Authority in Contemporary Times

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September 1, 2010
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David Ellenson & Sharon Brous

Dear Sharon,

I feel privileged to write to you regarding issues of authority and directions in the North American Jewish community today. You are surely one of the most serious and innovative young Jewish leaders of our time, and the community you have forged in Los Angeles at IKAR offers one of the great rays of hope for the ability of Judaism to engage this and future generations in meaningful ways.

I am of a different generation than you. I am now 62 years old, and my own Jewish path has wandered in many directions during my lifetime — from an Orthodox childhood in a small city in Virginia, to life on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz in Israel, to participation in the then “counter-establishment” culture of the New York Havurah, to rabbinical and graduate school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Columbia University, to a career as an academic, and to service as president of HUC-JIR. My life has traversed many Jewish boundaries and I have tried to adapt and guide — in some small way — the course of modern Jewish life through the education of religious leaders like you.

As an academic focusing on the modern Jewish experience, I have often analyzed the conditions that led to the transformation of Jewish life in the modern setting. I have analyzed how the modern world brought about the collapse of the political structure of the pre-modern Jewish community and, with it, an attendant loss of the traditional boundaries that framed the community and the “coercive legal authority” that the rabbi formerly exercised within it. This does not mean that the contemporary community has no borders, nor does it indicate that the modern rabbi has no authority. However, it does mean that our modern community is a voluntary one and that the rabbi now can exercise “influential authority” alone. Suasion, not coercion, is the operative word of our time. I do not lament these changes even as I am not totally sanguine about them. As the Yamim Noraim approach with their invitation to reflection both personal and communal, I would like to offer some of my own thoughts regarding Jewish life and authority.

I recognize that the contemporaneous challenges that confront our people require fresh vision. The era of “ethnic Judaism” that accompanied my immigrant forebears to this country and that forged me and gave rise to the different organizations that dominate modern day Jewish life is surely past, and the nature of denominational and communal commitments on the part of your generation is surely different than it was for mine. Intermarriage is commonplace. Commitment to the State of Israel is affected by intellectual currents that sway young Jews in new and — in my view — often ominous ways. Technology allows us to communicate in ever-expanding ways, yet may significantly alter and arguably undermine the nature of Jewish communal borders and authority as I have known them. I look forward to our exchange.

In friendship and respect,
David

•••

David,

It is an honor to be in this conversation with you. Over the years, my admiration and respect for you have only grown as you lead our community with passion, vision, and moral courage.

Like you, I studied at Columbia University, but my background was High Reform (my synagogue was known as the Church on the Hill) in suburban Jersey and it took only a few weeks in college for me to realize that for all of my interminable hours in Hebrew school, I was functionally illiterate as a Jew. Wounded and embarrassed by this realization, I fled from the organized Jewish community. Eventually, I was drawn back to Judaism, learning initially in chevruta with a young Orthodox woman. One week we came to the narrative of Rebecca and Isaac meeting and falling in love, and my chevruta partner pointed out that, according to Rashi, Rebecca was only three years old at the time. “That’s absurd!” I said. “Based on the text, she is clearly a grown woman.” “But Rashi says that she was only three; that’s the way the rabbis have always read it,” she insisted. “I don’t know who Rashi is,” I said, “but he’s clearly wrong!” And then we both devolved into tears. I cried from embarrassment: How could it be that I had never heard of Rashi, a Jewish voice so important that even when his opinion defied reason it had the power to instantaneously silence thoughtful discussion? And I cried from confusion: Did being a good Jew require acceding to irrational viewpoints, just because they have persisted for 1,000 years? My chevruta partner cried because she grew up in a world in which Rashi was never wrong, even when he couldn’t possibly be right.

A few weeks later, I attended Friday-night services at B’nai Jeshurun in an effort to find some Jewish grounding and inspiration. In the midst of the service, rabbis Marshall Meyer and Roly Matalon stood up and proclaimed with fiery and prophetic certainty that as Jews we were obligated to engage in the fight against the spread of HIV/ AIDS. Obligation? I had never before considered the idea, and it cut against my understanding of what religion is about (individuals making thoughtful, autonomous decisions on personal spiritual matters.) But I liked it.

