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.

Sixth & I.png

[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

[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, 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, from

[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

[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 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]

Patrick Beaulier Sandy Zisser Facebook.png

(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 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 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

Hebrew College Panel Pic.png

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]

Ayalon speaking.jpg

(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]

Rachel Gross Squarespace.png

(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.

A Rainbow thread.JPG

(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

[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.

Judaism Unbound Long.png

(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]

Greg Marcus Squarespace.png

(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

[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.

Changing the World from the Inside Out.jpg

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

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

[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

[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?”

Arthur Waskow: Judaism Unbound Episode 166 - The Freedom Seder

Arthur Waskow, noted activist, author, and rabbi, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about 1969’s Freedom Seder. They look at the process that led to Waskow’s invention of that Passover observance, and the impact it has had on both Judaism and the world over the 50 years since its creation.

Image Credit: The Shalom Center

Image Credit: The Shalom Center

(00:01 - 26:10) Before diving into the interview, Arthur Waskow begins with a blessing over the act of Torah study, explaining that the greatest type of study is that which leads to action. Saying a blessing sets an intention and dedicates the practice. Waskow also explains that his blessing will have slightly different wording than the traditional blessing over Torah study, as Waskow has come to understand the pronounciation of God’s name as the breath of all life. After he blesses this conversation and learning, Dan asks about Waskow’s process to create his own Haggadah, sparked by another recent Judaism Unbound episode. [1] Waskow discusses his journey to spearheading the Freedom Seder. [2] He tells a story about his experience at the 1964 Democratic National Convention supporting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, when activist Fannie Lou Hamer [3] lead picketers in singing “Go Tell it On the Mountain” and he realized, suddenly, that the story of the exodus was not just a Jewish story, but a story which encompassed many narratives and peoples. After Waskow’s bar mitzvah, the Passover seder was one of the only rituals that remained meaningful to him, and so he explains that it was natural when, after a particularly disastrous attempt at protesting the 1968 Democratic National Convention [4], heading to a seder for the first night of passover and passing by a jeep mounted with a machine gun, he thought to himself, “This is Pharoah’s army.” From there, the story of the Exodus become real and tangible, no longer just a metaphor.

Arthur Waskow, pictured (center) at 1969’s Freedom Seder, with Channing Phillips and Topper Carew

Arthur Waskow, pictured (center) at 1969’s Freedom Seder, with Channing Phillips and Topper Carew

(26:10 - 39:05) As he prepared for the Freedom Seder, Waskow realized he wanted to know if his attempt at authoring a new haggadah was acceptable. Waskow sought advice from Rabbi Harold White, a rabbi who had publicly opposed the war in Vietnam, who affirmed him in his quest to write a haggadah for a Freedom Seder [5]. White told Waskow about the story of Nachshon, whom White called “an activist", the first person to step into the waters at the Red Sea — and only after this were the waters parted [6] White also introduced Waskow to the concept of midrash, the interpretation of biblical stories, reading the blank “white fire” in between the written words. What Waskow was doing was a type of modern midrash, part of a much longer tradition. Lex highlights Waskow’s wonderful “chutzpah” in having the courage to write new midrash, also commenting that Waskow’s action in creating the Freedom Seder has also given permission to other people to play with ritual, asking Waskow how Jews can continue to learn from this impulse by applying it to other holidays or traditions. Waskow responds by noting that there is a wide and ancient relationship between ritual and the world, and that it is up to us to draw out these great connections.

(39:06 - 55:00) The conversation shifts to a discussion of today’s political climate. Waskow comments that the connections embedded in ancient texts hold immense relevance for the struggles of today. He gives the example of the Climate Crisis as an issue that is interwoven with ethics from the Tanakh, which he describes as a scripture deeply loving of the land. [7] Waskow points to textual relationships to the earth like “adamah” and “adam”, earth and earthling, as well as the concept of “shmitah”, a release for the land. Waskow calls on us to draw on this wisdom and carry it into our discussions of Torah and of justice. As a final note, Lex asks about how Waskow integrates his understanding of Israeli-Palestinian issues and occupation into his discourse, and Waskow concludes by telling two stories regarding the nature of idolatry.

