Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe (Full Transcript)

Dan Libenson: This is the Judaism Unbound podcast—Episode 3: Exodus.

Dan Libenson: Welcome back everybody. My name is Dan Libenson, and I'm here with my co-host . . .

Lex Rofes: . . . Lex Rofes. 

Dan Libenson: We are here today with an exciting guest, Rabbi Benay Lappe, who is the founder and driving force behind an organization called SVARA, which bills itself as a “traditionally radical yeshiva.” Benay, welcome. 

Benay Lappe: Thank you. 

Dan Libenson: It's great to have you. We're going to get more into the substance of what SVARA does on a future episode, I think. But we have you here, Benay, because we're really interested in a talk that you've given online, as part of the ELI Talks series, on what you call your “crash theory.” And Lex and I thought, in planning these episodes, that your crash theory would provide an interesting place to start thinking about the kinds of processes of change that we are seeing in the Jewish world today—or that we think we should be seeing in the Jewish world today—and we were hoping today that we might discuss that framework with you, and thought that just to start it off, you could give us at least a bit of a summary of your way of thinking, understanding that people will be able to see the whole talk by linking to the link in our shownotes.

Benay Lappe: So, it basically goes like this: The idea is that we all inherit “master stories”—from our religious traditions, from our country, from our families, from the places we work—and these master stories come to answer our basic human questions. And these are questions that we all share: What's right? What's wrong? What does it mean to be a human being? How should I live my life? What's important? And so on. 

And these master stories work until they don't work. And it's just part of life—it’s the way things are. And every master story will ultimately, and inevitably, crash. And what I mean by “crash” is that that master story will cease to work for you, or will stop answering those basic human questions for you, because of one of three things: either you found another master story whose answers you like better, or something will have happened out in the world that will make those old answers no longer work, or something inside of you has changed, and what used to seem true no longer seems true, and your story no longer works.

And there are three, and only three, possible responses to a crash, ever. And people tend to choose one of these three responses as a result of a number of factors, which we can talk about later. But the three basic responses are what I call . . .

Option One, which is denying that a crash has occurred and reverting to your master story and hanging on for dear life—and people tend to build walls around that old master story to make sure that nothing interferes or threatens it again.

Option Two would be accepting that your master story has crashed, completely rejecting that master story, and jumping off into a completely new story. 

And Option Three is to accept that the story has crashed, but instead of abandoning the story, you stay in it and retell it and make it better. This is kind of the remix/upgrade/retell option. 

So that's the basic scheme. 

Dan Libenson: So, why don't we take that one step further and talk about how you see that specifically happening in the area that you study the most, which is the Rabbinic period and the transition into the Rabbinic period from the Judaism that had come before—just to give it some color.

Benay Lappe: Yeah, so if you want to throw “Jewish skin” on the theory, the master story is the biblical narrative. I'm going to locate the primary crash of Biblical Judaism at the crash of the Second Temple. And what crashed as a result of, in this case, a historical event—at least, on the surface, it looks like the cause was this historical event, that the Temple was destroyed by the Romans—we needed a new way to be human, if you were Jewish, a new way to organize meaning: How do we think about how to have a relationship with God? How do I know what's right and what's wrong? I think the truth of the matter is that that master story had been crashing for a long time even while the Temple was still standing.
And what I believe happens is that some group of people are, kind of, the canary in the coal mine for every crash—they're the people who are the “queerest,” if you will, not necessarily because of their gender or sexual orientation, but the people for whom the current master story is working the least. And there's going to be a “crumble” before every crash, and for some group of people—the queerest—that master story's going to be crashing first.

And I think the Rabbis, in my mind, were very Queer. They were people for whom the story was working least, even when one could have participated in it. So, I think for 100 or 200 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a small group of people, whom we now call the Rabbis, who were already creating a new form of Judaism. They were gathering in little ashrams, that we now call synagogues, and doing this new-fangled kind of ritual called prayer that they imagined was actually going to conjure up God's presence . . . when they could've gone to the Temple down the block.

Okay, so now you get to the year 70 or, let's say, 69, and it looks pretty bad for the Jews, and what are people going to do? Now you no longer have just the canaries in the coal mine experiencing the crash, but everyone's experiencing the crash.

