not saying this . . . you know I have a lot of admiration for you, you know I have a lot of respect for you, I'm not doing this because I'm on this . . . but we need new mediating structures that give hizzuk—that give support and solidarity and permission. We undervalue how important permission is, and a new institution—your podcast, and I know it doesn't feel institutional yet—but it's one of those new iterations that . . . it's a living beit midrash [house of study] where we're keeping all the archives of the conversations. Not once in this conversation—not once—did we question each other . . . I think these are the real rules of innovation . . . not once did we question each other in a way that dissed, dismissed, made us feel foolish for being "half-baked,” because it can't be . . . half-baked is already a lot at this moment. It's barely in the oven yet. Not once did we do that. The degree of smiling and laughter and a kind of playfulness at the core of the conversation—a listening that's at the core because, gosh, you may say something that I absolutely need to hear because I don't know what really I'm talking about. I think that there's a lot of stuff that we're doing, and that you're doing, that . . . what we need is this is on steroids.

We need a lot of experiments like this. You really are at the cutting edge. You took a real leap, and it's a fun thing to talk about disruptive innovation and bullshit all about it, etc., etc., It's another thing to take a leap into the unknown. There's nothing more spiritual than that. It's what Abraham did when he listened very, very deeply and decided to follow a dream and a trajectory. I think what the two of you are doing, if I was a prognosticator . . . I'm sure the first year was both delicious, exhilarating, and incredibly hard. My sense is, within the next 36 to 48 months, there's going to be an explosion of what you're doing, and it's going to go far beyond these remarkable intellectually, spiritually, psychologically incredibly healthy conversations. We just don't know what it is yet, what it's going to be exploding into, but I have no doubt about it. So, thank you. I'm honored to have participated today.

Dan Libenson: Thanks. It was so great to have you.

Lex Rofes: Absolutely. Thank you, Irwin Kula, for coming on for this conversation, both last week and this week. We've never tried that before, and thank you for making sure that that two-part episode was really rich and full, jam-packed with an hour and a half of good stuff. So, thank you.

We wanted to take a moment to also thank all of you out there, all of the listeners, because we try to do that, but there's always more that we can say to thank you because, without you listening, we would quite literally be speaking to thin air. Without you contributing your thoughts and being in touch with us, we would be far worse off than we have been. So, thanks to all of you, whether you just listened to this episode, or two episodes, or ten episodes, or all the episodes, whatever you have done to connect with our podcast this first year, thank you. And especially, if you've sent us a note at any point, if you've left a positive review in iTunes, we love that. We really listen to that feedback, and we incorporate it into the work that we do.

So, we encourage you to continue being in touch with us on our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound, on our website judaismunbound.com, and of course via email at Dan@nextjewishfuture.org and Lex@nextjewishfuture.org.

We also greatly, greatly appreciate the financial contributions that you've been able to give, and you can continue that with either a monthly donation, recurring, or a one-time donation at judaismunbound.com/donate.

We're really, really thrilled to be entering into year two. It's crazy to think that we've already had 52 weeks of material. But, in year two, we're excited to unleash to the world some really exciting new possibilities. Stay tuned for a new podcast that Dan will be co-hosting with Ruth Abusch-Magder, who you might remember from a few months back as one of our guests who spoke about Hanukkah Unbound.

And another part of our work that we've really enjoyed this past year is getting to meet some of our listeners. We've been invited by folks in various communities all around the country to come and visit and schmooze a bit about what we're talking about on Judaism Unbound and our ideas for the Jewish future, and we've really enjoyed that. It's incredible to be able to put faces to the invisible ears on the end of our microphones that we assume are out there, but it's nice to confirm that when we meet real live listeners in person.

So, if you are interested at all in bringing us to your community, just please get in touch with us in any of those various ways.

Whatever it is that you've found and connected with, know that we deeply, deeply appreciate it and just cherish your listenership. So, thanks to all of you for listening. And, with that, this has been year one of Judaism Unbound.

Episode 53: Death and Rebirth - Irwin Kula Part I (Full Transcript)


Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 53—Death and Rebirth.

Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .

Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.

Dan Libenson: And we're here in Episode 53—which, together with next week’s Episode 54, is going to be our first two-parter—with Rabbi Irwin Kula. We're really excited to have these two episodes as the bookend on the other side of our first year of episodes—we launched with episodes 1, 2, and 3 in our first week, so, really, Episode 54 is our last episode of our first year, and we're really thrilled that it's going to be with Rabbi Irwin Kula. He is the president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a think tank, leadership training institute, and resource center in New York City. We'll talk a lot more about what it does throughout the episode. Rabbi Kula is the author of the book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, and also the co-founder and executive editor of The Wisdom Daily, which you can find at www.thewisdomdaily.com. He's been listed for many years as one of America's most influential rabbis by Newsweek magazine, and he certainly has been one of the most influential people on us and the ideas that we explore on this show. So it's really great to be able to wrap up our first year by going to the source—Rabbi Irwin Kula, thank you so much for joining us. We're really excited to have you.

Irwin Kula: Great to be here. I've listened to a whole year, and now I finally get on. I'm very, very excited.

Dan Libenson: And you really are one of the sources of this. I haven't really told this story on the air before, but I had Clayton Christensen's book, The Innovator's Dilemma, on my shelf for a number of years and hadn't read it. And then I was at an event where you were speaking and got into a conversation with Craig Hatkoff, who was there with you, and you'd been working with him and Clayton Christensen on various things that I'm sure we'll discuss later. And he started talking about it, and I said, "I finally have to read this book," and it just transformed my thinking, so I definitely put you at the very source of my entrance into this thinking.

Irwin Kula: Thank you very much. Craig Hatkoff, who was the co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, actually gave me the book in 2007, and it's a funny story, because on the inside cover, he goes, "Dear Irwin, I have absolutely no idea why I'm giving you this book, but I know it's going to transform your life. Love, Craig." And it turned out that . . so that night I start reading it, and I read the first chapter, and I had this revelation of finally knowing, "Oh, this is who I am—I'm a disruptive spiritual innovator. That's what I do. And all the resistances that emerge from innovation, and specifically disruptive innovations, this is exactly why I've been . . . ." I now understood both my calling and why I'm situated where I am in so-called American Jewish life and the American religious landscape. So, it was actually a critical book in my own formation. From like two days after that, I stopped fighting with the existing reality . . .

Dan Libenson: Right.

Irwin Kula: . . . and recognized—no, no, that fight with the existing reality actually is a way to undermine the capacity to innovate, and that what I really had to decide was: what was the anxiousness . . . and what was the tension and anxiety that I wanted to experience in my life? Because, there are different sorts of anxieties. There really is an anxiety of, let's say, being a head of a legacy institution. If you're the head of a legacy institution, there are going to be real, significant types of anxieties regarding innovation and regarding making things move in a bureaucracy, etc., and is that the anxiety . . . and bosses who are telling you what to do, and tons of stakeholders, and that's one kind of anxiety. And then there's the anxiety of the startup, or the anxiety of a genuine disruptive innovation, which is a different anxiety. No one's telling me what to do, right? I actually have to invent it. I have to put modules together in new ways. I have to fail a lot. I have to have the anxiety of experimentation, the anxiety of uncertainty. And, which anxiety do I want? Because there's no such thing as no agmas nefesh—there's no such thing as no anxiousness. And that helped me a lot—“Oh, this is the anxiety I like to have, making things up and seeing if they work.”

Dan Libenson: Right. So, just to sort of back up a little bit, could you tell us a little bit about CLAL, the organization that you run, and what its history has been, and where has it gone . . . ? I know there have been a number of key points along the way—your encounter with Christensen, and I know that you've talked about September 11th as things that have, in some ways, changed CLAL's course. So I was wondering if you could give us just a bit of a background for our listeners who aren't familiar with it.

Irwin Kula: Yeah, so CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, was founded in 1974 by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, probably one of the leading theologians and conceptualizers of the latter half of the 20th century global Jewry, American Jewry, and Elie Wiesel, a blessed memory. And, essentially, they founded CLAL with this idea in mind: Something had happened having to do with the Shoah—the Holocaust—on the one hand, and the establishment of the state of Israel, on the other, and the explosion of freedom and power and affluence of the American Jewish community: that those conditions, political, economic, and social conditions, had launched a new era in Jewish life, what Yitz called The Third Era. David Hartman was calling it the Third Commonwealth. Alvin Toffler was calling it the Third Way. It wasn't yet the Information Age, but something was happening. Other philosophers might have called it the Postmodern Era. That kind of epic change was sensed by Yitz and Elie Wiesel, and they founded the organization as The Center for Learning—it was actually first The National Jewish Resource Center—and it was about providing resources for the political and philanthropic secular leadership of American Jewish life.