Much has been said about my generation — raised on the instant gratification of Starbucks, Twitter, and the iPod; we expect to have exactly what we want exactly when we want it. What interest could we possibly have in something that demands reverence and humility and a willingness to accept systems and ideas that don’t always fit comfortably with our values?

In my early days of religious exploration, I discovered an innate (and very Jewish) resistance to blind acceptance of norms simply because they were understood to be authoritative. But it also reflected a deep desire for a Jewish religious and spiritual life that is driven by the obligation to live purposefully in the world — even when that requires taking positions that are unpopular and inconvenient.

Someone recently criticized me for failing to promote a rally for immigration reform held on Shabbat. Indignant, she recalled Heschel’s comment that “we are to pray with our feet.” I argued that Heschel would have been in shul that Shabbat — praying and preaching and learning about immigration without violating Shabbat. I live now as a halakhic Jew, and in some ways that leaves me with an even greater responsibility to challenge assumptions and defy norms, because ultimately my rootedness in the tradition — and its authority over my life — are foundational.

At IKAR, we strive for a vibrant religious life that is reflected as much in a wholehearted and creative davening culture as it is in our community’s serious social and political commitments. I have found that the rigorous demands we place on people are precisely what this generation finds most resonant, even as they insist on the right to challenge back. I wonder if you think that the dissolution of communal and denominational commitments — which to me seems to be a natural and even healthy response to modernity — necessarily forecasts the dissolution of rabbinic authority altogether? In other words, could you envision a Jewish life that seriously challenges elements of an authoritative tradition, but at the same time is able to maintain its legitimacy, making very serious demands on its adherents?

I am eager to hear your thoughts.

L’shalom, Sharon

•••

Dear Sharon,

Thank you so very much for your response. Your own story and the questions you pose at the end of your letter focus precisely on the issues that most concern us in this conversation.

While the story of your chevruta partnership represents the two poles in modern Jewish life, your predicament — not being able to identify Rashi — is the product of a “thin Jewish culture.” I am afraid it is typical of most in your generation of American Jews. Clearly, we live at a time where communitarian obligation and commitment routinely fail to guide individual direction and choice. How could such commitments and obligations do so when persons are ignorant of them? Furthermore, ours is an age when individualism (e.g., most young people today create their own “playlists” of music) reigns supreme. A headline story in the New York Times reports that our “addiction” to computers takes a “toll on family life” and this “compulsion” promotes solitude and atomization even among persons who live together. Another news report indicates that “partisan political news programs” that confirm the already established viewpoints and preferences of individual viewers and listeners routinely drown out news shows that attempt to present a “broad array of perspectives.” You accurately observe that your generation expects “to have exactly what we want exactly when we want it.”

However, your story is both instructive and hopeful. Your spirit led you on a path toward a Jewish tradition that would prove to be “foundational” and “authoritative.” Your own life affirms that a “Jewish life that seriously challenges elements of an authoritative tradition, but at the same time is able to maintain its legitimacy, making very serious demands on its adherents,” is possible. Indeed, your trajectory and the congregation and community you have formed in L.A. serve as models for communities of serious and committed Jews “obligated” to our tradition.

Though I write of confidence and hope, I am also nagged by doubts and fears. I worry that the “triumphs” are all too rare and that a “vibrant and thick” Judaism is being created only for an “elite” of non-Orthodox Jews. I also am concerned that even when a committed and joyful Judaism is established, its spiritual focus is removed from what I regard as the nonnegotiable corporeal element of Judaism — the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Thus, I fail to recognize it as fully “authentic” even when I see its adherents championing an ethos of obligation that leads them to active engagement in social justice and joyful and meaningful worship.

