…And I Feel Fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it!

Oh, so many things in the Jewish communal world to think about over the past week. Let’s tick them off, one at a time:

All the panic makes my heart just go pitter-pat. I don’t even know where to start. (The section titles here are from REM’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It),” so now you can learn some of the lyrics!)

Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives/And I decline

Regarding the RCA’s decision: Is anyone really surprised? Okay, sure, folks I know who are students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in NYC are disappointed. But is anyone really all that surprised?

And I hope that Rabbi Rami is just kind of being sarcastic about RCA not being Jewish. I assume he is, or that he was just reacting in a fit of pique. Whatever. He’s Jewish, they’re Jewish, the RCA’s decision was unproductive, and Rabbi Rami’s response was equally so.

Vitreolic, patriotic stand, fight, bright, light

Look, no one actually knows what the future looks like. The hyperventilating, “there’s a dark cloud hanging over American Judaism” voices that appear to dominate the Commentary forum seem to me to mainly be projecting their own fears on the future without articulating any good reason to be Jewish. Or they’re projecting their own wishes on the future. Heck, Elliot Abrams seems to do both in his contribution to the Commentary forum!

In any case, there are 70 contributions you can read. The odds these folks will be alive in 2065 is vanishingly small. My chances of being alive in 2065 aren’t exactly stratospherically high. I’d be impressed if anyone had a ten-year plan that could actually work. But I’d note the handwringing about intermarriage, etc., indicates that everyone is still in reaction/panic mode.

World serves it’s own needs, dummy serve your own needs

Rabbi Joshua Ratner wrote at the Rabbis Without Borders blog (part of MyJewishLearning), asking “Is the Jewish Community in America Actually in Crisis?” His answer? Both yes and no. (As a fellow attorney, I can appreciate this answer.)

Yes, because—ready?—PEW SAYS JEWS ARE VANISHING!!!! THE JEWISH MIDDLE IS VANISHING!!!! ZOMG CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT!!!! But no, because to Ratner’s credit, he agrees that Jewish life requires purpose and intentionality if it is to draw subsequent generations into its orbit. (This is a response to the Pew Study’s second anniversary and the big statement on the Jewish future that involved…well, basically, more Birthright programming and stuff that appeals to fundraisers more than those leaving Jewish life because they find it irrelevant to their own lives.) Nevertheless, seeing that a large majority of those surveyed indicated that they view Jewishness as a cultural identity, Ratner wants Jewish communities to have conversations about how to prioritize cultural vs. religious notions within Judaism.

I suppose this is a conversation worth having. Except it’s not, because the decision has been made—and will be made—by the Jewish people. They mostly have already decided that Jewishness is not a question of religious identity. Heck, about 30% of those surveyed by Pew actually said you can be Jewish and Christian at the same time!

Lenny Bruce Is Not Afraid

Photograph of face of Lenny Bruce, an American Jewish comedian

Lenny Bruce (public domain photo)

Here’s the reality: Jews have decided that Judaism is a culture with a religious component that contributes but does not define what it means to be Jewish. This isn’t really the answer you want to hear as a Reform or Conservative rabbi. (Indeed, even the earliest Reform rabbis would reject this answer, since in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 they identified Judaism solely as a religion.) It isn’t even one you want to hear as a Reconstructionist rabbi, since Reconstructionism views Judaism as a religious civilization, complete with sancta.

As a Secular Humanistic Jewish rabbinical student? I love this result.

Why? Doesn’t this undercut my future job security? Well…probably. But in a way, I just don’t care.

I don’t care because I think Judaism has only ever been what the Jewish people defined it to be. Because Jewishness as cultural identity affords the greatest flexibility to Jewish life there has ever been. Because it makes Jewish life about intentionality, about community; it demotes me—demotes me—to being a resource for other Jews without being the community’s “boss”; and allows me to empower other Jews to make choices about their Jewish identities.

Might there be fewer people who identify as Jewish in the future? Maybe. Maybe the “losses” will be a short-term phenomenon. Maybe not. Maybe we accept that intentional community may mean smaller community.

That depends in part on what Jewish leaders do to allow Jews to make their own decisions, and in part on what those decisions are. Yet I can’t help but think that Jews are having the same discussions now as they did 200 years ago or more, when the Jewish future in America was at risk because of purportedly rebellious offshoot congregations, and the Jewish future in Europe was at risk because of the Haskalah and Reform. (Here’s a spoiler: there are more Jews now than there were then.)

Feeling pretty psyched

I’m excited about a Jewish future where Jews make the decisions for themselves because we, as leaders, facilitate the creation of an environment in which that can happen.

Is American Judaism experiencing a crisis? Honestly, in a way, I just don’t care.