Judaism Unbound Episode 184: Disorganized Religion - Dan and Lex

Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg call for future forms of Judaism that will be less institutional and more disorganized. [1]

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(0:01 - 11:58): To begin the episode, Dan hones in on recent conversations with Urban Kibbutz and Judaism On Our Own Terms, bringing up the idea of “pseudo-organizations.” [2] Questioning the idea that “sustainability” should be among the most important characteristics of our Jewish organizations today, he argues that we should find ways to define organizational success that are not based simply on the continued existence of an institution. Lex brings up the “life cycle” of student-groups on many college campuses as a way of building on this idea. Specifically, he notes that a huge percentage of student-groups that currently exist on campuses were formed in the last 5-10 years, that a similarly huge percentage will not exist in 5-10 more years, and that may actually be a positive story.


(11:59 - 28:18): Dan asks an open-ended, and maybe counter-intuitive, question. What could be achieved in a Jewish world only if the norm became organizations (or “disorganizations”) that exist for a short period of time, whose goal is not at all to be sustainable over many generations? Lex answers by saying that focusing on the here and now, and not on sustaining an organization for the future, automatically allows for ideas that are more radical, ambitious, and (yes) risky. [3] Lex also calls back to a recent episode with the New Synagogue Project, arguing that we could benefit from less “organized Judaism” and more of an “organizers’ Judaism” (a Judaism built by community organizers). Dan carries that point forward, asserting that an organizers Judaism would, on one level, benefit existing institutions, but perhaps more importantly it would create a thriving ecosystem of Jewish life manifesting outside of organized institutions.

(28:19 - 44:26): Lex reflects on his own blind-spot, earlier in this conversation, whereby he mapped ideas of community organizing only onto existing institutions, instead of broadening the idea to encompass Judaisms that manifest outside of institutions as well. Dan pivots to talk about how contemporary Jews (and Jewish organizations) define success and failure. He looks at the story of BimBam — a digital home for videos about Jewish texts, holidays, and culture that closed recently — as an example of how we could re-conceptualize ideas of success that hinge on continued existence over many generations, which automatically define closure of an organization as failure. [4] Lex advocates for a future of Jewish organization-building in which many projects would, from the get-go, be designed with an expiration date. [5] To close the episode, Dan draws an analogy of Judaism to starting a fire, which begins not with the biggest logs, but with tiny twigs whose flames can then expand to larger logs, and Lex takes the opportunity to look at how that analogy connects to the next theme Judaism Unbound will tackle: Jewish education.

[1] At the top of the episode, Dan mentions two exciting Judaism Unbound developments! The first is that our 2nd-annual edition of Elul Unbound is almost here: sign up to participate by clicking here. The other is that we are in the process of raising funds for a book, to be published soon (working title is Judaism Unbound…Bound). It will be a collection of transcripts of some of our best episodes, plus commentary, discussion questions, and more! Help make this book a reality by clicking here.

[2] Check out the full conversations with these two (pseudo) organizations here - Episode 182: Judaism On Our Own Terms - Tal Frieden, August Kahn, Episode 183: Intentional Community - Sara Levy Linden, Shira Rutman

[3] In this section of the episode, Dan cites Benay Lappe and Amichai Lau-Lavie, two of our past “frequent flyer” podcast guests (more than one appearance each!), as the rare kinds of folks that are finding a way to craft innovative organizations that are reaching people who wouldn’t otherwise be connecting to Jewish institutional life at all. Listen to their appearances on the show at any of the following links: Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe, Episode 29: Lab/Shul - Amichai Lau-Lavie, Episode 36: What Jewish Looks Like Today - Benay Lappe Episode 56: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva - Benay Lappe, Bonus Episode - Intermarriage: Changing the Rules - Amichai Lau-Lavie

[4] Listen in to our episode on BimBam, featuring its founder Sarah Lefton, by clicking here - Episode 24: BimBam - Sarah Lefton. Dan also mentions the closing of JDub Records, which you can learn about here, as an example we can learn from as we seek to re-define institutional success in Jewish life.

[5] Dan notes that the Avi Chai Foundation, which has committed to spend down all of its assets before the end of the 2020s decade, provides one model for what this kind of thinking could look like. Learn more about the phenomenon of foundations in Jewish life that are spending down by reading “When Foundations’ Days Are Numbered,” a 2012 piece in The Forward, written by Amy Schiller.

Sara Levy Linden, Shira Rutman: Judaism Unbound Episode 183 - Intentional Community

Sara Levy Linden and Shira Rutman, two members of San Francisco’s Urban Kibbutz, join Dan and Lex for a conversation about what constitutes an intentional community.

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(0:01 - 18:26): To begin the episode, Levy Linden looks back at the beginnings of the Urban Kibbutz in San Francisco. [1] Rutman speaks to the kinds of programming that they run, and explains how even without shared housing (as is the case for many kibbutzes in Israel), there can be a strong sense of shared community for their kibbutz. She also articulates why they sought to foster a communal space around Judaism in particular, and talks through the flow of the group from week to week, and over the course of the Jewish calendar year. Levy Linden adds a note about the influence of Hakhel, a global incubator for intentional Jewish communities, in helping make this Urban Kibbutz a reality. [2]

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(18:27 - 31:47): Levy Linden considers the word “kibbutz,” and explains why they chose to go by that moniker instead of other options. [3] The two guests, along with Dan, explore the similarities and differences between the urban kibbutz, and something like a condo association (which Dan dubs an “unintentional community”). Rutman explores why she doesn’t think that there should be a “manual” with ready-made rituals for communities like this, but does assert that a guide for how to design your own rituals would be helpful. [4] Both Levy Linden and Rutman look back at some of the landmark moments of Urban Kibbutz thus far, especially emphasizing a Tu Bish’vat Seder that they organized in Golden Gate Park.

(31:48 - 46:18): Looking at the demographics of their group, Levy Linden discusses how they have more interfaith (or multi-faith) families than otherwise. Dan brings back some of Judaism Unbound’s ongoing conversations about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, asking to what extent this urban kibbutz arose because local Jewish institutions weren’t able to effectively meet some of these families’ Jewish needs. [5] To close the episode, the two guests offer some words of advice to those who might be interested in starting a similar kind of group in their area. Levy Linden and Rutman each call for groups to start by holding small events — perhaps with just one other family — and allowing growth to happen gradually over time. [6]

[1] Levy Linden cites an article in J Weekly that helped kickstart their urban kibbutz. Read that article, written by Drew Himmelstein and entitled “Squeezed Out: Housing Prices Gut Dream for Jewish Middle Class,” by clicking here.

[2] Learn more about Hakhel, an initiative of Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability, by clicking here.

[3] Levy Linden invokes the phrase “a Kibbutz Without Walls” to describe their work. Hear more about the idea of Jewish institutions without walls by listening to Episode 20: Jewish Without Walls - Beth Finger.

[4] For more on ideas of ritual design, see Episode 180: The Ritual Design Lab - Margaret Hagan, Kursat Ozenc.

[5] To further explore the ramifications of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for contemporary Jewish life, see Episode 109: Open Doors - Dan and Lex.

[6] Rutman describes her experience growing up in a Havurah, offering up how it may have influenced her participation in this urban kibbutz today. Learn more about the Havurah movement through two Judaism Unbound episodes - Episode 84: The Jewish Catalog, Then and Now - Riv-Ellen Prell and Episode 86: We’re the Jews We’ve Been Waiting For - Dan and Lex.