Fannie Lou Hamer, at the 1964 DNC, Image Credit: American Public Media

Fannie Lou Hamer, at the 1964 DNC, Image Credit: American Public Media

[1] Listen to our recent Judaism Unbound Podcast with Jonathan Safron Foer in which we discuss another modern Haggadah project.

[2] Read up on the original 1969 Freedom Seder from Waskow’s Shalom Center.

[3] Learn more about the pivotal activism of Fannie Lou Hamer here.

Image Credit: Tablet Magazine

Image Credit: Tablet Magazine

[4] For Waskow, the 1968 Democratic National Convention was a turning point. Here’s an article about the protests and the violent backlash from city police in Chicago.

[5] In the book, “Jewish Renewal: A Journey : the Movement's History, Ideology, and Future”, Sholom Groesberg describes his experience at the 1969 Freedom Seder, mentioning a service led by Rabbi Harold White (z”l). Read this riveting account of the event here.

[6] Check out this wonderful Sefaria sourcesheet about Nachshon, including a BimBam video about this activist figure — a great supplement for any seder!

[7] Waskow’s Shalom Center publishes stances and articles regarding Climate Change policy, Torah, and political action. You can read a list of these articles on the Climate Policy page of the Shalom Center’s website.

Denise Handlarski: Judaism Unbound Episode 165 -

Denise Handlarski, rabbi and founder of, joins Dan and Lex for a wide-ranging conversation, looking at digital Judaism, interfaith relationships, colonialism, among other topics. [1]

Denise Handlarski Squarespace.png

(0:01 - 20:30): To begin the episode, Handlarski outlines what is. [2] She explores how her project has sought to reach Jews with a desire for deep Jewish practice, but for whom synagogues do not resonate — often because the central event of many synagogues is a prayer service. She also looks at what it means to “practice Judaism daily,” arguing that it is possible to do so while identifying as Secular (and that she herself embodies that possibility). Introducing the two communities she serves — she is rabbi of an “offline” (on-the-ground) community called Oraynu in Toronto, [3] she asserts that both of them are “real life” even though one,, meets digitally. Handlarski also considers ways in which, counter-intuitively, some elements of communal connection can actually occur more effectively in a digital space than an offline location.

(20:31 - 37:57): Handlarski looks back at the history of Secular Humanistic Judaism, exploring the two streams (Secular and Humanistic) that are its key influences. [4] Simultaneously, she puts forth the idea that the history of this movement (or these movements, plural) should take a backseat to the contemporary practices being lived out in spaces today. She also looks at how even 5-10 minutes of daily Jewish practice, through digital modalities, can mean a great deal in people’s lives. Handlarski then examines how her background studying colonialism continues to influence her life today, and in the inverse, how her Judaism played a role in her study of colonialism before she was ever thinking about becoming a rabbi. [5] She also opens up conversation around the geographic make-up of her digital synagogue.

(37:58 - 54:56): Dan asks Handlarski why she chose to call her organization a “synagogue” when looks so different from how many people conceive of a traditional synagogue space. Handlarski responds by exploring the ways in which her effort represents a reclamation of the idea of a “synagogue,” and an implicit argument that the old definition of it need not be our contemporary conception. Turning to the topic of interfaith relationships, she talks through the role that her own relationship (which is interfaith) plays in her Jewish leadership. She speaks to the ways in which intermarried rabbis have life experiences to bring the table which can be transformational for those they serve — whether the latter are themselves intermarried, “intramarried,” or neither. To close the episode, she amplifies the idea that representation matters, highlighting that reality through the example of intermarried rabbis like her, who demonstrate through their leadership a new model of empowered Jewish engagement. [7]


[1] Visit to learn more about Handlarski’s digital Jewish community. Click here for a full bio of Denise Handlarski.

