Contemporary American Judaism: An Interview with Dana Kaplan

I'm very pleased to present a conversation with Dana Kaplan, author of the newly published book (from Columbia University Press) Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal. Dana Evan Kaplan is Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Albany Georgia and adjunct associate professor at Gratz College. He has published extensively in popular and scholarly forums on the topics of American Judaism, Reform Judaism, conversion to Judaism, and related topics. Many of his writings can be found on his website


PH: How did you come originally to write CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN JUDAISM: TRANSFORMATION AND RENEWAL? Who primarily are you hoping to reach with it?

Ever since I was a child, I found American Judaism a rather unusual phenomenon. Being Jewish was and is very important to me, and I loved reading about Judaism and practicing the rituals, but there were so many inconsistencies! I guess you could say that the book is the culmination of a lifetime of trying to figure out the dynamics of American Judaism.I write so that I have an excuse to research. Working on Contemporary American Judaism gave me the opportunity to find out an awful lot about segments of American Judaism that I was relatively unfamiliar with. There were many surprises along the way. Some groups that I'd only vaguely heard about turned out to be extremely important, having played critical roles in the transformation that I describe. Other groups seemed to be more important than they actually were, perhaps because they are good at public relations.I decided to write the book after producing three books on Reform Judaism. I wanted to broaden my horizons and I wanted to find a way to learn more about my subject. Unfortunately, I underestimated the amount of time that would be required. The publisher and I had originally planned on bringing the manuscript into production after about 12 months of writing. In actual fact, it took about 4 1/2 years!During the entire process of writing the book, I constantly kept in mind that I was writing for a nonacademic reader. My deepest hope is that people of all types and all backgrounds will pick up this book and read at least a little bit. In order to make this a likely possibility, I included many personal stories, both my own and those of other people. The goal of the book is to educate but I also hope that it entertains. If the writing can be sufficiently engaging, the readership can be much broader than for the typical academic book published by a university press.

PH: You discuss in your book a "transformation" of American Judaism that in many ways is parallel to the broader movements in American religion among Christians that numerous scholars have noted -- a move away from denominational and other historic forms of identity, and a move towards "spirituality" as a primary focal point of American religious practice. Do you see Judaism as undergoing moves akin to those of other religious groups in America? Do you think there is something specific within American Judaism pushing in this direction?

That's a very difficult question. Most Americans are moving in certain directions and American Jews are likewise moving in those directions. But whether there is something "exceptional" about the Jewish experience in America is very difficult to determine. What is obvious is that Jews are both and ethnic and religious group and so that makes them different from other religious groups. So while a Filipino American can be Catholic or Protestant or have another religion, most Jews are Jews ethnically as well as religiously. However, recent studies have shown that this dualism has weakened substantially over the past two or three decades.

As I explain in Chapter 2 in my book, Americans see themselves on spiritual journeys. These journeys are fluid, and our spiritual experiences unfold gradually, leading in all sorts of directions. These journeys have a definitive starting point, and they will eventually have an ending point, but in the decades in between there are all sorts of surprises, as we explore our spirituality in the context of what is happening in our work and home lives and in our community, the country, and the world.

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.

But that is not to say that everything is the same as it was before World War II. American Jews today are much less likely to simply accept the traditions that they were taught by their parents. Rather, many want to experience intense spirituality and will undertake a serious search for it if they do not feel that it exists in their present religious environment. Some of those dissatisfied with what they believe to be the lack of spirituality in Judaism may switch religions entirely but many others may seek to find alternative sources of spiritual wisdom that they can bring back with them to the synagogue.

PH: Conservative evangelical Christians have developed a particular relationship with Jewish Americans in recent years, based on a shared interest with Israel -- but of course there are very different reasons for that interest. How do you feel about this relationship, to the degree there is one, and to what degree do you think American Jews understand the conservative evangelical worldview which supports Israel largely for that country's role in the evangelical understanding of the "end times" -- i.e. what needs to happen to bring on the return of Jesus Christ?

