Thank you to Esther Mack for transcribing this episode.
Note: This transcript has not yet been edited. There may be small transcription errors. Please do not publicly quote from the transcript without checking the audio for accuracy.
Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 1—Genesis.
Dan Libenson: Welcome to the Judaism Unbound podcast. I’m Dan Libenson, your cohost …
Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.
Dan Libenson:As we start the podcast, I think the most important question is, what is this about, what are we doing this. And, Lex, I want to take this in two directions: I want to talk about why we are exploring the subjects that we’re exploring, and I also want to talk about why we’re doing a podcast. But I guess we should start with who we are. I think what’s important at this stage is to say that both of us have been engaged in Jewish life for a while, but we do come from two different generations. I, Dan, am, I guess, Gen X, and Lex, what would you classify yourself as being?
Lex Rofes: I am a member of everybody’s favorite, or maybe least favorite, generation, the one you see all over the headlines: I am a millennial.
Dan Libenson:Right. There isn’t a lot of opportunity for public conversations across generations. And not that this is the biggest generational divide in the Jewish community, but I do think that, actually, in some ways Gen X represents a major change in, let’s say, the Jewish condition in America, in ways that we’ll explore later, basically having to do with the distance of the Generation X folks from some of the formative experiences of the Jewish community in America, such as the immigration to America, the Holocaust, the founding of the state of Israel. All of those things, even the Six Day War, happened before Gen X came of age, and the millennial generation is a couple generations removed from that. I don’t know, Lex, do you think there are other aspects that are significant about the generational dimension of the show?
Lex Rofes:Yeah, I think that it’s really important to have the cross-generational conversations. And I think part of it is what you described in terms of the historical events that might have been particularly formative for us – or not; maybe the or not is the most important. But it’s also not just about where we fall in history, but also where we are in life. There’s so much conversation about what’s unique about people in their 20s, what’s unique about people that are senior citizens, what’s unique about … And as the Jewish community especially hones in on certain of those demographic groups, I think having a lens from two of them is going to be helpful. And we will also be bringing in folks that fall outside of our groups, both older than us and, hopefully, younger than us. I’m only 25, but I think that that would be helpful as well.
Dan Libenson:So, just to go into a little bit more detail … This is Dan, I’m in my mid-forties, I have a wife and two kids. And Lex, how would you describe your place in the world?
Lex Rofes:My place in the world. I’m 25. Some people, I guess, have called that the odyssey years – post-college, before marriage. I’ll go with that. I’m in a funky in-between stage where I’ve graduated from college and not yet married, but a stage that’s becoming more and more popular as it sort of lengthens. It used to be much shorter, back in the day. But I’m part of a strong cohort of Jews in their 20s that are looking for intriguing, interesting kinds of Jewish life.
Dan Libenson:One other thing that I wanted to say about a podcast in general, and why we’re choosing this genre at this point, is that we wanted to have this conversation about where the Jewish community – where the Jewish world, let’s say – is today in America, where it might be going. And we really were looking for a way to explore the questions in a deeper way, and specifically in a way that is maybe unusual or different from the way that these questions generally get explored in public forums in the Jewish community. And we thought that a podcast would be a way where you can kind of think out ideas; you can talk to interesting people, continue to bring in new voices and refine your ideas or reject your ideas over time. So we really hope that our listeners are joining us for the beginning of a long process of discovery together. As time goes on, we want to be very responsive to feedback that we’re getting, to discussion that’s happening. The best way to have discussion with us about the podcast would probably be to go to our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound. And we will explore topics that you, our listeners, are interested in, and as we do, try to put together a growing and refined picture of what we’re facing.
Lex Rofes:Absolutely. The one other piece that I think is a benefit of a podcast format is, we’re going to talk for a while. Our episodes are loosely going to be in the range of 40-50 minutes. But we don’t have the expectation, necessarily, that everybody will listen straight through every episode. What we’re going to do, in addition to recording these episodes, is with each one there’s going to be a bit of a guide to what we discuss, and if you want to listen to a certain piece of what we’re discussing, we’ll have it laid out in the show notes where in the podcast, from X minute to Y minute, you can turn in. And that way you can really cater this to your own interests and needs.