Tal Frieden, August Kahn: Judaism Unbound Episode 182 - Judaism On Our Own Terms

Tal Frieden and August Kahn, two leaders of Judaism On Our Own Terms (a new national network of student-led Jewish communities) join Dan and Lex for a conversation about how Jewish campus life today can help us build the Judaisms of tomorrow. [1] [2]

(0:01 - 18:02): To begin the episode, Frieden and Kahn give an overview of Judaism On Our Own Terms (JOOOT). They explore its vision for independent, student-led Jewish communities on campus and emphasize that Jewish organizations should be accountable, first and foremost, to the needs of their constituent members over the desires of their donors. Kahn looks at the associations of a college education, and he argues that the organizations making up JOOOT embody the exploratory spirit of college life in a way that powerfully reflects broader campus dynamics. Frieden considers how JOOOT encourages its constituent groups (and individual members) to question elements of American Judaism that they might have previously taken for granted. Both guests then consider the ways in which these newer campus groups naturally lend themselves to flexibility and change. [3] They also respond to institutional restrictions on discourse (specifically on the issue of Israel-Palestine) — simultaneously naming that these policies have led to a need for other organizations to arise on campus, and stating that independent Jewish communities serve other needs as well. [4]

(18:03 - 31:25): Frieden and Kahn dive deeper into the question of funding (and funders). [5] Frieden explores whether a future in which many forms of Jewish life manifest on campus without as much funding (perhaps counter-intuitively, perhaps not) could actually have a powerful impact and resonate very deeply with a large population of students. Kahn reflects on the idea of “Jewish continuity,” arguing that Judaism has always been (and will always be) changing. As a corollary, he calls for donors to focus not on the continuation only of their own visions of Judaism, but also on new visions coming from current college students. In doing so, he identifies an “intellectually ravenous” population among Jewish college students that might not be finding stimulating programming in mainstream institutions.

(31:26 - 51:06): Kahn tells the story of his group’s founding (Nishmat at the Claremont Colleges), and Frieden looks back at the origin story of Friday Night Jews. Kahn describes his community, where juxtaposing James Baldwin’s writings with the Talmud, and both of those with last week’s neuroscience class, is common. [6] Frieden describes Friday Night Jews, where on any given weekend, a facilitator organizes a conversation around a key issue — ranging from antisemitism, to restorative justice, to the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, and sanctions). To close the episode, Kahn looks at the ways in which JOOOT’s work can inform not only how people think about Judaism on campus, but how they think about Judaism in general. [7]

[1] Learn more about Judaism On Our Own Terms at Jooot.org.

[2] JOOOT is hosting their 2nd annual gathering, September 20th-22nd in Providence, Rhode Island (on Brown University’s campus). You can support this event on GoFundMe by clicking here.

[3] If you’re looking to start up your own independent Jewish community on campus (or anywhere!), check out JOOOT’s guidebook, accessible by clicking here.

[4] Hear more about the Israel-Palestine conversation on college campuses by listening into Episode 126: Open Hillel - Rachel Sandalow-Ash, Eva Ackerman.

[5] For an article about the role that donors play with respect to Jewish campus institutions, see “Who Funds Religious Life on College Campuses?,” written by Rachel Silverman, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College. To hear more about Jewish campus life in general, from students themselves, we recommend NewVoices.org.

[6] Kahn mentions a Haggadah created by JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice). Check out a wide variety of resources that JFREJ has put together for Passover seders over the years by clicking here.

[7] To read more about the origin-story and current work of Judaism On Our Own Terms, see this recent article featured in Jewish Currents, entitled “Red Line Rebellion,” and written by Jess Schwalb, a student at Northwestern University.

Joseph Berman, Lauren Spokane: Judaism Unbound Episode 181 - The New Synagogue Project

Joseph Berman, founding rabbi of The New Synagogue Project (NSP), and Lauren Spokane, NSP’s “lead instigator,” join Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about how their intentional community is looking to help build a better, more just world. [1]

(0:01 - 15:05): To begin the episode, Berman and Spokane respond to two inter-related questions that frequently arise for them: 1) Why on earth are you looking to start a new synagogue, and 2) But isn’t the synagogue model dead? They assert a variety of ways in which they believe synagogues continue to play a vital role, and they argue that they are particularly well-situated to serve the role of intentional community — something that many people desire, even if they might not yet be considering joining a synagogue. [2] They make the case for continuing to have forms of membership in synagogue contexts, arguing that even in an era when many decry a lack of “joiners,” people will affiliate with organizations that really deeply speak to their values. [3]

(15:06- 32:11): Spokane speaks to the ways in which social justice is the “bedrock” of the New Synagogue Project community and a community organizing approach is its “backbone.” [4] She suggests that an important function of their organization is to center those who have, in other Jewish settings, been on the margins (including Jews of color, people in interfaith relationships, LGBTQ Jews, and others). Berman carries that conversation forward, arguing that the realms of the religious and the political cannot realistically be seen as separate, citing as an example the ways in which belief in human beings as tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) necessitates standing up against white supremacy. The two guests then look at their geographic location within Washington D.C, and they consider ways in which spiritual organizations provide a context not only for resistance against the oppression we see in the world, but additionally for imagining what a more liberated future could look like. [5]

(32:12 - 48:40): Berman argues that there is a pervasive tendency towards seeing money as dirty, which in the long term does harm to progressive organizations which are often (as a result) under-resourced. He also discusses the beginning of NSP’s Hebrew school, which does not yet exist but will in the fall of 2020. [6] Turning to the topic of Israel-Palestine, Berman explores how The New Synagogue Project can stand proudly and publicly against the occupation, choose not to mix Jewish practice with political nationalism, and still simultaneously maintain a very big tent around Zionism and Anti-Zionism. To close the episode, Spokane and Berman reflect on some of the greatest strengths of their burgeoning project.

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[1] Learn more about The New Synagogue Project by heading to NewSynagogueproject.org. Find out the answers to some FAQs about the organization by clicking here.

[2] Find out why the name “New Synagogue Project” was chosen by reading this piece, written by Berman.

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[3] Berman alludes to an article by Toba Spitzer, on the subject of synagogue dues. Check out her piece, published in Sh’ma Now and entitled “The Covenant of Money,” by clicking here.

[4] Spokane mentions that both she and Berman have a background in community organizing through their training with the Industrial Areas Foundation. Learn more about the IAF by visiting IndustrialAreasFoundation.org.

[5] Berman cites a few other congregations around the country doing similar justice-driven work. Learn more about them at the following links: HinenuBaltimore.org (Hinenu, Baltimore), Kol-Tzedek.org (Kol Tzedek, Philadelphia), TzedekChicago.org (Tzedek Chicago), KolotChayeinu.org (Kolot Chayeinu, New York City)

[6] Stay tuned for many episodes of Judaism Unbound looking squarely at the topic of Jewish education, beginning just a few weeks after the release of this episode!

Margaret Hagan, Kursat Ozenc: Judaism Unbound Episode 180 - The Ritual Design Lab

Margaret Hagan and Kursat Ozenc, co-creators of the Ritual Design Lab, based at Stanford University’s Institute of Design (the “d.school”), and co-authors of the book Rituals for Work, join Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to investigate what rituals are, why they matter, and how they work. [1] [2]

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(0:01 - 17:32): To begin the episode, Hagan and Ozenc provide a framework for what a ritual even is! Pushing beyond the largest and grandest rituals (weddings, funerals, etc), they talk about ways in which even the daily process of drinking a cup of coffee can become ritualized (and has been by some of their students). They reflect on the origins of their Ritual Design Lab, beginning with Ozenc’s research on transitions and eventually evolving into a class they teach together. [3] Continuing, they take a look at some of the reasons that rituals hold weight for people and add value to their lives, highlighting the sense of comfort, or guidance, that they can give, along with creating a sensation of control during moments that might otherwise feel uncertain or ambiguous. They also explore the benefits of compact (short!) rituals, those that take into account body in addition to mind, and those that balance the realms of familiar and novel. [4]

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(17:33 - 32:31): Hagan and Lex bond over their shared connection to sports, and the ways in which sports — like religion — can easily be a realm conducive to the implementation of rituals. She also distinguishes between rituals created and overseen by large central institutions (often religious institutions) and those pioneered by individuals or small groups for themselves. Ozenc explores the ways in which simply calling a particular task “a ritual” can make people connect on a deeper level to that task and add layers of meaning, [5] and both guests look at reasons why rituals designed by others can often land more effectively on us than rituals an individual might attempt to design for their own use. Dan asks whether there are particular kinds of people who naturally feel comfortable with the creation of new rituals in ways that might be challenging for those who struggle to suspend their own disbelief.

