The Ideas Debate Continues

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Steven I Weiss over at Canonist has posted his two cents on Gary Rosenblatt and the “Next Big Jewish Idea” question.

But when talking about a “Big Jewish Idea,” Rosenblatt’s a Jewish organizational elite speaking to other Jewish organizational elites, reflecting in little sense the Jewish population as a whole…The idea that the Jewish community is mobilized by any one idea, or can be, is patently false, as is the premise underlying the suggestion — that Judaism ever was mobilized by one idea.

Overall, Weiss seems to be making two points: (1) If we only look at Judaism through the eyes of the big-name institutions (i.e. the elite), we’ll miss most of what’s really going on in Jewish life; (2) There is no single, unified Jewish vision (or one new big Jewish idea). There are many. And that’s a good thing.

I agree with both, but Steven’s comments have forced me to clarify (or restate) a couple of things.

(A) I certainly don’t think there needs to be or could be a single Jewish idea. I was lamenting the lack of focus on ideas, in general, not specific, singular ones. (B) Programs are not ideas. And the Jewish community seems to focus on the former at the expense of the latter. To put it differently: We tend to focus on the means without having conversations about the ends.

For example, we try to create programs that will lead to less assimilation, more Jewish babies. But we don’t ask the question: What’s the end game? Why do we want more Jewish babies?

Here’s where ideas would come in.

In the past, relevant ideas might have included: We want more babies to not give Hitler a posthumous victory (cf. Fackenheim); or We want more babies because God told us to have more babies (cf. Moses). These ideas might still be relevant today. Or they might not be. Or they might be relevant, but not sufficient.

A more contemporary idea has been (the reinterpreted) Tikkun olam, which may (or may not) be a tired phrase at this point, but the idea of repairing the world, is one that can answer these questions. Why make more Jewish babies? Because we have a mission: to make the world a better place.

That’s just an example, of course, and in truth, I’m ultimately more concerned with the active, behavioral elements of life — what we do. So I’m all for programming, but there needs to be a depth to these activities. There needs to be intellectual or spiritual frameworks that provide context and inspiration, that help us make sense of what we do and tell us why we do it. These ideas could account for the entire system (ideas like Tikkun Olam), or they can account for small elements of the system (ideas like kavod habriot, human dignity — an idea referenced in the recent Conservative responsa on homosexuality).

In sum: let’s talk a little more about principles and purpose, not just programs and procreation.

Posted on December 18, 2006

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