Dan Libenson:So I just thought maybe we should start a little bit by talking about what this podcast is all about. Essentially it’s a question of why are we doing this. What we hope is that you’ll tune into this podcast every week as a way of trying to shake up your thinking about the place of Judaism in America and in the lives of Jews in America. There’s a concept that I want to introduce at this point that was really inspiring to me called “ipcha mistabra.” It’s an Aramaic term which means, essentially, opposite thinking. And famously, this turned into an organization after the Yom Kippur War in Israel, when Israel was surprised by the attack of the Yom Kippur War, and they put together an intelligence unit to say, “Let’s have an intelligence unit that’s thinking in the opposite way from all the other intelligence units, so that we’ll make sure that we have access to all the potential ideas. And then we can decide what to do based on having access to all the potential ideas, and not just the ideas that are kind of the most popular ones.”
So what we really want to do in this podcast for the American Jewish community is try to have this be a forum where ideas that, maybe, are a little bit different – or very different – from those that seem to be the animating ideas behind the established Jewish world can get an airing, can be discussed, can be thought about. We’re not looking to have debates here; we’re looking to really be thoughtful and take new ideas and really try to play them out as to how they might matter.
Lex Rofes:Right. The ipcha mistabra point is … I love it both historically and presently. And I want to sort of mark what we might be implying, which is that maybe the spectrum of opinion that we hear in the Jewish establishment, in our Federations, our synagogues – the broad locus of Jewish institutions – it’s not that it is so narrow to the point of no disagreement; there is definitely a wide spread among the different denominations, among different kinds of organizations. But there are certain commonalities that have proven very difficult for any of those institutions to think outside of, and what we’re trying to do is push past that framework.
Dan Libenson:Right. So maybe this is a good time to bring in the question of why are we called Judaism Unbound, what’s that about. For me, the most resonant idea of the word “unbound,” as far as Judaism goes, is that there are no boundaries. Meaning that I think that we often have a sense of Judaism as being something exceptional, right, something that’s living by itself in its own cocoon that may, here and there, interact with the society around it, but the main objective of which is to kind of stay pure in some way. And actually it makes me think a lot about the biblical prohibitions against mixings of various kinds, that we shouldn’t mix wool and linen. There’s a lot of things in the Bible that, I think, have given us a general cultural notion that mixing is bad, and that notion has also flowed through explicitly in all sorts of other Jewish presumptions, such as it’s bad to marry a non-Jew and mix ourselves that way, it’s bad to import religious practices from other religions, or to import cultural practices from other cultures – even though all of those things have happened very often in Jewish history. But we seem to have developed some kind of mythology within Judaism that, as a rule, Judaism is against mixing. Whether or not that mythic notion is true or has been true or not is an interesting question that we could challenge, but I think that we want to put out the idea that that’s not going to be a healthy philosophy for us to move forward with into the 21stcentury, and instead, that we should – at least as a matter of thought – we should be open to thinking, basically, about anything. And how Judaism should not be seen as bounded and not integrated with the world around it, but actually unbound and, potentially, very porous and very much able to take ideas from the world around it, to put out ideas into the world around it, and all sorts of other permutations that you might take of that question of Jewish boundedness. This is about trying to blow that apart.
Lex Rofes:Absolutely. And I want to confront an idea that I often hear in response to this framing, because I share the idea that Dan just put forth, that we should be looking at Judaism primarily through a lens that does not have too much in the way of boundaries, of parameters. And often what I hear in response is, “But wait. This is how organisms, institutions, et cetera, define themselves. Without boundaries, you’re not distinct from anything else.” The boundaries … they haven’t been our strength, necessarily. Our strength has been our capability to push past the boundaries. And that’s provocative, because it implies that there’s less distinct about Jewishness, Judaism, than we thought. The word “exceptionalism” came up before. We might be less exceptional, in the sense that we are an exception from the rule, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not super awesome. I mean, we’ve found a way to take ideas that come from other frameworks and build them into Judaism in a beautiful way. And all we’re doing is advocating for doing that same thing today, in the 21stcentury.
