Judaism Unbound Episode 77: Folk Judaism


Who determines what "counts" as genuine Judaism today? Those who serve in official leadership capacities of the Jewish world, or can ordinary Jews (the "folk") determine for themselves what what forms of Jewish life are "authentic" and what Judaism fundamentally "is"? In this episode, Dan and Lex wrestle with this basic question while looking back on a fascinating series of conversations with guests over the past few weeks. [1]

(0:01 - 15:05): On past episodes of Judaism Unbound, Dan and Lex have frequently discussed top-down vs. bottom-up approaches to Judaism. Here, they expand on that them by introducing the language and lens of "folk Judaism" and "elite Judaism." To what extent have we conflated the idea of Judaism writ large with particular forms of elite Judaism that are produced and facilitated by "leaders" (that is, people in positions of formal authority) of the Jewish community, as opposed to the less formally-empowered Jewish "folk." They also explore ways in which representations of Judaism in pop culture and the Jewish camping movement relate to the idea of folk Judaism, [2] along with critiquing the frequently heard aphorism that "Jews might do all sorts of things, but 'Judaism' stands for X."

(15:06 - 29:08):  Can Judaism accurately described as one collective people in 2017? [3] Dan and Lex ask whether we will see a schism (or schisms) in Judaism in the coming years, or even if such a split has already occurred. Would a fracturing of Jewish collective identity (often understood through the lens of "peoplehood") be a tragedy, or would it be a natural development in a period of transition? They also revisit a major theme of their conversation with Lila Corwin Berman -- whether such a thing as apolitical Judaism exists, and, if it does, whether it is desirable. They also ask whether the idea of peoplehood is an inherently conservative concept.

(29:09 - 48:13): Is the death of a Jewish institution (or even an entire version of Judaism) necessarily a tragedy in every case? Through the example of a project called Jews in the Woods, [4] Dan and Lex explore whether there are actually some important positive results that can come from the death (and occasionally, re-birth) of Jewish institutions. They also look at heretics in the Jewish tradition, and ask whether there might be ways to reclaim the idea of heresy in a positive sense. [5] To close, they look back at their conversation with Susan Katz Miller, asking how folk Judaism relates in today's world to elements of folk Christianity. [6]

[1] This episode reflects on the previous five episodes. To access them, click the following links: Episode 72: The Power of Popular Culture - Randi Zuckerberg, Episode 73: Being Both - Susan Katz Miller, Episode 74: Beyond Jewish Identity - Ari Y. Kelman, Episode 75: The Myth of Apolitical Judaism - Lila Corwin Berman, Episode 76: The Project of Jewish Education - David Bryfman

[2] When discussing pop culture, the TV show Transparent, and its treatment of a wide variety of American-Jewish issues, comes up. For more on the role that Judaism and Jewishness plays on Transparent read this Washington Post article, entitled "Better-than-ever 'Transparent' transitions into a study of American Jewish-ness."

[3] For a piece that suggests Jewish peoplehood may not be an enduring phenomenon, see this article by past Judaism Unbound guest Shaul Magid, entitled "Letting Go of Jewish 'Peoplehood.'"

[4] In discussing the death and rebirth of Jewish institutions, Lex refers to a New Voices article about Jews in the Woods. Entitled "Is Jews in the Woods a Casualty of its Own Success?" , you can access it by clicking here.

[5] In their discussion of heresy, Dan and Lex refer to Elisha ben Abuya, a famous heretic mentioned in the Talmud. For a novel that provides a window into that character in Jewish history, read Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf.

[6] Dan and Lex discuss whether things like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are best thought of as elements of folk religion that Christians engage with or, alternatively, as a genuine part of Christianity in our time. For an article reflecting on this from a Christian perspective, see "What We Tell Our Kids About the Easter Bunny," by Pastor Mark Driscoll.