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A Symposium on the Jewish Future

Elliot Gertel
August 7, 2016


by Elliot B. Gertel

Congregation_Adath_Jeshurun,_Elkins_Park_PA_05THIS IS THE THIRD and (at least for now) final installment in a series I’ve done about noteworthy discussions of Jewish religion and culture found on internet videos of valuable symposia. The first installment was a look at milestones at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El and their implications for Jewish culture, particularly synagogue music. The second was a debate about God that has strong implications for Jewish theology and for believers or non-believers alike.

rosenbloom_200This column deals with a symposium on the future of the American synagogue and of Jewish life in America. It took place at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Elkins Park, PA., on October 27, 2013. It is significant not only for what the panelists advocated, but for the implications of their positions, perspectives and suggestions. The panel was masterfully moderated by Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom on the occasion of his retirement from the congregation after thirty-six years. The panelists were Rabbi Bradley Shavit Atson of American Jewish University, Los Angeles, sociologist Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar Los Angeles. (You can watch their presentations by clicking here.)

Steven-CohenSteven Cohen, the sociologist, sounded the most like a preacher. He had the statistics to back up what 20th-century rabbis warned about from their pulpits for over fifty years, and into the 21st century, that rising rates of intermarriage (58+ percent for all Jews, 71 percent for non-Orthodox) are indicative of, and promote, the weakening of social cohesion among American Jews. Cohen invoked the Pew Study that confirmed that non-Orthodox younger people feel more detached from the State of Israel. Although Jews are now regarded as “wealthier, better educated, and funnier than most Americans,” he said, only five million adult Jews in America with Jewish parents say they are Jewish, while another two million do not necessarily regard themselves as Jewish.

Statistics indicate that the numbers of Orthodox and “borderland” (“partial”) Jews will grow, he observed, while the ranks of engaged non-Orthodox Jews are declining (as are mainline Protestants and Anglo Catholics), and while the non-Orthodox sector remains a strong and diverse community, statistics about it are ominous to the point that we “should say a mi sheberakh [a prayer for the sick] for American Jews.” The only hope, he believes, is the very 20th-century construct typical of religious, Zionist and other Jewish youth and young adult groups and summer camps: Jewish contacts at marriageable ages must be strongly encouraged. Even if Jews are not looking to marry other Jews, they marry those with whom they are in contact. Synagogues might, for example, be used for film festivals to bring young adults together. Jewish summer camps also create permanent social networks, Cohen noted, with effects that last over thirty to forty years.

Cohen’s closing advice could have been given from the pulpit of any synagogue in 1960 and surrounding decades: The biggest indicator of a child’s future involvement in Jewish life, he said, is the parents’ involvement. Jewish organizations should work to make America more family-friendly through its tax codes, daycare allowances, etc. American Jews should take also advantage of the Israel experience at the earliest possible age, he said, because each trip to Israel increases in-marriage. Birthright kids marry Birthright kids.

maxresdefaultCOHEN WAS FOLLOWED by Rabbi Bradley Artson, whose solution for American Jewish spiritual vitality is “process theology.” Describing all traditional God-language as “nonsense,” he promised to do some “spiritual sandblasting.” He dismissed the Pew Study; it will be overcome, he said, once Jews are given the God they “actually believe in.” Artson invoked what might be called quantum metaphysics — “every particle of shimmering energy instantaneously accommodating every other particle no matter how far away” — and a theology of “the one who makes the energy possible. God is the ground of our relating and our connection. God is the one who creates an open future and invites us to make good decisions that allow the universe to grow.”

It is the human task, Rabbi Artson emphasized, to feel the “lure” of such a God, who “meets us within nature, inviting us to make optimal choices which we know intuitively from the inside.” That “lure” helps us to “maximize justice, relationship, experience and compassion”— in a non-coercive way, of course. God is like that voice in an automobile mechanism that says “Recalculating,” helping us to maintain the goal we originally wanted to have, but integrating the choice we just made: “Now here is the way to get there,” confirming: “You know intuitively what your next best choice has to be.”

Rabbi Artson urges the jettisoning of a “commanding” God and substituting a marriage model. “My wife,” he observed, “is not the all-powerful sovereign of the universe who can damn me to hell forever. Her will is only an imperative to me if I want to be in a loving relationship.” Mitsves should be regarded as “connections” with God, not merely as folkways. For Rabbi Artson, the cure to the “sickness” (Steven Cohen’s term) of American Jewry is the right theology, his theology. He quoted his son who resolved, “I need to listen to the lure.” I’m touched that it works for his son, though it may not work for many Jews (me included), whether religious or not.