So, who goes Option One? It's just, sort of, a rule that if you're employed by the master story, you're going to be an Option One person. In other words, if you're part of the power structure, you're going to do whatever you can to make sure that master story stays. And you're going to revert to it. And you're going to build a wall around it, literal or figurative. And, of course, it was the priests who went Option One—the ones who can't imagine any other way to be a human being or to do God, or to do Jewish, to do community.

And who went Option Two? Well, turns out that it's just a rule that when there's a crash, most people go Option Two. So, somewhere around 90% of Jews at the destruction of the Temple in the First Century went Option Two. That's what we would call assimilation—at least eventually it becomes assimilation. In the beginning it isn't, and we'll come back to that, because I think people who go Option Two are very, very interesting—probably the most important, eventually, for this cycle, that is, if they come back. But we'll get there in a minute.

So, most Jews went Option Two, and they said, there's just no way to be a Jew anymore. Obviously, God doesn't love us anymore. Everyone knew in the ancient Near East that, if your temple was destroyed, the deal between you and God was over, and they left. And, initially, became pagan, and eventually blended in—if they stayed Option Two—blended into non-Jewish society.

And Option One and Option Two are actually opposite sides of the exact same coin. They share the same basic underlying wrong-headed notion that stories are fixed, eternal, unchanging, and immutable. And if there's a crack in one, you either have to do whatever you can to pretend it didn't happen, or you throw the whole thing away.

And one small group of guys—this group of queer, fringy radical hippy guys, whom we call the Rabbis—went Option Three. And they said there are parts of our master story that we can actually change, that we can save, and there are parts about our new reality that are actually good, that we can bring in. And then, with Option Three, they retold the master story, and they essentially invented, I believe, what we now call Rabbinic Judaism.

So, I think what's interesting is to ask ourselves: Why do people go Option One? Why do people go Option Two? Why do people go Option Three? 

Dan Libenson: It's interesting to think about the possibilities of, on the one hand, trying to preserve the system at all costs that we have inherited, and on the other hand, seemingly leaving it—or, at least, I think what we see a lot in our day is leaving its institutions, for sure. I mean, I think there's a question . . . and maybe . . . you mentioned that we should get more into this . . . .

What are the first generation of people that go Option Two like?

Benay Lappe: People who go Option Two have recognized something that is very true for them in some aspect of the world that is not part of their old master story. And if they eventually can become an Option Three person, they will bring back what it is that they found outside, and that will become Judaized—it will become incorporated into the tradition and enrich it. That's how traditions work, anyway.

I've often joked, what do you get when an Option Two person comes back to Judaism? You get yoga minyans [Jewish prayer groups]. But seriously, what you really get is an evolving Jewish tradition. 

Dan Libenson: What do you think makes somebody choose the option that they choose? What makes somebody go Option One, Option Two, or Option Three? 

Benay Lappe: Yeah, I think it's a really interesting question. I think there are a number of components. I think, first of all, there's a personality issue involved. I think we're somewhat hardwired, or grow up and become, or have a tendency to be either Option One, Option Two, or Option Three people.

I don’t know, if you're in a bad relationship for ten years—let's say, an abusive relationship—and you’re just staying, staying, staying, you're probably an Option One person. And you probably want to think about that. And if you're the kind of person who's in a relationship, and at the first fight, you're out of here, and that's a pattern for you, you're probably an Option Two kind of person. And you want to think about that. So, I think there's a personality piece. 

Dan Libenson: Uh-huh. 

Benay Lappe: And next, there's an ability to tolerate dissonance. If you don't have much ability to tolerate dissonance, you're going to be an Option One or Option Two person, more likely.

Going Option One is an option that you take when you're not . . .  among other things, when you're not willing to lose your goodies. So, you’ve got to be willing to lose a lot of goodies to go both Option Two and Option Three. And I think the more experience you have with crashes in the past, the more likely you are to go Option Three. And that's why I think Queer people, for example . . . and there are lots of kinds of Queer people —there are Queer people who are gender-nonconforming, they're Queer about their gender, they're Queer about their sexual orientation, but there are all sorts of queernesses.

If you're Queer, if you have a profoundly outsider experience of life, and you're surviving, you're an Option Three person, or at least you're going Option Three on that aspect of your life. And the more “crash-flex” you are, the more likely you are to go Option Three on any future crashes.

And people sometimes make these choices serially. When I came out, or started to realize that I was gay, I went Option One. Back in the day, that's sort of what everybody did, because there weren't a lot of other great options, and it was very costly to do anything else. It meant losing your job, being kicked out of your home, and so on and so forth.