[2] For an article about featured in The Jewish Week, click here.

[3] Learn more about Oraynu at

[4] For more on the evolutions of Secular Humanistic Judaism over time, listen in to Episode 44: A Secular Humanistic Hanukkah - Adam Chalom and/or Episode 136: God? Optional - Judith Seid.

[5] If you are interested in Jewish conversations about colonialism, we recommend the Facebook group Jews for Decolonization, which has over 2,000 members.

[6] Denise Handlarski’s article “I am an Intermarried Rabbi,” featured in Canadian Jewish News, can be accessed here.

[7] For a piece from Lex that explores the idea that online and offline forms of Judaism are both “real-life,” click here.

[8] Connect to Denise Handlarski on social media at any of the following links: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Learn about Handlarski’s doula practice at

Judaism Unbound Episode 164: Going, Jewishly - Leon Wiener Dow

Leon Wiener Dow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and BINA Secular Yeshiva joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg in conversation about his new book, The Going. They discuss Jewish law — a system which both bounds and binds — probing the tensions between individual Jewish practice and an ongoing communal endeavor.

(00:01 - 16:30): Wiener Dow begins the episode with an explanation of his new book’s title, “The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law” [1] where he translates Halacha as “The Going” instead of its more conventional translation as “Jewish Law”. [2] Wiener Dow explains that the word is a gerund, a word which indicates a process, illustrating the dynamic nature of Jewish law which is ever-changing. He briefly talks about his upbringing in a “nominally conservative” home and a young epiphany regarding his own observance of separating milk and meat. He encourages those who see the Torah as compelling to really own that connection, living Torah through action and speech. He highlights that a person’s relationship to halacha is open-ended and may change throughout a person’s life. He also discusses the “limitations” that might occur through halachic observance, causing people to make choices that are uncomfortable, or challenging, because they perceive something deeper at stake.

(16:31 - 30:28): In this section, Dan and Lex ask about the distinction between “the Halacha” versus “a halacha.” Wiener Dow emphasizes that halacha is a deeply communal endeavor which is both concerned with correct interpretation of the law and the evolution of the communal legal system which ties us to our tradition. He argues for a descipription of halacha as a comprehensive entity (“The Halacha”) that both bounds and binds. Meanwhile, calling it something individual (“a halacha”) creates a problematic privatization of practice, divorcing Jews from their own community. Wiener Dow says that this collective binding agent also allows for opportunities of “holy disobedience” which always take place in a communal context. The conversation turns to a discussion regarding the detriments of such a communal system, asking, what happens when one’s personal values are at odds with halachic observance? Can we build a Judaism that is both faithful to our sense morality and honest within the tradition? Wiener Dow affirms these questions, pulling in a quote by Michael Walzer, [3] and asserting that being a responsible member of a community means claiming that community it as one’s own and criticizing it from within. He references a tale in the Talmud, in which students follow a rabbi home — into the bathroom and even the bedroom, during intercourse. When they are asked what they’re doing, they reply, “It is Torah and I must learn it!” [4] In this way, Wiener Dow says, it is up to the greater Jewish community to expand the definition and meanings of that Torah and live it out in a way that is both ethical and honest.

The Going.jpg

(31:29 - 50:12): Wiener Dow continues to explore the tension between the idea of received tradition and our individual sense of right and wrong. He expounds on the notion of acting for God by disregarding or rebelling against the system. [5] He discusses how of a communal halachic system requires a recognition of all Jews and their practices, whether they are following halachah in an observant manner or not. In this way, even Jews who might identify as non-halachic or even anti-halachic are actually living a halachic life, but “just pulling a different way.” So what do we do when the system seems so misaligned with our sensibilities? Do we rebuild or rework? Wiener Dow gives the example of constructing a building, explaining that while many people love to create new buildings from scratch, it may be more costly and less effective than just renovating an old one from the inside out. To start from scratch halachically, too much would be lost. The discussion turns finally to theology as Lex remarks that, throughout this whole conversation, there has been very little direct mention of God. [7] Wiener Dow articulates that it is more significant to respond to the divine than to talk about it, that actions articulate devotion. For this reason, he believes that it’s important that living a halakhic lifestyle doesn’t mean being closed off into narrow spaces, but instead demanding of oneself to live in the widest open of spaces, attentive to everything, sensitive to the world around you and bearing the tensions with pride.

