Culture, Identity, Mishegas, Politics, Religion

Kaunfer: Is continuity worth continuing?

In an op-ed piece reworked from a speech delivered at the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Denver, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar writes that:

Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with e-mails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.
Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.
We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts — the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.

Truth be told, not the biggest hiddush (original insight) but seriously brave considering the original audience. The Federation pretty much wrote the book of Jewish continuity for continuity’s sake. I was, however, especially happy to read this article after an experience this last Friday night which speaks loudly toward what Kaunfer is getting at.
I am the rabbi of a very small synagogue in a small town in a place where most people believe Jews have never stepped foot (fact is, though, we’ve been here since the 1840s). I would estimate that the average age of my congregation is over 65. One of the programs I’m working on is a drive to get people hosting shabbos dinners and learning how to make the appropriate blessings and whatnot. So, to kick off this program, we started it with a shabbos dinner at shul. a substantial percentage of my active members came. after dinner, I was sitting with an older couple, twenty years over the average, and it came time to bensch (say the blessing after meals). I asked a member of the community to lead the blessings, I mumbled brakhah aharona to myself and then said amen to the necessary blessings the community was reciting. After we finished, this couple leaned over and were very concerned as to why I wasn’t bensching. I explained that since I am allergic to gluten I, for better or worse, never get to say ha’motzi (the blessings before eating bread) and therefore I do not say birkat ha’mazon, rather I say different blessings before and after depending on the foods. They looked at me like I was crazy. I elaborated a little more the halakhic principles behind the reasoning and the husband of the couple looked at me and said, “They didn’t teach us that at camp.” His wife repeated, “no, they did not teach us that at camp.” Now, were it not for these two people experiencing camp, they would never have been married and never have brought beautiful children into the world who themselves brought beautiful children into the world — all Jewish by blood — and they may not be at shul every Monday and Saturday morning without fail. And that’s all grand.
But here’s the thing, and the example of bensching is just that, an example. It is indicative of one of the great failures of “cultural Judaism.” Three, maybe four generations of American Jews have been seriously deprived of real substantial Jewish learning. Jewish experiences like camp or birthright are great, but as Kaunfer points out:

So often we sideline Torah in the culture of the organized Jewish community. It takes the form of a pithy quote at the top of a website; an icon on our iPad; a glazed d’var Torah at the beginning of a board meeting. It’s what we pay lip service to before we really get down to business. But real Torah is so much deeper.
Torah has the power to draw us into the conversation, and to push us to think more deeply about ourselves and our struggles. Torah gives us a language for clarifying our own life’s mission, and an entryway to express our deepest values.

It seems to me that depending on the affiliation and different factors in community, class, geography, etc., there have been two main focuses in mainstream Jewish institutional efforts — increased continuity and/or increased observance. It hasn’t worked — unless the goal was to disenfranchise most Jews…
I think that Kaunfer is one example of many leaders in the Jewish community today who have recognized that neither continuity nor observance is going to bring unaffiliated Jews “in the door”, and the only thing that will is relevance.

12 thoughts on “Kaunfer: Is continuity worth continuing?

  1. I think that Kaunfer is one example of many leaders in the Jewish community today who have recognized that neither continuity nor observance is going to bring unaffiliated Jews “in the door”, and the only thing that will is relevance.
    Kudos to Kaunfer for giving this speech in the belly of the beast. But Justin, if your metric is what will bring unaffiliated Jews “in the door”, aren’t you still basically operating in a continuity paradigm?

  2. is that the goal of continuity? I thought it was babies… I guess, at least from the perspective of a rabbi who has been asked by a group of rural jews to facilitate reinvigorating their community my number one motivation right now is getting people who don’t like to pray or practice Judaism to have opportunity to learn Torah. All I can say is what I’ve seen, and in just a few months of being focused on inculcating a culture of learning I have seen numbers shoot up dramatically. My hope is that after a few years, increased attendance in learning opportunities will lead to increased involvement, engagement and commitment. Truth be told, I don’t really care if my congregants eat treif, they’re going to continue to eat treif no matter what I say. I don’t really care if they observe shabbos or not. my main motivation is to get them to see there’s worlds more to Judaism than camp. Now, I had a couple parents in one of my adult ed classes who were discussing the class at home and then their post-bar mitzvah kids come to my office asking if i’ll learn with them once a week. Since that has started, they’ve come every friday night and every saturday morning. are they observing mitzvos? not intentionally, anyways. But are they finding meaning in Torah? I’d say.
    Maybe I don’t understand the continuity paradigm…

  3. Justin,
    I would go back and take a look at Hilchos B’rachot. If you are k’viat seudah on Mezonot, I am pretty sure you would also recite Birchat HaMazon.

