A rabbi, a philantropist and, a professor walk into a room…

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Sounds like a bad joke?

It might as well have been one last Thursday at “A Debate on Jewish Values.” Hosted by NYU’s Bronfman Center and the Jewish Values Network, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Michael Steinhardt, and Noah Feldman “faced off” against each other on what are Jewish values and what is their place in the 21st century.

Each speaker began with a 10-minute remark on what they thought were Jewish values. Boteach read from his latest book (don’t forget the website, new organization, or bobble heads that he also promoted) his acronym for seven core values: DREAMS.

I don’t know how those six letters translate to seven values, because he only made it through the first two before running out of time.

Steinhardt faired even worse, only getting through one of his six values before 10 minutes was up, but was granted a few extra minutes to finish.

Feldman smartly passed on listing and instead expressed that the core of Judaism is the struggle to reconcile laws from the Torah with the “good faith” and values needed to live in a modern society.

What was most striking about the whole night was the sheer amount of predictability. Boteach, being a TV star and “America’s Rabbi,” preached (literally preached) about the need to bring Jewish values, which have been borrowed by the other Western religions, back to foreground of Judaism. Jews must spread their messages to the secular world.

Steinhardt, being an self-proclaimed atheist and a key funder of Birthright Israel, put Jewish values aside to note the approximately 12 million non-Orthodox Jews who need support and outreach (Oddly enough, he was speaking to a predominantly Modern Orthodox audience). He believes issues with conversion, marriage, and definitions of Judaism scare away far too many of them.

Feldman, being an astute legal scholar and key writer of the Iraqi constitution, was interested in placing Judaism in context of modernity. He frequently came back to the analytical process of bringing these two movements together… And defending his article from the New York Times Magazine this summer against all of those Modern Orthodox Jews in attendance (see above).

What it comes down to is that for those of us who live and work in the Jewish world, we’ve likely read dozens of articles and books from Boteach, and seen clips from his shows. We’ve also likely heard Steinhardt give this exact same speech dozens of times. And we’ve also likely read Feldman’s article as well as a seemingly endless amount of subsequent commentary.

This has led me to craft my own theory on the longevity of the Jewish community. It’s because we say the same thing over and over again. Case in point: the annual cycle of reading the Torah.

And many of today’s most esteemed leaders and thinkers are known for speaking on the same topics from the same perspective each time they speak. While it does establish consistency, it becomes frustrating for those of us who have heard it all before and are seeking out new thoughts and viewpoints.
But at the same time, as I observed at the NYU event filled with college freshmen, there are people in our community to whom these messages are new.

NBC had a great slogan a few years ago to promote a season of reruns: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”

And that might be the most Jewish value of them all.
For some more comprehensive coverage check out Jewlicious.

Posted on October 22, 2007

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