Professor Yaakov Ariel has written a wonderful book on this topic, which outlines the changing nature of the relationship between evangelical Christians an American Jews throughout the decades. Even the most assimilated Jew is aware of how badly we were persecuted by Christians over the past 2000 years. There is a fear of Christianity burned into our psyches. But the world has changed and it has changed rapidly. Today, we can form alliances with groups that would've loathed and rejected us two or three generations ago. I see no reason why we should hesitate, as long as we are aware of what the other side believes and what implications that might have.

There was a recent controversy in Huntsville, Alabama where the local Reform Rabbi took a strong stand against cooperation and collaboration with fundamentalist Protestants who are very keen to support the state of Israel. Speaking personally, I feel that this is a potentially valuable relationship which should be nurtured. Of course, both sides understand that we have fundamental religious differences. But if we can agree on the importance of supporting the state of Israel, I see no reason why we cannot work together. But I am a minority voice in the Reform movement on this topic.

Let me say a few words about interfaith dialogue. Orthodox Jews have a ban on talking about theology with Christians. There have been a number of attempts by liberal Orthodox groups to engage with Christian thinkers but on the whole, interfaith dialogue is primarily a non-Orthodox endeavor. Non-Orthodox American Jews, however, have very little in common theologically with fundamentalist Christians. Likewise, our positions on social issues are almost diametrically opposed. On the other hand, we share common theological assumptions and similar social positions with moderate and even more so liberal Christians. Yet, some liberal Christians hold political views on Middle Eastern politics that concern us. I phrased that very diplomatically. Speaking personally, I find it very hard to feel comfortable with individuals or groups who support policies that I believe endanger the existence of the State of Israel.

In Albany Georgia, we have run an interfaith forum for several years. It always drew large crowds, although this past year we had much more trouble than ever before. I'm hoping to get it back on track this year. It was one of the most exciting programs that we have ever had -- four speakers from different faith traditions addressing specific questions of faith or practice. There were some tense moments, as you might imagine, but it was very exciting. That is the sort of openness that the non-Orthodox movements allow that I love. The Christians and Muslim who participated also seemed to share my excitement, realizing they were involved in a unique activity forAlbany, a small city in the Deep South.

PH: You devote considerable space in your text to analyzing the vigorous participation of American Jews in various Buddhist movements, from Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert) into various Buddhist spiritual practices in recent years that have held wide appeal to Jews. How do you explain this attraction, and what does it say to you about American Judaism?

There are many ways to understand the attraction of Buddhism for so many American Jews. Each of the explanations has an ideological agenda, so I want to let you know that up front. Many American Jews who grew up in the 1950s 1960s and 1970s felt that the Judaism that they observed in their homes and synagogues was vapid, virtually completely empty of spiritual meaning. They were thirsting for something and some of them founded in Buddhism and other forms of Eastern meditation.

It also had an added attraction of having no negative associations with earlier events in Jewish history. As I have mentioned and you are already aware, Jews have been periodically persecuted by Christians for 2000 years and this has made Christianity repulsive to many of us. While most American Jews do not associate Islam with historic persecution, they see it as a prime source of anti-Israel ideology as well as the inspiration for Al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorists group. So they're not likely to embrace either of these religions. An American Jew might find Christianity or Islam spiritually fulfilling but they would be frightened of becoming a follower of religions that had served as the inspiration for so much hurt. Of course, I'm not suggesting that these religions are responsible for the acts of certain individuals -- I'm only talking about perception. For many Jews looking for an alternative approach to spirituality, a religion with no historical associations is highly preferable. Buddhism has absolutely no connection with any memories of pogroms or other types of persecutions.

There are many substantive reasons as well. Perhaps the best known JewBu, Sylvia Boorstein, explained what attracted her to Buddhism. Boorstein,one of the founders of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, was introduced to Buddhism “at a time in my life when I was frightened by my sense that life was too hard, too fragile, to accept without despair. I doubted it could be otherwise.” In 1977 she attended her first Vipassana retreat, which focused on what the Buddhist masters call mindfulness. “I think what most excited me. . . about Buddhism was that it offers a succinct explanation for suffering.” While pain is a given in life, people can learn to end suffering through their own spiritual practice. There were no beliefs that had to be accepted, but rather there was a spiritual practice that needed to be taken on and tested out.

