Judaism Unbound Episode 101: Not Your Rabbis' Judaism - Barbara Thiede


Dan and Lex are joined by Barbara Thiede, who is both a Teaching Professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte and an ordained rabbi who serves as a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement. [1] In their conversation, Thiede questions the myth that rabbis "saved Judaism" in the aftermath of the Second Temple's destruction and pushes us to consider and elevate narratives of Judaism that do not revolve around rabbinic texts and teachings.

(0:01 - 14:46): To begin the episode, Barbara Thiede explains that historians have known for decades that the story of rabbis "saving" Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple is a mythical narrative -- not a factual one. [2] Terming this story "the Rabbinic myth," she provides examples that demonstrate how Rabbinic Judaism was not at all central to the vast majority of Jews' lives for many hundreds of years (and, in some cases, much longer). As one example, she spotlights one community that embodies many of her important points -- the Jews of Kaifeng, China. [3] 

(14:47 - 31:47): Thiede critiques the tendency to minimize non-Rabbinic forms of Jewish life through a comparison to Christians who attempt to minimize Judaism because Christianity "won." She then provides her take on an ongoing thread of Judaism Unbound, the duality of Elite Judaism and Folk Judaism, [4] along with ways that they interact with one another, and with the cultures in which they are immersed. Thiede then takes a look at contemporary life, honing in on what the role of the rabbi looks like today, and how she (a rabbi herself) balances her ownership of that role with her desire to change what it connotes.

Members of Kaifeng's Jewish community today. Image Credit: The Sino-Judaic Institute

Members of Kaifeng's Jewish community today. Image Credit: The Sino-Judaic Institute

(31:48 - 46:46):  Dan poses a question to both Thiede and Lex (the former an ordained rabbi, and the latter in the process of rabbinic ordination). He asks, given their pre-disposition towards re-defining Judaism as we know it, why they chose to pursue that re-definition from the "inside" (as a rabbi), and not from outside, as Dan has sought to. [5] To close the episode, Thiede examines myths around the concept of "diaspora," which have played an important role in our Jewish past and continue to loom large today.

[1] For Thiede's bio, click here (scroll down the page, as bios on it are listed in alphabetical order).

[2] Read more from Thiede on this matter by checking out a blog post of hers, entitled "On the Rabbinic Narrative and 'Threats' to Judaism."

[3] Learn more about the history of the Jews of Kaifeng by reading Michael Pollak's essay, entitled "Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews." 

The inscription from the grave of Rufina. Image Credit: PhilipHarland.com.

The inscription from the grave of Rufina. Image Credit: PhilipHarland.com.

[4] Thiede mentions a book by Joshua Trachtenberg on this subject, entitled Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. Purchase it by clicking here.

[5] In responding to Dan, Thiede mentions a woman named Rufina, who served as a leader ("Rosh" in Hebrew) of a Jewish community in Smyrna (Asia Minor), during the 2nd Century C.E. Learn more about her in this MyJewishLearning essay, by Ross Kraemer, entitled "Rufina and Her Sisters."

[6] For an in-depth look at the problems inherent to the idea of "diaspora" today, we recommend New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora, by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer.