Yehuda Kurtzer’s first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available
Do the Jewish People need more books? And are books the key to Jewish innovation? In the 1920s Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “It could hardly be asserted that the great urgency of the present moment is to organize the science of Judaism or to prompt both Jews and non-Jews to the endless writings of books on Jewish subjects. Books are not now the prime need of the day. But what we need more than ever, or at least as much as ever, are human beings—Jewish human beings, to use a catchword that should be cleansed of the partisan associations still clinging to it.”
Rosenzweig then, and we in the business of Jewish education now, sense that the conditions in which modern Judaism is struggling for a continuous foothold require something more than the perpetuation of Jewish knowledge for knowledge’s sake; that our seeking, studying, teaching and learning needs to focus on human outcomes. Accordingly, the trend in the so-called innovation sector focuses heavily on just the “Jewish human beings” that Rosenzweig calls for: on innovators themselves, on people with ideas who fall between the margins of the institutions.
And yet it has always seemed ironic to me that with all the advances in our knowledge of Jewish history, and the successes of Jewish Studies in the academy, that we know now more about the Jewish past than we have ever known before; but as a community, we tend to care about the past less than ever. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier, our collective ignorance of the classical Jewish past may be the scandal of contemporaryAmerican Jewry. I am concerned that the fixation on new programs – even in the embodiment of new individuals to lead the Jewish community – is alone insufficient to make a credible claim for the legacy of what this generation of Jewish life is going to leave behind, that we are substituting program leadership for the thought-leadership that ultimately has kept intellectual history in productive parallel with actual Jewish history.
I see the classical rabbis as the paradigmatic bridge-builders between the perpetuation of ideas and the programmatic work of innovation: they were architects not only of an extraordinary literature – one that they tied to the authenticity of the Bible through an ideology of calling it a second Torah, the oral Torah – but also of systems for Jewish life to enable Judaism to change productively through a period of existential challenge.
So I am not sure that a book – even if it is not the book that Rosenzweig derides – turns the tide for the innovation sector (which is not to say I was not grateful for the philanthropic experimentation that brought it about!). But it does make me hopeful that we are remembering the legacy of the transmission of ideas that has helped define Jewish life in the past as we do the work of redefining Jewish life in the present.
When my son Noah was about 3 or 4, he came home from school one day and asked me, “Abba, who are the Jewish people?” Thrilled by this opportunity to really begin in earnest my son’s Jewish education, and by the depth of this question coming at such a young age, I replied, “Why, Noah – we are the Jewish people!” Whereupon he burst into tears, inconsolable. When I finally calmed him down, I asked him why he was so upset. “Because I don’t want Pharaoh to hurt me!”
I was conflicted about how to answer him. My parenting instincts inclined me to disabuse him of the myth altogether: to tell him that it was just a story from a long time ago, that he was safe, that maybe the story wasn’t even true. Goodness knows a toddler does not need to be terrified by Judaism in general, much less as a catalyst for his sense of belonging to a story he is just learning about for the first time.
At the same time, I was proud to see that he had unwittingly internalized the mandate of the Passover Haggadah: that in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. Pharaoh was alive for him, a source of genuine terror. The non-parental, Jewish educator side of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.”
This is a defining question in Jewish education, as it goes to the heart of what it means to create, cultivate and transmit memory. Not facts, not history, and not just values and ideas that are critically important as part of the texture of an intellectually credible Jewish education, but memory – that sense of belonging to a narrative that precedes you and will outlast you, and a set of stories and visceral experiences in which you may not have physically participated but are part of defining the identity to which you belong. But is there a workable way to transmit the power of traumatic memory, without creating post-traumatic stress?
In a recent Commentary article, Jack Wertheimer once again takes on the trends in American Jewry – individualism, pluralism, universalism, anti-tribalism, non-judgmentalism – to attack these modern moves as anathema to the Jewish past and the tradition that modern Jews have inherited (and implicitly rejected). Wertheimer playfully positions his critique in the literary frame of the Ten Commandments, which is a useful straw-man in making these trends into inviolable beliefs held by his (mostly) unnamed opponents. Seeing as the article came out the week of Shavuot – the holiday that marks the receiving of the Decalogue (along with the rest of the Torah) at Mount Sinai, perhaps Wertheimer was seduced by the liturgical calendar.
But in telling the story of contemporary Jewry in this way, Wertheimer makes an ironic mistake. To truly traditional Jews, the laws of Bible co-exist with an interpretive tradition – an Oral Torah – that signals the constant way in which the values of the original revelation co-exist with the changing mores and morals of the societies in which Jews attempted to live out its mandate. In positioning the truths of the past (which he likes) as rigidly opposed to the truths of the present (which he hates), Wertheimer regrettably whitewashes the interpretive processes by which American Jews have remade their essential values.
The interpretive act of authentic change – even when it only comes about because it attempts to keep up with the pace of change of what the Jewish people are actually doing – is much more essential to the enterprise of Jewishness than is the canonical code itself which is being interpreted in the process. Our tradition fundamentally doubts the written tradition alone, aware that in its fixed state it is fundamentally limited in its ability to speak to present realities. The Decalogue requires both a parallel interpretive tradition, and an eager set of interpreters who live in the world, to make it applicable to contemporary realities.
So do contemporary Jews live by new rules? Sure – just as the Judaism of the Jews of 1950s America would have been unrecognizable to the people of the 1920s. I would welcome a healthy public debate about what Judaism should be in the face of the changing realities of the present. But the notion that Judaism should not let its core values evolve in response to changing world conditions? Well, that is not Torah-true Judaism at all.