Boorstein discovered that the first of the Four Noble Truths was that life is fundamentally unsatisfying because of its fragility. Since life is temporal, by definition nothing lasts. Boorstein was greatly relieved to hear this idea was one of the central teachings of the Buddha. She had spent the previous several years preoccupied with the idea that life was tragically flawed and had not found a way to relieve her obsession with this negative thought. “It was such a relief! My reading of how life is was not a personal melancholy misperception. My response to it was melancholy, but here were teachers who said that it was possible to cultivate wiser responses.”

Many Jews who have discovered Buddhism report that Eastern wisdom opened their eyes to an entirely new way of looking at the world. Unfortunately from a Jewish point of view, many of these JewBus have been lost to organized Jewish life. Buddhist wisdom suggests that true spirituality does not require a fixed identity. The deeper that a person becomes involved on his or her spiritual path, the more divergent the path becomes from their previous religio-ethnic identity. Ideologies become crutches and religious traditions become part of the material world that no longer seems truly important.

Buddhist spiritual practice tries to orient people so that they let go of preconceived notions--- including particularistic identities such as ethnic Jewishness. As the novice gets more in touch with who she truly is, it becomes easier to let her subjective concepts of culture fall away. The Buddha, who is regarded as a spiritual teacher rather than a deity, said that “when I obtained Absolute Perfect Enlightenment, I attained absolutely nothing.” Once a person realizes that nothing truly matters, then it’s possible to appreciate that everything that’s happened to us in life actually does matter. That is why some Jewish Buddhists do eventually reengage with their Judaism, even if they grew up with little Jewish tradition.

PH: Discussions about American Judaism in contemporary America often have focused on intermarriage, since American Jews have out-married at extremely high rates (rivaled only, I think, by certain Asian-American groups, especially Japanese Americans). You have titled one chapter, "Facing the Collapse of the Intermarriage Stigma." Briefly, what do you mean by that title, and to what degree will high out-marriage rates affect the future of American Judaism?

I'm glad that you noticed! While some of those living in large East Coast cities may not see things the same way, I believe that the parental battle against intermarriage has failed. Grown children are marrying partners that they meet and fall in love with regardless of religious backgrounds. While I am not necessarily advocating that the American Jewish community give up the fight, I think that we have to look beyond the discouragement of intermarriage and find effective strategies for bringing interfaith couples into our congregations and our religion.

PH: In your conclusion, you write, "American and Jewish values are increasingly seen as indistinguisable," and contrast that with an earlier generation who saw being Jewish and being American as two different components of their identity. Can you elaborate a bit on that point?

My book begins in 1945 with the selection of Bess Myerson as Miss America. Myerson was crowned on September 8, 1945, four months to the day after the surrender of Nazi Germany. American Jews beamed with pride because they felt that her crowning symbolized a new level of social acceptance that they had long craved but had been elusive. Earlier, when Myerson had gone to Atlantic City to compete in the pageant, a Holocaust survivor with concentration camp numbers tattooed on her arm asked Bess in Yiddish if she was Jewish. When Myerson said that she was, the woman hugged her. “If America chooses a Jewish girl to be Miss America, I will know that I’ve to a safe country.”

It wasn't only Holocaust survivors who felt insecure. While the United States had been a wonderful place for immigrants of all types, minority groups still felt that they were tolerated rather than accepted. While they had tried their best to learn to become Americans, the immigrant generation had come with different values, as well as a different language and a different culture. It took a long time to really become an American in the full sense of the word.

There was the often repeated remark that Jews should behave Jewishly in private but act American in public. This idea was taken from the Russian Jewish thinker Yehuda Leib Gordon who quipped, “Be a Jew in your home and a man on the street.” The idea behind this was that it would be inappropriate to be "too Jewish" in public. There was indeed some basis for this inhibition. Many white Protestants Americans felt that immigrants should blend into society, and in fact should melt away completely. In response to this expectation, an entire generation of American Jews (and other types of hyphenated Americans as well) learned one set of behaviors for their home and community and another set of behaviors for the outside world.