In my own personal story, at a certain point, I fell in love, realized, wow, it's okay to be gay, and went Option Two but didn't think I could be gay and Jewish. And eventually, I started realizing that I was giving up too much of myself, and that there might actually be a way to be gay and Jewish. And then comes Queer rabbi, and that's an Option Three move.

So, you can make these choices serially, or you can make one and stick with it.

Dan Libenson: It's interesting, because I feel like what you're saying makes me think about this puzzle that I've thought about in terms of the early Rabbis, which is why does it seem that so many of them either were either converts to Judaism, or the children of converts to Judaism, such as Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and many others? And I wonder if it's related to this point that you're making, that people whose story, prior to this particular crash, is one where they've experienced other kinds of crashes and come through them, makes them particularly oriented to taking that Option Three path, no matter what might crash in their lives—in this case, it happened to be Judaism. 

Benay Lappe: Yeah, I think that's true. And I think another factor that makes Option Three stories attractive to outsiders—let's say converts, for example—is that they tend to be experimental, they tend to be newy . . . . Actually, before we talk about why they're attractive to converts and people from the outside, the first thing we have to realize is that Option Three stories, and attempts at creating Option Threes, tend to be very, very thin. They don't feel authentic, they don't feel real, they certainly don't feel traditional, and very few people go for them. Very few people are willing to say, “Yeah, this is how I'm going do Jewish.” The ones who do have to live with that thinness . . . . 
Dan Libenson: And just to clarify, it's thin because it's so new, right? It's not that an Option Three is necessarily something thin; it's just that it's thin when it starts, because it just hasn't been around a whole lot of time in order to thicken up, right? 

Benay Lappe: Yeah, I think that's a part of it. Every Option Three is gonna have three kinds of material in it.

It's going to have some of the old story, which gives it thickness. It's going to have some new invented material, which is going to feel very inauthentic. And it's going to have some tweaks of the old stuff.

Each Option Three is going to have a different proportion of old material that they bring in, invented material, and tweaked material. Some are going to be very close to the old master story, some are going to be far from it. Some will feel thinner because they're bringing down less of the old stuff. And some will feel thicker. And I think you're right, in time they thicken up.

So getting back to the issue of converts, if you look at any really successful cutting-edge Jewish Option Three community, you'll see a disproportionate number of converts and non-Jews who are attracted to it. And there are really successful communities that choose not to even use words like “Jewish community.” This a community for people, and we're using Jewish stuff. The Kitchen in San Francisco is really mindful about doing that. 

Dan Libenson: So, just to step back for a minute and compare Option One and Option Three, what are the advantages to Option One versus Option Three? And also, think about what we're seeing in the Jewish world today and people's resistance to some kind of Option Three that might be proposed today in Jewish life—I feel like people who are actively involved in some kind of Jewish institution will say, “But this provides the whole package for me. This new thing that may be going on—maybe it's really good at education, or maybe it's really good at Talmud study, or maybe it's really good at prayer, but it's not necessarily good at the other stuff. And that makes me feel unstable. I like to feel the sense that I have a community to be part of and an organization to be part of that takes care of me systematically.”

And it seems unlikely that some kind of new version, however good it might be, is going to be able to meet all of those needs early on. And when you think about somebody who may be an outsider—either because they are an actual outsider who converted, or maybe who hasn't even converted yet, or never will convert, or somebody who is not an outsider in the sense that they are Jewish and their family has been Jewish for a long time, but they haven't been participating in the organized institutions—neither of those people is experiencing that same sense of loss of that stable Jewish system, because they never had it to begin with. So, in a certain sense for them, this new thing is all gain, and they feel positive about the elements that have been added to their lives and don't have as much thought about the things that are being lost.

Benay Lappe: Option Threes tend to have a higher percentage of stuff that works, and they are, by definition, less burdened by the stuff that doesn't work anymore. So, they're going to be very attractive to people—just like you say, Dan—who are looking for something that works and aren't feeling the pain and the loss of this legitimacy, this whole authentic stuff. They're not feeling that loss because, like you said, they never had it. I think you're absolutely right. 

Dan Libenson: One of the things that Lex and I have been talking about is this question of whether Judaism is exceptional or whether Judaism is really just another organization just like any other, and some of the same forces that affect the way people interact with other types of things that people do could actually be used as lenses through which to look at the Jewish experience. 