The idea was actually both quite brilliant and quite elegant: that Torah, or Jewish wisdom and practice—Jewish study—had to move, couldn't simply be owned by the traditional institutional complex that owned Torah. Call that the synagogue, the beit midrash (the house of study, the school). But actually a new form of leadership was emerging in American Jewish life that was quite secular—it was political and philanthropic—and whose fundamental challenge was to use power and affluence to help create first the Jewish people, but ultimately the world, in which every human being—now, this is Yitz's language—every human being could experience themselves as the image of God. That was the teleology, that was the trajectory and the vector of what Jewish wisdom and practice had to do. And Jews assuming more power and affluence—unprecedented power and affluence by the mid 70's, late 70's—had a new vocation, or a new calling, in which Jewish wisdom and practice had to help Jews exercise power and affluence in a way that actually genuinely repaired the world.

So, most of the work from, let's say, 1974, when it was founded, through the late 80's, early 90' . . . almost all of it was in either the federation community, federation leadership, other organizations . . . the so-called “secular institutions” where no rabbis ever went, and where no Torah was every studied. So, the first Shabbatons in the federation community, the first study sessions in the AIPAC community—those were all led by Yitz and the early founders of CLAL. I came to CLAL in 1987 on a grant from the Wexner Heritage Foundation, which began then—’86, actually. And they were trying to also upgrade this kind of leadership work, this Third Era. And there were three big insights that Yitz had, that are still the core messages of CLAL.

One was this idea of “voluntary Covenant,” that something changed because of the Holocaust, the modern experience, that "theologically God could no longer command us anymore”—lost the credibility to command us to be part of the Covenant. But the Jews took on—voluntarily—the Covenant in their building out the Jewish body politic again, establishing the State of Israel, building out the institutional complexes of American Jewish life. And that so, we voluntarily assumed the Covenant, again.

Second was an idea called, or a conception, called “holy secularity”—that holiness, or kedusha (sacred activity) was moving from a kind of very, very sensual religious place to more and more secular domains. This was the Rabbinic insight that, once the Temple gets destroyed in the First Century, in a sense we could play out our Jewishness wherever somebody visits the sick, wherever a husband and wife make love, wherever justice happens. These new areas become the place where the Covenant, or the place where Jewish wisdom, can get played out. So, holy secularity, which then inevitably moved CLAL and its teachers to the secular domain far more than the conventionally religious domain.

And third, the implication of all that was a deep and radical pluralism—that in an era of unprecedented freedom, in an era of voluntary Covenant, an era in which the covenant is being played out way beyond the conventional sacred spaces, there needed to be almost . . . it was compelling to have a deep and radical pluralism in which there was no one way to be Jewish, but we needed massive ways of being Jewish. But, of course, how did one hold that together? And, of course, that was Yitz's idea at the time of: "Will there be one Jewish people in the year 2000?" Turns out, there is, right? Fractured, but there is. And that was really CLAL's bread and butter—working in that political, philanthropic, secular community well into the early and mid 90's.

And then CLAL . . . the big shift for us . . . there's a lot of ways to tell the story, but I became president, I think, in ‘99, or 2000—somewhere around there. And two things happened. One is, I was beginning to sense that, as interesting as the federation community was, it wasn't where the action was anymore because the jobs that needed to be done, to use a Clay [Clayton Christensen] term, were not so much anymore rescue and relief and building out the political and philanthropic infrastructure of American Jewish life. That job had really been done. The job, actually, was a very, very, very, very substantive re-imagining of Jewish wisdom and practice for an age of unprecedented power, freedom, affluence, accessibility. And that was a really, really different job. It was, in many ways, post-all-institutions that way, and it was going to require tremendous amount of what I called "spiritual entrepreneurship," or people who were willing to create new things and experiment.

And that happened right at the same time, within a year or two, as I was seeing that the federation community . . . you can’t build culture in a centralized way. New ideas don't happen because committees get together and say, "Poof! I have a new idea." That actually it was going to have to be much more customized, much more personalized, much more democratized . . . and just beginning to have the internet become a more important feature in our lives, and then 9/11 happened.

And for me, 9/11 changed everything. I had two friends who died in the towers—and one of whom I had just recently officiated at their marriage—and I had what might be called the spiritual breakdown. And for three months I did not teach, I barely left my apartment, and what really became clear to me—and this is the radical way of saying it, I don't mean to offend anybody—I had a realization that I would never, ever teach Judaism again to make better Jews, that I would never, ever teach Judaism again to create more affiliated Jews, I would never, ever teach Judaism again to strengthen the tribe. There was enough groupiness in this world, there was enough tribalism in this world, and that had been a fundamental cause of religion rearing its ugly head in 9/11. And either Judaism in the next iteration—for me—was going to be a wisdom and practice that could help all human beings flourish, and therefore had to be taught that way and offered that way, in accessible and usable ways, or I was out of this game. This is not what I was going to do. I was never going to teach Judaism just to raise money for Jews. I was never going to teach Judaism again to just make Jews better Jews so that Steve Cohen could measure them with his core, periphery, and moderately affiliated categories. This was either a genuine wisdom and practice that could help anyone flourish, or it was a great run, and it's time to put this tribal fetish out of business.

Now that created some turmoil at CLAL, because that was a big shift. Over the next three-four years, we kind of downsized the organization relative to some of our work in the more philanthropic, political infrastructure/organizational world, and we began doing R & D and working with rabbis who were more interested in spiritual entrepreneurship. And then I read Clay Christensen's book in 2007, and then I recognized, "Okay, here's where we're going to be. We're always going to be respectful of the existing institutional structures. We're not going to fight with them. But fundamentally we're going to be a hub, or an emerging network, for disruptive spiritual innovation using Jewish as proof-of-concept."

Dan Libenson: That's a fascinating story. I don't think I've heard it all put together that way before, so thank you. Before we get into the forward looking . . . the jobs to done and the rebuilding of something new that meets the functions that you talked about, I thought it might be interesting and helpful to get your perspective on the backward looking piece, which came to my mind when I watched a speech that you gave, I think, about 20 years ago at the national meeting of the federation system

You used a phrase in that talk that I've never used—and I've used pretty radical phrases. You said—past tense—“Rabbinic Judaism died.” And I wanted to talk about that in two ways. One is that I want to understand what you meant when you said Rabbinic Judaism died. Why did it die? What does it mean that it died? And also, maybe to think a little bit with you about something that we haven't, I think, talked about with anyone else yet, which is just the idea of death as not necessarily a tragedy—especially the death of someone very old, and maybe someone who's been suffering for a long time in certain ways. And to understand that just as we don't see that as terrible tragedy when it happens to a human being,= because we understand that that's the course of life, we seem to not have that point of view when we talk about institutions like Rabbinic Judaism. So, when we hear a phrase like, "Rabbinic Judaism died," that strikes us as this tragedy that's almost unspeakable because it would be so terrible if it were the case, and yet maybe our history is clearly one of seeing a number of our institutions having died over time. And what's great about Judaism is the capacity that when that happens, that doesn't mean that Judaism has died.

Irwin Kula: I actually see it the same way. I remember saying that. It was 1993 in Indianapolis, and here I was speaking to people, for whom . . . there were about 3,000 people in the room, and it was the General Assembly, the GA, and that was a time when the GA was still a very exciting place. And it was clear when I looked around the room, these were post-Rabbinic Jews. And all that means, in a very simple way, is that the fundamental authority structure of Rabbinic Judaism, where rabbis really have authority over people—now they never had much authority as we imagined, but still nevertheless, the rabbis have the fundamental authority—in that room, rabbis had no authority.

I was one of few rabbis that ever spoke in that role. Yitz Greenberg spoke, David Harten spoke, but rabbis didn't speak to those people because rabbis had nothing to say to them, and rabbis were not their authorities. And I don't care if it was Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, which are all forms of Rabbinic Judaism, just protestant forms because they are 1800’s forms of—iterations of Rabbinic Judaism. So one is, Rabbinic authority just isn't alive in the communal organizations, or in people’s lives.

Two, the metaphysics that underlie Rabbinic Judaism—let's call that the world-views and beliefs—people may still go on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to a liturgical experience, but very, very few postmodern psychologically-aware Jews, which is the predominant number of Jews relative to any other ethnic and religious group in the United States—they simply don't believe in a literal God in the sky, anthropomorphic who's judging, who's thumbs up/thumbs down. They're post-that. And they've been post-that for a long time. That's already a modern experience. It takes a long time for people’s institutions to catch up with their beliefs. It's pretty clear that most Jews don't . . . so that's on the theological level.

Third, on the institutional level, the major mediators of Jewish values and beliefs, or Jewish perspectives and wisdom, and let's call that the synagogue, simply is less important to increasing numbers of people. I've nothing against the synagogue, and I hope it gets re-imagined in interesting ways, and we've even been doing some of that re-imagining, but it's not central in people’s consciousnesses. It struck me that it feels radical right now, but that's like saying a hundred years after the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in the Second Century—the Temple is destroyed in 70—by the year 160, 170, 180, it's pretty clear that Temple Judaism has died. If you're a leadership class, priests, you have no power anymore unless you're going to become a part of the new leadership class, like a Rabbi Ishmael who's a priest-rabbi, and he winds up having as much authority as a Rabbi Akiva, who grew up with nothing, an  assimilated Palestinian Jew who happened to wind up studying very seriously, and becoming Rabbi Akiva. So, you have a leadership class, you have an institution that is no longer available to mediate the stories, the wisdom, the practices. The Temple is gone. And then the God of that Temple, the God who insinuates himself into history, who you offer sacrifices to—that is no longer a God that people will believe in. The Rabbis are already saying, "Who is like the silent God?"—mi chamocha—the lame and the mute gods. So we're watching a theological shift, and it's not difficult to say a hundred years after the Temple is destroyed, biblical Judaism is over, its authority structures, its institutional structures, its metaphysics and theology, and its central practice—sacrifices—is over.