This schizophrenic existence is long gone, with the partial exception of the Haredi (fervently Orthodox) community. American Jews feel very welcome here, not only because levels of anti-Semitism have declined tremendously (although the African-American community still shows substantial hostility towards Jews in some polls) but also because we have played such a major part in molding the culture. Most of us have reached the point where we no longer distinguish "Jewish values" from "American values". This point was previously made by another scholar so I am not taking credit for this observation, but I talk about it in my book because it helps to explain many of the attitudes and behaviors that would otherwise be inexplicable.

Optimists are hopeful that the Jewish community can find ways to engage the as yet not committed; maybe they can. Any Judaism that the iPod or digital generation creates will almost by definition be constantly evolving and probably transitory. Some of the more creative ones will certainly use Jewish themes in their novels, films, and plays, and Americans will continue to hear about Jewish neuroses and how Jews deal with their identity issues. The question that I implicitly try to raise in this book is how that might affect the future contours of American Jewish religious belief and practice. The answer to that is unknown. What is known is that increasing numbers of American Jews no longer make a direct connection between their Jewish ethnic background and Judaism as a religion. Further, they feel that they can embrace a number of different identities that either may emerge naturally from their family and educational background or may be self-selected.

PH: Jews historically have been disproportionately involved in left-liberal politics in American history, seen especially during the civil rights era. In more recent years, a number of prominent Jewish intellectuals have been identified with the neo-conservative movement, including some who served in the Bush administration. What, briefly, do you see as the future of Jewish political attitudes. Do you think Jewish Americans will follow more of a liberal/conservative divide like America more generally, or will a certain core of Jewish values make the Jewish American take on politics distinctive?

My book focuses on American Judaism. I have tried to limit myself to issues that have religious significance. That is why there is no mention in my book about famous American Jewish people, whether actors or writers or politicians. But I could not help referring a little bit to political issues because people's values determine their political viewpoints just as those same values determine their religious beliefs. It will probably not surprise you that many of those political liberals who were active in the civil rights movement were Reform Jews, naturally gravitating towards a liberal interpretation of Judaism. Likewise, many of the neo-conservatives either come from religiously traditional backgrounds or have embraced traditional Judaism.

I write extensively about Jack Abramoff, the disgraced neo-conservative lobbyist, in my section on the baal teshuva movement, in which young Jews who had been raised in non-Orthodox homes in the 1960s and 1970s started “becoming religious.” Abramoff was one of the best-known baal teshuvas, highly respected in the Orthodox community for his decision to become Orthodox until scandal destroyed his reputation. On January 3, 2006, he pled guilty to charges of conspiracy, tax evasion, and fraud in a plea bargain with prosecutors as part of a larger corruption investigation. “I had lost a sense of proportion and judgment. God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing. But I didn’t listen, so He set off a nuclear bomb.” Abramoff was photographed leaving the courthouse in a black hat identical to the ones traditionally worn in the yeshiva world. Blogs speculated whether the hat was his way of trying to mobilize Orthodox support on his behalf or whether it was covering a yarmulke that he did not want to show so as not to commit hillul Hashem, disgracing Judaism publicly. It was a uniquely American Jewish moment.

For many years, it seemed that the Orthodox were gravitating closer and closer to the conservative Republicans and the non-Orthodox were firmly in the liberal camp and staying there. In very general terms, this remains true that you have to be careful not to carry this generality too far. For example, there are many differences between Orthodox voters and Christian fundamentalists and conservative Catholic citizens. While they may all vote for conservative Republicans, they differ significantly on numerous issues, including some of the most sensitive moral and ethical questions we face as a society. On the other end of the spectrum, not all Reform and Reconstructionist Jews are liberal. It may seem that way if you read the New York Times every day, but it is not actual fact.


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