Jewish World in Transformation: An Interview with Dana Evan Kaplan

Paul Harvey

A while back, we posted an extensive interview with Dana Evan Kaplan, author of what was then the brand new book Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal. In the interview, he said that

Individualized spirituality threatens institutional religion because if people can find spiritual meaning on their own, then they don't need organized religion. American Judaism is particularly vulnerable because Judaism is so interconnected with Jewish peoplehood and also because Judaism is such a small religious group in terms of numbers. If every American Jew went on their spiritual search without regard to ancestral tradition or community influence, that would mark the end of organized Jewish religion in the United States. But that has not happened.

Just a quick update: Religion Dispatches has a new interview just up with the author, whose book has just been released in paperback, reflecting again on the book: see "Tattoos, Cremation, Personal Spirituality: The Jewish World In Transformation." A brief excerpt:

I am trying to write a reasonably comprehensive current history of contemporary Judaism. But there are so many things happening so it is clearly impossible to cover everything. I am also making a series of arguments, particularly relating to the impact that the concept of personal spirituality has had on organized American Judaism. Americans today feel much freer to explore ceremonial and ritual practices that intrigue them regardless of what their community thinks of those particular ideas. This has allowed Jews to move in a number of different directions, including seemingly contradictory ones.

I found some of these contradictory impulses fascinating. For example, there have been a lot more young Jewish people getting tattoos, including many who choose Jewish symbols or Hebrew letters. Now of course the halacha prohibits getting a tattoo, and in earlier generations, a Jew who got a tattoo was in open rebellion against the tradition. That is not so obviously the case anymore.

Another such example that I write about in my book was of a woman in northern California who asks to be cremated after her body is ritually purified and most of the traditional Hebrew prayers have been recited. Again, this is behavior that would have been inexplicable to a traditional Jew from a previous generation. I am hoping that my readers will find these internal contradictions as fascinating as I did and want to explore the changing contours of American Judaism through my book. I do like to be controversial, as long as my criticisms are based on a solid footing.