Benay Lappe: I don't think it's exceptional in any way. I think it's a story like any other. And it works just like secular stories, it works just like corporate stories—it's absolutely the same thing. 

Lex Rofes: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. I just wanted to make an explicit connection that I don't think we ever quite stated, but I think we've all been operating with as a premise, just in case listeners didn't catch it.

We were talking about the Option One, Option Two, Option Three folks with respect to the period right after the destruction of the Second Temple, and then we started talking about contemporary life, and we never quite said what I think we all understand, which is that these three groups of people are playing out in very direct ways in the Jewish community.

And the Option One folks are those who do feel quite comfortable and connected to Jewish institutions—Jewish life as it is. The Option Two folks—they're the folks that all of us in the Jewish community spend all of our time trying to figure out how to engage, how to involve . . . all of these words. Because they're the folks that have, for whatever reason, not felt compelled by manifestations of Judaism in their communities.

And the Option Three people are what we're most excited about—those who do want there to be a shift in the Jewish community but aren't so disillusioned that they're leaving.

I just wanted to make that explicit in case anybody didn't catch that, because we jumped from the past to the present.

But on that note, I'm curious, because we talk so much about Option Two people—we don't call them that, we just call them unengaged, we call them uninterested, uninvolved—and I'm curious if, whether from history or just from your own experience, Benay, if there are strategies for taking people from a space of Option Two to a space of Option Three.

You talked about how, in your own life that happened to occur, and how maybe in some people's lives that occurs. But how do we make that happen? Or does it have to just be organic? 

Benay Lappe: Well, first let me crank back. And I think you're absolutely right to connect the dots between the crash of the biblical era and the crash that we're experiencing now. And I think that we're in a crash as enormous as the crash of the Second Temple. 

And what's crashing now is that new Option Three that the Rabbis came up with. And we've had a pretty good run of it, right? Two-thousand years of that Option Three—not bad. And for the last, I don't know, 150 years or so, it's been crashing. We've been in a crumble, from Emancipation to Holocaust through modernity, and I think we're pretty close to the end. I don't know if we're at the beginning of this crash, or at the end of the crash, but we're in another similar crash.

So now, how do you get the Option Two people to come back? First of all, I think the Option Two people, as Dan said earlier, aren't really leaving Judaism—they're leaving our current forms of Jewish communal structure, they're leaving what they've been served up as Judaism, and they're very, very ready, and would be thrilled, to be presented with an Option Three that spoke to them. And it's happening more and more. 

So, what does an Option Three have to have to appeal to Option Two people? Well, first of all, it's got . . . remember, it's got to do what stories are supposed to do, which is answer their basic human questions. And it's got to give them answers that make sense to them—people will no longer suppress their moral intuition, which the tradition calls “svara,” in favor of a story that has different answers that don't seem right to them. 

What I think is really important is to uncover the native acknowledgement of the tradition that every human being has this moral intuition, which is what drives every change in Judaism, and what drives what we think of as Jewish.

Lex Rofes: As you were talking about answering basic human questions, and if that's really what any organization, any group trying to shoot for Option Three needs to do, I was actually thinking about some conversations Dan and I have had about something that might seem tangential. But Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which, for those who aren't familiar, is this pyramid that a man with the last name of Maslow came up with, and it talks about what it is that human beings need in their lives. And the most basic is physiological needs, and then safety, on the next level up; then a sense of belonging; then the fourth level is self-esteem; and then the top level is self-actualization. 

And what it sounds what you're talking about is, when it comes to answering human questions, that starts to be in the realm of esteem and actualization and less in the realm of belonging or safety, the lower levels of that pyramid.

So I'm curious if you think part of what the Option Three of today's world looks like is figuring out how our organizations, who have long been about building a sense of community or belonging, or a sense of safety from outside forces of anti-Semitism—the second and third levels of the pyramid—if maybe what we need is for our organizations to focus more on how to affect individuals and help them, in Maslow's terms, become self-actualized. 

Benay Lappe: I think you're on to something there, for sure. I think that this tradition—the Option Three that we've inherited, Rabbinic Judaism—was created and worked for a people that was oppressed and beleaguered, and relatively impoverished . . . and needed to have two challahs on the table on Friday night to feel a sense of self-esteem. And having two challahs has been really meaningful, because when you didn't feel that way six days out of the week, this ritual made you feel that way. Well, when you can have two challahs on the table any night of the week, maybe Shabbos has got to serve a different need, so I think you're right.

