HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Response to Berger by Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.

by Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D. Issue: Religious Purposefulness

Berger’s insightful piece draws upon a particularly interesting model utilized by scholars of Jewish history: the natural vs. intentional community. In applying this idea to the contemporary communal context, Berger gives voice to a nostalgic tendency in Jewish life, one that looks fondly back upon the communities of the past (the rebbes of Europe and their followers, for example) as somehow better and more solidly constructed than those we experience today. At the same time, his writing is hopeful: he indicates that we can still establish a “vibrant yet stable core,” despite the many challenges that face our community—and that Jewish day schools are critical to this essential goal.

While I certainly applaud Berger’s idea of establishing learned communities of Jews of every stripe, I also wonder about the very concept of a “core.” In the postmodern context, we live in a world that has come to be defined more by loosely attached networks than tight concentric circles around a core. These networks are precisely a response to the problems with a core: cores can be monolithic, exclusive, their participants somewhat uniform. Cores suffer from the particularly daunting challenge of maintaining a strong relationship with their peripheries and having strained relationships with outsiders. As Berger also notes, while cores evince strength on the inside, without constant communal support and ongoing validation of their priority, even the strongest core can decay over time.

I would suggest that we consider expanding Berger’s idea from the core/periphery model to that of a newer paradigm: the “distributed network.” Networks are redundant, pluriform and widely communicative—they link various disparate nodes that each serve different functions, and build linkages that harness individual, localized abilities and knowledge into global chains whose power and abilities far exceed those of the individuals they unite. If one node of a network fails or weakens, the other nodes can step in to hold the network together, providing greater resilience. And even if nodes of a network disagree, they can still continue to communicate and work together through a mediated relationship.

Consider, for example, the power of a wiki, a search engine, or JDate, and how these now play into Jewish life. Rather than seeking a rabbi (a “core” strategy) to answer a difficult, embarrassing, or overly simple question, many Jews now turn far more to Google, Wikipedia, blogs, or other such sources (a “network” strategy) to find multiple potential answers they can evaluate, select, and utilize. While the information in these sources is often unmediated and even sometimes wrong, the collective wisdom of the entire community can find expression through the give-and-take in these conversations, and a mediated truth eventually emerges.

On the JDate front, rather than seeking a partner at Jewish singles events or through a traditional shadchan, more and more our friends find mates and dates through online networks where they consider and select individuals they feel are appropriate. And the younger the generation, the more pronounced this tendency. If knowledge (or a wonderful Jewish spouse) is available from such resources, young Jews will be seeking, leading, and interacting with these resources. And as they change these resources, the resources change them and the way they behave as well. Such is the power of the network in our contemporary scene.

From this perspective, then, I would submit that the task of Jewish day schools in creating graduates who live purposeful Jewish lives is just as important, but slightly different from Berger’s conception. In essence, day schools must move beyond seeing themselves as creators of a privileged core elite of intentional Jews from whom Judaism will emanate to the natural community around it. Instead, day schools should seek to create as many radically different Jewish “nodes” as possible: talented, thoughtful, self-reflective Jews who can express extremely diverse viewpoints, respect and debate with opposing opinions, and work to mediate differences to create a coherent yet flexible, open-source “network Judaism” that will meet the needs of generations to come. These “nodes” can add to the “nodes” created by Jewish camping and seminaries, by religious schools and Israel trips, by adult learning and familial practice, to form and re-form a Judaism that can stay in touch with the times even as it honors our inherited legacy of sacred texts and traditions. This is, to me, the way that Judaism will continue the unending cycle of evolution that has kept it fresh, responsive, and creative for nearly three millennia. This is the sort of approach that will sustain the generations to come as they search for their own modes of commitment, conversation, and community to build and extend the Jewish tradition in new and exciting ways.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D. teaches Rabbinic Literature and serves as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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Religious Purposefulness

The AVI CHAI Foundation has promoted the notion that day schools are primary incubators of “religious purposefulness,” developing the capacity to live deep, authentic Jewish lives through regular contact with the sources of Jewish tradition, be they textual, ritual, communal. Authors here probe the ramifications of this notion for our understanding of the mission of day schools and their role in Jewish communal life.

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