During the 1960s, that decade of revolution, I once attended an innovative High Holy Day service where the confession included the sin of attending too many conferences. No such confession should be necessary for the Jewish scholars and community leaders who gathered in New York on September 6, 1997, to discuss, under the auspices of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Jewish Studies project, "Spiritualism, Secularity, and the American Jewish Future." The spirited debates and wise discussions that took place that day are presented here.
The role of Judaism the religion, and therefore the role of the synagogue, is the central theme. In Jonathan Woocher's thoughtful reassessment of the "civil religion"‑a concept he analyzed so brilliantly in his 1986 book Sacred Survival‑he notes the considerable accomplishments of that "civil" community, in matters such as liberating Soviet Jewry and protecting the State of Israel. Woocher correctly points out that it is too easy now to disparage an approach that built upon, and built, the sense of responsibility to other Jews. But he reminds us very frankly of the shortcomings of a model that, though offered as a substitute for religion, cold not meet people's deep‑seated need for meaning and spiritual fulfillment. secular approach, built upon community politics and social action, offered but meager play for what Rabbi David Dalin in his introduction calls "religious observance, prayer, and serious theological reflection," and for serious Jewish learning. In the end it was judged to be inadequate.
Yet there are dangers on the other side of the spiritual/secular divide as well, as Charles Liebman points out in his powerful opening essay. Liebman describes the advent of a "personal and privatized" Judaism that, to begin with, undercut the sense of "peoplehood, community, and solidarity" that Jewish ethnicity‑and the "civil Judaism" that accompanied it‑had produced. Moreover, he warns of a "personalist life‑style" masquerading as religion, where "episodic and exceptional experiences" substitute for "a fixed position that encourages disciplined regularity or patterned coherence." When the self rather than obligations transcending the self becomes central to religious experience, Liebman says, and when the goal becomes personal "authenticity" rather than fidelity to traditions and duties, Judaism loses much of its meaning. Liebman thus takes a skeptical view of all the talk about "spirituality" in American culture and religion today, arguing that the concept is marginal in Judaism. "Spirituality is not the answer to the Jewish problem," he says. Jews are to concern themselves not with spirituality per se but with kedushah, holiness.
So: was too little spirituality the problem, or is too much the problem? An old Jewish story tells of some men who asked their rebbe to settle a dispute. After the first man explained his position, the rebbe said, "You know, you're right." Then the second man explained his contrary view, and the rebbe said, "I think you're right." When a third man asked, "Rebbe, how can the first man be right and the second also be right?" the rebbe replied, "And you're right, too."
No doubt the rebbe was right: there was truth in both versions of reality. Certainly there is truth, and illumination, in what both Woocher and Liebman have to tell us about how Jews think and act in late twentieth‑century America. And to their wisdom is added that of ten other contributors with varying perspectives. Many of the arguments made here have truly begun to sink in. In mid‑1998 I spoke to a secular Jewish organization in what was billed as a debate. When I began by arguing that Judaism must be put back at the center of American Jewish life, in place of the "civil" elements such as fighting anti‑Semitism or pushing political agendas, my "opponent" (chief executive of a large federation) replied, "Everyone knows that." Ten years ago, everyone did not. And of course what everyone today does not know is how to get from here to there. Barry Shrage's comments about community life and organization, which reflect his own achievements and experiments in Boston, surely suggest a model for other communities.
Given the comments in this book about the state of synagogue life and the educational level and religious commitment of so many American Jews, is a revival of Jewish religious life likely? Is the apparent revival in some parts of the community cause for celebration, or is it, as Charles Liebman suggests, a product of American culture more than a return to Judaism? Can the "coalescence" that Sylvia Fishman urges, in a "constant dialogue with historical Judaism," be achieved?
The discussion here is rich. On behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center I would like to thank the participants whose contributions appear in this publication‑Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University; Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Peter Knobel of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue of Evanston, IL; Rabbi Clifford Librach of Temple Sinai, Sharon, MA; Charles Liebman of Bar‑Ilan University; Rabbi Adam Mintz of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York; Dennis Prager, writer of the newsletter The Prager Perspective; Robert M. Seltzer of Hunter College; Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston; David Singer of the American Jewish Committee; Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Jonathan Woocher of the Jewish Education Service of North America. We are grateful as well for the time and shared wisdom of the other conference participants; a complete listing appears on page 61.
Jews are not, according to our calendar, nearing a new millennium; it is now the late 5700s. Still, it is a transitional time. We face very serious choices about how the community's energies and resources are to be focused in the coming years, and each of us faces personal decisions about the meaning of our Judaism in America today. The many ideas that follow in these pages can help us consider these matters wisely.