Judaism Unbound Logo Itunes.jpg

[1] Find Leon Wiener Dow’s website here.

[2] Check out Leon Wiener Dow’s book, The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law.

[3] Learn more about this reference to Michael Walzer by downloading this PDF of his piece entitled “Interpretation and Social Criticism.”

[4] Read this Talmudic story about the Rabbi’s disciples following him into his home, the bathroom, and the bedroom, declaring, “It is Torah and I must learn it!”

[5] Wiener Dow references the phrase, "Eit La'asot Hashem..." it is time to work for the Divine. Read about this concept here.

[6] Speaking of cleaning up, flash back to a previous conversation where we discuss Marie Kondo, in Episode 154: Ten New Commandments.

[7] We also have conversations about divinity here on Judaism Unbound! Check out this handy playlist of episodes about God!

Judaism Unbound Episode 163: Collective Effervescence - Lizzi Heydemann

Lizzi Heydemann, the rabbi and founder of Mishkan Chicago, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg in conversation about creating a 21st Century Jewish spiritual community. In their discussion, she calls for embodied experiences of Judaism that are “primal,” “spiritual,” “bold,” “visceral,” and “powerful.” [1]

(0:01 - 15:11): To begin the episode, Lizzi Heydemann looks back at the beginnings of Mishkan Chicago, which was created to reach people in Chicago who had not yet found a robust form of Jewish communal life that spoke to them both socially and spiritually. She then turns to the name “Mishkan Chicago,” outlining its ancient meaning from the text of the Torah, [2] along with how it maps onto the lived reality of the space that she now leads. [3] She emphasizes the ways in which the Tabernacle (Mishkan) traveled from place to place in the Torah, and how it served as a paradigmatic location of spiritual practice for the Israelites. Heydemann also looks at the wide variety of roles held by different groups of Israelites in the Mishkan’s construction, and how Mishkan Chicago has replicated that through micro-communities, in addition to their large-scale gatherings.

(15:12 - 28:51): Heydemann looks at what it means to experience Judaism as a visceral, or primal, experience. [4] She notes Abraham Joshua Heschel’s critique of 20th Century prayer as overly “polite,” and, following his example, calls on participants in Jewish prayer to embrace the possibility of extraordinarily deep and emotional feeling. She also reflects on the wide variety of insecurities that different kinds of people bring into Jewish spaces. Turning to the question of audience, Heydemann explores the kinds of people who are most attracted to Mishkan Chicago’s work, along with those who are less likely to gravitate towards its work. In doing so, she outlines a few initiatives that are part of Mishkan’s programming, highlighting the “Mensch Academy” and “Maggie’s Place.” [5]

(28:52 - 48:34): Turning to questions around intermarriage, Heydemann talks through her decision to leave the rabbinic association of the Conservative movement (the Rabbinical Assembly). Through a quote from Pirkei Avot (a core text of the Mishnah, which translates to “Ethics of our Ancestors”), which centers on the idea of “bringing people closer to Torah,” she examines ways in which her own methodology of achieving that important goal differs from that of the Rabbinical Assembly. Shifting gears a bit to some “futurology,” Heydemann speaks to ways in which she surprises people with her pessimism — not about the Jewish future, but about the future of our world more generally when confronting the issue of climate change — and how this pessimism leads her to see certain battles fought in the Jewish community differently. To close the episode, Heydemann reflects on the legacy of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf [7] — a rabbi who was deeply influential one her early life — and how he taught her the foundational and vital truth that Torah can and should be powerful! In doing so, she argues that there are many contemporary voices that resemble his, calling boldly for a more powerful, more liberated, Jewish future.

