Judaism Unbound Episode 121: Homecoming and Arrival - Yehuda Kurtzer


Dan and Lex are joined by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America[1] for the 5th episode in Judaism Unbound's series on the relationship of American Jews and Israel. In their conversation, Kurtzer questions ideas of Judaism as a "family," puts forth a case for why American Jews should care about Israel in the first place, and provides ideas for new frameworks of Israel education.

 Image Credit: Peninsula Jewish Community Center

Image Credit: Peninsula Jewish Community Center

(0:01 - 12:41): To begin the episode, Kurtzer chronicles the ways in which Israel, once uniquely suited to serve as a "unifier" across different strands of American-Jewish life, has now become one of the most divisive topics of all. [2] Relatedly, he questions whether the idea of the Jewish people as a worldwide "family" really holds water, arguing that we may be better served by other metaphors for 21st century Judaism. [3] He then explores how his conceptions of "history and memory" relate to Israel in contemporary Jewish life. Carrying that question forward to the topic of the Holocaust, Kurtzer lays out three paradigmatic "lessons" that different groups of Jews take from it -- "don't be a victim," "don't be a perpetrator," and "don't be a bystander" -- examining the ramifications of each. [4]

(12:42 - 30:00): For many American Jews, the question isn't "what should I think about Israel," but rather "should I think about Israel at all?" Kurtzer provides his answer to that question through an argument that may be a bit surprising. His argument is not that Israel is uniquely moral or good, but rather that it is "interesting." For anyone with a desire to think deeply about the intersection of Judaism and power, or those fascinated by the collision of Jewish fantasy and reality, Israel constitutes one of the broader "data sets" in human history. Kurtzer goes on to explore the role of Israel in Jewish educational contexts, questioning whether "love" of Israel really is a pre-requisite to intensive study about it. [5]

(30:01 - 47:24): Kurtzer and Dan debate whether the projects of American Judaism and Israeli Judaism should be understood as autonomous, entirely inter-related, or something in-between those two poles. [6] Kurtzer outlines how Israel can actually be approached in American-Jewish life not only as an end in and of itself, but also as an entryway into broader philosophical and political questions that are relevant to contemporary Jews. To close the episode, the conversation shifts gears to the issue of social media. Kurtzer, whose Facebook page has become an important location for Jewish communal discourse, underscores some strengths and weaknesses of discussions that occur about Judaism in online fora. [7] 

 Image Credit: Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

Image Credit: Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

[1] Learn more about Yehuda Kurtzer by reading his bio, accessible at this link. Listen to his previous appearance on Judaism Unbound by checking out Episode 41: HIstory and Memory.

[2] Learn more about this shift by listening to Episode 118: Trouble in the Tribe - Dov Waxman.

[3] For more on the metaphor of the nation-as-family, we recommend the work of George Lakoff, including his books Metaphors We Live By and Don't Think of an Elephant.

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[4] Explore these three lessons in more detail by reading "A last lesson from the Holocaust: 'thou shalt not be a perpetrator, victim or a bystander,'" written by David Cesarani in 2002.

[5] For a piece that argues for a re-conceptualization of Israel education, see "Israel Education for Knowledge, Connection, and Stance," written by Jonah Hassenfeld and featured in eJewish Philanthropy

[6] Read a 2017 piece by Kurtzer related to this issue here.

[7] For a 2018 article about Kurtzer, and his commitment to pluralism, click here.