Remix Judaism - strengthening connections to teachings of Jewish tradition

A new book teaches how to strengthen the connection to the practices of the Jewish tradition in a way that comports with the sensibilities of Jews who are not, and likely never will be, observant.

Prof. Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and also teaches at IDC college in Herzliya (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and also teaches at IDC college in Herzliya
(photo credit: Courtesy)

“With this book, I hope to open a dialogue with all Jews, and other willing listeners, about how to strengthen their connection to the teachings and practices of the Jewish tradition in a way that comports with the sensibilities of Jews who are not, and likely never will be, observant by conventional measures. I develop the concept of ‘remix’ Judaism as the means of strengthening this connection.”
This important new book is by Prof. Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, who also teaches at IDC college in Herzliya. The words above are from the Introduction.
She asserts that we need to “remix” Judaism. But why? And what is “remix Judaism?”
Recent headlines explain why.
In early January, there was a disturbing headline in the Los Angeles Times. “Israel in uproar after chief rabbi calls ex-Soviet Jews ‘religion-hating goys,’” it read. The article continued: “Hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of goys came to Israel under the Law of Return,” [Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef] protested at a rabbinical gathering last week in Jerusalem. On Wednesday, calls to fire Yosef grew. The anti-racism unit in Israel’s Justice Ministry announced that more than 100 complaints of incitement were filed against the rabbi.”
As Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo once observed ungrammatically, “We have met the enemy – and they is us.” Strife among religious factions in Israel continues and grows, infecting our politics and polluting our brotherly relations.
Underlying the vitriol between religious and non-religious groups is a crucial existential dilemma – will Jewish religious tradition and ritual survive and thrive? If so, how?
As economists are wont to do, we look to the statistics. There are 14.8 million Jews in the world, according to the Jewish Agency. Of those, 6.7 m. live in Israel and 5.7 m. live in the US. Hence 84% of world Jewry lives either in Israel or in the US.
In the US, a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 58% of Jews who married since 2005 married a non-Jewish spouse. Among the non-Orthodox in the US the rate is 72% This is a radical change from marriages before 1970, in which, according to the Pew data, 89% of marriages had two Jewish spouses. Overall, “44% of Jewish respondents are married to a non-Jew.” In the last five years, the situation has not improved.
The context in which US and Israeli Jews live and practice their faith is very different. But both in Israel and in the US, we face an identical dilemma. The best way I can explain it is as a geometry problem.
Most of us were taught Euclidian geometry in school. According to Euclid, parallel lines never meet. That roughly describes Judaism in the modern era.
In the US there are ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and unaffiliated Jews – parallel groups, all Jewish, but in general, little meeting of the minds.
In Israel, the parallel lines are ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and secular – again, for decades, little meeting of the minds. A tense “status quo” prevails, for instance legislating shop closings on Shabbat, etc. Battles erupt, for example over drafting ultra-Orthodox men to the IDF.
But increasingly, Euclid no longer applies, either in the US or in Israel. Instead, we have hyperbolic geometry, in which parallel lines curve away from each other rapidly.
In Israel, two toxic elections last April and September and an upcoming unwanted third one in March have led to a dead heat: Two virtually equal blocs, one of which swears always to include Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox MKs who bring religious demands, and the other, which swears to exclude religious MKs and establish a liberal coalition. When religion and politics clash, the parallel lines diverge rapidly and dangerously.
So, here is the dilemma. In Israel, toxic political battles between religious and non-religious are driving Jews apart. Militant Orthodox politicians in Israel have seriously damaged Israel’s relations with US and Diaspora Jews. In the US, intermarriage and an attractive non-Jewish culture are driving rapid assimilation in non-Orthodox communities.
In both Jewries, parallel lines seem to diverge. The question is – how can we change the geometry? How can we bring those parallel lines to converge, to come together, both in Israel and in the US, despite the entirely different contexts?
How do we change the geometry? How can we scrap the current hyperbolic geometry, in which the various groups within Jewry are moving farther and farther apart, in the US and in Israel – and shape a new elliptical (Riemann) geometry, in which parallel lines converge? Because, if we do not do this, I am terribly afraid that the future of the Jewish religion and tradition, in Israel and in the US alike, is rather bleak.
I teach creativity and innovation, mainly to young people. Kwall’s book resonated with me, because I am strongly committed to the Masorti approach and perceive what I see as a lack of creative thinking among Jewish leaders and lay persons to adapt our wonderful tradition to modern times. Kwall shows how we might approach it.
In our world, there is happily a marketplace not only for stocks and bonds and goods and services, but also for ideas. An urgent, open dialogue is needed to put creative Jewish minds to work on ideas – on reinventing an inclusive, appealing, beautiful Judaism, suitable for every single Jew alive, tailored uniquely for personal needs and beliefs, and to toss these ideas into the air for vigorous discussion and debate. I am certain such a dialogue is already underway.
In Remix Judaism, there are some appealing ideas. In a Jewish People Policy Institute podcast, Kwall explained to veteran journalist Shmuel Rosner: “Remix Judaism is my appropriation of a term from the music world, where remix means doing ‘mashups’ [a creative work created by blending two or more pre-recorded songs] and interpretations; you borrow bits and pieces to remix, to make something new. In the law, the question arises, how much is protected and how much can be lawfully appropriated? After 20 years of work and research in this area, I saw I could substitute Jewish tradition for music, and in my book I ask, how much of tradition can be changed, yet still remain basically the same, keeping it Jewish and preserving tradition in a diverse world. Hence, Remix Judaism.”
Rosner asked, why do we need Remix Judaism?
Kwall: “American Jews face a situation, in which liberal Jews (unaffiliated, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal) are a minority in a Christian world, which is not suffused with Judaism; fewer Jews are engaged with Jewish tradition. How can these Jews reclaim Judaism in a way that works for them? Actually all Jews in the US live as a cultural minority, not just the liberal ones.”
Kwall is writing in a very long tradition of creative reforms to Jewish practice. Recently, Dr. Micah Goodman published The Philosophic Roots of the Secular-Religious Divide (2019) [Chazara Bli Teshuva]. In his widely discussed book, he contends: “Between the skeptical path that empties the world of meaning, and the fanatical path that destroys it, there is a middle way. In this space there is room for far more than one idea and one way.”
One of the earliest “remix” books is Michael Lerner’s 1994 book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. It became a national bestseller and brought thousands of young people into the emerging Jewish Renewal movement. Lerner quotes the guru of Jewish renewal, Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi: “Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that we can understand the transformation in Jewish conceptions, if we pay attention to the kabbalistic notion of partzufim. In every age God may have different partzufim, ways of becoming known or appearing to human beings. This is not because there are different gods, but because human beings need different forms of representation in different eras.”
I asked Kwall whether Remix Judaism was relevant for Israeli Jews as well as American Jews. She answered affirmatively and at length.
Kwall: “This is a great question and I’m glad you asked. First, I do not see the relevance of Remix Judaism as only applicable to intermarried families in the Diaspora (not just the US). The truth is that because Jews live as a cultural minority everywhere but Israel, even in-married couples face this same issue. The challenges of raising your kids with a sufficient amount of Jewish tradition exists for in-married couples as well. When I started this book, a prominent Jewish Studies academic gave me the following advice: Write this book for your daughters. All of my girls are with Jewish men (two married, one engaged) and this book is extremely important for them.
“As for Israel, on my last trip in May I realized something critical – Remix Judaism is just as necessary for Israelis,” she continued. “In fact, I revised the introduction to make this clear.” (See box on page 39)
“Israel has laws (albeit weakly enforced) against monopolies in business. Politically, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have a powerful monopoly on ‘authentic’ state-recognized state-funded religion. It is time, I believe, to open the doors and windows. Take apart the state-funded monopoly. Allow and encourage Jews to practice their faith in many, varied and creative ways, everywhere. And above all, get our beautiful religion out of the swamp of politics.
“In history, Jews have adopted two ways to survive in highly hostile environments. One approach is to build walls and ghettos. In the long run this does not work and it never has. The second approach is to open the windows and doors. Be a part of the world, tackle its challenges, speak with other faiths, welcome those who choose our own faith, and adapt, adapt, adapt. In the long run, this is the only way that has enabled Jewish ritual and culture to survive.”
Can we remix Judaism? We can, we should and indeed we always have, throughout history. A Jewish renewal rabbi whom I greatly respect observed once that interfaith activity helps us gain better understanding of our own Jewish faith.
A famous 19th century rabbi, Moses Schreiber, known by his pen name, the Chatam Sofer, used a Mishnaic saying to battle the radical Haskala movement. The saying is, “Hechadash assur min haTorah b’khol makom” – that which is new is biblically forbidden in all places.
The context of this edict in the Mishna is very specific. It refers to new grain harvested from plants, which took root after the 16th of Nisan (the second day of Passover). It is forbidden to consume this grain until the 16th of Nisan the following year, after the Omer offering was brought. Using this to ban all creative innovations in Jewish tradition is a terrible distortion.
It is deeply paradoxical that Israel, the Start-Up Nation, land of infinite ideas and creativity in hi-tech, should be mired in religious strife and in the quicksand of the unchanging religious status quo. No, innovation is not banned by the Torah. Throughout Jewish history, innovation has been encouraged. The precept, “there are 70 faces to the Torah” is widely known and quoted.
For many Israelis, simply living in Israel is enough to be (and to remain) Jewish. But I’m afraid it isn’t. Roberta Kwall’s Remix Judaism offers one path toward remixing and renewing the beautiful, ancient and marvelous ritual that keeps us and our children Jews, and in so doing, enhances the meaning and splendor of our lives. If we Israelis do not continue to know and love Jewish ritual, then our children will ask, why live here? Why not live in Berlin or New York City?
The Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” begins with the song “Tradition!” Tevya says, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years... Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything... how to eat, how to sleep, even how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
In the fictional shtetl of Anatevka, Jewish tradition was clear and unchanging. But in today’s Jewish world, it is fluid and evolving. In the end, I believe the emerging remix will enable Jews everywhere not only to “keep their balance” but to preserve and strengthen our centuries-old tradition.
After a strong creative remix, we Jews will indeed know who each of us is, as Jews, why Jewish ritual is worth preserving and what is expected of us in the 21st century.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com
Remix Judaism:
Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall
Rowman & Littlefield, 2020
272 pages; $30