The Next Big Idea

When philanthropist Charles Bronfman announced his intention to fund a two-year visiting chair at Brandeis for someone who could come up with the “Next Big Jewish Idea” some people scratched their heads.

The Jewish Week‘s Gary Rosenblatt expressed concerns with the notion that a single idea could save us and suggested that Judaism already had a lot of big ideas, among them: monotheism, Torah, and redemption.

Then came word that Bronfman himself was scratching his head, disturbed by some of the early applications (including a new Braveheart movie with a Jew as the central character).

It seemed there was some miscommunication about the purpose of the prize, but this didn’t surprise me. Brandeis’ Jonathan Sarna, who is administering the chair, has said that the goal was to come up with another idea like birthright israel. And yet the paradigm for the contest was a similar one held in 1929 and eventually won by Mordecai Kaplan for his masterpiece Judaism as a Civilization.

Kaplan’s book is a 500-page tome, hardly meant for the masses; whereas birthright israel is the ultimate populist movement. The creator of something like the former would likely feel right at home with a visiting professorship at Brandeis. But the latter?

There seemed to be a contradiction between the academic setting for the prize and its programmatic goals.

Now the candidates have been announced. JTA reports: “The finalists are Jerusalem Post editorial page editor and columnist Saul Singer; Harvard doctoral candidate Yehuda Kurtzer; author Anita Diamant; Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the founder of the Jewish Values Network; and Ariel Beery, the publisher of PresenTense magazine.”

It’s a good group of names, and serious congrats to our friends Ariel and Yehuda — but the programmatic/academic mystery remains. Why is a university the setting for this prize, given the backgrounds of (most of) these candidates?

I’ve defended Rav Shmuley at times, but I’m not quite sure I’m ready for Professor Shmuley.

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