So, I was looking out, in 1993, at that group of people, and it was . . . look, it was a heady time, and we were rescuing Soviet Jews and Ethiopian Jews—it was very, very heady—and I looked out and said, "Gosh, Rabbinic Judaism has died. It's okay, it's not the end of the world.” It's only the end of the world if we don't take responsibility and permission to play again in the re-imagining period. And we were pre-Mishnah, we were . . . pre-anything that could be written down about the next iterations and forms of Judaism. But here we were, in this Indianapolis secular arena, and the experience we were feeling, from a phenomenological perspective, was as rich as being in the Temple and as rich as whatever synagogue experience was. And it had underlying it values and world views and beliefs about what it was we were supposed to do in the world, as individuals and as Jews. But, of course, it hadn't yet been developed at all—and that's what I was challenging that 3,000 people to do: to own the form of Jewishness that was emerging.

Now, I was unsophisticated at the time, because what I didn't realize was that, that form of Jewishness—a form of Jewishness that's almost exclusively about the use of power and affluence—was itself just a very, very, little form of Judaism that was historically incredibly contingent, and incredibly important, but that being Jewish, or being anything that has to do with the existential way of being in the world, is going to be more than just how to use power and affluence.

Dan Libenson: I think there's both a metaphor here and a need for some sort of spiritual solace that we might probe at, right? Because, when we think about, again, the human lifecycle, when we think about . . . here’s this person who's lived for 85 years, and they've developed so much knowledge and so much wisdom and so many relationships, and they died. And then here’s this baby—what does it do? It doesn't do anything. And you're telling me that this baby is going to be the one that carries on the name and the values of this wonderful 85-year-old person who's died? And yet we know that that is how it works with human life—and that some of the consolation of that fact that the person died is that there is a baby here, and actually there's more than one baby—they had 42 grandchildren, and maybe a couple of them are going to . . . . And yet . . . so, what's interesting also is that when we—even those of us who might look at Rabbinic Judaism and say, "It died, that's sad, but it’s also okay, our history is one in which we do rebuild."—we still can't look at the babies and see anything other than crap. And that's where I think that, for me, at least, the disruptive innovation stuff starts to come in. I think one of Christensen's most exciting insights is this one that says the disruptive innovation that’s going to become the world-changing paradigm-shifting phenomenon that actually has more participants than the old thing ever did, at a higher quality than the old thing ever had—when it first comes onto the scene, it's not good. Objectively, it's not very good . . . .

Irwin Kula: It's just good enough to get the job done.

Dan Libenson: Right. So, before we get to the details of that, I guess I'm asking you, as a rabbi, or as a spiritual leader, to sort of help our listeners process some of this stuff on a more spiritual level and to say . . . I'm giving this metaphor, and this kind of almost business-like analogy, but I do feel there's something spiritual, deeply spiritual, in here that I tend to have trouble wrapping my mind around.

Irwin Kula: I think that it's funny you used the baby and the older person. What becomes really important then is the middle generation. We become really important in that drama. Are we capable of understanding that the dance is always between continuity and discontinuity? That's the dance. The dance is a dance, to use a Buddhist term, of impermanence. But the dance is what always stays. It's the dance that's permanent. The real challenge for the middle generation at this moment in which you have so many transitions happening is not to be freaked out by what's dying, but to take agency, to play with, to see what's going to remain, what's going to work, and what's going to be re-customized, and what's going to be re-imagined that we can pass on. And that's the challenge. The most important thing for the middle generation, is to begin to trust themselves.

And that's really brand new in a religion—trusting yourself. We're very used to trusting either the rabbi, or the religious authority. No different than in other domains—health and education and government—we're watching the role of expertise be challenged. That doesn't mean that expertise isn't important. It doesn't mean that some people really do have more access and more wisdom, and more capacity to use that wisdom, to get the real job done. Of course, the problem is: what is the real job for religion to get done? That's the $64,000 question that everyone's afraid to ask.

But if you want to feel permission and what this moment is like, I imagine that those early rabbis—and we have a little . . . in the Seder, who are having that first "proto-Seder," and we know because, even in the paragraphs that people skip, this paragraph they probably don't skip in the Haggadah—the rabbis who are staying up all night, and they were discussing the Exodus from Egypt, and their students came and knocked in the morning, and said, "Oh my God, you've stayed up all night." Well, what were they doing? They were doing the Passover experience in a way that was radically different than it had been done just 70 years earlier. Their own students were excluded. Their wives were excluded. Their children were excluded. Many of their colleagues were excluded. What they were doing is they were prototyping, and it was . . . we get a little, little, little, little insight into the first iteration of something that got iterated so many times that now we have people creating their own Seders all over again.

Now if anyone would have said, in the 130's, when we hear that story, when . . . whatever it is, the 110’s, 120's, when that story is at least talked about . . . if anyone would have said, "And you're going to see—not only is Seder going to make it, but it's going to be the most observed practice in Jewish history, and there's going to be hundreds of pages of what's called the Haggadah, you'll see it's going to make it." I'm sure many people would say, "What are you talking about?" People who looked in on those five rabbis who were doing that said, "This? This is a diluted product. This isn't good enough to get the job done. I was at the Passover sacrifice"—those great grandparents that were still alive then—"I was at the Passover sacrifice. You should have seen what it was like to take from that lamb—Pascal lamb—and to eat from that lamb with other families, and with Maror (bitter herbs), and Matzah . . . it was . . . you're telling me that sitting around a table and pointing at something is as good as being there. No it wasn't. It's not good enough to get the job done."

But what it is . . . is you have to have faith in something that’s working for you. And we have a lot of bad faith right now, in religious life in general in America, and in Jewish life in particular. You have a lot people supporting things that they no longer do or believe, but they're so freaked out that nothing will last, that they're holding on for dear life to things that aren't even working for them. That is the innovator’s dilemma, actually. The innovator’s dilemma is . . . out of a whole set of fears, and a whole set of anxieties . . . I hear it, it's the anxiety of preservation, the anxiety of what's legitimate and authentic, part of the religious . . . amongst the toxic qualities of religion, is this obsession with preservation. You wind up not even being able to trust your own experience.

But I think that's changing. It's definitely changing in the Millennial generation. I'm 58—I turned 59 two weeks ago, I’ve got to get that in there—I think in the Millennial generation that really is changing, and part of that is an age of technology, entrepreneurship in general beyond Jewish life. And so, we are winding up with explosive forms of creativity in religion across America. It's just going to be radically disconnected from existing legacy institutions.

The last thing is, and I think this is an important piece is—when we use that example of grandparents who have tremendous amount of wisdom, and palliative care is really important, and to download as much wisdom and stories from them so we can communicate to the children—the other thing is that, very often, when we take that wisdom, we take those stories, we take those practices, we have to disintermediate that wisdom and practice from the existing metaphysics, the existing theologies, the existing institutions, and here I would say even the existing person. You can take the wisdom and practice from the person, and then, by you owning it,and doing with it what it's supposed to get done for you—in some respects, in playing with it—you're actually honoring the past. You're not betraying the past.

Lex Rofes: So, I heard “Millennial,” and that's usually my cue, so I figured I would jump on in. There's one piece that I'm particularly interested in. You talked about how expertise is changing, and how the way—especially my generation and younger folks—relate to that whole idea of expertise, and what that means for rabbis and the Jewish world, is really important. I'm curious if we can use that and talk about this idea, that we've mentioned many times so far in this conversation, of leadership: So, if expertise is changing, and the way we relate to who holds authority, who holds knowledge, etc., is changing, what does that mean for leadership? And since your organization is, of course, the Center for Learning and Leadership, how do you think about those shifts, and how does it affect the work that you're doing so that the methodologies and experimenting that you're doing . . . is continuing to think about leadership in new ways?

Irwin Kula: The most important thing about leadership—at least how we conceptualize it here at CLAL—is that leadership isn't a noun. You excersize leadership, but people can exercise leadership from whatever position of authority they have. In fact, very often the people with the most authority exercise the least amount of leadership, and the people with very, very little authority can exercise the most leadership.

Here I'll use . . . within Jewish historical experience, we can actually use the shift from biblical Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism: Rabbis had limited authority, but it turns out they exercised leadership in incredibly creative ways, which simply means—not simply, but in a complex, amazingly interesting way—means that they're very, very sensitive to what it is, and now I'll use business language, to what the user actually needs to flourish in their lives.

