How do the caustic, free-form, at times drug-fueled musings of the late, legendary Hunter S. Thompson relate to a rabbinical worldview?
Chicago native Rabbi Niles Goldstein has drawn from numerous sources as he has created and refined his philosophy on life and Judaism. The Torah, family, those rabbis who came before him, Hunter S. Thompson …
That last one may seem out of place at first glance. How do the caustic, free-form, at times drug-fueled musings of the late, legendary — some, Thompson among them, would add notorious — journalist relate to a rabbinical worldview?
That is part of what Goldstein, who brings his grassroots beliefs to Temple Judea in Bucks County March 4 to 6, as a scholar in residence at the shul, hopes to answer. Goldstein, 50, author of the book, Gonzo Judaism, has also written for the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek.
Thompson is best known for authoring Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and is credited with creating gonzo journalism, a highly personalized style of reporting where a writer is so involved in the story he is covering that he becomes a major part of the story itself.
“The gonzo Judaism manifesto is about the Jewish community and how it has been misguided,” Goldstein said. “For many years, Jewish leadership has focused on negativity, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust — and not focused on Judaism.” Goldstein feels gonzo Judaism is something the Jewish community needs to move toward, to be more accepting of others.
After Shabbat services, Goldstein will explore the differences and similarities between Mongolian nomads and biblical figures like Abraham, Esther and David. On Saturday morning, he will discuss the week’s Torah portion and in the evening, look at three different models of leadership in the Jewish tradition. On Sunday, Goldstein will speak about on his book, Eight Questions of Faith: Biblical Challenges that Guide and Ground Our Lives.
Goldstein, who works part-time at the Ames Jewish Congregation in Ames, Iowa, was the director of external relations for the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University. He was the founding rabbi of The New Shul in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and is an award-winning author or editor of 10 books.
Goldstein, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1988, spoke to the Jewish Exponent about the state of Judaism and Thompson’s influence.
“What he did for journalism, I’m trying to do in my own small way for Judaism,” the rabbi said.
In his estimation, there is a revolution taking place in American Judaism — a revolution of dissolution. In fact, according to the most recent survey done by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in 2009, there are approximately 55,000 Jews in Bucks County — but only about 17 percent of them are affiliated with a synagogue.
“People really don’t care that much about denominations anymore,” he exclaimed. “I think it’s more about finding the right people you want to hang out with.”
With this in mind, Goldstein founded the progressive New Shul in 1999. Since then, he has witnessed numerous similar initiatives popping up throughout the country.
“I think people are realizing you are not going to motivate people to go to a synagogue just by scaring them,” he said. “Jewish life is becoming more decentralized. People are trying to shape Jewish life in their own image.”
Temple Judea Rabbi Mitchell Delcau met Goldstein in 2010 when he was a scholar-in-residence at Temple Emanuel in Denver, where Delcau served as the associate rabbi. Delcau shares Goldstein’s passion and vision for progressive Judaism.
“You don’t meet too many rabbis that started their own program at a temple in Manhattan,” the rabbi said. “I have a lot of respect for him and I thought he was very unique.”
One of the reasons Delcau brought Goldstein to his synagogue was a shared belief that a paradigm shift may not be that far off.
“I think we are in a state of American Judaism that we are about to have major changes,” he said. Today, instead of giving to organizations like Jewish Federations, he opined, people are donating money to grassroots organizations. “Federations are crumbling,” he added.
Twenty or 30 years ago, everyone chose a religion, but today many people are making the choice to be unaffiliated, the rabbi said. More importantly, Delcau stressed too many people don’t feel comfortable in the Jewish community.
“What we have in America is not only freedom of religion, but freedom from religion,” Delcau said.
The trick for him and Goldstein this weekend — and for the foreseeable future — is how to change that causal relationship to one that assures a future for synagogues where discussions just like this one can take place.
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