Dan Libenson:I want to bring in another piece of this way of looking at boundedness and raise the word “authenticity”. Because I think a lot of times, attempts to do something innovative, Jewishly, are labeled as “inauthentic.” We really hope that this podcast can push the idea forward that the definition of what is authentically Jewish and not authentically Jewish, as far as the idea goes that something is “authentic” when it comes from well within the boundaries of the existing framework, that that’s not historically how we’ve defined Jewish authenticity – if we’ve even talked about Jewish authenticity in the past; I don’t think it’s actually been a major big deal. And also that specifically, in certain times in history, times of major change – not within Judaism, times of major change outside of Judaism – that those are particularly the times when Judaism imports the most from outside, and mixes itself up in different ways.
Lex Rofes:Right. And there’s a second meaning to Judaism Unbound also, the word “unbound” referring to this idea of obligation. So if you are bound to be Jewish, in the sense of a binding contract, then you’re connecting to Judaism out of a sense of obligation, out of commandedness. And that’s, for many Jews, both historically and today, been a perfectly adequate paradigm of Jewishness. What we’re seeing, though, is that there are all sorts of segments of the Jewish community in America today that don’t connect to that paradigm anymore. And, honestly, I think that’s been the case in all sorts of past eras as well. It’s not necessarily so new. But what that means is that we have to become unbound in another way. We have to think about our connections to Judaism not as something that we do because we are required to, but because we want to. And that creates a very different set of questions that the Jewish community has to ask. It means we have to ask why should we do anything Jewish, on the first level. Next level, if we want to do something Jewish, why should we do it through the institutions that are in our community, or might we do better through not institutions, just gathering with some friends or just doing Jewish individually. Does that exist as a paradigm? What’s it mean to be Jewish as an individual? It’s interesting.
And I actually think about bound also in the sense of bound to community. We think of communities as something that binds us together. And what we’ll be talking about a lot is this question of whether Judaism really is, fundamentally, about community, or if it’s about something else. I think for so many Jews, the word “community” is what comes to mind when they think of Judaism. But we’ll be exploring, in that ipcha mistabra spirit, the idea of whether it might be something else that, in addition to community, starts to serve people’s needs in a new way.
Dan Libenson:What you’re talking about makes me think of a different way of thinking about the question of being bound or unbound, is sort of the question of bundling, right. The idea is, is any one piece of Judaism bound to another, such that Judaism is this inherent bundle of stuff, or a system, that you simply can’t take the pieces apart? So if you don’t feel bound to community, there’s no way that you can be Jewish in a way that doesn’t involve being part of a Jewish community. Or if you don’t feel connected to religion or prayer, that there’s really no way to be Jewish, because it’s a whole package. And actually, in our world today, that question of bundling and unbundling is one that a lot of organizations, a lot of companies, a lot of industries have faced. I just think, really, off the top of my head, the idea of the music industry comes most to mind. This idea that we used to buy albums and, essentially, that was a bundle of songs, and you couldn’t really buy the songs individually. And then a technological change, in this case, came about, and allowed people to buy individual songs. And the idea of bundling together an album and getting people to pay for a whole album when they only wanted one song is no longer the driving force behind the music industry.
So similarly, I think we really want to raise this question: Is it right – especially is it right in our times – to see Judaism as inherently all bound together? Or are there sometimes times in history when, in the past, Judaism has become unbundled, and might this be one of those times as well? I think that we’re asking two things, basically. One, is that necessarily a bad thing, right. Meaning, is that a terrible thing, and really the objective of this podcast, or any effort to address the challenges of Jewish life in America in the 21stcentury, should be to rebind those things together, and get people to have those loyalties back again? Or is it possible to think more positively and more constructively about that, and to say that unbundling is an inherent part of living in 21stcentury America, just as, for example, it was an inherent part of living in 6thcentury BCE Babylonia, or whatever. And in times like that, which we’ve gone through before, we’ve had a particular set of strategies, and that it would actually be unfortunate if we are unable to go to our Jewish toolbox of strategies for dealing with a time like this simply because we haven’t lived in a time like this for X hundreds or thousands of years.
Lex Rofes:Love it. So, just to encapsulate so far, we’ve talked about a number of meanings of “unbound.” It feels like we’re looking at a Hebrew root, and looking at all of the different …
Lex Rofes:… ways to understand that root with the different Hebrew verb forms.