The exercise of leadership needs to be separated from the positions of authority, and of course that's part of what's happening for all people—I don't care if you're an 80-year-old or you're a 12-year-old—because if you can go to Google and get resources that help you flourish on whatever the fundamental flourishing issue you need . . . . You want to become a more compassionate person, you do not have to go into the cathedral, you do not have to go where there are high barriers of entry; you can go on Google, put in “compassion,” and get the ten greatest religious teachers in the world within 60 seconds in your pocket. That means that you do not have to go to your synagogue, or your church, or your mosque, or your cathedral, to get a particular piece of wisdom that you need on a day which that person—that religious authority—happens not to be interested in teaching that. Now that's brand new, and it means that everyone, potentially, now can exercise leadership.

It doesn't mean everyone is a traditional leader, but everyone has the opportunity to exercise leadership in their lives. And, of course, that's what you see. Whether it's Daybreaker in New York City, which is not being run by rabbis, ministers, or priests, but 5,000, 8,000, 10,000 people come out at dawn to engage in some sort of morning prayer, morning exercise in which people are deeply connected, become more conscious and aware, and a sense of awe—relative to the world, relative to each other, and relative to themselves. That's completely non-expertise-driven. The mob mass in Buffalo, in which young people are deciding . . . you know what, there were these great churches in Buffalo—all kinds of churches, Catholic churches, Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches—that are amongst the most gorgeous buildings in Buffalo, and no one's coming, and once every month or two there's a mob mass in a different church that, in light of whatever that church’s practice is, that allows people to come into this great sacred space and say, "Oh my God." And then they might not show up in another church for eight more weeks, and it's not even announced ‘til a week before.

Those are not being done by priests. Those are being led, and created, and developed by normal, regular people who are both sensitive, in some way, to their inherited past, have been taking ownership over that wisdom and practice, and then just trying shit. And trying shit's a really, really, really big thing. We haven't been doing that in a religion for a long time. We've been preserving shit. And there's a real difference between trying stuff and then saying, "How did that work? Tell me how that worked?" and preserving stuff that we know is not working.

Dan Libenson: Why do you think that phenomenon happens—that religion seems to be identified in most people’s minds with preservation?

Irwin Kula: Because it’s been under attack since the Modern period. In defense of religion, modernity emerges—let's say what we mean by “modernity” is some kind of combination of a trajectory of human rights and equality, and a trajectory of the scientific method . . . let's call those two kinds of trajectories—well, it turns out that those, while they both came from a certain read of traditions, the people who were at the forefront of that were people who said, "Fuck religion—it’s damaging. . . ."

Whether it's in France where they had to kill every Catholic priest, or whether it's America and they had to separate church and state to keep church from being lunatics. So, it turns out that the coercive, triumphant role of religion, which has been a piece of religion . . . let's be honest, Jews say every human being is an image of God, but you don't have to return the lost object of a gentile, and you don't necessarily have to save a gentile’s life. And it's okay, I get it—when they want to kill you, you don't have to save them. I don't judge the past; people were doing the best they can.

The triumphant, non-scientific, a-historical forms of religion were under attack from the beginning of modernity, and so it went on the defensive. I mean, this is a hard thing to say: most people I meet in, let's call it the globalized world—really smart, highly educated, everybody has had some psychological training, whether they've gone to counseling, or therapy, or did Psychology 101 in college—institutional religion is not fundamental to their lives. To be honest, it's stupid for a lot of people. And at some point, if it's stupid for enough people, either they walk away, or they say, "Okay, it's stupid in the way I'm now seeing, but that doesn't mean everything in it is stupid."

Whatever Religion 3.0 is going to look like . . . and if Religion 2.0 is kind of myth, metaphor—that's kind of what modernity did to religion—second naivete and all that sort of stuff . . . Religion 3.0 is new creation stories that reflect the deep science that we know, new historical stories that respond to the deep history, an awareness of how positive psychology or neuroscience—what they teach us about what it means to become more compassionate human beings. But we haven't done that. That's not what religion has been doing. Religion’s been in preservation mode. And the last 30-40 years, religion, at least in America, has basically been politics in drag. So, you have right-wing conservative fundamentalists that basically layered their politics, proof-text their politics with religious text, and then you have a trivial liberalism, that proof texts “Justice, justice you shall pursue”—as if, you know, because you can quote it in Deuteronomy, all of a sudden it's . . . everything goes in a liberal tradition.

I'm okay with that, I understand. But at some point people grow up and say, "Gosh, I actually don't need a proof text for something that I already believe, especially a proof text from some Iron Age god that doesn't really even make sense to me." So, this is the next stage. But then Maimonides had to do the same thing, right? Maimonides writes for one character, Reb Yosef—one character who's perplexed, who has the education of the day—you can read it in the introduction for the Guide for the Perplexed, he has the education of the day, he has the Master’s, so to speak, from Harvard, maybe not a Ph.D., but he has a Master’s, and he says, like, "I don't know, this Judaism doesn't match up." And Maimonides has to take ten years to write . . . basically, it’s a letter to this one guy, this Guide for the Perplexed, and what does he essentially do, not to reduce Maimonides: he basically takes the science of the day, he takes, from an ethical perspective, Aristotelian ethics, and says, "I'm going to float this thing called Torah—kol hatorah kula [the entirety of Judaism]—I'm going to float the entire Torah through an Aristotelian ethical lens, the science of Aristotelian ethics, and see what comes out on the other side." And what comes out on the other side is a very, very compelling way of becoming virtuous and existentially true—a human being. And, of course, when you do that, you're being very innovative, your books get burned. We haven't done that. We haven’t done that. Kaplan did it a little bit. Soloveitchik did it a little bit with Kant. But no one has done with the three or four most important scientific works, or lenses, of the day. And if you don't do that, your system atrophies.

But what we have now is affiliation fetish. We have membership fetish. That's all we measure. This is my big debate with Steve Cohen. He measures belonging. It doesn't matter—we could . . . half of us could become Nazis, and it doesn't matter because, as long as we're belonging to the group, everything is going be okay. What the group is about is an irrelevant question to the presence counters of the Jewish people. Which is exactly why you're not allowed to count Jews—you have to make Jews count. And you're not supposed to count Jews because one-two-three doesn't mean anything . . . . What if that guy’s an asshole?

It doesn't matter if you light candles—I don't care how many people light candles—I'm interested in what happens to people who light candles. I don't care whether you’re kosher or not, I'm interested in . . . tell me, what happens to you when you're kosher? I don't care if you go to synagogue or not go to synagogue—tell me what happens when you go to synagogue, because if you go to synagogue and act like an asshole, then all I've learned is that the impact of synagogue is it increases asshole-ness.

It's almost like . . . at the organized level of Jewish life, there is almost like an intellectual disability in the capacity to use any metrics that actually makes any difference in the world. This is a very, very serious issue because, what you measure is what you become. If the only measurements that our donor class—and this is our version of elites disconnected from The People . . . our elites, which is a very, very small group—we're talking about less than 1,000 donors who are really controlling almost all Jewish public policy right now . . . and that's the same thing in America, so it's not like we're more corrupt, it's just that’s the corruption of the day . . . the way in which they measure success is toxic. I fully get why they're measuring it that way, and having dealt with many of them for most of my career, until recently . . .

Dan Libenson: . . . until this episode airs.

Irwin Kula: Yeah, so it's all well-motivated—I want to be clear, it's well-motivated, because their anxiety is about the group. It's not about their flourishing. They don't care if individual Jews flourish. All they care is that the group, and their institutions, flourish. But that's bad faith because a religion is not about the preservation of its institutions.

Dan Libenson: Do you think that it's the donor class who has those values and is trying to push that agenda, or do you think that donors have been given a mistaken sense of what the goals should be by various people in positions of authority, whether they're the people doing the measuring, or other people? Meaning, what is the agenda of the donor class that wants to preserve institutions, as opposed to that one of the jobs that we need in the Jewish world is a compelling alternative vision, that if it were really presented out there in a powerful way, many of those donors would say, "Oh, yeah, that does make sense, that is a better way." It's just that they haven't heard it put very well. In that sense it's one of the things that has been part of the hypothesis of our podcast—not about donors, although perhaps it should also be, but about regular people—that one of the reasons why they perceive themselves to be uninterested in Jewish life is because they've never been given a vision of Jewish life that would be compelling to them.

Irwin Kula: I'm with you. I think that here’s where we have a sort of “Jewish identity industrial complex.” And the Jewish identity industrial complex is motivated well—it's not like the military industrial complex is not motivated . . . and the people who actually fear stuff . . . they have genuine fears, whether they're right or wrong is something that you have to argue in the body politic—there's a Jewish identity industrial complex, a sort of ethnic-nationalist industrial complex, it’s been built for a long time, since the beginning of modernity, on an anxiety regarding assimilation and antisemitism. That anxiety—people do feel that, it's not that the donor class and the leadership trained by . . .  remember, if you're rabbinic leadership, you're trained two generations before you—if the senior professional class of academics is in their 60's, it's two generations older than you in your 20's . . . so, you're actually in the shift right now, so it's legitimate. And this gets back to disruptive innovation—the answer, then, is not to try and convince that donor class because there is no yet compelling vision. And we may be finished with compelling vision; there's going to be compelling visions. And that level of pluralism, we're not ready for. It's how many people can jump off the cliff to create new stuff, knowing full well—that's what the innovative class is—knowing full well that most of us are going to fail, and how can we locate new resources to be the venture capital for our new iterations of Judaism? Without being angry at the donor class, or the professional class, or whether it's the organizational professional class, or the Rabbinic class.

