“Jews will live, but we just won’t remember what for”

So says Rami Shapiro, one smart and sassy rabbi, in a recent blog-jeremiad (jere-blog? blog-emiad) in which he calls the people Israel to repent of their modern Jewish forms and turn… to something else not yet created.

In the end, here’s all the guy really wants.

For all our poetic genius our liturgies are, by and large, lifeless and stultifying. For all our education we still lack a compelling vision of a postmodern and post tribal Judaism. For all our creativity our worship is, by and large, dull, predictable, and uninspiring. For all our Nobel Prize winning scientists we still promote a pre-Newtonian worldview irrelevant in our post-Einsteinian world.

Y’know, a new integration of pure democracy, quantum theory, and improv theater, and a community that is completely universal but still Jew-ish. Oh, and he’d like us to discard all that old stuff about sacrifice which we moderns have supposedly grown beyond. [I tried to engage Rami twice on this subject over a period of several months, the first time offering Girardian reflections on sacrifice in the Buddhist tradition (his specialty), the second discussing the Pinchas/Phineas story in the Hebrew Bible. I’m not yet encouraged that Rami’s spirituality includes reapproaching “sacrifice” either theoretically or the life experiences which may verify the reality of sacrifice, that is, the life-giving donation of one’s being into relationships such as marriage, parenting, teaching and friendship]

Now let’s get into the meat of Rami’s jeremiad-without-a-covenant. Here’s Rami’s rather fun list of modern Jewish failures:

Zionism failed because, as it turns out, most Jews have no desire to live in a Jewish state or serve in a Jewish army, and because, having sold its soul to the most Orthodox among us, Zionism has nothing but archeology to offer Jews as an alternative to rabbinic Judaism. Stones a plenty; Tablets, not a one.

Humanistic Judaism failed because it denied God rather than reinvented God. A religion focused on the self alone is too narcissistic to be spiritually compelling. Gathering together simply to gather together gets old very fast.

Reform Judaism failed because by making the self sovereign over God (you decide which of God’s laws to obey) it pulled the rug out from under rabbis altogether. Rabbinic authority rests on the fiction of the Dual Revelation [Oral and Written Torah]. When the Torah is no longer binding rabbis are no longer relevant, which is why Reform rabbis are more like Protestant pastors than Talmudic sages.

Conservative Judaism, which sought to maintain the rabbinic conceit of the Talmudic sage by insisting that Jewish Law matters, failed because most Jews outside of Orthodoxy just don’t find a religion of law run by a cabal of lawyers spiritually compelling.

Reconstructionism was a true reinvention of Judaism outside the rabbinic frame, but the bold genius of its founder (and my teacher) Mordecai Kaplan was abandoned for a neo-conservatism [I think he means new community mandates] that substituted leftist social mores and inclusive community (two good ideas in my opinion) for the radical Emersonian/Taoist reinvention of God and Judaism that was the soul of Kaplan’s heresy. Modern Reconstuctionism’s liturgical innovation of using lots of names for God doesn’t substitute for the fact that, without Kaplan, they have no compelling theology of God.

Jewish Renewal, another Judaism I value, failed because it requires a deep commitment to learning— Biblical, Talmudic, Kabbalistic and Hasidic— in which most Jews have no real interest. Rising in the shadow of its real promise is a pseudo (rather than the much needed and intended neo) Hasidism in which everyone is a rebbe and no one is a hasid, where new age platitudes pass for deep introspection, and hand-clapping and table pounding substitute for true ecstasy.

So what’s left? Orthodox Judaism of one stripe or another, of course. Orthodoxy, like other fundamentalisms, succeeds because it believes what it says and what it says is without nuance and therefore immune to irony and self-doubt. But Orthodoxy, too, has failed because most Jews just cannot take it seriously, and it is impossible to run an empire when everyone knows the emperor has no clothes.

So you can see why I am not hopeful about the future of Judaism.

But don’t worry, Rami hasn’t “given up all hope.”

There must be Jewish heretics out there burning with a new Judaism that will enflame our people with a new, creative, and intrinsically compelling understanding of God, Torah, and Israel. No, I’m not one of them. I’m too old, too jaded, and I’ve read too much Krishnamurti.

Why don’t we hear from them? Because they don’t have the means to unleash their memes. Those with new ideas have no funds, and those with funds are afraid of new ideas.

Instead of funding life support for the dying Judaism of the rabbis, we ought to be funding think tanks for heresies, and training camps for heretics. Sure, most of these will fail, but some might catch on, and even those that don’t may, in their dying, give rise to something even more heretical and enlivening, that we might again exclaim, “Judaism is dead. Long live Judaism!”

Rami misunderstands the truths embedded in tradition (liturgy, calendar, text, custom), a surprise for someone raised within the Orthodox world. The truths are not dead because many of us do not engage them. The truths still exist, their light diminished but not extinguished by layers of dust and dirt.

Resulting from this lack of charity for the past, Rami displays an unmoored optimism in the future in which the Jewish people move bravely with other peoples into a radically new era. This rupture mimics the same sin –seeking radically transformed human life– of Zionist, Reform and Humanistic Judaisms.

Rami seems frustrated with the lack of learning by lay members of Reconstructionist and Renewal communities and writes against the easy tricks employed and consumed to feign feelings of togetherness and spiritual heights. Yes, most liberal Jews don’t want to be bothered by too much Jewish obligation in their otherwise busy and successful lives. Rami tried for a decade to teach deep Torah to the busy congregant. It appears those efforts have ceased. It is in suffering that the teacher yearns to pass on hard-earned wisdom to those who seek to it. Hubris makes a teacher scream,” Why aren’t you listening to me or funding me?” Why is Rami so frustrated? Has he, being locked in Miami and Knoxville, missed the explosion of young adult commitment to indy minyanim (Emergent Judaism), the learning of folks flirting with the Ba’al T’shavah movement, and the depth of Jewish rooted social justice communities?

I admire Rami’s ability to inquire about the purpose of Jewish existence. Also, his critiques of the branches of Judaism are, when I understand them, generally compelling. His poetic translations of ancient prayers are some of the best and most recognized of the last 20 years. And I really value the clear elements of Judaism in the second part to this story. In the end, though, I don’t like what Rami is selling and how he sells it.


2 Responses to ““Jews will live, but we just won’t remember what for””

  1. Ken Says:

    There must be Jewish heretics out there burning with a new Judaism that will enflame our people with a new, creative, and intrinsically compelling understanding of God, Torah, and Israel. No, I’m not one of them. I’m too old, too jaded, and I’ve read too much Krishnamurti.

    Why don’t we hear from them?
    ¶ Maybe they’ve been reading too much Krishnamurti as well. We can’t have that.


  2. Scott Says:

    Thanks for reading, Ken.

    Do you get the reference? Do Krishnamurti books make heretics fade away into the One Ocean or something?

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