Sarah Hurwitz: Judaism Unbound Episode 185 - An Army of Translators

Sarah Hurwitz, former speechwriter for Michelle and Barack Obama, and author of Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life--in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to discuss a sometimes-overlooked question: Why bother with Judaism? [1] [2]

(0:01 - 13:58): To begin the episode, Hurwitz discusses her recent forays into Jewish learning and practice, which began on a whim and contrasted starkly with the distant relationship she had to her Jewishness earlier in life. In explaining why she eventually decided to write a book about Judaism, she discusses the gap she noticed between “Judaism 101” books, largely focused on “how to” as opposed to “why to,” and deep-dives into Jewish topics that rely on readers possessing a great deal of previously-held knowledge about Judaism in. Through Here All Along, she sought to contribute to a genre of books that would fill the gap between those extremes. She names a few elements of Jewish tradition, which she had never known much about, that have proven deeply transformative for her over the past few years, including notions of “in the image of God” (b’tzelem Elohim) [3] and the “sanctuary in time” (Abraham Joshua Heschel’s way of distilling the essence of Shabbat). [4]

(13:59 - 31:56): Hurwitz argues that we set impossibly high standards for Jewish educators, who are expected to instill deep knowledge around a vast array of Jewish topics in just a few hours a week. She then gives a window into the experience she (and many others!) have experienced, where she feels like everybody else in a Jewish space is “in on an inside-joke that I’m not privy to.” Dan and Hurwitz explore the philosophy of Benay Lappe, frequent flyer on Judaism Unbound and key figure in the conclusion of Hurwitz’s book, can instruct us as we re-imagine “option-3” Judaisms that incorporate elements of tradition while, at the same time, thinking radically about how they could manifest in new forms today. Following up, Lex asks about — of all things — the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Hurwitz considers how the relationship between its individual movies can help us understand the systematic nature of Judaism and its “hyperlinks.”

(31:57 - 47:51): The conversation turns for a bit toward Hurwitz’s experiences as a speechwriter for Michelle and Barack Obama. She examines the ways in which a commitment social justice can be a manifestation of Jewish practice, but also names that repairing the world can be a manifestation of Christianity, Islam, or any number of other traditions. Continuing, Hurwitz looks at the ways in which Jewish meditation and spirituality have had profound effects on her since diving into Jewish tradition. [6] In doing so, she asserts that in a certain sense, traditional Judaism boils down to one big mindfulness practice. To close the episode, Hurwitz calls for (and recruits!) an “army of translators” — people who can “bridge the gap between insider Judaism and outsider Judaism.”

[1] For a full bio of Sarah Hurwitz, along with videos of talks she has given, click here.

[2] Purchase a copy of Here All Along at this link! For an article about Hurwitz that explores her evolving relationship to Judaism, see this 2016 piece in The Forward.

[3] In Judaism Unbound’s 100th episode, Dan and Lex dove deep into the concept of “in the image of God” with Yitz Greenberg, who Hurwitz cites. Listen in here - Episode 100: The Third Era - Yitz Greenberg.

[4] For more on the idea of a “sanctuary in time” see Bonus Episode: Elul #2 - A Wrinkle in (Jewish) Time, one of our “mini-episodes,” released in 2018 as part of Judaism Unbound’s “holi-month” initiative called Elul Unbound.

[5] This article, featured in The New Yorker and entitled “The Narrative Experiment That Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” is not about Jewish text or tradition (at least not directly). That said, it provides another look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how its interlocking characters and movies have in some senses shifted the landscape of contemporary film.

[6] Click here for the JTA piece, written by Ben Sales and quoting Hurwitz, that Lex cites in a question about Romemu Yeshiva and Jewish spirituality more broadly.