For nearly two decades, intermarriage has been viewed as the greatest threat to Jewish survival and continuity in America. Coming up with ways to reverse the intermarriage trend has been one of the driving forces of recent organized Jewish life.
But at a national conference of outreach professionals held last week in Philadelphia, Rabbi Irwin Kula -- a nationally known author and commentator who's regularly on The Today Show -- asserted that much of the leadership of American Jewry has got it all wrong.
Kula argued that while intermarriage can't be fought or reversed, there's no reason to even do so, since it poses no intrinsic threat to Jewish life.
That view contrasts sharply with the writings of academics like Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, who have warned that intermarriage is transforming American Jewry, leaving it weaker and less cohesive. Indeed, it was the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey -- particularly the much debated finding that 52 percent of U.S. Jews who had married in the previous five years had married non-Jews -- that set off waves of alarm.
During his talk at the Jewish Outreach Institute conference, Kula, the longtime director of the New York-based CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, also took aim at some other sacred cows. He urged the more than 125 outreach professionals gathered to dispense with the notion that there's one Jewish community, or a single Jewish people.
Instead, he said, there are multiple ways "to Jew."
He added that using terms like "affiliated" and "intermarried" only serve to create artificial barriers where none exist: "It's not about lowering boundaries, but actually imagining that there are no boundaries."
Kula -- who's been named Team USA's official rabbi for the World Maccabiah Games in Israel in July -- was not even originally slated to speak. But several months ago, he posted an entry that criticized the use of terms like intermarried on JOI's ListServ group. That posting sparked a spirited virtual debate with other professionals -- one that conference organizers wanted to continue in person.
Judaism as a 'Technology'
The crux of his argument was that Judaism, rather than functioning as a set of beliefs that binds a tribal people together, happens to be one of a number of practices available in the contemporary marketplace of ideas -- a "technology," he called it -- that, if used effectively, can "help any human being become more human."
Citing the writings of Maimonides, Kula argued that the value of a particular mitzvah or ritual is measured by the question, "Does it actually help a person develop an understanding about the truth of one's life"; in other words, what one does with the mitzvah.
For example, if a mezuzah is only about connecting an individual to the Jewish people, "it's fundamentally not important," he said. It only becomes important, in his view, if it suggests a sacred space where one behaves accordingly.
In an interview after his talk, Kula said that he'd spent much of his career focusing on issues related to Jewish peoplehood, whether it was advocating on behalf of Soviet Jewry or Israel.
But he noted that he began to re-evaluate his entire outlook after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; two of his friends died in the World Trade Center.
Kula said he took six months off from writing and teaching, and thought long and hard about the mitzvot and rituals he performs on a daily basis. He came to realize that the yolk of tradition works on a range of what he called "psycho-spiritual" levels.
He also decided that the wider population could benefit from the wisdom of Judaism. He wrote Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, a book aimed at a largely non-Jewish audience that helped launch his television career. He also writes about social and political issues for The Huffington Post.
In his search for religious meaning, Kula is tapping into a tension between the universal and the particular that has nearly always existed in Judaism.
But not everyone at the JOI conference was buying it all.
Attendee Edmund Case, president and publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, said that describing Judaism as a tool to find meaning resonated to an extent -- after all, it's silly to argue that Judaism shouldn't be relevant -- but without further clarification, he said that Kula's definition sounded like a new-age fad.
"I don't know what his measurements would be: living well, living better, reducing the violence between people?" posed Case, alluding to Kula's dismissal of measuring ritual and affiliation as a way to gauge Jewish connectedness. "That's really kind of vague. I don't mean to say that's not important. It just doesn't seem like there is anything identifiably Jewish there."
Paul Golin, associate executive director of JOI, was more accepting. While "it's pretty radical to say that ritual is only relevant if people can identify why it's meaningful to them, or that Jewish ethnicity is not going to hold us together," he said that Kula's points resonated.
'A Larger Thinking Process'
Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Jewish Life and Learning, questioned the practical applications of Kula's ideas.
"This seemed like a snapshot of a much larger thinking process that he is going through," said Goldberg. "I wasn't really able to get a handle on how we take these complicated concepts that he is playing around with and apply them to our own lives."
Rabbi Philip Warmflash, director of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Outreach Partnership, said he doesn't see why working to make Judaism more meaningful and promoting Jewish identity have to be divorced.
"There is something empowering about being part of a community," he said. "Is he pushing the envelope? I think he is getting people who have turned things off to listen in a new way."