saul singer 88.
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Charles Bronfman is looking for a big Jewish idea, and he is willing to pay for it. A key mega-philanthropist behind birthright israel - still the biggest Jewish idea around - he is sponsoring a visiting chair at Brandeis University for someone who can write a book that will "change the way Jews think about themselves and their community."
The contest is patterned on one held by Sears Roebuck chairman Julius Rosenwald in 1929, who offered $10,000 for a book answering the question "How can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life?" The result was Mordechai Kaplan's seminal work, Judaism as a Civilization, which became the foundation of the Reconstructionist movement.
As influential as Kaplan's book was, Rosenwald's question is no less trenchant 78 years later. This time around, Brandeis is sure to receive a plethora of proposals playing on the new mechanics of modern life, such as Internet-based social networks. I hope that none of these are chosen.
While any new big idea must employ the latest modes of social organization, wrapping these in a bow cannot itself constitute a big idea. However powerful, the Web is a tool, while the transformation the Jewish world needs is much deeper, as was already clear to Rosenwald in 1929.
The Internet did not get us into this problem; it won't get us out of it.
THE CURRENT challenge facing the Jewish people is no less than that of surviving the destruction of the Temple and the ancient Jewish state. The Destruction dispersed us as a people. Modernity digs even deeper, dispersing the idea of religion as the communal organizing principle unquestioningly transferred from generation to generation.
Two thousand years ago, Judaism indeed adapted to the crisis of statelessness and exile with a big new idea: a Judaism centered on study, rabbinic leadership, home and synagogue, rather than on pilgrimages to the Temple. The great Jewish mistake today, however, is to assume that what is necessary to adapt to the shock of Enlightenment is another, equally new, big idea.
The idea that we need is big, but it is not new.
What is needed is to undo two adaptations forced upon us by exile that were necessary at the time, but are destructive in the modern context.
The first adaptation was transforming the oral tradition of evolving, living, Jewish law into a written code, the Talmud. Freezing the oral law into a permanent code was itself a violation of Jewish law, but by the year 500 CE or so, the rabbis felt they had no choice: The Jewish people had dwindled to about one million dispersed and persecuted souls, and so had to preserve the previous 1,300 years of oral tradition (including the Prophets), even at the price of sacrificing flexibility.
The reduction of the oral tradition to a fixed text cannot be undone, nor should it. While the original oral tradition cannot be revived as if the Talmud did not exist, the evolutionary spirit of the oral tradition can be rekindled within the context of the talmudic tradition.
Rather than devoting itself to building new fences around the law, Talmud-centered Judaism can, if its spiritual leaders so decide, find in the law the room to drill back through the layers of fences to living essence, and apply it to the modern context.
For two millennia, we hunkered down and turned inward. It worked, and we're still here. But in the modern world, turning only inward doesn't work. What was a successful survival instinct has become perhaps the greatest threat to our survival.
This is not to say that Jewish particularity should be jettisoned. On the contrary, it is precisely our particularity, in the form of real community, family life and peoplehood, that we have to offer ourselves and the world.
Our problem is that, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, we are "a messenger who forgot his message." We have forgotten that our purpose is not to survive; our survival is to advance our purpose.
Nothing is more emblematic of this collective amnesia than the failure to undo a second major exilic adaptation: opposition to conversion.
IN ANCIENT times, Judaism was so pro-conversion that the book of Matthew records that Jews would "go to the ends of the earth for a single convert." While the Second Temple stood, the Jewish people grew to number, according to the eminent historian Salo Baron, 10 percent of the Roman empire. While there is some dispute over to what degree Jews sought or simply accepted converts, and whether the newcomers fully adopted Judaism, historians agree that the Jewish people multiplied far beyond what is explainable through natural growth.
Over centuries of exile, Jewish pro-conversionary attitudes were literally beaten out of us, with laws banning conversion on pain of death. Yet a current major obstacle to conversion, the idea within Orthodoxy that a convert must commit to obey all Jewish laws, is a very recent invention.
Rabbi Marc Angel, a former president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America, notes in his book Choosing to be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion that the first ruling that a convert must accept and obey all the commandments dates only from 1876. This ruling conflicts with the talmudic stipulation that the potential convert be taught only some of the laws. How can the convert be required to obey every law, even those he has not been taught?
Maimonides goes so far as to say that:
"A convert who... was circumcised and immersed in the presence of three laymen is a convert. Even if it is known that he converted for some ulterior motive... he is considered a Jewish apostate.... Having immersed, he is a Jew."
The traditional Jewish approach is to apply the same standard to converts as to born Jews: Failure to observe all of Halacha does not negate or prevent their membership in the Jewish people. The current Orthodox approach is a recent distortion of this tradition and the plain meaning of the law.
The Jewish people desperately needs to rediscover its traditional pro-conversionary attitudes. This would be necessary even if we were not facing a demographic crisis.
Being against conversion says to both Jews and non-Jews that we have nothing to offer the world. If we have nothing to offer, then why survive? If Judaism cannot or will not attract others, how can it retain Jews?
We cannot stop shrinking unless we try to grow. Welcoming newcomers is intrinsic to believing in oneself. Abandonment of conversion is what's broken in Judaism, it is therefore what needs to be fixed.
No one is saying that Judaism is right for everyone, but does it follow that it is right for no one? It would take only a tiny fraction of the non-Jewish world to choose Judaism to begin to reverse our demographic decline and cause Jews to reconsider drifting away from their own faith.
As Dorothy discovered in the Wizard of Oz, the "big idea" we are missing is not over the rainbow (or on the Internet), but at home, in our forgotten history and tradition.