Dan Libenson: Benay, I want to go back to a question of Option One, Option Two, Option Three: I'm thinking from the perspective of the people who are going Option One, who are basically saying, it is what it is. I feel like I hear this a lot: Judaism is what it is—I mean, this is what Judaism is—if you want to do something else, that's fine, but it wouldn't be Judaism. This is Judaism. How do they perceive of the people that are going Option Two, i.e., leaving altogether, or close to leaving, or Option Three, which is they're, kind of, inventing new forms? And I think that the basic attitude, at least that I see, is that the people who are going Option Two are disloyal and not committed, and the people who are going Option Three are kind of doing something kooky that's not Judaism. 

Benay Lappe: Yeah. 

Dan Libenson: How do you think about those questions? 

Benay Lappe: Oh, there are so many things in there. Just to complicate things a little bit, the truth of the matter is any Option One that last for longer than a dozen years or so isn't really an Option One—it's an Option Three that is doing a really good job of selling itself as the “real deal,” this is the way it's always been, this is authentic, this is the tradition. But that isn't the way traditions work. Traditions really can't live very long if they actually are fixed and unchanging, because people change.

And Option One is really more of a mindset and a myth than it actually is a viable choice. What's unfortunate about Option One people is they sort of wear the mantle of authenticity, and those who don't know any better—those who are not very familiar with how traditions work, or how stories work—believe them and sort of become disempowered and inauthentic in relation to them, and, knowing that that option isn't attractive, think their only option is to leave. 

But once time goes by into the evolution of Option Threes . . . and, by the way, once you have a crash, you don't have a single Option Three; you have many Option Threes. And that's what you want. You want to nurture and allow as many Option Threes as you can, because as you said earlier, each one is going to have a piece, it's not going to be a full diet, but in time they will come together into a more complete diet—this one's got the learning, this one's got the singing, this one's got the holiday piece. And there will be a kind of merger of incomplete Option Three's into something coherent. And then that'll last for a while. 

Dan Libenson: Let's look at it this way: I'm thinking about the way that, particularly people who go Option Two, who essentially leave or don't participate . . . I think a lot of them are perceived to have left, but they actually haven't left, they have just chosen not to participate in the institutional approaches that we have. I'm really struck, for example, in the Pew Study, by the huge number of people who say that they're proud to be Jewish, or that being Jewish is important to them, but at the same time they're not participating in any institutional manifestations of Jewish life—have those people gone Option Two? How do we characterize them? 

I think that often the community characterizes them as having gone Option Two, when the reality is that, I think, that most people right are not creators of anything—I mean, most people want to be members of something. There are a few people who are leader types, let's say, and who want to create new things and have the skills to create new things. I mean, if I wanted to create a new kind of Jewish community that involved singing and music, I would have no capacity to do that, because those aren't my skills.

So I just think that if, let's say, there was a person who said, well, the only kind of Judaism that I would really love would be something that was full of singing and music, and they look around their city and they don't see anything like that, what choice do they have, right? Their only choice is to kind of stick with it as it is, and grin and bear the fact that it's not meeting their needs, or they can just leave, right? 

But it's not because they've, necessarily, decided that the best thing is to leave. It's just because they don't really have another option.

So I'm struck by the question of how many people who seem to be going Option Two really would go Option Three if they could. 

Benay Lappe: I think the vast majority of them. Because the vast majority of people want to be integrated—they want all their molecules to be living inside their body at the same time. They want their Jewishness, and their “queernesses,” of whatever variety, all to have a place in their life. And I think you're absolutely right—most people go Option Two because there aren't enough alternatives. 

And Option Three is really hard. It's uncomfortable, and you're never sure if you're getting it right, and it's never going to feel really, really good for you, it's never going to work for those of us going through the crash. It might work for our grandchildren, but it's never completely going to work for us, and it's hard. 

Dan Libenson: I think about the immigrant experience—and I'm not sure if this relates more to Option Two or Option Three, maybe you have a thought—but when I think of first generation immigrants to a country, to America for example, it's very heroic to be that immigrant because you're never going to fully integrate into that society, but in theory you're setting it up that your kids will be able to. 

I think that's probably true of people who go Option Two and who go Option Three. I think that if you just leave something that you were once part of, then you do feel this intense sense of loss, and you probably never feel fully comfortable and happy in that new reality even if you've chosen it. 

