Empowerment and Authority

“What can changes in the American philanthropic/nonprofit sector tell us about Judaism and American life?” When that question was discussed this week at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Boston, many of the answers revolved around the twin issues of authority and “empowerment.”

One panelist invoked Elie Kaunfer’s important book Empowered Judaism, which speaks of “a Judaism in which people begin to take responsibility for creating Jewish community, without waiting on the sidelines.” As this trend advances, goes the argument, there will be a corresponding decline in traditional authority. In some eyes this amounts to nothing less than Haskalah 2.0, a transformative new “enlightenment” much like the initial encounter between Judaism and modernity.

Take someone who wants to learn how to lead the Minchah prayer on Yom Kippur. In the past one would have had to go to an authority such as a rabbi, said one speaker; today anyone can find several examples of the nusach – the melodic sequence – online. That easy access to knowledge should lead to a reduced reliance on authority figures and a corresponding empowerment of the average Jew, goes the argument. Such impulses towards democratization and access have led to massive support for young entrepreneurs and the “innovation ecosystem.”

This notion of an empowered new grassroots movement has limitations. For one thing, in many ways it is not really new. A boy studying for his bar mitzvah 75 years ago might have learned to chant his haftarah (or nusach) from an older student or an adult layman; the rabbi was certainly not the only option. That became even more true with the invention of tape cassettes nearly 50 years ago. The Internet accelerated the trend towards democratizing knowledge but did not start or transform it.

Besides, American Jews have organized on a grass-roots level for at least a hundred years, beginning with the drive to provide for the basic needs of new immigrants. The movements to fight for the rights of labor, to build a Jewish homeland, to engage in the struggle for civil rights, and to free Soviet Jews were also spurred by the commitment of passionate individuals who empowered themselves to act. Today’s Jewish innovators are like them, with one important difference: the reification of and dependence upon the marketplace.

In recent years, Jewish initiatives have increasingly been assessed according to whether they are sustainable – in other words, whether they are likely to succeed as businesses, albeit nonprofit. A request for proposals from the Jewish New Media Fund took another step in that direction when it explicitly invited applications from for-profit businesses as well as nonprofits.

This trend flows directly from the enormous influence of large, private foundations that measure success in business terms. The current generation of innovators depends heavily upon those foundations, so much so that the “empowerment” of the innovators is actually highly contingent. Most Jewish entrepreneurs have independence or authority only to the extent that foundations confer it upon them. The power of those foundations belies the notion that authority in the Jewish world has become more democratic and more diffuse.

“What can changes in the American philanthropic/nonprofit sector tell us about Judaism and American life?” Programmatic content is bound to be affected as power shifts from communal leaders to investors whose criteria for success are derived from the marketplace. The evolution of American culture, where merit and value are increasingly measured in terms of units sold, is a cautionary example.

In the context of religion, Elie Kaunfer’s ringing call for an empowered Judaism speaks of “meaningful engagement with critical life questions … that doesn’t resort to cheap gimmicks to draw people in.” How well a marketplace-driven Jewish ecosystem will be able to provide that kind of meaningful engagement outside the religious sphere remains to be seen.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, also blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. He is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and lives in Jerusalem.