Dan Libenson:Yeah, I think we should do some linguistic research into the English root of bound and unbound.
Lex Rofes:Yeah. So just to summarize: We’ve got “unbound” in the sense of lacking boundaries, lacking parameters; we’ve got “unbound’ in the sense of not in a binding contract; and also “bound” in its connection to the word “bundle,” and looking at the Jewish world as maybe not being packaged as one big whole piece, but being able to be separated into little pieces that you can connect to some and not connect to others.
And then I wanted to add one last one, which is bound in the sense of how you are bound for a destination on a train or on a plane. You get on Southwest Airlines, and they tell you, “This is flight 2364, service to Baltimore.” We don’t know where we’re bound for. We don’t know. We don’t know what Judaism in 2100 is going to look like, and I don’t think any of us does. And that doesn’t primarily lead us to a sense of anxiety or fear. That primarily leads us to a sense of excitement, because that means we get to experiment and play around with all sorts of possibilities that could be Judaism in 2100, and also could not. We don’t know what our destination is, and in that sense we are not bound for any particular one.
Dan Libenson:I actually think that we are living in a time of wandering, and we should embrace that notion. That we should understand that our time, our task in this time in Jewish history, is not to find the next big idea, is not to find the future form of Judaism that’s going to be stable for the next thousand years. Maybe that will come in the future, maybe it will never come. But I think that we are so early in the process of wandering away from the forms of Judaism that were stable, or relatively so, over the last two thousand or so years, that we really have to understand ourselves as being at the beginning of a process, and to embrace the idea that what we’re doing now is, to some extent, wandering around aimlessly, but in a thoughtful way. That we’re trying to collect the various pieces together about what might form a rich and meaningful and powerful Jewish life in the future, but that we don’t have to have all the pieces together now. It’s not realistic that anybody will have the pieces all together now. And that we can’t really say exactly where we’re heading, and that that is actually a Jewish tradition, and that is an aspect where we really are Judaism unbound.
Lex Rofes:In other words, we’re coming at this from a place of content uncertainty, or …
Dan Libenson:I think that’s a good way to put it.
Lex Rofes:We don’t know, and we’re psyched that we don’t know where this train of ours is headed. It makes it more exciting.
Dan Libenson:Right. So let’s maybe explore the question, then, why are we even thinking about this at all? I mean, what’s the problem?
Dan Libenson:Right? If this is just a natural process, then why does it require the intervention of the podcaster, or any sort of intervention? There definitely is this sense in the Jewish community today of a crisis, right, Now, that said … I think it was Rawidowicz who was famous for calling the Jews an “ever-dying people,” and saying that it’s basically always a crisis narrative for us, right. And that maybe that’s actually the reason we’ve been able to hold on for so long, is because it’s good to feel that you’re in crisis, and we always do feel in a crisis. But I don’t know … so as you look out at the landscape, why do you even think there’s an issue that requires people to think in new ways?
Lex Rofes:I think there is an issue because there’s a disconnect, a big disconnect between what we think about as the Jewish community – I’ll use the terminology of a capital-J Jewish community, which is the institutions that serve as representatives of the Jewish community, that serve as means of engaging the Jewish community. There’s a big separation between them and the Jewish population. There’s two distinct groups that we are all very conscious of, of the people that are in and out. And my issue with that is that I want Jewish institutions that are able to successfully both meet and exceed the needs of the American Jewish community writ large. And I think where the crisis language comes from is that those very institutions themselves have started to realize that they are not doing that for the quantity of people that they once were, and maybe even the quantity that they are reaching is not entirely satisfied with how they are being engaged. And so I think what our podcast is looking to do is talk about the groups of people that were just mentioned. So there’s the people that just aren’t touching Jewish institutions at all; there’s the people that are, but aren’t particularly happy about it. So the first category we might call unaffiliated, uninvolved, disaffiliated, one of these terms – and what’s funny is, I actually saw a friend of mine post on Facebook recently an article from 1916, exactly 100 years ago, in the Jewish newspaper he works for, with the title, “How do we reach the unaffiliated?”