[1] Learn more about Lizzi Heydemann by clicking here, and check out Mishkan Chicago’s website at Mishkan Chicago is part of a coalition of Jewish spiritual communities called the Jewish Emergent Network, which you can learn more about at

[2] Want to learn more about what the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was, in the Bible? Check out this article to explore.

[3] In discussing organizational names, Heydemann briefly cites Noa Kushner, rabbi of The Kitchen (another Jewish Emergent community, located in San Francisco). For a past Judaism Unbound conversation featuring Kushner see Episode 23: Hello Mazel - Noa Kushner, Yoav Schlesinger.

[4] Dan refers back to a Judaism Unbound episode with Ruby Namdar in exploring the idea of visceral Jewish experiences. Listen in at this link: Episode 153: Fiction Between Worlds - Ruby Namdar.

[5] Check out Mishkan Chicago’s Mensch Academy here, and learn more about Maggie’s Place here.

[6] Hear more from Heydemann about her decision to leave the Rabbinical Assembly by watching this video.

[7] For more on the legacy of Arnold Jacob Wolf, click here.

Judaism Unbound Episode 162: 100% Black, 100% Jewish - MaNishtana

MaNishtana joins Lex Rofeberg and Dan Libenson for a conversation about race and intersectionality in contemporary Jewish life. They discuss these issues through the lens of the protagonist in MaNishtana’s book, Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi, a Black Orthodox rabbi.

Image Credit: Manishtana

Image Credit: Manishtana

00:01 - 15:18: MaNishtana begins by describing his nom-de-plume. A riff on the 4 questions at Passover, instead of asking “Why is this night different from all other nights,” he asks “Why is this Jew different from all other Jews?” From there, the episode dives into MaNishtana’s book, Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi, [1] which he describes as a social textbook; a not-autobiography about a Black, Jewish rabbi, which is not a Black book or a Jewish book, but chock full of both. MaNishtana discusses how Black and Jewish identity intersect, giving a unique perspective into the feeling of being an outsider looking in, with respect to the Jewish world.

15:19 - 27:59: MaNishtana briefly talks about his social media presence, with the tagline “100% Black and 100% Jewish, 0% Safe.” [2] The conversation turns to questions of how Jewish identity coexists with other identities, especially in a contemporary world in which many marginalized identities often cohabit within the same person. How should Jews approach their own intersectionality? MaNishtana recounts the ways in which Jewish textual tradition already discusses multiplicity of racial identity, naming the book of Esther, the Exodus narrative, and more. [3] He argues that Jewish tradition has always explicitly described that they Jews are from many regions, of many colors — but that these sections are glossed over and unstudied. MaNishtana discusses racism in the Jewish community, including an instance where Yehudah Webster was accosted by a group of white Jews while taking a Torah Scroll to his car. They did not believe he was actually Jewish on account of his blackness. [4] MaNishtana explains the importance of white Jews acknowledging their whiteness. He describes how Jews can both implicitly support tenets of white supremacy while also being victims of it, and that acknowledging whiteness is integral to dismantling white supremacy in Jewish communities.

28:00-42:50: Lex reads the first page of MaNishtana’s book, a dedication page which takes care to address those who have ever felt out of place within Jewish communities. MaNishtana talks about his own experiences of Blackness within Orthodox versus non-Orthodox communities, expressing that even in spaces that might identify as more socially progressive, racism continues to be a problem. The discussion then orients towards questions of walking the walk regarding inclusivity at synagogues. MaNishtana recommends that synagogue leadership reach out to younger generations, catering to those who will inherit the synagogue rather than trying to maintain a non-satisfactory status quo. The episode closes with a call to read the book, [5] a vehicle for opening dialogue around experiences of race and otherness in Jewish communities.

