Episode 71: What's Judaism For?


What's the point of Judaism? What's it for? In this episode of Judaism Unbound, Dan and Lex examine that question and try to provide some answers to it. In doing so, they discuss and debate the role of rabbis in contemporary life, explore the idea of "religion," and reflect on recent conversations with Rebecca Sirbu, Rami Shapiro, and Shulem Deen.

(0:01 - 15:01): The episode begins, appropriately, with the question included in its title. What's Judaism for? Dan and Lex outline some reasons why this overlooked question may actually be a particularly important one to be asking today, and they also provide some speculative answers to it. [1] They highlight the "rhythm" that Judaism creates for daily, weekly, and yearly life, a system of ritualized behaviors designed to reinforce values, and a commitment to bettering the world at-large as possible "what-fors" that Judaism provides to its adherents. They also return to Irwin Kula's frame of "human flourishing," engaging in dialogue about what that phrase means in a Jewish context. 

(15:02 - 31:05): Often, Jews answer the question "What is Judaism for" by discussing the forms of belonging and community that Judaism can provide. [2] Dan and Lex explore that "what-for" here, looking in particular at the distinctions between Ultra-Orthodox and Non-Orthodox forms of belonging. They then pivot a bit by asking a different (and related) question: What are rabbis for? [3] In other words, how is the role of rabbi changing today? Continuing, Dan and Lex open up a broader, big-picture conversation about what the term "religion" connotes in the 21st century. [4]

Image Credit: ImaginePro Videos

Image Credit: ImaginePro Videos

(31:06 - 48:46): Dan and Lex carry forward their discussion of religion, looking at various political and sociological implications of the term. To close, they discuss (and debate!) a few key questions: should we be looking towards a future where Judaism is a "post-religious" entity? Alternatively, should we look to maintain the idea that Judaism is a religion?  Does "religion" refer primarily to entities that relate to the idea of God, or is the idea of "religion" broader than that? 

[1] A related conversation to this one can be found in Episode 69: Holy Rascals, featuring Rami Shapiro, where Shapiro expounds upon some of the "strengths" and "weaknesses" of Judaism when compared to other religious traditions.

[2] For a deeper look at the Ultra-Orthodox world, including the unique ways in which it fosters bonds of community, listen into Episode 70: After Ultra-Orthodoxy, featuring Shulem Deen.

[3] For another perspective on the present and future of rabbinic authority, listen in to Episode 68: Rabbis Without Borders, featuring Rebecca Sirbu.

[4] If you are interested in exploring the question of whether Judaism is a religion, along with what "religion" even means, we recommend Leora Batznitzky's book, entitled How Judaism Became a Religion. If you'd prefer to listen to Batznitzky speak about it, check out this podcast episode of New Books in Jewish Studies featuring her.