Lex Rofes:So that problem might not be totally new, and we may, once again, have lessons to learn from the past. But the other population is what I think of and what we’ve talked about as dissatisfied optimists – the people that are connecting with Jewish life on one level or another, including the institutions, but aren’t happy with them, who go to their synagogue and feel like there could be something better achieved. And I think that the issue isn’t necessarily one of crisis, as you described. It’s an issue of this deep sense of there’s more, that we’re settling for a level of Jewish life that’s sort of “eh.”
Dan Libenson:There is a crisis for Jewish institutions in the sense that whether the reason for not participating in Jewish institutions is because people are not interested in participating in Judaism, or because they are interested in participating in Judaism, but just not in the kind of Judaism that’s being presented by those institutions, either of those situations represents a crisis for the institutions. Because from an economic perspective, they are not going to have enough members or donors or whatever financial structure they have to be able to stay in existence, or, at the very least, to be able to stay at their current level of operations, if that is the case. Would you agree with that, Lex?
Lex Rofes:I definitely would. So we’ve talked about the purposes that the crisis narrative serves in the Jewish community. And I think – for better or for worse – part of why we have this crisis narrative is not only because enough of the Jewish community thinks it’s true, but it’s also because it helps the institutions. When you send out a fundraising plea, and you frame your effort as, “We are in this horrible space, and we need your contribution to help reach a better space,” that has, historically, been very successful.
Dan Libenson:Just to give you a quick story, I always think of this fundraising letter that I received – and I won’t name the institution – but I think its closing line was something like, “Every day brings news, and some of it is bound to be bad. That’s why you have our organization.”
Lex Rofes:Oh, man. Yeah, that’s the classic plea in a nutshell, I feel like. I think what it comes down to is the belief that you and I share, Dan, which is that Judaism, the “ism,” the corpus of text and history and culture and rituals and prayers and food and all of it, it has an incredible amount to offer to individuals and to groups of people. But that’s not being captured – for some individuals, ever. And we are looking at that problem and asking, “Is it because, those individuals who aren’t connecting with Judaism, is it because they just haven’t seen what Judaism has to offer? That they haven’t walked into their synagogue, they haven’t gone into a Jewish space and seen how great it is? Or could it be because they have walked into Jewish spaces and felt that they weren’t particularly compelling?” There’s a mixture, but I think that there are more of the latter than we might think; I think there are more people out there that have tried a variety of manifestations of Judaism and not been particularly satisfied, so they go to yoga, or they go to a book club, or they go to any of the myriad possibilities that exist for social communities, for even spiritual communities, that are outside of Judaism or maybe parallel to Judaism. Because many of these things don’t contradict Judaism at all. And so they create Jewish identities independent of institutions.
Dan Libenson:Right. I guess I’m just trying to describe it to our listeners. Basically, what we’re seeing –and this comes from membership data and surveys and everything – what we’re seeing is a pretty dramatic fall in the number of Jews that are affiliating with, and certainly being active in, the existing institutions of Jewish life. And we’re seeing a diminishment in involvement in them for the most part. And then the question becomes, okay, if that’s what we’re seeing, is the answer kind of a marketing answer that says, “How can we present what we really are to these people in a different way, so that they will want to participate?” And I think that we are very dubious of that strategy. There’s no evidence that that works on any level of scale.
And what we are seeing is, for the most part, institutions shrinking and not growing. Now, here and there there’s an institution that seems to be doing pretty well that’s organized along traditional lines, let’s say, and I think those institutions are worthy of study, and they have been studied. However, let’s assume, for the sake of the ongoing discussion here, that that’s not going to happen. So then the question is, “Well, I guess Judaism needs to alter itself in some way – perhaps content-wise, perhaps institution-wise – like it has in the past, in order to win the participation of Jews today. Now, an example of when that’s happened before that’s quite clear is, for example, after the destruction of the Second Temple. There was a certain way of being Jewish that involved bringing sacrifices at the temple and having festivals where you would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – and all of a sudden that way of being Jewish wasn’t available anymore, and the Jews had to do something. And what they did was they essentially put together a new form of Judaism that emphasized prayer over sacrifice-bringing, and that also had a whole new set of institutions connected to it, such as synagogues and yeshivas – academies of learning – and other types of institutions. And so that kind of change has happened before. So the idea that we can’t change the content of being Jewish, and certainly not the institutional structure of being Jewish, is belied by our own history.