(32:32 - 51:19): Looking specifically at the realm of rituals created for a workplace environment, Hagan and Ozenc name some of the challenges that can arise when the purpose of ritual is to yield profit for a company. They also advocate for ways in which, despite the potential pitfalls, implementing workplace rituals — even in a large corporation — can have a meaningful and positive impact. [6] Each guest names a few rituals designed by their students, including those that involve (we kid you not!) desks, secret dance moves, and rocks. Ozenc looks back at his own life experience, highlighting ways in which his immigration from Turkey to the United States helped lead to his interest in transitions (and then in ritual). Hagan considers how her career in legal aid groups, and her immersion in the court system, led to an interest in culture-change and organizational structure. [7] To close the episode, each of the two guests shares a personal ritual that they utilize in their own everyday life.

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[1] Learn more about Margaret Hagan by clicking here, learn more about Kursat Ozenc by clicking here, and purchase their book Rituals for Work: 50 Ways to Create Engagement, Shared Purpose, and a Culture of Bottom-Up Innovation at this link.

[2] Check out this 2018 feature in The Atlantic about Ozenc and Hagan’s work, entitled “A Design Lab is Making Rituals for Secular People.”

[3] For an article looking simultaneously at the role of transitions in gender and in Judaism, see this Jewish Currents piece, entitled “Transitions in Jewish Time: A Trans Writer Visits the Mikveh.”

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[4] Ozenc and Hagan allude to the “Wundt Novelty Curve” (pioneered by Wilhelm Wundt, an early psychologist). To learn more about this topic, its relationship to the ideas of “familiarity” and “novelty,” and some of the ramifications for contemporary design, see the article “Novelty and Interestingness Measures for Design-space Exploration,” put together by a group of Dutch and Danish researchers.

[5] For more on the ways in which simply conceptualizing an action as a “ritual” can make us connect to that action on a deeper level, see this Harvard Business School study, alluded to by Ozenc and summed up in an article with the title “Rituals Make Us Value Things More.”

[6] Hagan mentions The Office (the award-winning sitcom) as a show that encapsulates many ways that ritual can be embedded into a workplace environment. For more on some of the hidden ways in which religious themes embed themselves into this show, see this article.

[7] For more of Hagan’s work on Legal Design, check out LawByDesign.co.

David Zvi Kalman: Judaism Unbound Episode 179 - The Jewish Polymath

David Zvi Kalman founded and owns Print-O-Craft (an independent publisher of Jewish books), co-founded Jewish Public Media (a podcasting platform), and recently completed his PhD — in Jewish technology and Islamic jurisprudence — at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about what it’s like to wear many Jewish hats, all at once. [1] [2]

(0:01 - 15:43): To begin the episode, David Zvi Kalman reflects on why he has built his career on doing multiple Jewish projects at once, as opposed to focusing solely on one project at a time. He then looks back on his founding of Print-O-Craft, a for-profit publishing company, and Jewish Public Media, a non-profit podcasting organization. He thinks practically about how he answers the question “what do you do” at cocktail parties, and — drawing on the book His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman — explores more broadly how we might push back on the idea that people must be committed only to one professional project at a time. [3] He tells the story behind the name “Print-O-Craft” and provides some background on how he makes decisions about what books to publish through his company. [4]

(15:44 - 32:14): Print-O-Craft doesn’t publish all that many books, and that’s a conscious choice. Kalman provides his reasoning — in some ways practical and in other ways ideological — for only publishing a small number of books. He looks at the difference between “perennials” (books associated with a particular holiday or season, which become newly relevant every year) and other books that are most relevant only when they are first released. Shifting gears, Lex asks Kalman about his dissertation, and the lessons it can teach us about the history of Jewish time-keeping. He hones in on the ways in which technological improvements have improved accuracy (through innovations like microscopes), and the questions that have come up for Jews as a result of them.

(32:15 - 50:19): Kalman calls on Jews to envision their processes of innovation and change not as random aberrations, but instead as the “central process of Jewish history.” Next, for maybe the first time in Judaism Unbound history, the conversation turns toward the modality of podcasting itself, with Kalman giving his thoughts on what this medium has to provide the Jewish present and future. As a corollary, he calls on folks to fill what he sees as a big gap — Jewish content on Youtube. [5] To close the episode, Kalman talks through his “public-first policy” (putting out new research in a publicly accessible format before it is released in academic form), and he analyzes some of the barriers that prevent greater bridging between the academy and Jewish organizations. [6]

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[1] Learn more about David Zvi Kalman by visiting DavidZvi.com.

[2] Check out Print-O-Craft’s website at Shabb.es and learn more about Jewish Public Media at JPMedia.co. For a deep-dive into one of the books published by Print-O-Craft recently, see Episode 170: Queering the Jewish Bookshelf - Noam Sienna.

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[3] Kalman refers to the Ben Franklin Effect at this point in the conversation. Learn more about it here.

[4] Lex mentions a past Judaism Unbound episode, featuring Fred Price. Listen in to it by clicking here: Episode 95 - Doing Jewish For Yourself (Fred Price)

[5] For past podcast episodes relating to Jewish videos, and Youtube in particular, see Episode 24: BimBam - Sarah Lefton and Episode 63: JewTube - Oona King.

[6] A few digital resources that can help you connect with current scholarship in Jewish Studies were mentioned in the final few minutes of the show. First, Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies, which can be accessed here. Second, there is The Talmud Blog, which you can check out at TheTalmud.Blog. Third, we encourage you to take a look at AncientJewReview.com.

Shira Stutman (Part 2) - Judaism Unbound Episode 178: I-Wish-I-Had-This-Itis

Shira Stutman, who serves as Senior Rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for the second half of a 2-part conversation. [1] Together they ask some big questions about the ecosystem of 21st century Judaism, working to combat a disease (not physical!) they term “Wish-I-Had-This-Itis” in the process. [2]

(0:01 - 17:13): Picking up the conversation that began in Part 1, Stutman discusses the challenges associated with people “aging out” of their synagogue due to its focus on people in their 20s and 30s. She then argues that the biggest markers of Sixth & I’s success relate not to the number of people who attend their programs, but how they connect Jewishly in the years that follow. [3] In addition, she claims that it is better for the Jewish people to have a large central body for a large group of people (in this case, Jews and loved ones in their 20s and 30s) than to have many smaller groups associated with a high number of Jewish institutions. She also explores, with respect to the broader Jewish ecosystem, whether it may be necessary for many institutions to close or merge. [4]

(17:14 - 30:22): Lex opens up a conversation about “Wish-I-Had-This-Itis” — not quite an actual disease, but a fear he has that people will hear episodes of this show and the main takeaway will be “Oy! Wish we had that in our community. Bummer that we don’t.” Stutman names a variety of crucial elements that any Jewish community of any size could embody that are characteristics of Sixth & I. Turning to the topic of conversion, Stutman asks (and answers) a question that might seem strange: “Is Judaism good, or is Judaism not good?” In doing so, she analyzes ways in which non-Jewish loved ones are often the ones who notice the most exciting, powerful elements of Judaism to a greater extent than those who are themselves Jewish. She then considers a few needs that are common to many Jews in their 20s and 30s.

(30:23 - 45:07): Stutman invokes another question — asked of her by her husband over 20 years ago — that had a lasting impact. “Who is Rashi?” [5] She details why this question, asked in preparation for the D’var Torah (sermonette) he’d be giving on their wedding day, helped her think more expansively about the power of people who don’t carry the ‘have-tos’ and ‘we’ve-always-done-it-this-ways’ of Judaism. To close the episode, Stutman names a core element of Sixth & I’s thinking — “The Torah can take it” — and calls on American Jews to really internalize that teaching.

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[1] Listen to the first half of this two-part conversation by clicking here: Episode 177: Spreading The Good (Jewish) News - Shira Stutman.

[2] Learn more about Shira Stutman by clicking here. Learn more about Sixth & I Historic Synagogue at SixthAndI.org.

[3] For a Judaism Unbound episode that explores the metrics Jewish institutions use to measure success, see Episode 110: Glean - Elan Babchuck.

[4] Here, Lex refers to an article on the history of endowments in Jewish life. Access the piece, written by past Judaism Unbound guest Lila Corwin Berman, by clicking here.