Dan Libenson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Irwin Kula: And that involves creating venture funds that . . . part of our problem right now is we have venture funds that are actually iterating sustaining innovations. We need more disruptive innovations, not sustaining innovations. In other words, a shul that's a little bit better, because it happens to be a little more inclusive, I'm all for. But, let's be clear: whatever we call, by the “emerging synagogues” that are wonderful and amazing, but it's still a sustaining innovation. And disruptive innovations . . . the Seder is a disruptive innovation, okay? Adding a meditation technique to an existing liturgical service is a sustaining innovation. I’m all for it—sustaining innovations are as important as disruptive innovations, and communities and cultures need both. But it's important to know what you're doing.

Lex Rofes: We certainly agree with Irwin Kula that it's incredbly important to know what we're doing in today's Jewish world, and we're going to continue this conversation about just that, with Part 2 of this episode, so we encourage you to stay tuned for next week, where we continue this conversation with Irwin Kula and carry it to new places, looking both at disruptive innovation and that general framework, and more specifically how it can apply to the Jewish world. So we want to close this episode on that teaser note, encouraging you to listen next time, but also by encouraging you to be in touch with us, and there's a few ways for you to do that.

First you can hit up our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound. Second, you can head to our website, JudaismUnbound.com. And last but not least, you can always email us at dan@nextjewishfuture.org or lex@nextjewishfuture.org. And the last plug we make is that you give us a donation, and the way for you to do that is to head to www.judaismunbound.com/donate. Any amount of donation that you're able to give is, of course, greatly appreciated. So, thanks again for listening. And, with that, this has been “Judaism Unbound.”

 

Episode 49: The Prophetic Voice - Shai Held (Full Transcript)


Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 49—The Prophetic Voice. 

Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .

Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.

Dan Libenson: We're here today for the first of a special series of three episodes—I don't know if "special" is the right way to talk about it, but an unplanned series of three episodes—talking about the beginning of the Trump administration. You know, Lex, when we started this podcast ten months ago now, we didn't imagine that we were going to be spending an arc talking about the advent of President Trump.

Lex Rofes: Nope.

Dan Libenson: But it seemed that we really needed to, not because we want to get into politics—that's really not the purpose of this podcast—but because it just seems like, when we're talking about the future of American Judaism, this is really relevant on two levels: one is just that this is going to be the landscape of American Judaism for the next four years; and the second reason is because, I think, actually, the campaign and the beginning of the putting together of the Trump administration really raises a lot of deep issues about fundamentally what it means to be Jewish and what's the value of being Jewish.

So we're really excited to have as our guest on the show today Rabbi Shai Held, who is a theologian, scholar, and educator. He's the president and dean at Mechon Hadar. In addition to that, Shai has the distinction of being the rabbi at my wedding. So, I think that, while we probably didn't pay him sufficiently, we certainly are giving him his star turn here on Judaism Unbound.

But more significantly, Shai has actually been one of the more outspoken folks in the Jewish community of late, speaking about the meaning of Donald Trump from a Jewish point of view, and specifically expressing grave concerns about Donald Trump from a Jewish point of view.

So, we thought there really was no one better to bring on Judaism Unbound today to help us start working through this. So, without further ado, Shai Held, welcome to Judaism Unbound. It's great to have you.

Shai Held: Thank you for having me. Great to be here.

Dan Libenson: I wish it were under different circumstances.

Shai Held: Me too. Me too.

Dan Libenson: So, Shai, could you get us started by just giving us a sense of what you have been thinking about Donald Trump and Judaism in the last however many months it's been, and why you have really focused your voice on this issue, and what you've been saying?

Shai Held: I would say that for me, my understanding of Jewish theology and Jewish ethics really centers around the notion of human dignity, and really the notion of universal human dignity—that, since every human being is created in the image of God, every human being everywhere, without exception, is infinitely valuable. And I think Donald Trump's long career in public life betrays an extremely disturbing lack of commitment to that view. Donald Trump, as we know, over the course of his long career, has belittled African Americans, belittled women, over the course of the campaign belittled veterans. I mean, this is a person who simply does not seem to believe in the value of very much besides himself. And on that level he represents, I think, an assault on some of the most fundamental values that Jews ought to hold dear.

So, I have been talking over the course of these months really about two things: one, about the ways in which Donald Trump seems to me to be manifestly unqualified for the office he's now been elected to, but also trying to emphasize the point that, from my perspective, this ought not to be particularly a partisan issue. Opposition to Donald Trump should not be about being a Democrat versus being a Republican, but simply about being committed to a certain level of decency in public life. I don't know whether I've succeeded on that front—I mean, there obviously have been some Republicans who have been extremely courageous and others who have capitulated. So we're in a very, kind of—a time of truly uncharted waters here.

Dan Libenson: Yeah, that's where I really wanted to start, on this question of partisanship, and to get your thoughts on it. Because it feels to me like, especially before the election, there was a lot more talk of Trump as not a partisan issue, right? It seemed like there were so many Republicans who were "Never Trumpers."

Even after he secured the Republican nomination, the Republicans were not all falling into line behind him—or certainly not publicly. And it seems to me that ever since the election, all of a sudden there's been this, kind of, normalization of Trump, where he is now being talked about, essentially, as a Republican, which makes it much more difficult to express opposition to him or horror about him, because it quickly gets framed as a Republican versus Democrat issue, where that's certainly not the way that I'm thinking about it, and I know that's not the way that you're thinking about it. And I guess I'm wondering what your experience has been of that, and how you think that that could be changed.

Shai Held: Well, I have to admit, the last part of your question is, to me, the hardest and frankly the most depressing. I'm not sure, at this point, whether it can be changed, let alone how it can be changed. That is to say, I'm not sure right now that the goal, from my perspective, is to persuade those people who have fallen into line to fall out of line, as it were, or whether our priority really ought to be to stand up and fight here.

I think part of what has happened here is simply the nature of politics, which I say not to justify, but simply to describe, which is many Republicans realized—many professional Republican politicians and leaders realized—that they had an opportunity to secure the kind of jobs that they, as politicians, seek, and that it would cost them greatly to oppose Trump.

Now, I think part of what it means to be morally qualified for leadership is to be, at times, willing to refuse prestige and to refuse stature in the name of doing what's right. It's ironic, of course, or maybe not ironic at all, that we're having this conversation the day after Martin Luther King Day.

Dr. King receives so much love and admiration now because he's dead and has been domesticated. But when Martin Luther King was alive, he faced enormous and vitriolic opposition. It's not fun to be the opposition. It's always much easier to kind of fall into line and become part of the power structure, and that's what we've seen. I think it's enormously disappointing.

I have enormous respect on this issue for people like Bill Kristol and David Frum, who have really refused to fall into line—Evan McMullin and others—who have really insisted Donald Trump is not meaningful a Republican. I mean, who would have thought that we'd be in a moment when Democrats would be reminding Republicans of the danger of allowing Russia to have a major hand in steering our foreign policy? It baffles the mind.

Dan Libenson: You talked about the nature of politics, and as you were talking I was also thinking about human nature and Judaism, and I would suppose all religions, as really—and not only religions, wisdom traditions, cultural traditions—as fundamentally having value, in part, because they help human beings overcome human nature to some way—I don't know if that's the best way to put it.

Shai Held: Yeah, they strive to, for sure. You can put this, I think, in two ways: either you can say religious traditions, wisdom traditions, cultural traditions, try to elicit what is best in human nature and to subdue what is ugliest, or if you prefer a darker view of human nature, they help us try to overcome our worst impulses. Those may be two ways of saying the same thing, but yes, I agree.

Dan Libenson: Yeah, and I'm thinking about your work on Abraham Joshua Heschel—you wrote a book, a biography, essentially, an intellectual biography of him, called Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence . . . to be honest, I haven't read the book yet, but it has a proud place on my shelf . . .

Shai Held: I'm dropping off the call now, but thank you.

Dan Libenson: [Laughs] . . . but my sense of part of Heschel's project was really to emphasize the voice of the prophets in Jewish history and in the Jewish textual tradition, and I'd love for you to talk a little bit about that prophetic voice and how that fits into all this because it seems that there are moments that call for a prophetic voice, and if this isn't one of them, it's hard to imagine when would that moment possibly come. But it seems like the prophetic tradition really is one where the prophets had the courage to tell the king that he was a sinner, essentially.

