Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jewish Community Deathmatch: The rebbe, the king, and the scholar

On Thursday October 18, 2007, NYU’s Bronfman Center hosted “Orthodox Paradox: A Debate on Jewish Values,” a panel presentation featuring Shmuley Boteach, Michael Steinhardt, and Noah Feldman, three controversial men with profoundly different conceptions of what Jewish values are and why they matter.

Before diving into the debate myself (don’t worry, you’re getting more than just a summary here), here’s some biographical information about each of the panelists:

Shmuley Boteach (the rebbe) is an Orthodox rabbi, educator, and author who considers himself “America’s Rabbi.” Host of the television show “Shalom in the Home,” on TLC Shmuley is the founder of the Jewish Values Network, a television network created to share Jewish values with the world.

Michael Steinhardt (the king, he has referred to himself jokingly as David HaMelech) is one of the most-well known Jewish philanthropists, having donated over $125 million to Jewish causes. Steinhardt was instrumental in creating Birthright Israel and the Jewish Campus Service Corps, as well as The Makor/Steinhardt 92nd Street Y. Steinhardt’s philanthropy is directed through The Jewish Life Network, his foundation, and focuses on “major projects that revitalize American Jewish life.”

Noah Feldman (the scholar) is a Rhodes scholar, author and Professor of Law at Harvard University. He helped to draft the first Iraq constitution, and much of his work focuses on the intersection of religion and politics. In the summer of 2007, Feldman published a controversial article in the New York Times called “Orthodox Paradox” in which he provided a scathing critique of the Modern Orthodoxy community in Boston in claiming that he and his non-Jewish wife were intentionally removed from a photo of Maimonides alumni.

Returning to the event, Rabbi Sarna introduced the panelists and each panelist was allowed ten minutes to speak about Jewish values.

Boteach spoke first, and his main point was that Jewish tradition has influenced many of today’s values, but that Jews haven’t fully claimed their tradition. He founded the Jewish Values Network, a Jewish television network as a means to spread Jewish values through modern means. Boteach believes that Jewish values are the key to saving the world and saving the Jewish community.

Boteach specifically presented seven values that he believes prove that Jews are different and have a unique view of the world. The values form an acronym, Dreams:

D= destiny. Jews are unique in their belief that mankind can be perfected and in our vision of messianism.
R = redemption. The Jewish vision of community redemption and our emphasis on community values over individual ones makes Jews different.
E and A weren’t defined because Boteach ran over his allotted time.
M= Marriage. Marriage as a positive force in tempering male energy with domesticity.
S = Struggle. Jews believe that life isn’t easy, and that people aren’t perfect. We believe in the struggle to improve the world and ourselves.

Steinhardt spoke second. He explained that he has dedicated his life to improving the Jewish future, with a focus on the non-Orthodox diaspora. He is committed to asking the questions, “Why be Jewish? Why are Jews special?”

He presented five possible theories for why Jews have been called “special.”
1) Jews are the chosen people, and thus are special.
2) Social Darwinism: Jews have survived tough odds throughout history and prevailed, so we must be great.
3) High IQs: there’s some research that suggests that Ashkenazi Jews have high IQs relative to other populations
4) Genetics
5) Jewish Values

To Steinhardt, Jewish values are the primary reason that Jews are special and have succeeded through the years. His other challenge has been to figure out the set of values that are particularly Jewish. He clarified that being particularly Jewish doesn’t mean that they are uniquely Jewish values, but that they are values that Jews have in greater magnitude than other communities. Steinhardt’s list of six key Jewish values is as follows:

1) Education and Learning
2) Tzedaka, the obligation to help
3) Focus on the Here and Now, as opposed to on the afterlife.
4) Our commitment to the Jewish community; we care more for the Jewish community than other communities care about theirs
5) Jews have “outsider values,” and are able to understand other outsiders
6) Belief in individual meritocracy. We only do well in meritocratic societies, and have chosen them

Now moving on to Feldman, who began his comments with responses to Boteach and Steinhardt. Feldman agreed with Boteach that Jewish values inform the Western world, but he pointed out that it was Christianity and Islam (and NOT Judaism) that spread these ideas and gave them popularity, not Judaism. Additionally, it is the values themselves that are good not their reach or spread.

Feldman then turned to Steinhardt’s words. He rejected Steinhardt’s list of Jewish values on the basis that they can be applied to any community. Using education as an example, he pointed out that WASPs founded most American higher educational institutions, and that education could be a core value for them. Secondly, he rejected Steinhardt’s implication that Jewish values are important because they allow Jews to succeed. Jewish values should be spread because they’re good values in and of themselves. If we think they are useless, we shouldn’t perpetuate them for the sake of perpetuation.

Finally, Feldman rejected both panelists reduction of torah to a set of values. According to Feldman torah study will lead Jews to find inspiring revelations and meaningless words. Dealing with the conflict between the meaningful and less so in Judaism IS the Jewish value.

