A Response to the Statement on Jewish Vitality

By Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Rabbi Robert B. Barr

On October 1st in response to the second anniversary of the 2013 Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, “a highly diverse group of thought leaders from around the United States” released a Statement on Jewish Vitality. This brief essay is a response to that Statement.

The Statement opens with the claim that American Jewry now stands at a crossroads. Our choices are stark: we either accept as inevitable the declining numbers of engaged Jews, or we work to expand the community and improve the quality of Jewish life going forward.

We’ve seen this movie before. American Jewry is always at a crossroads. This is because American Jews are intrinsically dynamic: forever reinventing ourselves in ways that often threaten the established leadership, funders and the status quo. The Statement’s choices are stark but also misguided. The concern of leadership is with numbers when it should be about meaning. Focusing on numbers is a bit of sleight of hand, it diverts the reader’s attention from a deeper reality. Jews aren’t disappearing – they simply no longer find current Jewish institutions of value. They have voted with their feet not with their hearts. But rather than acknowledging that Judaism isn’t speaking to most Jews, the establishment simply doubles down on what already exists rather than creating something genuinely new and relevant.

The Statement complains that the community is bereft of any sense of crisis. This is because there is no crisis: While anti-Semitism is on the rise, especially on liberal American college campuses, American Jewry as a whole is safe, secure, and creative. The problem for these concerned thought leaders is that the creativity of the American Jew is often at odds with the conventional thinking and theology of the establishment leadership. Where their concern is with finding creative ways to get Jews to do conventionally Jewish things, the real energy of the community is in doing Judaism in creative and unconventional ways.

The response of the Statement’s authors to their imagined crisis is a variation on pediatric Judaism with a shift in emphasis from toddlers to teens: Congregational leaders should give greater attention to, and raise the priority and quality of, adolescent Jewish education.

In doing so the signers of the Statement on Jewish Vitality suggest we fight for tax policies that help Jewish families afford Jewish parochial schools, and pledge community funds to support Jewish camps, Israel trips for teens, youth groups, and, with a nod to slightly older Jews, Jewish film and music festivals. In other words they have abandoned Judaism per se in favor of Jewish cultural as the primary way of establishing Jewish identity. We look at things very differently.

The reason Jews are abandoning Judaism is because Judaism no longer provides them with meaning. The Iron-Age narrative of conventional Judaism – the supernatural God who chose the Jews from among all the peoples of the earth to receive His (sic) Torah, His only revelation to humankind, and to hold in perpetuity the deed to Eretz Yisrael in which they are to live out the instructions of Torah – no longer speaks to the vast majority of largely secular American Jews.

Culture is a carrier of meaning, and it is the lack of meaning rather than the lack of cultural vehicles that is the real challenge to Judaism. If we want Jews to engage with Judaism we have to offer a Judaism worthy of their time, energy, and intellectual efforts. We need an adult Judaism our teens can grow into rather than an adolescent Judaism that they will grow out of. Such a Judaism needs to be intellectually sound, grounded in modern thought and based upon reason and evidence. Unless we give voice to a Judaism that resonates with the best of 21st century thinking we doom ourselves to failure. In the past Judaism was at the forefront of contemporary thinking. To be relevant it must regain that position today. Advocating for Iron Age myth and mores in the digital age is self-defeating. We cannot ask our children and grandchildren to turn their backs on modernity in order to resuscitate Judaism.

The Statement then turns its attention to intermarriage and the notion that we can get the Gentile partner of such marriages to convert to Judaism by funding more conversion-oriented courses and institutes. This makes no sense! If Judaism doesn’t speak to born Jews (which is why the Statement calls for funding Jewish film festivals rather than synagogues), why would it make sense to non-Jews? It would be must easier and probably more effective to get the non-Jewish spouse to accompany their Jewish partner to a Jewish film festival than a conversion class promoting a Judaism in which neither of them believes.

If, on the other hand, we promoted a morally deep and ethically challenging Judaism rooted in science and biblical and Talmudic humanism: a Judaism that called and empowered adults of any faith and none to be “a blessing to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3) through a reimagined use of Torah and Jewish teachings, then both the Jewish and non-Jewish spouse could find common ethical ground and a shared community in which to realize their values.

Sticking with the focus on adolescents, and noting that Jews are living longer and healthier lives, the Statement goes on to suggest that we recruit Jewish grandparents and parents to raise Jewish children by stressing the value of Jewish day schools, Jewish camps, Israel trips, and youth groups. Why not educate our elders in a new Judaism they can pass on to their grandchildren themselves rather than – as we have done so often – foist the education of our youth on others be they clergy, educators, or camp counselors?

Bottom line: nothing new, and nothing changes. Here is what we think must be done.

  1. We must recognize that conventional Jewish understandings of God, Torah, and Israel rooted in supernaturalism, chosenness, and empire alienate rather than attract Jews.
  2. We must reinvent Judaism as a system for making meaning, discovering wisdom, and living lives rooted in justice and compassion for all beings.
  3. We must articulate a Jewish mission grounded in human reason, informed by evidence and shaped by the realization that our future does not rest on our past, and that no divine hand will rescue us from ourselves.
  4. We must teach Jews of every age to use and reshape ancient teachings and customs so that they can be a resource for contemporary wisdom and living meaning-filled lives.
  5. We must celebrate innovation rather than imitation, and the prophetic all for universal justice and compassion over the rabbinic obsession with who is a Jew.
  6. We must shift Jewish identity from birth, blood, and marriage to commitment to a set of shared principles, values and practices variously understood and lived, rooted in our past but unabashedly reshaped for our present and future.

If there is a crisis in American Jewish life, it has nothing to do with demographics, and everything to do with a lack of insight into the real challenges we face, a lack of imagination for fashioning creative and effective responses to those challenges, and a lack of courageous leadership to take on the establishment and do what must be done.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author of over thirty books on religion and spirituality. A congregational rabbi for 20 years, and a professor of religious studies for ten (Middle Tennessee State University), Rabbi Rami currently co-directs One River Wisdom School. His newest book is “The Golden Rule and Games People Play” (SkyLight Paths, 2015). Rami can be reached via his website: www.rabbirami.com.

Robert B. Barr is the Founding Rabbi of Congregation Beth Adam and the rabbi of OurJewishCommunity.org an online congregation. His weekly podcast (Contemporary Jewish Thoughts) are available through iTunes. Barr can be reached at rabbi@OurJewishCommunity.org.