Shai Held: Right. So let me perhaps begin by saying this. It seems to me that Judaism asks us to be countercultural in whatever culture we find ourselves. Let me give you an example of this that I hope will be helpful. In the side of my life that is, kind of, a historian of Jewish thought, one of the things I've noticed is that there's a kind of recurring debate in modern culture—it appears in the history of Zionism and elsewhere: Is Judaism for capitalism, or is Judaism for socialism? I've come to the conclusion that the more healthy, constructive way to approach that question is not to ask that one, but rather to say that, in whatever economic system Judaism finds itself, it should be a voice of countercultural criticism.

So that, in a capitalist society, Judaism's contribution should not be primarily to write apologia for why capitalism is always and everywhere the best thing. It may be, but that's not Judaism's job. Judaism's job is, perhaps, to ask the question, what are the moral and spiritual costs of capitalism? Who suffers? How do we try to address the damage that capitalism does, even with the blessings that it brings?

And similarly, in a socialist society, Judaism's contribution should not be to bless socialism, but to remind the culture about the values of individualism, the inherent good in people being allowed to, encouraged to pursue individual goals and agendas, etc. 

So, in other words, I think Judaism should be countercultural everywhere.     

By the way, I would add, as a minority culture, if you're not countercultural, you will end up being assimilated anyway. Because if all you're doing is blessing the mainstream culture, then people will simply cut out the middleman at a certain point and just become part of the mainstream culture.

So, counterculturalism, I think, is not only inherently important to Judaism, but it's inherently important to being a sustainable minority culture. 

Then the question becomes, how do you become countercultural in a way that is Jewishly authentic? And I do realize the word 'authentic' is loaded.

So, here, we live in a world—have always lived in a world—in which the powerful often run roughshod on the powerless, and there are always people in the society who are ignored, who are devalued, who are degraded and downtrodden. And one of the most venerable Jewish traditions, going back to chumash, the Pentateuch, and then, as you mentioned in your question, the prophetic tradition, is the insistence, to use very traditional language, that God sees those who are not seen, that God is on the side of the downtrodden, and that what it means for the Jewish people to be in a relationship with God is that we, too, are on the side of the downtrodden and those who are oppressed.

So, it seems to me that a compelling and authentic Jewish response to a moment when someone comes to power who broadcasts his disdain for large swaths of the population is, in fact, to stand up and say, "No." 

There is a text that I more or less stumbled upon a couple of years ago that has become enormously important to me, and inspires me, challenges me, and to be totally honest, daunts me. In a commentary on the Book of Exodus, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, one of the great traditional Jewish commentators of the Middle Ages, makes the comment that, "The status of those who observe oppression and remain silent is equal to the status of those who commit the oppression themselves." In other words, according to Rabbi Ibn Ezra, in Jewish ethics, there is simply no such thing as an innocent bystander. You simply can't go along to get along. You have to stand up when you see people being oppressed and degraded, and that's what I think this moment calls for.

Now, I would just add I, myself, am a little wary of the use of the word "prophetic" in a lot of contemporary discourse, just because I worry about the ways that that implies, sometimes, that my position is God's position, and if you oppose that, you must be not only a political opponent of mine, but an enemy of God's. I'm a little wary of the word "prophetic," even though the way in which you mean it, I think, is actually very important—"prophetic" in the sense of a willingness to stand up to those in power and say, "No."

Lex Rofes: I have a question on that note. I guess my question, given all of what you just said about ways to approach this from a Jewish lens, how are we doing? When we look out at the Jewish institutional world—Dan and I have spoken about this a little bit—but what's your read on how Jewish organizations, Jewish individual people, are doing in the face of this drastic change that we're looking at?

Shai Held: Let me start with the most empathic formulation that I think I can muster at this moment. I think that people who run the establishment, legacy Jewish organizations are in a tough situation here. Because on the one hand, people like you and me want them to speak up forthrightly and condemn so much of what is dangerous and damaging to our culture about Donald Trump and his agenda. On the other hand, they do have the responsibility of finding a way to work with whatever administration happens to be in power in America. So, I don't think that JFNA has an obligation to say the same things that I've been saying, but I fear that many Jewish organizations have fallen into line too quickly with agenda number two, and have more or less forgotten about agenda number one.

In other words, it is possible for people to have sent notes of congratulations to Trump and to express their desire to work with him. I think it is really problematic to have done that without also having called upon him to speak differently, set a different agenda, etc. In other words, the notion that one has a stark binary choice—either criticize the incoming administration or stand up to it—strikes me as false and ultimately self-serving, because it basically serves to justify saying nothing critical. And I think it was absolutely possible—and remains absolutely possible, and morally and Jewishly necessary—to say, "Yes, we'll work with you, but yes, we also have a litany of things we must bring to the table here that you have said that are morally and Jewishly objectionable and even intolerable."

Now, I think there are exceptions to this. I would say the ADL and Jonathan Greenblatt have been enormously courageous in maintaining their agenda, being true to their agenda of calling out anti-Semitism from the left and the right, and calling out bigotry from the left and the right. Jonathan has set a real model here.

But, on the whole, I would say I've been disappointed with the communal leadership in the way that it's been afraid to do that. Now this goes, obviously, separately from those who have actively curried favor—organizations, let's say, that choose to invite Steve Bannon to their dinner—but I think many individual leaders and many rabbis have been courageous and outspoken here. 

But the rabbis are in a very difficult situation, and that points to another very difficult moment, I think, we are in, in the American Jewish community. There is so much hostility at this moment to anyone who would stray from the party line, that many rabbis I've spoken to are extremely afraid. I would actually say, if I backed up for a minute, I think congregational rabbis have two dilemmas here. One is about fear and one is about, I think, genuine and really difficult questions about their role. The fear issue is that we live in a culture where so often, right now, if a rabbi says something that a congregant disagrees with, the congregant either leaves or tries to have the rabbi fired. I mean, let's take a very tame example. I was talking recently to a friend who told me about giving a lecture in the synagogue about some practice in the synagogue—something totally local and not huge on any level—and he said that, when he checked his email after Shabbat, two congregants had written to him to object to what he said, one from the left and one from the right, both of whom said, "I guess I have no choice but to resign my membership." And he said he responded to them and said, "Could we actually recreate a community where we can talk to each other without your needing to leave? Why are you threatening me as opposed to talking to me?" So I think that's one piece of it that is really problematic, and I hear this from rabbis a lot.

Then I think there's the totally legitimate and understandable—I think the first piece is legitimate and understandable, too—but the second piece that's really difficult, and I've heard this also from many congregational rabbis, people who feel very strongly opposed to Trump, but understandably feel it's their job to also be a pastoral presence for those who supported Trump, and try to figure out how to negotiate between—to use your language—the prophetic role of the rabbi on the one hand and the pastoral role of the rabbi on the other, which is about keeping the community whole. That is really hard.

Dan Libenson: It feels to me like—just thinking about this kind of descriptively—that there are so many Jews, so many individual Jews, like you talk about, that are speaking up against Trump and against Bannon and against all of this, and that are actually stepping into that role of the democratization of moral responsibility, and when they look at these organizations, they may well have compassion for those rabbis, but nevertheless say, "Look, if, at the end of the day, Judaism cannot speak in a full-throated voice to condemn behavior that crosses every line of what we have ever found politically-acceptable in our culture, then what's the point of Judaism?"

It's got to be that, at some point, we move away from the sort of self-protective "we have to work with every administration," etc., etc., and sort of think about it in terms of Mordecai saying to Esther, in the Book of Esther, "Perhaps it is for this moment that you have been put in this position." And if you allow that moment to pass, without acting, then what was the point of the whole thing that got you here? 

If we were talking about partisanship, then I would agree that the role of a congregational rabbi is to build the community where Democrats and Republicans can live together in peace and harmony. But when we're talking about Donald Trump and his unique situation, which is what we're talking about here. The fact that he has been normalized, the fact that he has been made into a Republican, is part of the problem. We're already in a situation where it's hard to even talk about it because it quickly is portrayed, even by ourselves, in partisan language, where what I really want to say is, look, I have compassion for somebody who's trying to build a community where everybody can be part of it, but the truth of the matter is if there's a community that is trying to make people feel comfortable who are in support of Donald Trump, despite all of these horrible things that he has said about Jews and about—not that he has said about Jews, but that he has been involved with people that say it about Jews, and that he, himself, has said about so many others—I'm just not interested in being part of that community. 

So I might have compassion for the leader who is trying to build that community, but as a Jew what I'm saying is that that's not the Judaism I'm looking for. And I'm very comfortable saying that I'm looking for a community—a Jewish community—in which support of Donald Trump would not be considered okay. Because if we're not able to say that supporting Donald Trump is not okay, then it feels to me that, fundamentally, there's just no red lines anymore, there's nothing that fundamentally we can say, "Judaism is about this, and does not look kindly upon that." Maybe ultimately this whole struggle about Trump is, fundamentally, a deep question about why bother being Jewish.

Shai Held: It's perhaps appropriate that we're having this conversation in a week where the Torah reading is Parshat Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus, because something that happens there, that I think is really very moving and challenging, is to realize: what does Moses have to do before God elects him as the leader of the Israelites?