  4. Mezonot also has flour. No flour from wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oat ever cross my lips. I eat vegetables, so please trust that I am worth my salt enough to know why brakhot I have to say? There are those who hold that simply by eating one’s full of any food one is m’hayav birkat hamazon, but I (and hazal) disagree…

  5. I couldn’t agree more with Kaunfer’s notion or the further points that you put forward. For me, growing up in a somewhat traditional home and even attending Day School for my primary education the notion of Torah as sustenance or as something beyond story was often left by the way side. As I am reworking my own connection with Judaism and facilitating conversations with 20 or 30 young Jews who come to my house every Friday night, I have found that it is the deep investigation of Torah more than the matzo ball soup that is what grabs people.
    The risk of getting too caught up in the texts however is evident in how quickly this thread deteriorated into a debate about which brakhot Justin is supposed to say after meals. – A debate maybe worth having in a yeshiva classroom but in the context of the article put forth more of a distraction than anything else and probably off putting to someone who doesn’t spend any time studying texts.

  6. With all respect to Ari and Justin, I think this is discussion beyond the yeshiva classroom. I the days of chazal, I don’t think there was a sense of anyone allergic to gluten. For them bread was the symbol of a real meal. I think that, whatever the sources, the current situation means that you should consider saying birkat hamazon when eating what for you is a full meal. (speaking as someone who most often cops out with “brich rachmana.”)

  7. With all respect, Jeff, if we go down the line of playing the “in the days of chazal” game we can undo most any mitzvah d’rabbanan. And this post was not about my diet or customs, it is about the future of Judaism in America!

  8. What’s this “relevance” relation.Torah is certainly relevant to knowing torah and knowing torah is relevant to being comfortable in shul and with Jewish traditions. But relevant is usually heard as being important for something outside of the narrow circle of shul, torah knowledge and mitzvot. I don’t see how Kaufner has made any headway with that problem.

  9. @justin You’re selling yourself short in this equation and the broader one as well. Torah requires teachers, in these examples Kaunfer and yourself, who are DYNAMIC enough to attract interest. Not all communities are blessed with gifted teachers of Torah.
    Glittering and stimulating as Torah (writ large) may be on its own, its not nearly as sexy, buzz-word worthy or filled with doom and gloom that normally gets the GA audience’s attention. We need good teachers for this. As for the values to which Torah gives us entree, Kaunfer assumes, perhaps mistakenly, that his original audience shares them. Therein lies the rub.

  10. @ej – I think in a large regard you’re spot on. what Mechon Hadar offers is only accessible, by and large, to the already committed. However, the MODEL of what they offer is translatable to many different applications.
    @adam – Also, spot on. However, this digital age with such innovations as,, and so many other great resources utilizing new media and technology to spread torah, I wonder if the boundaries are becoming more opaque… but you’re right — just plopping copies of the torah (or any piece of religious literature) in someone’s lap is not going to cut it

  11. A lot Jews stick with the tribe simply out of guilt. Guilt that their parents would be ashamed of them if they didn’t, or that so many Jews died and therefore they must replace them by marrying Jewish and having Jewish babies.
    Neither of these are particularly good reasons for a culture to exist, and yet, American Jewry by and large exists because of these reasons.
    I don’t really have a solution for this problem, it’s not something easily fixed. Jews aren’t going anywhere, I think that’s pretty clear. Our numbers may wax and wane, but we’ll stick around. The threat of Jewish disappearance, the demonization of exogamy and reactionary zionist politics that go along with it, won’t destroy us but, it will limit what we can accomplish as a group, and eventually if unchecked will make us irrelevant to the wider world.

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