[5] Part of the importance of the story Stutman tells is that people who don’t know who Rashi was have a great deal to teach us about Judaism. That said, if you want to learn about who Rashi was, click here!

Shira Stutman (Part 1): Judaism Unbound Episode 177 - Spreading The Good (Jewish) News

Shira Stutman, who serves as Senior Rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, thinks that Judaism has a ton to offer the world. In the first half of a 2-part conversation with Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg, she has the chutzpah to argue that active Jewish outreach, and even forms of Jewish “evangelizing,” might be a pretty worthwhile idea! [1]

(0:01 - 17:05): To begin the episode, Stutman gives an overview of the work that Sixth & I Historic Synagogue does. She looks back at the history of her organization, [2] which in one sense is over 100 years old, but in another sense is quite new, given its rebirth less than 20 years ago. She discusses the importance of having organizations like hers, which focus expressly on young adults and provide space for them to connect with one another. Diving deeper into some of the particular elements of her Washington D.C context, she explores what it means to serve a community with such a transient population, [3] and she also argues that having a centralized body for young adults is preferable to a situation where every synagogue would have its own, smaller “young and Jewish” group.

(17:06 - 27:03): Stutman describes Sixth & I as an “outreach organization” and talks about the ways in which it seeks to bring people closer to Jewish life. In doing so, she cites the diversity of Friday night services there, which may be Reform one week, Conservative next, and a Reconstructionist “Jewish camp style” service the week after that. She also considers some of the strengths of having a building, even as much of the Jewish world has been shifting away from forms of community that revolve around one central edifice. [4] [5]

(27:04 - 41:47): Clarifying that the “secular” and “religious” elements of 6th & I’s programming aren’t entirely separate from one another, Stutman explores some of the Jewish themes that undergird programming (such as celebrity lectures) that might appear at first glance to be a-religious. She also asserts that Judaism as a “meaning-making technology.” Looking back at the idea of kiruv (outreach/bringing-near) that Stutman introduced earlier, she explores what it is, precisely, that we should be looking to bring people near to. She closes the 1st half of this two-part conversation by arguing that we shouldn’t necessarily understand “evangelize” as a dirty word in Jewish life.

[1] Learn more about Shira Stutman here. Check out Sixth & I Historic Synagogue’s website at SixthAndI.org, and read a New York Times article about the organization here.

[2] Check out Sixth & I’s historic timeline, dating all the way back to the 19th century, at this link.

[3] For a couple articles that explore the transient nature of Washington D.C’s population — both the perceptions of transience and the realities — see these articles: from WAMU.org, from GGWash.org

[4] Here, Lex alludes to the Jewish Emergent Network, a national organization that includes Sixth & I as one of its member organizations. Learn more at JewishEmergentNetwork.org.

[5] Stutman quickly cites the idea of “third space” in discussing the role that Sixth & I’s building plays in its programming. Explore the related idea of “third space” through a Jewish lens by checking out this eJewishPhilanthropy piece by Alex Weissman.

Zelig Golden: Judaism Unbound Episode 176 - Wilderness Torah

Zelig Golden, the Founding Director of Wilderness Torah, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about nature, roots, education, and the Jewish future.

(0:01 - 14:53): To begin the episode, Golden gives an overview of Wilderness Torah’s vision and programming. [1] He looks back at his own journey from life as an environmental lawyer to his role as co-founder (and eventually rabbi) of Wilderness Torah. He considers ways in which widespread psychological epidemics in American society may be linked to disconnection from nature, [2] and discusses the ancient forms of earth-based Jewish practice on which Wilderness Torah is rooted. [3] He argues that, even as he is reaching back multiple millennia to the earliest days of Jewish tradition, he maintains a deep love for the rabbinic tradition, which is more recent in the grand scheme of Jewish history. Expanding on that, he argues that rabbinic Judaism in many ways is a “post-traumatic religious response to exile.” He distinguishes between moments in which Judaism feels real and those in which it doesn’t.

(14:54 - 28:38): Hammering home the idea that “earthlings” are “earth,” [4] Golden asserts not only that human beings are part of nature, but — above and beyond that — we are nature. He looks at the ways in which transcendent experiences, [5] at retreats or otherwise in nature, can translate back into day-to-day experience. [6] He also reflects on some of the jobs that Judaism can effectively do, emphasizing its cycles of time and its guidance around questions of being human on planet earth. Next, Golden balances a call for urban living, which is any many ways more sustainable than living in a rural setting, with advocacy for regular visits to the wilderness.

(28:39 - 50:47): Golden describes the educational experiences that Wilderness Torah offers for children. He highlights the ways in which they cement Judaism, and nature, as twin contexts for exploration and learning. [7] In doing so, he argues that centering the child is a core element of any successful educational experience. Turning to the topic of “paradigm shift” — a framework applied by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to Judaism — Golden names a variety of ways in which Judaism is transforming in foundational ways. [8] He also looks at why he felt called to become a rabbi after founding Wilderness Torah. To close the episode, he says that halakhah has often moved too slowly, and strives for a Jewish future in which halachah addresses pressing issues from white privilege, to gender, to climate change.

[1] Learn more about Wilderness Torah at WildernessTorah.org. Learn more about Zelig Golden by checking out his bio, accessible at this link, along with a variety of teachings that he has delivered in the past.

[2] For more about this linkage between psychological epidemics and disconnection from nature, see the work of Richard Louv, who coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder. He wrote an important book on the subject entitled Last Child in the Woods, available for purchase here.

[3] Check out Golden’s ELI Talk, entitled “Rekindling The Flame of Earth-based Judaism,” by clicking the video on the right.

[4] For more on the relationship between “earthling” and “earth,” see Episode 166: The Freedom Seder - Arthur Waskow.

[5] To learn about Passover in the Desert, one of Wilderness Torah’s most popular events, click here. Learn about their other pilgrimage festivals here.

[6] For more on how transcendent experiences in nature can have lasting spiritual effects, see our Judaism Unbound episodes that look at Burning Man. Episode 78: Burning Man - Jon Mitchell, Allie Wollner, Episode 79: Burning Mensch - Joel Stanley, Episode 80: Feeling the Burn - Dan and Lex

[7] Learn more about B’hootz and B’naiture, Wilderness Torah’s youth education programs, here.

[8] For some of Schachter-Shalomi’s ideas on paradigm shift, see Paradigm Shift: From the Jewish Renewal Teachings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (edited by Ellen Singer) and/or Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including (co-written by Schachter-Shalomi with Daniel Siegel).

Sandy Zisser, Patrick Beaulier: Judaism Unbound Episode 175 - Becoming a Rabbi on The Web

Sandy Zisser and Patrick Beaulier, of the Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary, join Dan and Lex for a conversation about digital rabbinic ordination. [1]

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(0:01 - 12:30): To begin the episode, Dan asks the two guests to make the case for why we need a new rabbinical seminary. Zisser and Beaulier explore why their organization is filling an important gap in the communal landscape, as an ordination program that is accessible to people from around the world, all of whom are able to learn together without needing to move to one of the cities where the brick-and-mortar seminaries are located. Reflecting on their own journeys, Zisser looks back at how his entire career shifted as a result of a digital advertisement, and Beaulier speaks to the ways in which distance learning allowed him to avoid what a choice between two options that shouldn’t be mutually exclusive: becoming a rabbi, on the one hand, and being there for his family, on the other.

(12:31 - 29:16): Beaulier and Lex explore the role that class, and economic realities, help create a need for a rabbinic program like the Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary. Dan follows up, as he and Zisser take a look at ways that PRS challenges norms related to the age of rabbis as well. They next take a look at the differences between forms of rabbinical education that are geared towards creating “generalists” and those that yield “specialists.” Analogizing this to the difference between a traditional doctor and the minute-clinic, Beaulier argues that not every rabbi needs to serve a role resembling a generalist. [3]

(29:17 - 42:25): Zisser gives an overview of the process, from application to ordination, by which one becomes a rabbi through PRS. In doing so, he emphasizes the P — Pluralism — aspect of the seminary, naming the denominational diversity of the organization’s faculty members and (once it launches) of its students. To close the episode, Lex asks about criticism of digital ordination, and Beaulier and Zisser both express that they have been pleasantly surprised at the almost-entirely positive reception that they have received. They comment that this may reflect the growing normalcy of online education, in many realms including and transcending the rabbinic realm. [4]

[1] Learn more about Zisser and Beaulier by checking out their bios, available here.