So, first he intervenes when an Israelite is attacked by an Egyptian. Then, he intervenes when an Israelite is attacked by a fellow Israelite. But then, crucially and fundamentally, God does not choose Moses until Moses intervenes on behalf of oppressed Midianite women and saves them. It is only then, it seems, that God decides that this is the guy I want to lead my people.

Now that is stunning, right? It is a man—let me be anachronistic for a minute, a Jewish man—who first speaks out for his own and then moves to speak for (a) non-Jews, and (b) non-men. And at that moment God says, "Hey, you're the guy that I want." Now that is extremely powerful.

So, I think that the kind of worldview that says, "Jews look out only for Jews," is bankrupt. The kind of worldview that says, "Jews don't look out for Jews," I think is also bankrupt. And maybe I could put it differently. In an age of total Jewish powerlessness, I understand why many Jews felt like, look, we look out for our own, end of story. I understand it. But in an age of unprecedented Jewish political and economic power, of Jewish access to power, to talk about "we look out for our own" as the exclusive focus of our attention just strikes me as hugely problematic, to the point of unforgivable.

But it's even worse than that, because what you have is, many of those people are even not willing to speak up for Jews who are being attacked by white supremacists. I mean, where is the outcry about Whitefish, Montana? I mean, what is going on?

Now, let's take what I was saying about Moses to its logical conclusion for a minute. Without mentioning names, a friend was telling me about approaching a prominent Jewish leader and asking, "How are you still going along with Trump?" And the answer, which appalled me, was about, "Well, Jared Kushner will look out for the Jews." That's just disgusting—that's a desecration of God's name. First of all, I don't know that it's true. But second of all, much more fundamentally, so, if someone looks out for the Jews and betrays a history of appalling racism, they're somehow okay? That stands against everything I think about God, about ethics, about Torah—to use your language, about what Judaism is for. That's just appalling. It's beneath contempt, in my view.

Dan Libenson: So, Shai, why should we not expect and demand of every rabbi to speak like you just did? It just feels to me like, if Judaism stands for fundamental moral principles . . . we can debate about what the rules and regulations are, what the right way to live out these moral principles is . . . you know, do the various laws and customs make one more likely to live this way and with these values, and that's why they're valuable, or for whatever reason—we can debate all of those things . . . but if, fundamentally, Judaism stands for a set of moral propositions, including the treatment of Jews, the treatment of non-Jews, the treatment of women, the treatment of the vulnerable, immigrants, etc., . . . if these are the most fundamental, deep-seated Jewish values that we have, then why should we not expect and demand . . . why should regular Jews not expect and demand that every arm of the Jewish community either speaks this way or . . . it's not discredited, it's just not really relevant anymore and not interesting. And, therefore, not to condemn them, but to simply to say, "Yeah, let's build something new that really does express these values."

Shai Held: I think that many rabbis have tried to do some version of the following: many rabbis have spoken up about the most egregious statements Trump has made, but they have hesitated to reach the next step, which is to say, "And a vote for Trump is Jewishly unacceptable."

Now, ultimately, I think that's a needle that can't coherently be threaded, but I want to be clear: I don't think that most rabbis have been totally silent about the most obscene things Trump has said. But, more fundamentally to your point, look, I'm actually with you on this point, in the sense that I think that at a certain point, banging your head against the wall about a certain kind of establishment may be futile, and even may be a waste of very precious energy—meaning, I'm a big believer in the idea that Jews should build the kind of Jewish community that they seek and not wait for other people to build it for them. That's also part of what it means to take responsibility for your own Jewish life. That's what at Hadar we've called "empowered Judaism" from the beginning

Now, in this day and age, we are going to disagree among ourselves very profoundly on what those communal values ought to be. Jews will disagree on everything from . . . I mean, you and I could have a discussion about whether God figures into that conversation—it doesn't get more fundamental than that; about how gender should be played out; about the respective relationship between particularism and particular concerns and universal concerns. There's a tremendous amount we can disagree about, but we are all responsible for building the communities we believe in, whether that means, in an established synagogue, trying to dramatically help shape its moral and religious course, whether that means creating new things—absolutely. I don't think that the largely-non-elected establishment leaders have any right to anybody's . . . have any intrinsic right to Jews' support. 

One thing I want to be careful about is: I'm very wary of talking about "The Jewish Establishment" because I think there are many Jewish establishments. There are denominational establishments in the religious communities. There are political establishments, and there are differences among the different organizations in that establishment. So, I think you can say there's no intrinsic obligation to support various establishments. But I think we also should be careful about writing off everyone with one brush. But I also want to be clear that there's absolutely no reason to be docile in the face of that organizational leadership. I think it's important to speak up when the people people tend to look to as the establishment of the Jewish community—to say, "They're not speaking for me."

Lex Rofes: So, I have a question about a variety of interweaving elements of what we've talked about so far. We've talked about congregational rabbis a decent amount, and I think that's important. I want to think about how our Jewish world is structured right now. And, because of the clear difficulties and challenges we are about to face and already facing, I want to think about: What is it that may be worth keeping as it is? What is it that is actually fundamentally problematic in a way that we would need to shift it? 

And I think all of us agree that there are both of those. When I look out at the landscape of, let's say, congregations—let's say synagogues, because we've been talking about congregational rabbis—I think we've got this unspoken, but actually fairly interesting, decision, and I do think it was, at some point, a decision, which is that we've built a landscape of American synagogues, the vast majority of which are unified on a particular denominational affiliation and not on a particular set of beliefs or a particular interest group or a particular age group. They're affiliated with a denomination, and that's their core. And then the idea is, oh, we're a Reform congregation, we're a Conservative congregation—our role is to unite people of whatever political beliefs that affiliate or in some way connect to that movement. 

And I say that because we take that for granted—that's just the way it is—but I'm actually not convinced that that's particularly good. I think some of that is good. I think there are some people that really feel a connection to one movement or another, for whom they want that space above any particular space to express a particular Jewish value or be around particular sets of Jewish people. I think some of the people exist. But I look around and I think, wow, would this all be a little different, would we have more congregational rabbis who didn't have their hands tied if we actually had communities where it wasn't the Reform congregation and the Conservative congregation and that's it in a small community, but instead you've got, oh, this is the congregation that people know is for . . . progressives, for people on the left? Maybe that strikes us as a bad thing—I'm curious to hear your thoughts, if that would be actually a step back. But could we envision a world where there were still some of these congregations that were meant to be, sort of, unifying forces and pluralistic, where the rabbis are designed to be pastoral forces for people of all sorts of backgrounds, and could there also be places that are specifically designed for these issues, that are not designed for that pluralism? I'm curious if that would be a nicer—or different, at least—Jewish world.

Shai Held: I think, Lex, that's a really interesting question. Maybe we could back up for a minute and talk about denominations, because, historically, denominations were formed around a set of value commitments. Now, the commitments around which they were formed tended to be, broadly speaking, religious-theological. So, you could imagine certain kinds of ritual performances in an Orthodox synagogue, other kinds of ritual performances in a Reform synagogue. To a large extent that's still true. I think one of the things that has happened is that, first of all, in a more liberal Jewish world, the denominations have become such large tents that it's sometimes unclear what the defining and animating values are. So that's the first piece. 

I think also it's important to say the denominations formed around a certain set of values that were largely religious-theological and less-so political. Now, of course, here's where it get messy, because some Jews operate under the illusion that you can have a serious commitment to a religion and theology without it having political implications. And the truth is you can't worship a God who loves widows and orphans, without the Torah you're being taught having some political implications. 

I think in most circumstances you can't say that there's a one-to-one correspondence between the teaching of the Torah, on the one hand, and this political policy question, on the other. There is good room to disagree about how to alleviate the plight of people who are poor. There is no room to disagree, in my view, about the mandate to alleviate the plight of the poor. That we have an obligation is clear. How the obligation should be played out—there's room for disagreement about. Let's, by all means, argue about what the best approach is to questions of immigration in America, but let's be clear that you can't be an heir of a book that is obsessed with the notion of loving the stranger—which is another way to talking about an immigrant—you can't be an heir of that book and stand passively while immigrants are demonized. You can't do that.

In other words, while the urge was to divide denominationally based on religion and theology and questions of Jewish law, the notion that you could forever keep politics out of the equation and keep it from being determinative in some way may have been an illusion.

I wonder a little bit, Lex, whether your question actually reveals something that is telling about our time, and I say this descriptively—feel free to tell me I'm wrong, obviously—which is that, for many Jews, especially as you move left on the denominational spectrum and left on the political spectrum—some of their political commitments are now so fundamental to who they are that defining their Jewish community around those, rather than on the religious and theological distinctions, may feel more pressing to them. I don't know—that may be the case.

Lex Rofes: Yeah, that's absolutely what I . . . I didn't spell it out, but I do think that that's the case. I appreciate you spelling that out, because I did not clarify that, but yes, I do think that.