Boteach’s comments struck me as strange for a number of reasons. First, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of “spreading” Jewish values, as it seems to border on proselytizing. Sharing Jewish ideas with the world is a great thing, but to assume that all people will find them meaningful is naïve. Additionally, many of the values in Boteach’s “DREAMS” appear in different forms in other religious traditions. As such, it is inaccurate for Boteach to assume that non-Jews don’t have access to these values their own way. Finally, the “M” = marriage point and his explanation of it is dated and irrelevant. I agree that loving lifelong partnerships are a good thing, but to assume that they always involve men and women is hetero-normative, and that men’s “energy” needs to be tamed by “domestic-minded” women is anti-feminist.

I appreciated Steinhardt’s liberalism in contrast to Boteach, but his comments were also problematic. First, Steinhardt defines Jewish values based on their prevalence, but this makes no sense given his recognition that most Jews are not connected to Judaism. If Jewish values are defined by prevalence, and Jews are not connected to Judaism, does that mean we should conclude that eating bagels and watching Seinfeld are Jewish values?

Secondly, Steinhardt’s assumption that Jews care more about the Jewish community than other communities do about theirs is unfair. I suspect that his evidence for this point is the complex communal structure American Jews have created, but different ethnic/religious communities have different needs and histories, resulting in unique communal structures. It is also important to note that some minority communities are in the process of emulating the American Jewish Federation system, the Indian-American community in particular.

Finally, Steinhardt’s point about meritocratic societies is complicated. Is he trying to dig at Israeli society or is he just being narrowly America-focused? What do you think?

Feldman’s criticism was eloquent, rational, and well thought. I appreciated that his comments echoed the ideas of Douglas Rushkoff in Nothing Sacred, in which Rushkoff argues that Judaism should only be perpetuated if it is meaningful.

Returning to the panel, for the second part, Rabbi Sarna posed targeted questions to each of the panelists. (Some of the questions led into a conversation about Feldman’s article, and since my interest in this event is the conversation on Jewish values, I will be omitting those parts.) Again, Sarna started with Boteach, and asked him whether using media to promote Jewish values compromises those values.

Boteach replied that not only does it not, but it inspires pride, and pride inspires practice. A key point, “The spread of Jewish values will make Judaism seem like less of a fossil”

At this point, Steinhardt chimed in fervently with the following points:
• Religious Jews act like it’s the 16th century
• 12 million of the 14 million Jews today aren’t Orthodox, and of the 12 million most have little interest in torah.
• He sees a trend away from religious practice.

Noting that his conception of Jewish values is radically different than Boteach’s, Steinhardt expressed the desire for a resonant Judaism and Shabbat experience. A key quote, “How can we have a rabbinic profession that walks into empty synagogues that don’t educate liberal Jews and talk torah, when the goal is creating a Jewish future that will bring the ‘lost’ 12 million back?”

Now again, if I were to insert myself into the debate here, here’s what I’d add:

To Boteach: You really don’t give young adults enough credit. Surely there are some who reject Judaism because it is a “fossil” but there are also many who are specifically interested in Judaism because of its old appeal. For instance, look at the revival in Yiddish study and Klezmer. Also, your comments imply that young adults will only find value in Judaism if it is “cool.” We’re a lot more thoughtful than you think.

To Steinhardt: I agree that there are many people who are losing interest in Judaism and traditional conceptions of Jewish practice, but are you asking us to refashion Jewish ritual practice or create a new religion?

Secondly, Isn’t the United States in a religious revival? Even if we put the spread of evangelism aside, conversations about religion and the public sphere are prevalent. The Reform movement is seriously examining the role of ritual practice in Jewish life, since congregants and participants are seeking more connection with ritual.

Then, Sarna asked Feldman to discuss the intersection of the courts and religion. I am omitting this conversation because it devolved into an attack on Feldman and his article. If this is what you’d like to hear about google “Debate on Jewish Values” and read about it there.

After Feldman, Sarna moved on to Steinhardt, and he asked him if in-marriage is on his list of values, given his frequency to call for “more Jewish babies.”

Steinhardt explained that in his vision of the Jewish future, conversion would be reformed to be more of an acceptance of Jewish values, than what it is now, a foreign irrelevant, uncomfortable ritual. Even an anachronism.

At the end of the event, the audience was allowed to ask questions to the panelists.

The first question, directed to Steinhardt, asked him if he thinks his set of Jewish values are enough to get Jews to stay.

Steinhardt became defensive in response to this question, when he explained that his values list was not created to be a sales technique, they are a list of what makes us Jewish and unique. They are values that can be measured quantifiably.

He then goes on to say that if we were to sell Judaism we’d need to change the Jewish calendar, for example, we need to stop memorializing the destruction of the temple when we don’t memorialize the Holocaust. We also need to modernize conversion procedures.

Steinhardt’s factual inaccuracies are glaring. The Jewish calendar does memorialize the destruction of the temple (Tisha B’Av), but there is also Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a growing holocaust memorialization and education movement, through Holocaust museums and curricula like Facing History and Ourselves.

Additionally, I’m not sure what to make of his enthusiasm for the abandonment of Jewish tradition. On the one hand, I appreciate his blunt critique of the Jewish community’s approach to conversion and engagement, but at the same time he seems too willing to abandon Jewish traditions for the sake of engagement. If we take his approach and engage Jews, but then refashion Jewish tradition what are we connecting people to?

What do you think? Should we spread our values? Should we create new ones? Who won, the rebbe, the king, or the scholar? or is it our job to dive in and win?

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