Sunday, October 21, 2007

How (Not?) to Rejuvenate Judaism

Jay Michaelsen at The Forward agrees that many efforts to rejuvenate Jewish culture in America aren't working, and makes some suggestions. The straw man for his thesis is major philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who is worried that his many millions aren't changing the world. The essentials:
Steinhardt’s well-intentioned millions were lavished on the same tried-and-true institutions that caused young Jews to become unaffiliated in the first place.

Innovation does not come from the mainstream — Seems obvious, but in funding large, religiously minded organizations staffed by rabbis, Steinhardt poured more money down the same drain that led to Jewish alienation to begin with.

Believe in cultureSteinhardt, an atheist, has spent a decade funding synagogues and religious institutions — and now he complains that they aren’t reaching atheists like him. Why is this a surprise? What’s needed is a belief in culture: artists, arts organizations, magazines, independent publishing, cultural education. These are projects that will, over time, create a Jewishness worth affiliating with even if you don’t believe that God wrote the Torah.

It’s the product, not the marketing — Finally, let’s please quit packaging Judaism like the latest boy band. The trouble isn’t that Judaism isn’t branded well enough; it’s that the product — often, old-time religion with a healthy dose of tribalism and guilt — needs work.

No think-tank of white, straight men over 50 is going to create a Jewishness for smart, diverse, often multi-faith young people who shape their lives in the age of the iPod.

I see. Or rather, actually I don't. Judaism held together rather well for its first 2,700 years or so, in spite of some adversity here and there. Then, about 250-300 years ago, as the modern world began issuing new challenges, it adapted again, as always, and still it held together. As a matter of fact, quite a number of strands of Judaism are thriving even today, in a world of iPods (which can be used, I assure you, to listen to rabbis saying interesting things when you're taking a bus, for example - a fine innovation). Some of the thriving strands are in Israel, which was invented partly as a response to some of the new challenges, but others are thriving elsewhere.

The assumption that it is a weakness of Judaism that its important figures are white, straight, and over 50 seems to me more part of the problem than part of the solution.

Rather than look for ways of making Judaism "hip" - which will never work, because it isn't, nor should it be, nor can it compete with authentic "hipness" - it might be better to look for ways of demonstrating what it is: one of the richest, most varied, and wise cultures ever created.

Atheism, by the way, is neither here nor there. The idea that belief is essential to religion is a Protestant idea, I think. The Jewish variant is far more complex, and while belief in God helps, you'd be astonished how non-central it can be.

1 comment:

Lydia McGrew said...

I have to say this gives me an irresistible urge to say, "Let's hear it for Protestantism!" :-)

Is the opinion about the "non-central" nature of belief in God to Judaism widely held among those Israeli Jews who identify themselves as "observant" or "religious" in some sense?