Shai Held: So, for me, as a person whose life is oriented around religion and theology, it's one of the ways that . . . you know, in many ways, I'm maybe different than the two of you in this way: I would always want my community to be centered around a certain set of religious commitments. And yet, I want to make sure that this is a very complicated issue because my religious commitments lead me to insist that politics has to be spoken about. I don't want to divide the Jewish community purely along political lines. I want to daven with people with whom I don't share a politics—but I want to be clear, I want the community I'm in to be a safe space for Democrats and Republicans, not for Trumpists. I'm not that invested in that, because at that point we're basically saying that there are no values . . . it's two things: in supporting Trump we're saying there are no statements that are disqualifying, and there are no people who are disqualified, and I find both of those views just impossible to tolerate.

My fear is that we will end up in communities that are merely echo chambers. In other words, I want to be clear that for someone like you—I'm not going to put this on you personally—but for someone like you who wants to have a community where nobody would ever vote for Donald Trump, I think we ought to be careful not to live in a community where nobody would ever consider voting for Mitt Romney, because I don't want to live in that kind of monolith religiously, politically, ethically—because then I'm not challenged to grow. 

This, again, comes back to that point we keep coming back to, about why I don't think this issue is Democrat versus Republican.

Lex Rofes: Sorry, I just want to clarify something. I would not say that I want to inhabit a community where there is nobody who would vote for Donald Trump. I would say that I would want to inhabit a community where, sort of, the space of the community is very clearly not designed for support of Donald Trump. But if there are people who want to opt in, knowing that they are . . . if they, for whatever reason, like the space or the rabbi . . . I don't feel comfortable saying that I would not want to share space with any Trump supporters, but I do think that it's just, sort of, what the core of the community is about.

Shai Held: Right. So I would prefer . . . from my perspective, I would prefer if we talked about a community whose central agenda was questions of how to build a more just society. And it might emerge, in the context of that discussion, that some views are held to be beyond the pale. But I would hope that many views are within the pale.

Maybe that sounds obvious, but I'm not sure it is any longer. I mean, look, here we are, the day after Martin Luther King Day—I found myself thinking a lot yesterday about how much easier it is to revere civil rights leaders of the past than it is to support civil rights movements of the present, because revering civil rights leaders of the past doesn't really cost me very much. Really struggling for civil rights in the present means that I am opened up to controversy. Let's take a very clear and forceful example: You can talk about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King all you want, but if you're not willing to talk about voter suppression in 2016, I'm not sure exactly what it is you're doing when you're talking about Dr. King. You're talking about a largely domesticated teddy bear version of him. 

So I agree with you, and I want to speak personally for a minute. I am not, by temperament, an activist. I am, by temperament, a philosopher, which means that, for most questions about anything, my problem is that I tend to see 37 sides of the question in a way that can be paralyzing—I'm not saying that in some self-flattering way, I think it's actually not always the greatest kind of temperament to have around questions like this. I really feel that, to the extent that I've become an activist over the last few years, I was driven by my reading of the sources that I've spent my life studying and teaching. I felt at a certain point that I could no longer be teaching classes in tanakh—in the Hebrew Bible—at the institution that I run and not be asking the question, what are they saying to me right now? 

I taught a course on the Book of Deuteronomy, and one of the things that kept emerging was how obsessed the Book of Deuteronomy is with the status of those who tend to be excluded from society, and how the society that God wants is a society in which those who tend to be forgotten are remembered and cared for.

And at a certain point I found myself saying, "Either you're full of it, or you're going to live some of this stuff." Am I active enough? Probably not, but I'm trying to live that out in that way. Now, for me, my aspiration, at least, is a kind of holism: the Torah that I learn, the services that I go to in synagogue, and the activism that I engage in, ideally draw from the same sources and are nourished by the same larger worldview and world-commitment.

Is it always whole? Are there fractures? Of course there are. This is the modern world, this is the post-modern world—these are complicated times. But my aspiration is that the entirety of my Judaism and the entirety of my humanity are as integrated as possible.

Dan Libenson: Actually, I think that . . . in our waning moments, I think that actually gives us an interesting transition to something that I think branches off from Trump, but not really. It goes to the deep question, which I hope we'll have a chance to explore again—have you on the podcast again, Shai . . . 

I've heard you introduced as a theologian—as the leading Jewish theologian of your generation, or something like that, and then you often come back and say, "Well, are there any others?" It's not a growth industry . . . 

Shai Held: [Laughs] Right.

Dan Libenson: . . . but that means that you're really the one that I'd love to ask to reflect a little bit on two questions, which I know are huge questions, and we only have a few minutes, but, essentially, it's . . . could you just tell us a little bit positively about the image that you have of God and what God calls upon us to do? And then maybe, just in closing, I was wondering if you could in some way translate that—or do you think that that can be translated—for folks who don't believe in God as an entity, external, somewhere out there, that's calling on us? But is there some way that you find that the image of God, and what God wants of us, that you talk about, can also be deeply powerful as a metaphor? Because I experience it that way when you talk, but I'm wondering how you think about it. Or really it's anchored deeply in this idea that there is a being that calls upon us for this.

Shai Held: I am working on a book right now in which I make the claim that the central category of Jewish theology is love. For all kinds of reasons—which are themselves worthy of a study—but, for all kinds of reasons, many Jews, including many of the most religious Jews, have really lost that language, not least because it's language that in America has been ceded to Christianity.

One really helpful way to think about Jewish theology, spirituality, and ethics, all rolled into one, is that it's essentially a story about a God who loves humanity and the Jewish people, and who calls us to love God, to love one another, and to love the stranger. The God that I aspire to believe in—I want to underscore that point, the God that I aspire to believe in—is a God who loves and calls me to love. We are created in love for the purpose of love.

Do I believe that all the time? No, I don't. And one of the responsibilities I feel I have as a theologian is, I think, acknowledging that the reality of doubt is enormously important and even integral to the task of theology in the 21st century, to acknowledge that there are many good and understandable reasons not to believe in that God.

So the God I aspire to believe in is a God who loves and challenges me and us to live lives of love. Now, obviously, all of that could be played out and fleshed out at greater length. But that's what I aspire to believe in.

Now, can that be heard, and be heard as compelling, by people who don't believe in God? So, here I want to make a distinction, perhaps an obvious one, between me and my listeners. For me, when I talk about God, I'm, in philosophical terms, what's called a metaphysical realist. I believe I'm actually talking about something/someone, that's out there, and it's important for me to say that when I talk, I'm not talking about God as a metaphor. 

Now, that said, is it possible for Dan Libenson to hear what I say and to say, "I find that powerful when I think of God as a metaphor?" Well, of course it is. And I don't really have a problem with that.

I think that it's important for Jews to have a conversation about God because, as I often say, to refuse to ever consider the question of God is to essentially inherit a huge story in which the one rule is you never talk about the main character in the story—in other words, the main character in a Biblical story, in the traditional Talmudic story. Now, when I say "talk about it," I'm under no illusions that that's going to mean all Jews end up being theists, let alone they all end up being theists who believe in exactly the same kind of God as I believe in. I think we would do well as a tradition that, at minimum, started and grew as a religious tradition, to have those conversations.

For some people, those conversations will evolve into, "What am I ultimately committed to? What are the ultimate values? What is really important? What am I willing to stake my life on?" Take a historical example—many secular Zionists who were, if I may use this term, devoutly anti-religious, also drew great inspiration from their readings of the Hebrew Bible. So, I don't see a reason why an American Jew can't do the same thing. 

I feel it's my job, as a rabbi, as a teacher, to put out a vision of Torah that is mine. That vision is very much focused on God, who is very much focused on human beings, which is why theology and ethics are intertwined. But I don't for a minute think that I get to determine who finds Torah meaningful and who can take inspiration in Torah, or even, for that matter, in whatever I have to say about Torah.

If I believe in a God who, at the end of the day, says, "Even more than I want to be worshipped, I want you to learn to love each other," then, by all means, if engaging with Torah helps you learn to love other people, to fight for justice, to build communities where human dignity is real, then more power to you. I, in my life and in my role, will keep on talking about God, and you will translate it into whatever language you need to translate it into. I might not necessarily accept that language, I might not see it as theologically compelling or plausible to me, but maybe that's okay. We live in a world where, thankfully, we don't engage in religious coercion. So, yes, by all means, if hearing Torah with God as a metaphor leads you to live a life that is more just, that is kinder, that is more animated by love, then I'm really glad you're able to read it that way, even if it's not the way I read it.

Dan Libenson: What a great note to end on. Thank you so much for joining us today. I think this is going to be an extremely valuable perspective for us to use as an anchor to think about the forthcoming period in American Jewish history, and we look forward to future conversations about it.

Shai Held: Thank you so much for having me.

Lex Rofes: Thanks again to Shai Held for coming on. This was a great episode, and we hope all of you out there have enjoyed listening and that it's given you something to think about as we enter into this next four years.

We want to close the episode, as we always do, by encouraging our listeners to be in touch with us, and there's a few ways for you to do that. First, you can head to our website, judaismunbound.com. Second, you can always check out our Facebook page, just called Judaism Unbound, and give us a like.

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So, thanks again for listening. And, with that, this has been Judaism Unbound.