[2] For more information about the Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary, head to JewishPluralism.org. If you are a prospective student, and would like more information regarding the admission requirements, and application process, for PRS, check out the following pages: Admission Requirements, Register for an Application

[3] Dan discusses the issue of specialists vs. generalists by looking at — of all things — hernia repair! Check out the 1998 New Yorker article that he alludes to here.

[4] For another Judaism Unbound episode looking at rabbinic education, see Episode 68: Rabbis Without Borders - Rebecca Sirbu. And if you were thinking this episode’s title sounds familiar, you’re right! It parallels another Judaism Unbound, which looked at conversion to Judaism, a realm that the digital world is influencing deeply. Listen to Episode 57: Becoming Jewish on the Web - Juan Mejia for more on that topic.

Judaism Unbound Episode 174: Tidying Up Judaism - Dan and Lex

Marie Kondo isn’t Jewish. But Dan and Lex think her ideas are relevant to the Jewish future. In this conversation, they tell you why! [1] [2]

(0:01 - 16:55): Dan begins the show by flashing back to Episode 154: Ten New Commandments. [3] He expands a bit on notions he first introduced then, regarding Marie Kondo’s ideas of “tidying up” and how they apply to Judaism. In particular, he looks at a side of her process that often goes unnoticed — the items that you do actively choose to keep. He emphasizes that, much as there is a need to discard elements of Jewish practice, this step is a deeply important one for Judaism, because there is much from the Jewish past that is worth maintaing in the future, in some cases in a slightly altered form while in other cases staying exactly as-is. He and Lex also consider a strength of halakhah which has not been as common in non-orthodox forms of Judaism: the ability to take elements of Judaism from the realm of ideas and translate them into practices, some of which might even be obligatory.

(16:56 - 37:05): Dan and Lex each name an obligation they would create for all Jews if they were in the process of creating a new kind of binding halakhah for the future. Lex argues that blood donation (along with advocacy for all to be eligible for blood donation) would be an important piece, and Dan talks about recycling, along with opposition to factory farming. [4] They also comment on the distinction between a halakhah that would focus on individual behaviors versus one that would also take into account broader systems. They then open up their ongoing thread regarding the idea of Judaism as a “library.” Dan advocates for a future of Judaism that would only be a particular section of the library, while Lex — through an analogy to the place of Shakespeare in English literature, of all things — claims that the “library” metaphor has some benefits. [5]

(37:06 - 52:24): Reflecting on the role of culture in Jewish life, Dan and Lex continue to stake out two different sides of their disagreement. Dan argues that, because of his vision for a Jewish future that would not center the idea of peoplehood, cultural realms like food, sports, film, and others might need to take a back seat. Lex asserts that those realms may be particularly successful as “meaning-making” devices. To close the episode, they transition this discussion into a consideration of Rachel B. Gross’s conception of “what Jews do,” which she noted in her guest appearance on the show, and the ways in which it should or should not drive conversations about the Jewish future. [6]

[1] This episode is the 8th and final episode in a series that coincided with the counting of the Omer, from Passover to Shavuot, in 2019. For all seven of the other episodes in this series, click here. To access them individually, click any of the following links: Episode 167: The Meaning of Mussar - David Jaffe, Episode 168: American Mussar - Greg Marcus, Episode 169: Jewish Language - Sarah Bunin Benor, Episode 170: Queering the Jewish Bookshelf - Noam Sienna, Episode 171: Digesting Judaism - Rachel B. Gross, Episode 172: Judaism with Purpose(s) - Ayalon Eliach, Episode 173: Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud - Andrew Ramer

[2] Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, can be purchased here. Check out the Netflix show that is based on that book by clicking here.

[3] Listen in to Episode 154: Ten New Commandments, by clicking here.

[4] For an article that explores the role of recycling, along with other forms of environmental justice, in preventing climate change, click here.

[5] For two articles that explore the idea of Judaism as a “library” in more detail, see Episode 51: Being Jewish in the Era of Trump and Episode 103: The People’s Judaism.

[6] Dan cites the framework, previously noted on the podcast, of “Genesis Jews” and “Exodus Jews.” Learn more about this paradigm by listening to Episode 41: History and Memory - Yehuda Kurtzer.

Andrew Ramer: Judaism Unbound Episode 173 - Fragments of The Brooklyn Talmud

Andrew Ramer, an ordained Maggid (storyteller) and author of Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud, among other works, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about ecological crisis, the blurry line between future and past, and Judaism in the 22nd and 23rd century. So nothing major, really. [1]

(0:01 - 16:24): To begin the episode, Ramer gives an overview of the world of Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud. In particular, he talks through the dystopian future that manifests in the book, [2] resulting from worldwide ecological crisis, along with some of the ways that Jewish ritual and practice shifts to meet that new reality. [3] Lex asks him about the role that the element of surprise plays in his stories, and he answers by reflecting on the ways in which he seeks to disrupt Ashkenormativy (Ashkenazi normativity) in his work. He reflects on ways in which, had history unfolded differently, the predominant forms of Judaism in our lives could look incredibly different.

(16:25 - 31:45): Ramer reflects on the ways in which he blurs the past, present, and future in his books. He looks at the Zohar as an example of a text that, like his own, blurs disparate eras of Jewish time, from entirely different millennia, into one document. [4] He considers how this may compare to the ways in which fiction — even when we know, consciously, that it is fiction — can affect us in ways that feel very “real.” Shifting gears slightly, he argues that simultaneously maintaining ancient rituals and — just as importantly — allowing their meaning to drastically change, is an important path forward for the Jewish future. To prove his point, he remembers an experience from his childhood, where he and his mother went around their house hammering nails into the wall, not with a hammer, but with the heel from her shoe.

(31:46 - 43:59): This episode is the last in a seven-week series leading up to the holiday of Shavuot. [5] Ramer talks about his love for this holiday, and his idea of making it seven days long instead of just two. He then looks at the word “queer,” and the ways in which his identity as a gay man influences his writing. To close the episode, he turns to the story of the Exodus narrative. He names that it may be entirely made-up — a story! [6] He also names directly what had been implicit: that while the dystopian future at the core of Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud is possible, he hopes that it (the ecological crisis and catastrophe that serves as its premise) will remain entirely fictional.

[1] Learn more about Andrew Ramer by visiting AndrewRamer.com. Purchase a copy of Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud (either hard-copy or Kindle) by clicking here.

[2] Ramer cites Benay Lappe, a “frequent flyer” guest on Judaism Unbound. Listen into her appearances on our podcast at any or all of the following links: Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe, Episode 36: What Jewish Looks Like Today - Benay Lappe, Episode 56: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva - Benay Lappe

[3] In exploring a new kind of havdalah (a ritual for the end of Shabbat/beginning of a new week), Ramer mentions his experience at a retreat led by Jay Michaelson. Listen in to an episode of Judaism Unbound in which he was our featured guest by checking out Episode 38: Evolving Dharma - Jay Michaelson.

[4] For more on the Zohar, check out Episode 161: The Zohar - Daniel Matt.

[5] Experiment with your observance of Shavuot by checking out Shavuot Unbound and/or our Shavuot Zine, created by Rena Yehuda Newman, our 2019 Judaism Unbound/New Voices Magazine Fellow.

[6] For two deep-dives into questions of the Exodus and its historicity, see Episode 83: The Exodus - Richard Elliott Friedman and/or Holidays Unbound Episode 3: Did the Exodus Really Happen? - Steven Weitzman, Richard Elliott Friedman

Judaism Unbound Bonus Episode: Communal Singing - David Fainsilber, Jessica Kate Meyer

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Lex enters into conversation with David Fainsilber and Jessica Kate Meyer, in a podcast recorded live at Hebrew College, in Newton, Massachusetts. This panel was part of a Hebrew College conference entitled “The Past and Future of Synagogues.” David Fainsilber serves as rabbi of The Jewish Community of Greater Stowe, in Vermont, and Jessica Kate Meyer serves as rabbi and chazan of The Kitchen, an emergent Jewish community in San Francisco.

