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Jewish World Review
Nov. 20, 2008
/ 22 Mar-Cheshvan 5769
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Philanthropist's latest book claims Judaism must be re-created (updated) in order to survive. Curiously, he ignores the one community that's actually experiencing exponential growth and a cultural and scholastic renaissance
One of the perks (such as it is) of working for a Jewish organization is receiving unsolicited books and manuscripts in the mail. Most like "new age" Jewish ritual guides, Middle-East manifestoes and novels channeling their authors' neuroses through Biblical narratives don't interest me. Occasionally, though, a freebie escapes the circular file. Like the copy (there were actually two, a few weeks apart, one hardcover, the other soft) I received of "Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance" by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff.
Mr. Bronfman is the former CEO of the Seagram Company, past president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to Jewish causes.
His book, the accompanying folder contents informed me, is "a passionate plea to the Jewish community, urging members to celebrate the joy in their culture and religion… [and] to recognize their responsibility to help heal a broken world."
Mr. Bronfman proposes that young Jews be brought to "meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community"; that they be brought "into conversation with the faith's traditions and with each other"; and that Jewish institutions find ways to reach out to Jewish youth. Sounded promising.
But the book's vision of Judaism, it quickly became apparent, is decidedly libertarian, its understanding of "the faith's traditions" essentially Reconstructionist. The phrases "culture" and "heal a broken world" should have tipped me off. Mr. Bronfman's Jewish theology is entirely personal in fact, personalize-able: "I don't believe in the G-d of the Old Testament," he recently told a New York Times Magazine interviewer, "but I am happy with my Judaism, without that."
What particularly struck me, though, about Mr. Bronfman's book was the list of people he interviewed in its preparation. Or, more precisely, what was missing from it: the words of a single fervently-Orthodox Jew.
There are all sorts of people on the list, including a number of rabbis even an occasional religiously liberal Orthodox one. But one would have expected that the goal of finding ways of engaging young Jews would have led Mr. Bronfman to wonder about how the less "progressive" part of the Orthodox world seems to have successfully imparted its Jewish dedication to its young.
To portray even a slice of the remarkable empowerment of traditional Jewish belief and practice over the past half century is to court being tarred "triumphalist." But taking objective stock of the phenomenal growth of traditional Judaism in our day is not triumphalism but triumph the prevailing of the Jewish religious heritage at the root of all Jews' pasts.
To be sure, the growth of the traditionally observant Jewish community has not rendered it immune to social problems that permeate contemporary society. Nor are high ideals, alas, always matched by high behavior. But, all the same, there can be no doubting the successes.
Not long ago, it was the Jewish fast day of Tzom Gedaliah. Down the hall from my office at Agudath Israel of America's Lower Manhattan headquarters is our "in house" synagogue, adjacent to a large board room. The collapsible wall between the rooms was folded away to allow well over 100 Jewish men working in the Wall Street area to participate in special fast-day Mincha services, when the Torah is read.
The first service, that is. Two more followed over the course of the afternoon, to accommodate similar numbers who came to pray. And I know of at least several other Orthodox organizations or synagogues in the area where the special services were held as well.
If one were seeking means of empowering Jewish life, connections and learning among young Jews, why in the world would one ignore the buzzing dynamo of Jewish thought and life that is the traditional Orthodox world?
Yet Mr. Bronfman didn't see fit to interview any of the many rabbis in that world whose lectures regularly draw hundreds of Jews; or any of the popular Orthodox thinkers and speakers whose talks and recordings reach tens of thousands; nor the editors of the ArtScroll publication house, which has revolutionized Jewish learning over the past quarter century; or the publishers of any of the haredi papers, like the weekly Yated Ne'eman or the daily (yes, daily the only Jewish one in the country) Hamodia; or any of the heads of American yeshivas and seminaries in which thousands of young Jews are immersed in Jewish texts and traditions.
Mr. Bronfman didn't likely lack for toys as a child, but, tragically, he was sorely deprived of examples that might have led him to understand how Judaism is transmitted. By his own account in the New York Times Magazine, his father told him to attend synagogue on Sabbath morning, while he went to his office. "What made him think I was going to go to the synagogue if he went to the office?" Mr. Bronfman reminisced. "The hell with that."
But over the many years since then, as astute an individual as Mr. Bronfman should have noticed where young Jews have come to "meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community."
If he didn't, that's unfortunate. If he did, but decided all the same to dismiss authentic Jewish belief and practice as not germane to inspiring young Jews, well, that's doubly unfortunate.
In either event, Mr. Bronfman may think he has made a major contribution to Jewish life with his book. But wittingly or not, he shortchanged his readers.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
© 2007, Am Echad Resources