AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

While Working on WHY, Let’s Not Forget the WHO

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November 29, 2011

By: Michael Berger

At the GA convention earlier this month, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the author of “Empowered Judaism,” one of the co-founders of Mechon Hadar, and a 2008 AVI CHAI Fellow, gave an inspiring plenary address on the essential role Torah study must play in contemporary Judaism, especially in America.  (“Our Real Birthright is Torah”)  Rabbi Kaunfer’s beautiful and stirring rhetoric, in fact, highlighted for me a rather significant if not radical shift taking place in contemporary American Judaism.  Allow me to explain.

Kaunfer opened his remarks with a quick recap of the concept “Jewish continuity” – the organized Jewish world’s mantra since the devastating results of the 1991 Jewish Population Survey.  Yet while many older American Jews took that goal for granted, and quibbled on the “how” (and the “how much”), Kaunfer noted, as have many Jews his age, “we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue.”  And it’s true – American Jews in their 20s and 30s regularly raise a question that was unthinkable to their parents and grandparents: Why be Jewish?

To this question, Kaunfer passionately endorses the tradition because it

“…offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection.”

The universalism – or universal relevance of Judaism – is on full display, since it is a “human need for meaning, substance and connection.” In other words, Judaism can compete, fairly and squarely, in the contemporary competition for meaning, in the daily contest of WHY which everyone faces.

However, in the very next line, Kaunfer notes: “It is our system, our language, our heritage” (emphasis added) – a clear reference to the ‘tribal’ character of Judaism, based on the assumption going in to the discussion, as it were, that we are Jews, and we are connected to this system – presumably whether or not we find it meaningful.  It belongs to us in some prior way, and we to it.  It is not just about relevance, but about attachment – indeed, that’s where the connection starts.  If something is yours, you don’t feel the need to ask “why” – it’s just yours.  The French don’t wake up every morning asking why should French culture exist – it just does, it’s theirs, and many of them are proud of it.

Sociologists of religion like Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow have noted the shift in American spirituality over the last 60 years.  If post-WWII Americans sought a “spirituality of belonging,” of affiliation – embodied in the Jewish case by Federation and a sense of membership in a Jewish collective – by the late 20th century most young Americans were involved in a spirituality of seeking, of experimentation and a search for personal meaning.  And this sort of spirituality puts the “sovereign self” in the center and makes it the locus of all religious meaning, as Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen argued in their groundbreaking work, The Jew Within.

This is where Judaism currently has to make its case – on the home turf of each individual, those in a perpetual search for meaning.  These are the people who are interested in knowing “why it matters for Judaism to continue?” with which Kaunfer began, and for whom he is confident deep Torah study will satisfy their yearnings.

I am not as sanguine.  The Federation system reached its zenith within an American religious sensibility that emphasized membership and belonging.  It put WHO – and WITH WHOM – at the center, expressing an unbounded inclusiveness that transcended religious denomination or geographic location.  Jews were responsible for other Jews because of WHO they were.  As this attitude receded and gave way to a spirituality of seeking and journeying, Judaism now has to make its case, as Kaunfer said, as a response “to the human need for meaning, substance and connection.”

Oddly enough, for those who make the WHY primary, the WHO necessarily diminishes in relevance.  For if the search for meaning is human and universal, and Judaism offers a great response, why should it not be open to all? This is, in fact, how Kaunfer concludes.  Citing a midrash that highlights the universal audibility of the Sinai revelation, and asserts:

“What’s incredible about this Midrash? It means that Torah has something to say to everyone. Not just kids. Not just day school graduates. Not just synagogue goers. Not just rabbis. Not just New Yorkers. Not even just Jews! (emphasis added)

…This Midrash recognizes that it is a basic human need to yearn for meaning and substance, and that yearning doesn’t exclude anyone.
Judaism is now literally everyone’s heritage, at least in principle, if not in ambition.

I certainly laud Kaunfer’s efforts to expand the universe of serious Torah study primarily among Jews; Mechon Hadar in all its programs strives to do just that, and he and his colleagues have succeeded in opening up the doors of the beit midrash, adding many benches for seeking men and women.  But the logic Kaunfer articulated in his GA address, with its intensive focus on the pillar of Torah study as a source of meaning and connection, is at risk of diminishing, if not eclipsing, the other pillar of Judaism – the Jewish People and their unique connection to one another.

How is it possible in our time to address both the WHY and the WHO of Judaism?  That is American Jewry’s contemporary challenge.

Michael Berger
Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation

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