Lex Rofes:So, playing off of some of what you just discussed, I have a question that might be interesting to some of our listeners: What’s the role of numbers in the framework of Judaism Unbound? Are we thinking about increasing the numbers of Jews engaging in Judaism, or how does that play a role in how we understand American Judaism?
Dan Libenson:On the one hand, and I think we’ll talk about this in later episodes, we’re not primarily concerned about the numbers – meaning I don’t think that we think that it’s particularly healthy for the Jewish community to be obsessed with keeping our numbers up or growing our numbers. However, it sort of feels like something that’s really good, that’s really useful, that’s really meaningful, that’s really valuable – if only a small number of people has access to it, that’s a missed opportunity, that’s unfortunate, right? And I guess that way that I think about this stuff is saying, “Look, I think that the way that Judaism has been packaged – for the last few thousand years, let’s say, and certainly the way it’s currently packaged in America – doesn’t work for me, and I think it doesn’t work for a lot of people. And if the answer is that I, therefore, can’t have meaningful access to any of it, that feels like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That feels really disappointing and problematic.” Now, nobody’s going to stop me from accessing whatever elements of Judaism that I want to access, because what are they going to do? They can’t come and take away my library or take away my access to the internet to find things out, or whatever. But that’s not enough for most people, and it isn’t enough for me. You nevertheless want there to be some kind of organic types of institutions and organizations that grow up that are able to connect Judaism with a lot of people, if it’s something worth connecting.
And so I think what we’re exploring, at least one piece of what we’re exploring, is what might happen such that new ways of being Jewish, and new Jewish organizations, could flower outside of the existing institutions, and could actually grow and succeed over time – not because the numbers, inherently, are so important, but because there are a lot of people, whether those people are currently Jewish, or perhaps we’re talking about people who aren’t currently Jewish, but who might really benefit from a meaningful encounter with the stuff of Judaism, or some of the stuff of Judaism. We really want to see that potentially happen, and the course that we’re currently on doesn’t seem particularly well calculated to making that happen.
Lex Rofes:Yeah. It comes down, for me, to the question of whether numbers are a goal, preserving the numbers of Jewish human beings is a goal, or if it’s sort of a happenstance. For me, it’s the latter. I do think that, by innovating awesome, interesting, creative, exciting, compelling, all of these adjectives, forms of Judaism, we are likely to get more Jews, and non-Jews, like you said, involved with Judaism, connected to it in some way. Is that why I’m doing it? Absolutely not. The reason I’m even using that terminology is because we’re in a Jewish framework that is so focused on that numbers, that we always talk in utilitarian terms. We always talk about whether engaging with social justice is likely to engage particular segments of the Jewish community so that our numbers will go up, whether creating cool Jewish learning will engage certain numbers. Everything is about whether it will affect an uptick in our numbers. Every Jewish decision made by local Jewish organizations, national Jewish organizations, international Jewish organizations, even the state of Israel, often, is about whether it will effect a net gain or a net descent in the number of Jewish individuals. To me, I’m just not particularly interested in that. I think that it is true that if we create terrific forms of Jewish life, that will happen, but I want to totally avoid the framework where that’s the goal and not just a happenstance, and instead just focus on a goal being deep Jewish meaning – making lives better.
Dan Libenson:I think I agree with what you’re saying. I do, in my mind – and I mean, this is the question, whether this is, like you say, where I have a vestige of thinking that’s coming from being conditioned to think in a certain way. In my mind, there is this question about numbers that’s saying, if you have a really good thing, hopefully the numbers of people using it would grow, if you’re altruistically motivated. If you’re saying, “The reason why this thing exists is to benefit people” – and by the way, I guess that’s an important question that we should be discussing, whether the purpose of Judaism is to benefit people. For me, it is. I have this sense that if Judaism isn’t helping people live better lives, happier lives, more productive lives, more meaningful lives, and helping them contribute to the world in a meaningful and valuable way, then I’m not really sure why it’s a good thing, what its purpose is.
