In his final act as the Forward’s opinion editor, Gal Beckerman wrote an essay diagnosing non-Orthodox American Jews with pathological anxiety. The story was illustrated with a bottle of Xanax, but in the text Beckerman refrained from making any prescriptions, leaving us instead with the simple lament that we Jews are plagued with a “fundamental uncertainty and unease of not really knowing anymore what it means to be a Jew.”
Where Beckerman sees this as reason to despair, I see it as laden with possibility. Why? Because uncertainty can be an incredibly fertile state if we allow it to be. The matter at hand isn’t so much how to undo all this questioning, but rather how to harness this energy towards something more fruitful and, yes, fun.
My prescription: Let’s take an informal, incomplete moratorium on asking the big questions — again and again and again. This means less talk on what assimilation, Israel, synagogue attendance and intermarriage means for American Jews. Yes! These are important topics. No! We shouldn’t abandon them completely.
Still, these conversations, which mostly take place among Jewish leaders, all too easily devolve into a panicky grandstanding that rarely succeeds in rallying the troops. Instead, they all too often only serve to alienate the good many of us who just aren’t interested in seeing our lives, Jewish or otherwise, as a crisis. Guilt makes for an awfully unappealing perch.
There’s also a meta quality to debates about Judaism today that can make them feel far too much like watching a movie about making a movie (…about making a movie, when it’s at its worst). It’s an overkill of self-consciousness when all many of us want to do is experience a good story.
So what instead? I say let’s get rid of the big questions and replace them by lots and lots of smaller ones. This wouldn’t be about finding one answer or set of answers, but embracing the search for answers through a Jewish lens. And everyone’s invited.
We might lower the bar for serious learning opportunities so every Jew has a chance to experience the majesty and wisdom of our texts. What makes Jewish culture such a treasure is the way in which our insights come via layers and layers of narratives and exegeses, thousands of years in the making. This kaleidoscopic approach to truth is the essence of anti-fundamentalism, and would have tremendous appeal in our postmodern age.
We also might, for example, dissect Amos Oz’s latest novel and what it tells us about Israel rather than engage in yet another wholesale takedown or defense of the BDS movement. The American relationship with Israel has, for so long, been dominated by fearmongering — from both sides. I don’t think we need to deny political realities completely, but why not make more opportunities for Jews to experience Israel in a more intimate and visceral way? The existentialism one experiences from reading a good novel is often far more textured and nuanced than the sort we hear in political campaigns.
Another thought: Let’s do more listening to the stories of intermarried families (which the Forward does at the Seesaw, our interfaith advice column), instead of just lamenting their existence. Overall, it would do us a lot of good to worry less about who and what is Jewish and more about the hows of it all.
Yes, this stuff is going on. There are innovative learning organizations like Limmud and Mechon Hadar, and a number of cultural organizations whose fluid approach to Judaism allows for real innovation. This includes LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, a non-religious house of study for creative types at the 14th Street Y, which I co-direct. The program, which enlists culture-makers to study Jewish texts and create new work in response, was started by the farsighted Stephen Hazan Arnoff (guided largely by the vision of his friend Ruth Calderon), then the executive director of the Y, now the CEO of the JCC association.
If he hadn’t invited me to join LABA six years ago and given me access to the wilds of the Jewish canon (we studied the very esoteric story about the four rabbis who entered the Pardes on the very first day), my interest in Jewish life would be far, far less than it is right now. (The same goes, I can attest, for many of the nearly 100 fellows who have passed through our doors.) I would have continued to see Judaism as I did before I started LABA: as a problem that I couldn’t be bothered to solve. We need more organizations like these ones above, and more existing organizations like synagogues and Hilels to approach Jewish life through this lens.
Uncertainty isn’t inherently crippling. It only feels that way when the stakes seem high. Here’s to building a 21st century Judaism in which the stakes feel lower and the doors are wide open. May a generation of seekers find their home there.