Sharon-Brous-06.48THE LAST SPEAKER, Rabbi Sharon Brous, offered no specific prescription for God-faith. Rather, she maintains that the synagogue will survive only if it junks the developments of the 20th century. She insists that, whether they realize it or not, Jews of all ages are, in their spiritual searches, rejecting “a 20th-century iteration of Jewish religious life — stilted, performative, socially manipulative, based on a fear of intermarriage, trying to move people around and pay for free pizzas and Israel trips.” She insists that American Jews must get over the “hangover from 20th-century mentality”: obsession with “Americanization, suburbanization and Protestantization.”

Rabbi Brous suggests that Judaism is really everything that modern spiritual seekers would have no trouble embracing: waking up with gratitude and going to sleep with forgiveness; embracing the infinite worth and equality of human beings; finding a community that can hold and sustain and strengthen its members. She insists that ritual when “done right” can move us to tears. That 42 percent of self-styled “secular” Jews who attend Passover seders indicate to her that the Jewish calendar itself offers a journey of meaning and a life of purpose. (But can’t people get these goodies in other ways? What is unique about Judaism?)

Rabbi Brous was confident that she was speaking for a plurality of seekers, particularly the millennial generation. She decried “intellectually dishonest” pulpits that fail to deal with violent biblical texts and flaws in the Jewish community, or to encourage debate about Israel. The “true” essence of Judaism, of any spirituality, is “progressivism.” Thus, if 86 percent of American Jews were, as some polls record, opposed to the war in Iraq, this should have been echoed from Jewish pulpits.

I thought of the many pulpits in the 1960s that spouted the need for religion to be “relevant.” Rabbi Brous prefers that synagogues now provide “meaning,” an “inspired, purpose-driven Jewish life” (Rick Warren style?), but even that will not necessarily attract millennials, she says, who are “allergic” to institutions, no matter how good the content of particular programs. Space matters less to them than “substance,” which might be more effectively imparted in bars, art studios and living rooms.

To Rabbi Brous, it all boils down to a generational divide — again, echoes of the 1960s, of the old “generation gap.” She as much as said that even if synagogues were to remake themselves, millennials may not set foot in the most welcoming and heymish (home-like) of institutions. (Funny, I thought, I see them flock to cold, corporate Los Angeles fitness emporia, especially young men who are rarely found in most synagogues except Orthodox congregations and dating-mill emergent minyanim.) Rabbi Brous admonished: “Saying that young people reject Judaism just because they don’t want to join our synagogues is like saying that young people hate music because they don’t listen to Sinatra anymore. What speaks to one generation doesn’t speak to another generation.”

EACH SPEAKER obviously came with his or her own signature shpil. The long (but worthwhile) program became a dialogue only because of Rabbi Rosenbloom’s thoughtful prodding. It was then that the fault line between the rabbis and the sociologist became not only pronounced but a real revelation.

Steven Cohen scolded the rabbis for being too optimistic, but he did absolve them from having to provide “meaning,” saying that rabbis have always been concerned about bringing meaning into the picture. What the Jewish community needs, however, he reiterated, are the “concrete actions that bring more Jews in contact with other Jews in Jewishly significant contexts.”

Most telling, I thought, was that the rabbis insisted that they were saying the same thing as Cohen when they clearly were not. They advocated for their ideas of meaning as some kind of panacea. Cohen insisted that while meaning is a good thing, for purposes of demographic continuity it’s not necessary. People who lose weight and stop smoking need to be around thinner people and non-smokers who tell them to stop. Social networks accomplish far more, at least structurally, than talk about meaning. Zip code, he proclaimed, is a better predictor of in-marriage than Jewish education!

It became crystal clear that the rabbis were advocating a “redefinition” and “culture shift” (their words) in Judaism. They seemed to embrace a discontinuity between the 21st century and previous centuries, between millennials and previous generations. Cohen’s message seemed more timeless — that social structures that worked in the 20th century did so because they were rooted in many generations.

Indeed, the roles of sociologist and rabbis seemed to be radically reversed. In the 1950s, the sociologists of religion built their science by positing gaps between first and second generations or areas of settlement. The rabbis used to insist that it was the synagogue that maintained Jewish community down through the ages. Rabbis had learned at their seminaries that the development of the liturgy in ancient and geonic times and the synagogue politics down through the ages can teach us much about synagogue and Jewish communal life today. It would seem that at least some of Rabbi Brous’s lay leaders have had the same power and succession concerns as synagogue officers down through the ages, and the manuals of protocol for the emergent minyanim (such as Eli Kaunfer’s Empowered Judaism) echo verbatim the gabai and usher manuals of 20th-century and earlier synagogues. The emergent minyanim certainly have no problem using the prayerbooks of the Conservative movement in particular, at least for now, until Jewish Renewal tendencies come to dominate some communities. Even Rabbi Brous’s Ikar requires usual synagogal child and youth education, a trained musician, prayer leader, etc.