Dan Libenson:So what we’re trying to facilitate is some way of new mechanisms arising that allow people to access the stuff that’s really going to make their lives meaningful and valuable, and help them make contributions to the world. If that’s the case, then I would really hope to see those numbers growing. Now, the question, I think, that’s really important to put out there – and one of these ipcha mistabra questions, right, one of these opposite thinking questions that we really want our listeners to be thinking about, even if they don’t agree with us – is, who is the “we.” And you said this, I think, very early in the podcast today. When we talk about “the Jewish community,” do we mean the community that forms around the central institutions of Jewish life, or do we mean all Jews in America, or is it something in between, some way of defining people that want to be Jewish in a significant way, or whatever. By the way, the various demographic studies indicate that people who are not involved in Jewish organizations at a very, very high level still are very proud to be Jewish and see being Jewish as something that’s important in their lives.
Lex Rofes:Right. And I really appreciate this conversation about numbers, because I do think we’re largely on the same page, but we’re getting at some good distinctions. And I want to clarify more of what I meant by the dangers of focusing so much on numbers, because what happens when you focus on maintaining numbers, here are the verbs that come up: Keeping Jews involved, keeping people involved; maintaining what we have; preserving the past; conserving, to get a little bit political. It is inherently looking towards the past – and it’s not that there isn’t value in the past. But I think of a copy machine: if you take a particular document and try to make a copy of it, it will never be as good as the first document, even with our technology today, where it looks just about the same. And then if you try to make a copy of that copy, it’s going to keep getting distorted, and eventually it’s just not going to be readable at all, it’s not going to be particularly interesting for anyone. But if you decide to create a new document using some of the first one, you can do something really special, and then that becomes a new lens. And that’s what I … to back out of the metaphor, that’s what I’m advocating for. I think that the numbers inherently places us in a backward-looking paradigm that is a little paralyzing sometimes.
Dan Libenson:Yeah. I think that’s a great way to focus us, and I think that at least my hypothesis, going into this, is that probably the best way that new expressions of Jewish life are going to arise in the world of folks who are not participating in Jewish institutional-based life today is, if those folks themselves, I’d say ourselves, are empowered to take ownership of this material and are inspired to reshape it in new ways that work for them and others like them. I think there’s also a possibility that folks who come from the world of involvement in Jewish institutions can also develop new expressions of Jewish life that are resonant for folks who come outside of that world, although I think that’s actually much, much harder.
So before we go on to just talk a little bit about what we have up next in the podcast, Lex, I’m wondering if there’s any other key pieces and key ideas that you think it’s important for us to lay out at this stage?
Lex Rofes:I want to just emphasize that we see Judaism as the product of what all Jewish individuals do and define as Jewish, and that, therefore, everybody – including those of you listening who might not be concretely connected to Jewish institutions at all – is part of it. And that you have a unique ability to contribute to that whole of Judaism – whole, W-H-O-L-E, of Judaism, in a way that has the potential to create new rituals, new … maybe not new holidays – maybe new holidays. New stuff that will inspire Jews in the future.
Dan Libenson:Great. I guess we should puncture one last sacred cow before we go into the description of what’s going on going forward, is the idea of continuity. I mean, I think the idea of continuity gets tossed around, again, generally from positive intentions. But the idea that we have this continuous chain of Jewish progress from its invention – whenever you want to peg it – to today is to, I think, really push a very conservative way of thinking onto those who are looking at what they have inherited and saying, “It’s not working for me.” Because if the only authentic way of looking is to say, “Okay, this isn’t working for me, but what can I do that would be viewed as really continuous with what has come before?” You might look around and say, “I can’t really think of anything, it’s just not working for me, I guess I’m going to have to leave.” But I really want to come back to this idea that we actually have a tradition of radical Jewish change, not all the time, but in certain times. And, really, we have to start by asking ourselves, “Are we living in one of those times?” And if we do live in one of those times – and I think that we do – then we actually have a mythic tradition and a historical tradition of making radical, discontinuous changes in times like that, and maybe we tie it all together in a neat bow on the other end of it, and we tell a story about how it was actually a continuous narrative all along.