And the other choice is to go Option Three, which is to try to create some kind of synthesis, and so maybe you feel a little bit less of a sense of loss because you haven't completely left it, but you're also integrating less into the other option. And you're also feeling sort of unstable and not fully comfortable, and yet perhaps you're setting something up that will be the only thing you're children ever knew. And they'll feel just fine about it. 

Benay Lappe: Yeah, and also I think what you're getting at is, there is loss—period—after a crash. No matter which way you go, there's going to be loss. And that's, kind of, part of the deal, but it isn't actually . . . I'm not trying to say that crash is an unfortunate event—it’s how life works, and we . . . it's really what initiates growth. We grow by realizing that something that was working before isn't working now. And that can be a really good thing.

Judaism is in a really big period of growth. Maybe it's a little bit adolescent right now, so it's got a lot of adolescent issues. But this is how people grow, and this is how traditions grow. They have growth spurts and then periods of stability. I think we're in one of these, sort of, painful growth spurts when you have growing pains. I don't know if that works . . . . 

Dan Libenson: It reminds me of an experience that I had recently when I was in Israel, and I was trying to explain to people the kind of work that I do in the Jewish community. And they said . . . a lot of people would say—whether they were religious or not—they would say, “So, you're working to stop assimilation.” 

And I would say, “I don't feel great about the word, ‘assimilation’—I don't think that's what's going on.”

And they would say, “Why?”

And I'd say, “Well, I don't think people are . . . I see assimilation as something that people are actively trying to do”—they're trying to become part of this other culture, and it's somehow bad, because they're leaving our culture. And the reason why they're leaving is because they're trying to join this other culture. 

And what I see is something quite different, which is that people actually really would like to have a strong sense of themselves as Jews, if they only could.

But this is where I really like the language of “crash,” right?

Benay Lappe: Yeah.

Dan Libenson: Because they actually can't, because something has crashed in that story of Judaism, either for them personally or in some bigger way, where they literally cannot just kind of join the Reform Movement and feel great about that, because there's something that just would feel absolutely wrong to them about that.

And so they are, then, sort of stuck in a situation where they are actually not trying to assimilate. They say I really would love to have a Jewish life if I could figure out what a Jewish life would look like that would make sense for me. And I've kind of looked around and I don't see anything. 

Benay Lappe: I think you're absolutely right, that most people are go Option Two aren't really rejecting anything. They're in this enormous holding pattern, which will probably last longer their lifetime, during which they will hope for alternatives but won't find any. And what we're hoping for, I think, is that we can lay down enough Option Threes to attract them, or attract their children.

I think this is just what happens in a crash—you get very small numbers of people going Option Three, because like you say, most people aren't equipped to be Option Three leaders. And there aren't any Option Threes already in place for most people to grab onto, so they'll go Option Two. 

And the new Option Three is going to be very, very small. And lots of people are going to scream, “We're dying, we're dying,” but we're not. That's just the phase we're in post-crash. We've been here before. This is how it works.

Dan Libenson: Benay, let me ask you something that, maybe, I should have asked you at the beginning: What do you think has crashed? 

Why do you think we're in a crash period today, and what is it that you think has crashed? 

Benay Lappe: I think you can diagnose a crash by looking at how many people are going Option Three, how many people are going Option Two, and how many people are going Option One. And if you count the numbers of people going Option Two, you can see whether you're in a period that needs a little tweak or a period that's in a full-on crash. 

And the numbers seem to indicate that Judaism, as we're packaging it, as we're presenting it, as we're using it, as we're teaching it isn't speaking to people. It isn't answering their basic human questions. They're looking elsewhere for guidance, for a sense of meaning, for senses of community. And those are the needs that Judaism has traditionally tried to fill, and they're not filling those needs for people. So, that's why I think we're in a crash.

Dan Libenson: I think that's really interesting in light of something that Lex and I talked about. I think it was in our first episode, and one of the concepts that we brought in was this idea of “ipcha mistabra”—this idea of opposite thinking: How can we look at the same data and look at it in a different way than most people look at it?

And so, I'm thinking about the demographic surveys that tend to get interpreted by the Jewish community organizations as: our problem is that people are leaving Jewish life, and our solution needs to, somehow, be to figure out ways to attract them to the institutions of Jewish life.