Ayalon Eliach: Judaism Unbound Episode 172 - Judaism With Purpose(s)

Ayalon Eliach, Director of Learning and Strategic Communications at the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, [1] joins Dan and Lex for a conversation that re-imagines forms of halachah (traditionally defined as “Jewish law”) that could look different than many might expect, and imbue lives with a deep sense of purpose and meaning. [2]

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(0:01 - 17:26): To begin the episode, Eliach lays out the ways in which the rules, regulations, and structure of halachah (continue below for how Eliach defines this term) were not merely one part of Jewish life, but rather the defining, central element of Jewish life. He looks back at his own journey both away from, and eventually back to, a daily halachic practice. Next, Eliach defines what he means by halachah, clarifying that he doesn’t conceive of it through the lens of “Jewish law,” as many others do, because it lacks a core characteristic of law — the power of coercion. He reflects on a recent Judaism Unbound conversation with Leon Wiener Dow, providing his take on the question of keeping kosher, and in particular responding to Wiener Dow’s approach to meat and dairy. [3] Eliach argues that the goal should be to discover the underlying purpose of this practice. Once looking at the function of keeping kosher, we can then ask both how the traditional practice achieves the function and whether there are new mechanisms or practices that could achieve its function in an equally or more effective manner.

(17:27 - 31:14): Eliach digs deeper into the concept of “purpose.” He asserts that “original intent” is not the most important factor in determining the reason for a particular Jewish practice, but rather that it is imperative to search for the most compelling purpose it can achieve, even if that function may not have been at play when a ritual was first pioneered. He pushes back against the idea that Jewish practices are designed primarily to create community, examining how that mindset makes the details of particular practices largely arbitrary. Dan tries to think from the perspective of someone who has never observed any form of halachah, proposing four ways that new forms of halachah could provide deep meaning in life. Eliach compares and contrasts the idea of halachah as a “system” vs. halachah as a “shared discourse.”

(31:15 - 47:35): Through some examples from his work with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, [4] Eliach identifies what it looks like to re-vision halachah in creative ways, which might not look “halachic” from a traditional vantage point. In particular, he names projects including MitzVote and Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters as meaningful forms of a halachic process being applied in the 21st century. To close the episode, he and Lex look at two particular practices: consumption of Kosher (and non-Kosher) wine, [5] on the one hand, and work-related reading on Shabbat, on the other. He asks how a new kind of halachah could lead to different — but equally rigorous — conclusions around Jewish ritual practice. In doing so, he calls on listeners to both re-claim the language of “halachah” and “halachic,” and understand that their meanings and resonances have the potential to be more expansive than they have been in the past. [6] [7]

Click this image to read Eliach’s essay, entitled “Radically Traditional Halachah: Realigning Jewish Purpose and Praxis.”

Click this image to read Eliach’s essay, entitled “Radically Traditional Halachah: Realigning Jewish Purpose and Praxis.”

[1] Learn more about Ayalon Eliach by clicking here, and check out this essay he wrote — still a work-in-progress, but you get a sneak preview! — entitled “Radically Traditional Halachah: Realigning Jewish Purpose and Praxis.”

[2] Hear more from Eliach by checking out these two videos, from a Harvard Law School conference on Progressive Halakhah: Video 1: Teaching, Living, and Learning Halakhah in a Pluralistic Context, Video 2: Kashrut - Do Jewish Ethics Matter?

[3] Listen in to Judaism Unbound’s conversation with Leon Wiener Dow here: Episode 164: Going, Jewishly - Leon Wiener Dow.

[4] Learn more about the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah by visiting its website.

[5] Click here to read another argument against the consumption of Kosher wine, through an article in The Forward by Liya Rechtman, entitled “A Feminist Case Against Kosher Wine.”

[6] Eliach cites Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, as an argument for constantly exploring the underlying function of Jewish ritual. For the specific text that he alludes to, around sacrifice, prayer, and meditation, click here.

[7] Ayalon Eliach was recently named as one of seven rabbis collectively forming the third cohort of the three-year David Hartman Center Rabbinic Fellowship. Learn more by clicking here.

Rachel B. Gross: Judaism Unbound Episode 171 - Digesting Judaism

Rachel B. Gross, the John & Marcia Goldman Professor of American Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, thinks that food is “the world’s most important subject.” She joins Dan and Lex to tell them (and you!) why that is, and why that fact matters when we seek to understand the Jewish past, present, and future. [1]

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(0:01 - 18:22): To begin the episode, Gross provides two important frames. First, she explains why, in her work, she thinks about Judaism as “what Jews do.” Second, she argues that religion can be understood as a web of three different kinds of relationships: those between humans and the divine, between humans and those who are dead, and between humans who are living. [2] Turning to the topic of food, a core topic for the remainder of the episode, she looks at the evolutions of matzah (and matzah ball soup) over time as an example of how food can provide an important lens into Jewish history. [3] She also considers the topics of material culture and nostalgia, each of which she builds on later in the episode. [4]

(18:23 - 37:42): Intertwining the conversations around food and nostalgia, Gross examines the pivotal role that Jewish restaurants can and often do play as a kind of “Jewish space,” even as they are not always recognized as Jewish in the way that synagogues or JCCs are. She then provides an argument that may surprise: how and why eating Chinese food on Christmas can constitute a kind of Jewish religious observance. [5] She names the concept of “food essentialism,” arguing that there are reasons to be wary of efforts to distill the “essence” of particular foods, such that they are associated with one specific national or ethnic group and not others. On that same front, she looks at why food that isn’t kosher can still be quintessentially Jewish, citing the deep and complex relationships that many Jews have with pork as one example of that reality. To deepen that thread, she explores her experience with the “Trefa Banquet 2.0,” [6] a 2018 event for Jews in the Bay Area that consciously featured foods that are not kosher.

(37:43 - 49:56): Gross turns to the topic of religion and culture, asserting that there may not be as much of a distinction between the two as some perceive. She, Dan, and Lex together look at the role of pop culture, and Gross questions in particular the idea that we would mark a distinction between “serious” forms of culture and those that we might perceive to be less meaningful. [7] Living up to the title of this podcast as fully as any guest ever has, she states “Down With Boundaries!” directly, and she puts forth her belief that we shouldn’t be so quick to treat Jewish pop culture as somehow less deep, or less meaningful, than other elements of Jewish tradition. To close the episode, she argues that for those looking to “unbound” Judaism, the best strategies have historically been to make radical changes, but simultaneously find ways to make it appear as if no change is happening at all.


[1] Learn more about Rachel B. Gross, and check out some of her work that is available online, by clicking here. Follow her on twitter at @RachelBethGross.

[2] Gross cites Robert Orsi, scholar of American History and Catholic Studies, for this three-fold schema of religious relationships. For a full picture of how he conceptualizes these relationships, see his book Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and The Scholars Who Study Them.

[3] Take a look at Gross’s "A Million Matzo Balls” resource kit (co-authored with Jessica Kirzane) here. For the Jonathan Sarna article she cites, about how matzah became square, click here.

[4] In her introduction to material culture, Gross cites Vanessa Ochs’s book Inventing Jewish Ritual. Ochs was the second-ever guest on Judaism Unbound, and you can listen to her appearance here - Episode 5: Leviticus - Vanessa Ochs.

[5] Dan mentions an interaction between Justice Elena Kagan and Senator Lindsey Graham here. For another take on that fascinating moment, see Episode 14: Putting the “American” in “American Judaism.”

[6] For a deep look at Trefa Banquet 2.0, see this Judaism Unbound bonus episode, featuring event organizer Alix Wall. Check out a written piece by Gross, entitled “Jewish food does not begin and end with kosher,” here, and purchase the book Gastronomic Judaism as Culinary Midrash, written by Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, here.