While Jewish tradition itself asserts that a “she’ei’rit ha-pleitah,” “saving remnant,” has marked every generation, and my historical study informs me that one of the most creative Jewish communities — that of the Iberian Peninsula in the late Middle Ages — was relatively small in number, the prospect of a shrinking number of committed Jews informed by the full rhythms and content of Jewish peoplehood and history concerns me. What do you think this lack of socialization into a “thick Jewish culture” and the “authority and ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of Jewish peoplehood” on the part of most Jews in your generation means for the future?

I look forward to your response.

B’ydidut, David

•••

David,

Perfect timing for us to have this conversation, as we stand at the close of a year that was defined as much by the flotilla disaster in June as it was by Peter Beinart’s pointed piece in the New York Review of Books just weeks earlier criticizing the Jewish communal establishment’s engagement on Israel and Zionism. The crisis-driven agenda of the established Jewish community is tragically missing the mark, Beinart warns, and the result could be detrimental to both American Jewry and the State of Israel. David, you express concern about the disconnect many young Jews feel from “the non-negotiable corporeal element of Judaism — the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” I understand the concern, but personally feel heartened by the willingness in this generation to challenge old paradigms of engagement while working to claim new ways of being in relationship with Judaism and Israel. The generational resistance to the standard operating procedure on Israel is equally operative on questions of Jewish religious and spiritual attachment.

I, too, am concerned that a new generation of Jews will see themselves isolated from Israel and one another. But it is precisely the status quo, which is alienating young people from Israel and Judaism in droves, that will ensure that outcome. I have no doubt that a Zionism, indeed a Judaism, that is intellectually honest and morally consistent will win back the hearts and minds of those who now flee the Jewish communal structure.

I see disaffection from the established Jewish organizational world as a reflection of a will to live our Jewish lives with authenticity and integrity. We — the leadership of the Jewish community — have not behaved responsibly enough with our authority. We have failed to foster a real relationship with Israel — one in which we kvell over Israel’s breathtaking achievements and also call Israel to account for its mistakes; we have failed to capture the hearts of a generation of Jews less interested in gestures of Jewish solidarity than in working alongside partners – Jewish and non-Jewish — to carve paths toward a better future.

I feel optimistic about the future, but it’s not a blind optimism. There is a tremendous amount of work that must be done in order to craft a generation of “thick” Jews — those who are knowledgeable and engaged enough to be simultaneously humble and assertive, accepting and defiant. But I believe that we are up for the task.

L’shalom, Sharon

•••

Dear Sharon,

Our conversation began with a significant “concern” that the modern situation attenuated traditional Jewish notions of religious obligation and communal commitments among vast numbers of Jews. Yet, despite the “individualism” and “thin Jewish culture” among so many that marks our age, congregations and organizations of renewal and meaning have surely flourished in the contemporary setting. Persons committed to the Jewish future can only applaud these groupings and these trends.

This being said, I am afraid I still remain disquieted about aspects of such developments because so many persons involved in these clusters seem to lack what I feel is a needed sense of familial connection to the Jewish people, and that makes them all too often indifferent to Jewish peoplehood or only critical of the State of Israel. I feel that their criticisms and indifference frequently reflect a self-righteousness that lacks the pain that should accompany critiques leveled at “one’s own,” and that the lack of connection regularly displayed toward Israel and other Jews worldwide stems from a truncated spirituality that fails to recognize the centrality of the “corporeal dimensions” — people and land — of Jewish faith.

I appreciate why so many committed Jews are understandably distant from “an established Jewish organizational world whose policies of unquestioning support for Israel all too often fail to capture the[ir] hearts.” Jews cannot be asked to discard their deepest values — even when approaching “family.” Kinship can never justify xenophobia or tolerate immoral behavior toward the “other.” Criticism is demanded when the Jewish state and Jewish people fall short on these scores, and our Jewish establishment should understand and even encourage this. The universal ethics Judaism champions demands no less. As Rav Kook stated in Orot Hakodesh, “The love for Israel entails a love for all humankind.”

