Thursday, February 28, 2008

We have officially run out of ideas

Brandeis U. and the Bronfman collective have apparently found "the next big idea" in Judaism. As someone who's marginally interested in where Judaism is going in the next century, I read this article with bated breath. Imagine my shock when I spotted this:

Brandeis and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies offered a two-year visiting professorship and a book deal to the person who could come up with the best proposal for a book that would transform the way Jews think about themselves and Judaism.

Kurtzer's book would be a combined history, theological statement and prescription for programming that can help Jews access their history through text study to create meaningful Jewish experiences, Kurtzer said Sunday at a Brandeis symposium for the five finalists in the competition. The open competition garnered 231 applicants.

That's right, text study! Because that idea is totally different from almost every other book that every other Jew has ever written. Ever.

Or, to quote my good friend Sam: "The problem with [insert would-be revolutionary Jewish thinker here] is that they think text study is going to save the Jewish people. It won't."

This is particularly irritating because it sounds like they actually had some interesting-and, God forbid- different finalists making the rounds in this contest:

The finalists and the titles of their proposals are:
- Ariel Beery, founder and publisher of PresenTense magazine, “Translating Judaism for the Post-Digital Age.”
- Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder and executive director of the Jewish Values Network, “Bring Judaism to the Mainstream.”
- Anita Diamant, writer, “Minhag America.”
- Yehuda Kurtzer, doctoral candidate in Jewish studies at Harvard University, “The Sacred Task of Rebuilding Jewish Memory.”
- Saul Singer, Jerusalem Post editorial page editor and columnist, “From Survival to Purpose.”

Beery calls his proposal “an extension and a reflection” of work he does at PresenTense, including a consulting group and an institute for social entrepreneurs. Dividing his time between Israel and the U.S., he sees a similarity between the challenges of Jewish life “in the information age” and those posed by political sovereignty. “How does one define community in an age when communication is instant and not geographically based?

Rabbi Boteach’s proposal is an extension of his prior work in England and this country — bringing Jewish values and practices to wider society, for the sake of Jews and non-Jews. An extant Jewish perspective “perpetuates the lie that there is a Jewish community and a non-Jewish community,” he says. “The truth is that Jewish wisdom is for all people, that Jewish values are universal. We have to make Judaism mainstream.”

The proposal of Diamant, best known for her novel “The Red Tent,” focuses on what she considers the unique accomplishments — such as the equality of women in organized Jewish life, the growing role of arts and culture, the increased value of advanced Jewish learning — in the American Jewish community. She says she seeks to document, to “articulate,” the importance of “this chapter in Jewish history.”

Kurtzer’s proposal focuses on “a new paradigm” — the role that Jewish memory plays in the revitalization of Jewish life in contemporary America, particularly how “progressive” parts of the community draw on “traditional Jewish models” like prayer and textual study. “Jews are reclaiming the mantle of memory,” he says. “The Gemara [the main part of the Talmud] has never been more popular in the liberal [Jewish] world.”

Singer, who made aliyah from the U.S. in 1994, proposes that Jews actively seek converts, to increase the size of the Jewish community and to stress Jews’ role as a “Light Unto the Nations." Conversion was an accepted and successful part of Jewish life until Jews went into extended exile 2,000 years ago. “We have to realize we’re not in exile anymore,” he says. “Jews need to switch from survival to purpose.”

The ideas of the finalists, Sarna says, reflect “a breadth and depth” of thinking. The proposals may eventually lead to changes in how the Jewish community conducts itself or spends its funds, he says. For example, Birthright Israel, which brings tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel annually and is credited with strengthening the participants’ Jewish identity, “came out of years of [academic] research between American Jews and Israel.”

Seriously, I understand why you may not want Shmuley or Anita Diamant to be your posterchild for a new Judaism (especially since some of their "new ideas" sound like transparent rehashings of old books of theirs), but how on earth is text study anything new?

I'm happy liberal Jews like Talmud. But Beery and Singer actually bring up ideas that are new and exciting. As a blogger, Beery's point about digital community is a very insightful one. And Singer's thoughts about Judaism expanding beyond "the tribe" is pretty thought-provoking, as well. (You can listen to all five finalists give their presentations at Brandeis a while ago- go check it out and see which one you would have picked. Thanks to Ariel Beery for the link. For what it's worth, I'd buy your book- though I'd obviously prefer to read it for free on a blog.)

Don't get me wrong, Jewish memory is a cool thought-nugget to chew on. But text study is most certainly NOT a "new paradigm." This isn't revolutionary. This isn't even particularly creative. No offense to Mr. Kurtzer, who I'm sure is a great guy. But all he's doing is taking a look out his window and selling Brandeis what's going on now (if not a little dated), not something actually NEW. That's like saying what we really need for the 21st century is something "brilliant" like havurot or, gasp, partnership minyans.

Wait, I've got it! Maybe something like a Bar Mitzvah... but for girls! We could call them... Girl Mitzvahs! Quick, get Sarna on the phone. I could use a book deal.

Edit: Ye gods, it's worse than I imagined. Here is Kurtzer's proposal, if you can stand 5 pages of the wankiest grad-student-speak imaginable. I wrote college papers on Jewish history over three years and I can barely tell what he's talking about. Something about how something doesn't need to be historically true to be authentic and how "New Jewish Culture" isn't really new because people are totally modeling themselves on and reclaiming things like shteibls and yeshivot. Yeah, those are generally neutral terms. How many people are reclaiming things like "ghetto" or "shtetl" or "tiny poorly-lit cheder where we got beaten 5 times a day?" As for the impressed assessment that Jews tend to like allusions to, rather than elusions of, tradition, I'm dying to know of how one can have any kind of Jewish event without SOME allusion to tradition. Judaism (or Jewish activities) without some tradition, somewhere, are by definition, not very Jewish. Incidentally, no one should ever use the terms "hip," "cutting-edge," or "fresh" in their position papers; it makes me think you're trying to sell me something, most likely gum.

I'm very annoyed. Not only because they picked the only academic out of the finalists (why not choose someone that, I don't know, is actually DOING something instead of just writing about it?), and because they're basically rewarding his mainly academic credentials by giving him a platform in academia. This isn't even that much of a prize for Kurtzer since he was probably ALREADY going to be a professor somewhere!

Frankly, I'm amazed this won anything. I can only pity whatever poor students take this guy's class. I'd like to say I'll read his book for the intellectual curiosity, but after reading his proposal, I'm almost sure I won't. Congrats, Jewish Establishment, once again you've missed the point.

Hat-tip: Jewschool.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They picked the only finalist that worked for the Bronfman Youth Fellowship. Not a surprise.

I remember hearing someone recently remark that the smartest thing to do is sell something to someone that is free. For example, the person who started selling bottled water was so smart because water is free, but he charged people to buy it for them. Similarly, Barack Obama is selling people "change" which is free. The winner of the Bronfman contest is selling people "text study" which is free, using books that are free. It's annoying, but true.