And what you're saying, as I'm understanding it, is that the way to interpret those demographic surveys is quite different—is to say that those numbers are evidence that the institutions of Jewish life have crashed in such a way that those people will never join those institutions, by definition, that numbers of that magnitude are a symptom of those ways of being Jewish having crashed, and that they indicate not that we need to do more to educate people or somehow change them so that they'll come back and join, but that, actually, what we need to do is work to accelerate some kind of process of Option Three Judaisms being created that could attract those people, perhaps. 

Benay Lappe: By definition, when you're in a crash, the Option Three that works will be something that would've been unrecognizable to those for whom the old story worked before the crash. In other words, this is a model of a disruptive change, not a sustaining change. 

When you have a crash, the new master story is one in which you're achieving the same goal—in other words, you're creating a certain kind of human being, and we have a very specific notion of what a Jewish human being should look like, and it actually is very different from the ideal notion of what a Christian human being or a Muslim human being should look like . . . we have a certain idea and that stays the same overall. What changes and what becomes unrecognizable is the way in which we get there. 

And I think what Judaism will look like in 100 years will be unrecognizable to us. But that doesn't scare me. 

Lex Rofes: I think that's a really poignant quote—this idea that we're living in a constantly changing, constantly evolving, maybe occasionally crashing, Jewish existence, and that it's not only likely, but kind of a pleasant thing that in 100 years the Judaism that we will see, or that our descendants will see, is going to be very different from ours.

And I think that connects really well with our overarching theme of this episode, of Exodus, which we didn't mention at the beginning—but this idea that we're in the midst of a huge transformation. Exodus is perhaps the most well known, well-defined example of a major transformation for the Jewish people that we have. I think it's a really important connection as we think about our own transformation today, to think about how we have that precedent in the past, of a major shift from one physical place to a new physical place, but also from a more mental, emotional, psychological space, as Israelites, that shifted with that Exodus story.

Dan Libenson: Benay, I'm wondering if there's anything else that you would want to say or talk about that you haven't talked about yet? 

Benay Lappe: It occurs to me that when I came up with this scheme, I thought I had come up with something new. I thought this was a new idea, that I had invented this. And when I was teaching it once to a group of high school educators, one of the teachers raised his hand and he said, “Benay, that's just Darwin.” 

And I said, “Tell me more.”

And he said, “Yeah, Darwin's idea was that every species, when confronted with a threat to its survival, has three and only three options—adapt, migrate, or die. 

And that's the crash theory. Migrate is Option Two. Die is Option One, which I think is really interesting. And adapt is Option Three. And the Option Three path is the path to survival, but

I think what is really important not to forget, as we've been talking about today, is that Option Two isn't—as you said, Dan—it's not leaving. It's merely the absence . . . it's this holding pattern, really. It's a holding pattern until there's an Option Three that I can jump onto, that I can see, that I can believe in, that speaks to me. 

People don't really want to go Option Two. And the Jews who find themselves in Option Two haven't so much chosen it, as have been left there by default because we haven't yet created enough alternatives that help them answer those basic human questions. And that's just part of the cycle. 

But I feel very optimistic, because the Jewish world is so much more Option Three today than it was just a handful of years ago, and more and more Option Two people are showing up and going, “Wow, this is amazing.”

Dan Libenson: That's great, and I think it would be a good place to end where you began, because ultimately the reason why this stuff is so important, why we so hope that there would be an Option Three that would compel the interest of a lot of people, is because we really hope that Judaism has the potential, in one way or another, to help people with the things that they need help with in their lives.

That ultimately, the sad part about people leaving and going Option Two and not finding what they're looking for in the Jewish world, is not so much that that means that Jewish institutions are going to have fewer members, or are going to have a harder time—although that also is an unfortunate thing—but it means that all those people won't be able to get what they're looking for, at least through Judaism, which potentially could be a source for what they need.

And we really want to thank you for joining us.

We want to tell our listeners that if you want to reach Lex and me, you can reach us by email at our name, Lex or Dan, at nextjewishfuture.org. 

And, Benay, how could people reach you if they're interested in learning about Svara more? 

Benay Lappe: They can reach me at Benay@svara.org or check out the SVARA website, www.svara.org.

Dan Libenson: Great, well, thanks so much for being with us today. 

Benay Lappe: Thank you, this was fun. 

Lex Rofes: This has been Judaism Unbound.