[7] For another critique of the distinction between “religion” on the one hand and “culture” on the other, see Episode 144: Beyond Chrismukkah - Samira Mehta.

Noam Sienna: Judaism Unbound Episode 170 - Queering The Jewish Bookshelf

Noam Sienna, author of the book A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, joins Lex and Dan for a conversation about expanding our understanding of the Jewish past. [1] [2]

Noam Sienna

(0:01 – 19:09) Noam begins by addressing how we think of Jewish history, remarking that our understanding of the past is informed by the few stories that are recorded and survive their way into the present. Noam tells a story about an individual who leaves the shtetl being read and understood as a woman and returns later, being read and understood as a man. By the newspaper account, this individual was entirely accepted by their community. Using this and another short anecdote from his book, Noam reminds listeners that what is present on the bookshelf is only a selection – and the truer history is more wider than we imagine. [3] He describes how a post-holocaust Ashkenazi Jewish world lost much of its oral tradition, leaving us primarily with texts. But the trouble with texts is that they only describe what someone chose to record, rife with omissions. Noam explains that history is nonlinear and without teleology – history has no end goal or arc. [4] [5] This understanding is necessary to his methodology examining understandings of sexuality and gender. He underscores that, while experiences we might categorize today as queer aren’t really new, our understanding of these behaviors and practices are specific to our place and time.

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(19:09 – 28:20) Lex poses a question to Noam about the tension between creating a book about queer Jewish inclusion and not attempting to use these texts to “prove” a Jewish attitude towards queerness. Noam highlights his desire to avoid anachronism and retroactively assign modern meanings to historical experiences. Rather, the mission of a queer historian is not to make a list of who’s who of queer Jews, but to understand that our identity language and constructions are always moving. The historical data isn’t changing but our lenses and self understandings are. Noam acknowledges the importance of present-day queer people being able to see themselves reflected in history – so he advocates that readers cultivate a self awareness: our readings of historical figures are not inherent to the text; rather, they are informed by the connections we make within ourselves to the past. [6] Lex notes how self-locating in history can often be a way of legitimizing or authenticated oneself, especially towards others. Noam discusses why he’s creating this book to be positive rather than defensive, explaining his inspiration from feminist scholarship and a desire to avoid an essentialist reading of Judaism as either inherently equitable or oppressive. [7] It’s both and neither, he says, containing so many multitudes of experiences and texts. He briefly mentions a discussion with Rabbi Steve Greenberg in which he explains that this book is not meant to “defend” queer Jews, but paint a fuller picture of how gender variance and diverse sexual desires and expressions have existed in Jewish history. [8]

(28:20 – 48:30) Noam discusses present-day assumptions about gender and sexuality, which often see sex and gender behaviors as binary and inherent. However, he explains, categorizing gender and sexuality as identity markers is a recent, place-time specific idea. The language we use to describe these behaviors is ever-changing and the texts in A Rainbow Thread record instance, not identity. Noam describes how, more broadly, Jews living in the time of the Talmud did not live as the Talmudic text itself describes, often engaging in activities forbidden by law, just as most of us do today, even if in small ways. Noam demonstrates that legal systems are only descriptive of a small percentage of people, usually elites, and not the general public whom they sought to legislate. The conversation shifts to an explanation of Sienna’s curatorial process, explaining his venn diagram, selecting texts that express diverse gender and sexual practices and demonstrate a diverse and complex experience of being Jewish. [9] The types of texts in A Rainbow Thread are diverse, many authors with a variety of attitudes towards queerness. He explains his process of selecting texts, privileging traditionally underrepresented voices and seeking out texts from a variety of places and times. Noam mentions a short news clipping he found which briefly describes two Sefardi women engaged in a romantic or sexual act, noting that this very small text evidences something otherwise unrecorded but still very much alive. Sienna closes by suggesting listeners consider the universe of stories that have gone unrecorded, declaring that arguments of silence and omission no longer prove an absence of Jewish queer history – instead, we must push ourselves to think more deeply and creatively about who and what the Jewish past has been.

[1] Order yourself a copy of Sienna’s book, A Rainbow Thread, at ARainbowThread.com.

[2] Read more about Noam’s work and learn about some other queer Jewish stories in this blog post and find his website here.

[3] If you’re looking to build a wider bookshelf, check out some of these cool queer Jewish reads.

[4] The concept of teleology is pervasive in the way most people think about history — but as Sienna notes, history is not linear. This article explains this article in greater detail.

[5] Similar to the idea of teleology in history, the idea of a “moral arc of history” also assumes a goal or linear type of history. Read a recent critique of this idea in this article.

[6] This part of the interview hearkens back to an earlier Judaism Unbound episode with Josh Lesser, who runs Bet Haverim, a gay- and lesbian-founded synagogue.

[7] Sienna’s mentions of feminist methodologies remind us of another Judaism Unbound episode by Rachel Adler, in which Adler discusses gender essentialism. Find it here. You can also read Adler’s articles, “I’ve Had Nothing Yet So I Can’t Take More” and “The Jew Who Wasn’t There”.

[8] Learn more about the work and philosophy of Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay orthodox rabbi, in this article.

[9] Just as Sienna has described the curatorial side of editing an anthology, our episode with Ivy Barsky covers similar topics of Jewish history and the tensions that arise when trying to curate the Jewish past. Listen to this episode here.


Sarah Bunin Benor: Judaism Unbound Episode 169 - Jewish Language

Sarah Bunin Benor, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of the award winning book Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language of Orthodox Judaism, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about Jewish languages, and the deeper discourses revealed through dialect. [1]

Sarah Bunin Benor

Sarah Bunin Benor

(00:01 – 20:13): The episode begins with Sarah Bunin Benor describing her book, Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language of Orthodox Judaism [2] and the process of her ethnographic research on American Orthodox communities. She discusses how language marks people as “in” or “out” of a particular group, marking an identity through words and pronunciation. While some newcomers to Orthodoxy perform “hyperacommodation” and try intensely to adopt the language of their chosen community, others perform “deliberate distinctiveness”, trying to distinguish themselves from a community of people who are ‘Frum From Birth.’ They do this in a variety of ways, ranging from speech, to dress, to food (for example, gefilte fish with curry and turmeric). [3] Dan raises a question regarding linguistic “authenticity”, asking about the process through which certain words or expression that began as non-native to Jewish communities gains the perception that is “authentic” enough to be part of the in-language. Bunin Benor describes the history of the word bentsch -- a verb referring to the recitation of the blessing after a meal – which has traveled between Jewish tongues over centuries. [4] Bunin Benor emphasizes that claims of linguistic authenticity often express something deeper; she explains that Jewish communities which praise one pronunciation as correct while criticizing other pronunciations engage in “socio-linguistic projection,” making broader statements about how Jews should behave.

(20:14-  35:30): Lex notes a common Hebraic linguistic feud: the sound of the letter “ת” (Tav/Sav), which is pronounced differently by many communities. While Sefardi (Spanish and some Middle-Eastern) communities use a “T” sound for this letter, Ashkenazi (descended from Eastern and Central Europe) communities will use an “S”. Yet in 2019, a wide swath of Reform and Conservative American synagogues use the Sefardi pronunciation, despite these communities having largely Ashkenazi heritage. Bunin Benor explains how modern Israeli Hebrew (which, in an attempt to modernize, historically rejected Ashkenazi pronunciations) influenced American Hebrew as synagogues began to adopt Zionism. Bunin Benor posits that when people are critical of language, they’re generally critiquing — in particular — ways in which languages change. Jews have always had multiple Hebrews, diversified by geography and time, background and class, and controversy over the “correct” Jewish language is an old phenomenon. Bunin Benor pivots to discuss her research on usages of Hebrew at American Jewish Summer camps, [5] explaining that in these settings, meanings are often changed (rather than lost) in translation.