In his theological assertions, Rabbi Artson, like Rabbi Brous, underplayed the contributions of the 20th century. Twice he knocked Mordecai Kaplan, the most famous Jewish process theologian ever, criticizing his view of the mitsves as “folkways” (which resonated with the cultural Jews of Kaplan’s time and since), and decrying him for being more of a literalist than Whitehead in his God-idea. Is this denigration of 20th- century Judaism going to become the next mantra and cliché in “future of the synagogue” talk? Or is it just the current California fad?

It is not clear whether Rabbi Brous blames 20th-century Judaism for making Jewish life boring, or whether she regards boredom as a contemporary or continuing hazard in Jewish life, especially in religious services. She shared that she responded to getting bored with their own music at Ikar (much of it by a talented in-house composer) by removing chairs and having the congregants develop their own comfortable standing places. Musical chairs in order to reconnect with liturgical music? She even suggested davening in the wrong key as a path to such reconnection. (By the way, how is any service with thoughtful and inspired composed music not “performative,” and why shouldn’t it be?)

As regards Rabbi Brous’s vision of social justice and “progressive” politics, Rabbi Artson’s science-based theological methods seemed to back more conservative stances. In advocating for his view of consciousness, he pointed out that scientists have discovered that fetuses in the womb have enough consciousness to recognize parents’ voices. He told of a Swedish man in a vegetative coma for seventeen years who was, at some point, able to spell out answers with his toe and who could hear the discussions about whether or not to euthanize him. How should this affect “progressive” medical ethics?

I have dealt with this symposium at length because it is provocative (in the speakers’ perspectives and in both the intended and unintended implications and clashes of those perspectives), but also because of where it occurred and when it occurred.

CONGREGATION ADATH JESHURUN (nicknamed “A.J.” many years ago), established by German-Jewish immigrants to Philadelphia in 1858, is one of the most culturally significant synagogues in American Jewish history. It is, in fact, the synagogue that defined the perimeters of the Conservative Movement. Early on, organ and mixed choir were introduced and the congregation settled on the Jastrow prayerbook, which was not fully traditional but maintained the classic format of the Hebrew prayers. The congregation had abolished the wearing of the prayershawl or tallit, but the men still wore hats.

Solomon Schechter was probably thinking of this congregation when, in 1913, he welcomed into the newly formed United Synagogue of America any and all congregations in which the radical Reform Union Prayer Book was not used and men still covered their heads. In 1910, Schechter had dispatched to A.J. a new graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Max D. Klein, who in 1951 published a unique prayerbook, Seder Avodah, for that synagogue. Around the time of this symposium, Rabbi Rosenbloom had lovingly revised that prayerbook with gender-neutral translations and more traditional options, a stunning achievement. He also offered fresh and engaging emendations in the Hebrew, providing brilliant common ground on debates within the Conservative Movement on such matters as how to deal with the ancient animal sacrifices in prayer, etc. Believe me, for anyone interested in synagogue culture and in Jewish liturgical poetry, this prayer book is monumental. One does not have to be religious, or even Jewish, to appreciate what it represents.

As a synagogue, A.J. is monumental, culturally speaking, in another respect. For over a century, it had not only its own unique prayer book, but organ and sometimes orchestra-accompanied music that was totally unique to it, some composed by Rabbi Klein, and some classics of German, Sephardic and contemporary synagogue music, as well as traditional nusach (modes) arranged by the longtime cantor, composer laureate and Cantors Institute professor, Hazzan Charles Davidson. There was nothing “boring” about the tempo and quality of the music there, or about the many original compositions and cantatas composed by Cantor Davidson that were offered there, including “The Last Sabbath,” the “Hasidic Service,” the “Sephardic Service,” the “Jazz Service,” and “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” The congregation also offered a choral service with full orchestra for the first day of Passover, highlighting the Hallel Psalms of Praise recited on the festivals. A.J. issued a two-CD recording of its 150th anniversary service (November 8, 2008), arranged magnificently by current Hazzan Howard K. Glantz and Rabbi Rosenbloom, based on Davidson’s work and featuring his memorable settings for Adon Olam and Psalm 150.

What I found troubling about this symposium, for all its value, is that the three speakers offered their perspectives without once, any of them, paying tribute to Rabbi Rosenbloom’s liturgical-literary achievement and to the outstanding history and musical achievements of the congregation. There was zero interest expressed on their part in the uniqueness of the place — in the large youth Torah-reading program created there by Hazzan Davidson and in the rousing musical traditions offered there. Is there any place in sociological discussions of the synagogue for the role of cultural achievements? Are rabbis, in their zeal for certain kinds of spirituality, oblivious to inspired liturgical and aesthetic works of other times and places that are at least as spiritual? Would self-styled cultural Jews be more protective and acknowledging of 20th century Jewish theology and music as a cultural phenomenon? Should more effort be made to engage young people in such cultural treasures? If Jews cannot be taught to cherish uniqueness in American Jewish history and institutions, can loyalty to Judaism and Jewish culture as a whole be imparted?

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.