Nevertheless, this mandate of “love for humankind” that obligates Jews to be self-critical when we do not live up to the moral standards set by our tradition for ourselves and for others, does not legitimate a stance that has us stand apart from our people. In an American Jewish setting marked by freedom and openness, where traditional modes of authority are constantly and rightfully called into question, how to inspire our people so that they feel an obligation to live within the powerful Jewish dialectics of universalism and particularism, spirituality and corporeality, is the ongoing challenge that confronts us as leaders. I am grateful for the role you play in helping our community meet these demands and look forward to many more conversations and joint activities with you on how to fulfill these mandates.

In respect and friendship,
David

•••

David,

As I read your last letter I could not help but think of Jack Wertheimer’s piece in Commentary this past spring, not because you come to the same conclusions, but because he is animated by many of the same concerns. He, too, fears the lack of communal commitment among Jews and the diminishing connection to Jewish peoplehood. In his view, these are evidenced by a new generation of Jews more likely to channel resources to non-Jewish causes than attend to Jewish needs in the U.S. and Israel. His conclusion is that Jewish social justice organizations (like Repair the World, American Jewish World Service, and Avodah) are the culprits in the disintegration of Jewish peoplehood — diverting precious funds, volunteers, and interest from “Jewish causes,” especially Jewish day schools.

I believe that Wertheimer sets up a false opposition between universalism and particularism, in which we betray either the Jews or the world. But, for the sake of our discussion, I raise it because I am struck by the assumption of distrust that underlies his analysis of unconventional or untraditional efforts to engage Jews.

The reality is that the Jewish community is going through a paradigm shift. A generation of Jews feels at best alienated by, at worst deeply suspicious of, the communal agenda that many young and unaffiliated Jews see as narrow-minded, exclusivist, and morally inconsistent. But despite a pervasive sense of disaffection, clusters of young Jews are willing to devote their energy toward revitalizing the Jewish community — making Jewish principles and identity relevant once again by building communities and organizations that manifest the best of Jewish values. Through a sheer force of will, driven by creative discontent, the rules of engagement are shifting. You write that you are disquieted by the reality that so many people involved in efforts that challenge the authoritative structures of the Jewish community establishment “seem to lack what [you] feel is a needed sense of familial connection to the Jewish people, and that makes them all too often indifferent to Jewish peoplehood or only critical of the State of Israel.” With that analysis, I agree. These efforts are not perfect.  To me, some seem overly simplistic, self-righteous, and occasionally self-indulgent. But I remain optimistic because I also see in these efforts the roots of the next iteration of Jewish life in America — one that is characterized by creativity, open-mindedness, and rigorous engagement.

To be sure, a lot of work must be done to deepen the sense of connection and responsibility that young Jews feel toward the broader Jewish community, Israel, and the world. But rather than look at new efforts with skepticism, we need to help ensure that they provide opportunities for authentic engagement with our precious spiritual, cultural, and intellectual heritage. We need to move a generation of leaders to challenge assumptions and defy expectations — but to do so with humility, a profound sense of responsibility, and the kind of passion that is born of deep love. We need to help shape the conversation around the marriage of the particular and the universal, the spiritual and the corporeal. And, frankly, with you training the next generation of rabbis and communal leaders, we really couldn’t be in better hands to do this.

It has been a real honor to deepen our relationship through this conversation. I look forward to more.

L’shalom, Sharon

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Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR (www.ikar-la.org), a spiritual community dedicated to reanimating Jewish life through soulful religious practice that is rooted in a deep commitment to social justice. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, David, and their three children, Eva, Sami, and Levi.

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. His publications include Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy and After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity, which won the 2005 National Jewish Book Award, specifically receiving the Dorot Foundation Award as the most outstanding book on modern Jewish thought and experience. Ellenson and Rabbi Daniel Gordis have just completed a book-length manuscript on Orthodox Jewish legal writings on conversion in the modern era, entitled, The Politics of Jewish Identity — Conversion, Law, and Policy-Making in 19th and 20th Century Orthodox Responsa.

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