Now, just to give our listeners a bit of a roadmap of the podcast going forward, we thought it would be an interesting idea to establish a lens through which we want to look at these questions over the first ten episodes of the podcast. And the way we’re going to do that is every pair of episodes is thematically connected to one of the five books of the Torah. And, again, that comes from the idea that we actually think that the Torah itself is telling a particular story, and in this case … it’s telling many stories, but in this case, it’s telling us a story of how we managed change during times of great transition. Our plan is that the first two episodes are thematically connected to Genesis, where we basically see as the pre-story, that every story has a pre-story, and today we’ve kind of framed the objective of the podcast. Next week, we’ll talk a little bit about ourselves and how we see Jewish history, or how our personal history and our sense of Jewish history play into the rest of the podcast. In episodes 3 and 4 we’re going to be thematically connected to the book of Exodus, where we’re really going to be trying to understand the idea of leaving in more subtle ways. In episode 3 we’re going to have a special guest, Rabbi Benay Lappe.
In episodes 5 and 6, we are going to be guided by Professor Vanessa Ochs from the University of Virginia, who is going to help us look at, essentially, what is themed by Leviticus – the idea that, in the book of Leviticus, after we leave Egypt, we start to put together the pieces of a new way of being. We’re going to look at what that might look like in the 21stcentury, and Professor Ochs is going to help us by thinking about ritual reinvention, and then we’re going to take that idea and explore it more broadly. In episodes 7 and 8, we are going to be guided by Professor Barak Richman of Duke University, who is going to help us think about the Book of Numbers in a different way, and specifically, we’re going to explore whether the existing Jewish institutions of the Jewish community are going to be able to be the places in which this new thinking takes place, whether we’re going to need new institutions; try to understand in a deep level how institutions work. And then, after that, we’re going to also look at other aspects of the Book of Numbers, specifically the question of numbers, which we began to explore today. And finally, in our last two episodes, thematically connected to the Book of Deuteronomy – which is, essentially, a retelling of the story – we’re going to put the pieces together, first helped by Dan Mendelsohn-Aviv, the author of a book called End of the Jews, in which he tries to put the pieces together in a particular way as he sees the state of the Jewish community today and its future. And then Lex and I are going to try to take that, add a few ways in which we’ve understood the pieces to come together over the first ten episodes, and get us ready for the future of the podcast.
Lex Rofes:And after those initial ten episodes, for a little bit of a sneak peek into our long-term future, we’re going to continue welcoming some really distinguished scholars and activists and professionals in the Jewish community, like the folks that we’re bringing in the first episodes, but we’re also going to start elevating the voices of people who might not have too much Jewish street cred, people who are just coming up with interesting ideas on their own, or with a small group, who the broader Jewish community might not have heard about. We want to be a space where both some of the really excellent leaders of Jewish community today, who are recognized, can talk about what they’re doing and why it’s succeeding – but also a place where those who might not be heard as frequently have a space to contribute their own thoughts. So that’s something that we will have in our long-term future, after those introductory episodes.
I want to wrap up by mentioning, as we did at the beginning, that we would really, really welcome your feedback at any point throughout this podcast, now or in the future, at our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound, where we’ll be posting this episode and all of our future episodes. And we want you to contribute any thoughts you have about what we did say, and also about what we didn’t yet say. Subjects that we haven’t tackled that you think we should, people that we haven’t brought on to the show who would be great guests. Any of that, we welcome. And please feel free to send us an email also. You can reach us at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org. We do not see ourselves as the arbiters of what it is to be correct and Jewish – we want everybody’s contributions, and through that I think we’ll have the strongest podcast possible. And hopefully that will make the Jewish world as strong as possible, in whatever small ways we can.
Dan Libenson:Well, thanks a lot, Lex.
Dan Libenson:We’re really excited to get going with the podcast. Thank you so much to our listeners for listening to this first episode. You should already have available in your iTunes, or wherever else you might find podcasts, episodes 2 and 3. We hope you really enjoy them, and we look forward to posting episode 4 next week, and another episode every week thereafter. So thanks so much for listening …
Lex Rofes:… and this has been Judaism Unbound.