[1] Check out MaNishtana’s new book, Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi on Amazon.

[2] Take a look at MaNishtana’s website, Facebook page, and his Twitter profile.

[3] MaNishtana references the mixed multitudes of Exodus (12:38), Jews from India to Ethiopia in the Book of Esther (8:9), and Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer describing Shem’s blessing of “dark and comely sons”.

[4] Read this article about Yehudah Webster’s experience with racism in the Jewish community, taking a Torah scroll to his car. You can read more about community organizer and activist Yehudah Webster here.

[5] To purchase any of MaNishtana’s other books, click here!

Check out MaNishtana’s ELI Talk, entitled “What Makes This Jew Different from All Other Jews? Race, Difference, and Safety in Jewish Spaces,” by pressing the play-button below!


Judaism Unbound Episode 161: The Zohar - Daniel Matt

Daniel Matt is a scholar of Kabbalah who translated and annotated the Zohar — a central text of Jewish mysticism — into English. He joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about the Zohar’s origins, his work that yielded The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (his landmark translation), and questions that the text opens up about the duality of old and new. [1]

Image Credit: Tom Levy

Image Credit: Tom Levy

(0:01 - 21:20): To begin the episode, Daniel Matt reflects on his recent foray into the world of digital Judaism, through an online class that he teaches weekly to hundreds of people all around the world. He then turns to the main subject of this episode, the Zohar itself. [3] Opening by giving a general overview of its content and structure, he names the reality that many Jews — even those who are very learned in many Jewish texts — have never cracked open the pages of the Zohar. He also provides an introduction to the 10 Sefirot, a term that is difficult to translate but can roughly be understood as “attributes” or “emanations” of God that play a central role in the Zohar’s text, as an ever-present kind of “secret code.” Turning to the origins of the text, he explores two vastly different time periods, and two vastly different geographic contexts, each of which play a critical role in the Zohar’s formation. [4]

(21:21 - 41:41): Matt looks at the role of Moses Maimonides in affecting the shape that the Zohar took, emphasizing how the latter text’s authors were simultaneously influenced by, and critical of, the famous Jewish philosopher. [5] He argues that the text sees itself as “new-ancient,” balancing a radical, innovative lens with the authors’ claim that the text dates back to the 2nd Century C.E. He notes his conscious choice to refer to “authors” plural, as Moshe de Leon is the major, but not exclusive, author of the text. He shifts to look in more detail at some of the Zohar’s most radical ideas, and walks through his process of translating the entire work into English.

(41:42 - 57:51): Continuing on the thread of translation, Matt considers why it is that the Zohar was written in Aramaic, and discusses why in a certain sense, it is in and of itself a kind of translation. He takes on the question of why Moshe de Leon felt the need to claim the text was ancient, as opposed to saying directly that he was writing it in his own time. He speaks to the question of whether there may be still be ways in which ancient precedent holds a great deal of weight for religious practitioners, including many Jews. To close the episode, Matt names some ways in which the Zohar’s relationship to gender and sexuality can be understood as equal parts profound and problematic. [6]

[1] Learn more about Daniel Matt by clicking here. Purchase any of his books on amazon here, and purchase The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (Volume 1) in particular here.

[2] Sign up for Matt’s online class on Zohar at this link.

[3] For a brief textual overview of the Zohar, click here. For an article about Matt’s translation, published in Newsweek shortly after it was released, click here.

[4] Matt cites the chariot featured in the book of Ezekiel as, in many ways, a launching point for early Jewish mysticism. Learn more by clicking here.

[5] For another Judaism Unbound conversation that looks at the philosophy of Moses Maimonides, see Episode 131: Protesting God - Dov Weiss.

[6] Matt mentions the work of Elliot Wolfson, on ideas of gender that manifest in the Zohar. For a book on this subject, see Wolfson’s Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism