Eyeing past to transform the future


WALTHAM, Mass. (JTA) – It was the African-American writer James Baldwin who said, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

Now five Jews who have undertaken the mission to redirect the history of the Jews seem to have taken his message to heart.

Brandeis University, in conjunction with the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, is offering a two-year visiting professorship, including a six-figure salary and a book deal, to the person whose idea for a written work can make Jews best rethink how they think about themselves.

From 231 contestants Brandeis chose five finalists: two noted authors, one of whom is also a reality television show host, a Harvard doctoral candidate, a 20-something publisher of a startup magazine and a journalist.

Their proposals, which they presented Sunday at a Brandeis symposium, all seemed to echo Baldwin’s idea: if Judaism is going to adapt to the 21st century and beyond, Jews in some way need to learn from their past. The question is, how?

The finalists have their own prescription:

* For Ariel Beery, the publisher of the startup magazine PresenTense and the founder of the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism, the answer is learning how Jews of the past adapted their Judaism to their contemporary societies and recognizing that Jews today must adapt to the latest technological advancements.

“These shifts were elemental in figuring out what it means to be Jewish,” Beery said. “In doing so they learned from the best outside and imitated inside in order to bring Jewish content to new vehicles through technology.”

His book proposal, “Translating Judaism for the Post-Digital Age,” focuses on how Jews must adapt Judaism to the age of online social networking, where Facebook rules.

Beery, at 28 the youngest of the finalists, envisions a Jewish network based on building Jewish “nodes” in major cities throughout the world where Jews can live, work and create together, sharing ideas. Then, Jews must work with existing Jewish infrastructure to develop an online platform to share these ideas.

* Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is known for his book “Kosher Sex” and reality show “Shalom in the Home,” would focus his proposed work, “Bringing Judaism to the Mainstream,” on elucidating what innovations Jews have given the world – monotheism, Jesus’ Golden Rule and democracy, for instance.

Jews and the world have forgotten that modernity is based on Judaism, as “every idea we have given the world has been not just adopted but co-opted,” he said.

Recognizing the Jewish roots of these innovations, Boteach said, can be a source of pride and a reason to identify.

In addition to retracing these innovations to their Jewish roots, he hopes to prescribe ways in which the modern world can adopt other Jewish values, such as strong family values. As an example, Boteach would like American society to adopt Friday night family dinners – based on Shabbat observance – to help restore quality family time to a morally decaying America.

* Anita Diamant, the author of the best-selling novel “The Red Tent,” believes that Jews must learn that Judaism did not die in the past and that modern American Judaism is very much alive and teeming with growth and innovation.

Her proposed book, “Minhag America,” would be a description of that growth and perhaps a prescription for how to spread ideas that work.

Diamant has 17 chapter ideas that would focus on issues that illustrate what is happening in the Jewish world today. Among the headings she has chosen are “Power to the People: Lifelong Jewish Learning for Everyone,” “Counting Women In,” “Art is Not Idolatry,” “Pop Culture, Grin and Bear it” and “Authentic Spirituality.”

“There has never been a better time to be Jewish,” Diamant said. “After a little more than 350 years on this continent, we find ourselves taking a thrilling, not-so-risk-free leap into the next, living through changes as profound and unpredictable as those presented by rabbinic Judaism when it emerged.”

* Yehuda Kurtzer, who is finishing his doctorate in Jewish history at Harvard University, also would describe the need for Jews to reclaim their past in his proposal, “Shuva: the Sacred Task of Rebuilding Jewish Memory.”

Kurtzer looks at some successful programs, such as the Pardes Institute for Jewish Study in Jerusalem, and sees that they are rooted in Talmud and textual study.

But for most that sense of memory through text is fading because it is too complicated and inaccessible to many. Kurtzer proposes writing a book that is a combined history, theological statement and prescription for programming that can help Jews access their history through text study to create meaningful Jewish experiences.

* Saul Singer, the editorial page editor and columnist for the Jerusalem Post, also writes in his proposal, “From Survival to Purpose,” that Jews must hearken back to their past to move forward. But Singer believes Jews need to return to the model in ancient Israel when they were more proactive in seeking converts to Judaism.

Jews, he says, have lost the notion that they have a mission to be a light unto the nations and to promulgate the idea of one God and one ethic. Instead, because of the persecution they have faced throughout the ages, they have become focused solely on survival.

Singer says it is time to switch back to a mission of purpose, and the key symbol that the Jews have changed focus would be embracing conversion because conversion is a symbol that Jews have something positive to share.

The competition for the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation is modeled after the contest held by Sears Roebuck and Co. chairman Julius Rosenwald in 1929, in which Rosenwald offered $10,000 to the person who could answer the question, “How can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life?”

That was won by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, for his work “Judaism as a Civilization,” which became one of his seminal works and remains influential today.

A committee of Brandeis faculty will deliberate and choose a winner based on the symposium and hourlong interviews with each finalist, which were conducted Sunday before the symposium, said Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history who chairs the committee.

Sarna did not have a time frame for choosing the winner. But he said if the goal of the competition was to inspire creative Jewish thinking, “even before we make our appointment, we have already succeeded.”

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