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(35:31 – 53:15): Lex raises the question: Can any language be a Jewish language? [6] Bunin Benor enthusiastically responds “yes” -- wherever Jews have written and lived, Jews have used colloquial languages, different from their non-Jewish neighbors. She lists distinctive features, intonations, and mannerisms like “overlapping” (distinct from interrupting) in conversation that are unique to Jewish ways of speaking in America. [7] Bunin Benor says that Jews have always been multilingual, writing in one language and thinking in another, attuned to multiple meanings across languages. She calls Jews “the People of the Pun,” having engaged in wordplay for thousands of years, even creating rituals based in quip; for example, eating a fish head, carrots, or cabbage during Rosh Hashana. She affirms that the American Jewish tendency to make puns and the fusion of languages is a continuation of a much longer, wider tradition of Jewish wordplay. Bunin Benor closes by reflecting on the nature of linguistics. Language isn’t just language -- it’s the site where many issues and tensions reveal themselves. When people talk about language, she explains, they’re really expressing how they feel people are or should be, what it means to be human or in a particular community. Whether it’s the vocabulary of newly Orthodox Jews, the Hebrew(s) of American Jewish summer camps, or tensions over rabbis translating on the bima, all of these language differences express deeper questions about how Jews should be orienting and engaging with the broader world and the Judaism itself. [8] [9]

[1] Check out Sarah Bunin Benor’s website for the book, the Journal of Jewish Languages she founded and co-edits, and her Disney, racism, and linguistics blog

[2] You can purchase Sarah Bunin Benor’s book, Becoming Frum, here.

[3] Read up on hyperaccomodation and deliberate distinctiveness in this news article, featuring Bunin Benor.

[4] Interested in uncovering more Hebrew and Jewish etymologies? There’s a blog all about that!

[5] Learn more about this fascinating study on Hebrew in Jewish Camps in a blog post written by Bunin Benor. You can also download a powerpoint presentation about the study, created for the Foundation for Jewish Camp by clicking here.

[6] For more from Lex on this question, see “Every Language is a Jewish Language,” which he wrote in 2017 for Jewish Currents.

[7] Deborah Tannen is one of the leading experts in “overlapping” as a Jewish linguistic pattern. Read this article about “overlapping” in Jewish conversation, then check out some fascinating works by Deborah Tannen here.

[8] If you’re interested in other Judaism Unbound episodes about Jewish languages, listen to our recent Daniel Matt episode which features conversation about Aramaic, Hebrew — and how well Rabbis even knew Hebrew.

[9] If you’re interested in looking deeper at the idea of “Standard Language Ideology,” see Rosina Lippi-Green’s piece on the subject, cited by many scholars since its publication in 1994.

Greg Marcus: Judaism Unbound Episode 168 - American Mussar

Greg Marcus, founder of American Mussar and author of The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions: Finding Balance through the Soul Traits of Mussar, joins Dan and Lex to look at what Mussar is, and how it can operate effectively in an American context. [1] [2]

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(0:01 - 17:35): To begin the episode, Marcus looks back at his realization that he had, a number of years back, become a workaholic. At that point, he shifted a number of elements of his life and found his way to the practice of Mussar. He reflects on how he really was a newcomer to Jewish learning, but despite that, he felt a deep desire not only to engage with Jewish text and tradition, but to teach it to others. [3] Eventually that journey became a success, as his learning led him to teach a Mussar class at synagogue. What he discovered in his learning is that Mussar — even in Europe, centuries ago — was heavily influenced by American ideas, including those tracing their roots to Benjamin Franklin. [4] This led him to desire, and begin to create, a form of contemporary Mussar practice that understands its American context as deeply informing its character.

(17:36 - 37:43): Marcus distills the practice of Mussar into four foundational principles, centering the idea of middot, which he translates as “soul traits” or “character traits.” Counter-intuitively, he asserts that the goal is not to have as much of every middah/soul-trait as possible, but to achieve balance. Shifting gears a bit, he examines ways in which his background as a trained biologist played a role in the work he does, along with how he goes about it. He compares and contrasts the “stakes” of evolutionary biology, on the one hand, and Judaism, on the other, [5] and argues that in Jewish practice, we should not expect people to be “experts” in order to be leaders. He then fleshes out his discussion of the “soul traits” by exploring how one could actually have too much of one of them (humility) which is generally understood to be an unqualified good. [6]

(37:44 - 54:21): Marcus provides a few examples of how he and others have worked on some of the middot/soul-traits in their own lives. In doing so, he gives his own take on what the Biblical teaching of “You should be holy” can look like through an American Mussar lens. Zooming out, he names some of the ways in which Mussar represents a year-round embodiment of the 10-day themes of introspection that arise on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To close the episode, Marcus reflects on a famous quote from the Talmud, which says that “One who studies Torah without acts of kindness — it’s as if they had no God.” He invites listeners to embrace that quotation full-heartedly, through the integration of Torah study with a regular practice of Mussar.

[1] Check out Greg Marcus’s full bio here, and purchase The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions at this link.

[2] Sign up for a free 1-hour Mussar Strategy Session with Greg Marcus at AmericanMussar.com/Unbound.

[3] Marcus names the 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans as a document that influenced his work. For more on the role that that study has played since it was released, see a full “decade” of Judaism Unbound episodes from Episode 140 through Episode 150.

[4] For more on Benjamin Franklin’s impact on European Mussar, click here.

[5] The intersection of Judaism and science deserves a podcast episode of its own — and it has one! Check it out here - Episode 114: Sinai and Synapses - Geoffrey Mitelman.

[6] If you’re curious to find out your “soul trait profile,” as a launching point into Mussar, take Marcus’s Soul Trait Profile Quiz, available here.

David Jaffe: Judaism Unbound Episode 167 - The Meaning of Mussar

David Jaffe, author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning book Changing the World from the Inside Out, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about Mussar -- both what it is, and the transformative potential that it possesses for individuals and the world. [1] [2]

(0:01 - 14:41): To begin the episode, Jaffe introduces the idea of Mussar, looking at both its ancient roots and evolution over time. He looks at the dichotomy of new and old, arguing that it is possible to teach something “new that’s old.” In particular, he focuses on two Jewish developments that reflect that — Mussar and Jewish mysticism. He emphasizes the ways in which Mussar practice causes its adherents to not merely espouse Jewish teachings, but really to feel them deep within their hearts and souls.

(14:42 - 26:48): Fleshing out the topic of Mussar, he talks through some examples of how Mussar has manifested in his own life. He then explores some of the history of Mussar, [3] rewinding all the way to some “Mussar statements” in the Torah, and talking through its evolutions in Medieval Europe, Modern Europe, and in the United States today. [4] In doing so, he tells a fascinating story about (we kid you not) a rotting fish!

(26:49 - 48:38): Jaffe highlights the “Inside-Out” element of his book-title Changing the World from the Inside Out. He discusses ways in which Mussar can be channeled not only toward individual self-improvement, but also toward broader institutional and societal forms of change. He also looks back at his own life experience, including a few key moments in his life in which he realized that he wasn’t living his life in full alignment with his values, [5] and what he learned from them. Turning to some of the specifics of his own practice, he re-visits the ways in which mysticism and Mussar practice can intertwine. To close the episode, Jaffe looks at how Mussar can be taught (and embodied) most effectively in school settings, and he envisions what a Judaism (and a world) that fully lives out the values of Mussar would look like.

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[1] Learn more about David Jaffe at RabbiDavidJaffe.com, and purchase Changing the World from the Inside Out by clicking here.

[2] Check out Jaffe’s Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project at InsideOutWisdomAndAction.org.

[3] Jaffe cites a book by Diana Lobel that looks at Bahya Ibn Paquda’s medieval work “Duties of the Heart.” Purchase the book, entitled A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Paquda's "Duties of the Heart,” by clicking here.

[4] Alan Morinis is a key figure in the growth of Mussar in the United States over the past couple decades. Learn more about him, and an organization that he founded, at MussarInstitute.org.

[5] Jaffe looks back at a moment in his life in which he gravitated towards Buddhist teachings. For more on the intersections of Buddhist and Jewish practice, see Episode 38: Evolving Dharma - Jay Michaelson.

[6] For an article looking at Jaffe’s work at Gann Academy, where he applied teachings from Musar to their curriculum, see this 2018 article in JTA, entitled “Jewish schools grapple with a question: How do you turn a kid into a mensch?”