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Was There Ever a “Big Jewish Idea”?

A couple of my favorite minds have been chiming in on Gary Rosenblatt’s recent column, “In Search of the Next Big Jewish Idea.”
Daniel Septimus struck first, bewildered at R’ Elliott Dorff’s suggestion that the community encourage Jews to mate at a younger age, and dumbfounded at Dr. Bethamie Horowitz’s suggestion that the question shouldn’t be “why be Jewish?” but rather “why not be Jewish?”
Elliyahu Stern piled on, declaring:

The fact about the myriad outreach initiatives being put on the table is that almost none of them have any real long-erm vision. None of them respect the decisions that young people are making. None of them deal with the most important question–Why be Jewish?
Finally, none of them are ideas. They are all programs, and programs are not the same as ideas. Ideas provide vision, direction, and long-term attachment. Programs are there to implement ideas, and when you don’t have ideas, all you have are short-term gimmicks.

Of course, we can deconstruct this entire discussion by removing its key premise: there won’t be a “next big Jewish idea” because there wasn’t a “big Jewish idea” in the first place.
Examples that Rosenblatt cites are Birthright Israel (as the most recent) and CAJE (as an example from decades ago). Neither of those should count as such: even if one chooses not to seriously question Birthright’s results and take the 100,000 participants number in its most relevant potential meaning, it’s a program affecting less than 1% of world Jewry, and directly engages them for a mere two weeks; CAJE may have indirectly affected more over longer periods of time, but those in Jewish education programs of any sort constitute an extreme minority of Jews overall, and the overwhelming quantity of any curriculum owes little, if anything, to CAJE.
Were I to look for other recent programs that have affected more than 100,000 Jews in some way, I wouldn’t have to go very far. There are JCCs with memberships that large, and one can look at almost any somewhat-significant development — say, Heeb — and find 100,000 people affected over the course of a number of years. Heck, just the relatively few members of the Jewish Blogads Network bring in well over 100,000 pageviews every week. Add up the number of Jews who’ve read an article I’ve written or a blog post of mine, and I alone reach a multiple of that benchmark. Of course, I’m not a “Big Jewish Idea,” but neither are these, really. Take ten “big Jewish ideas” and you don’t even get one Matisyahu.
Some programs will gain consensus among elites as being particularly effective; this doesn’t mean it’s true that they are.
George Allen may well have affected more Jews this year than George Rohr, and Allen’s certainly not making a clarion call to join some branch of Judaism. When we look for real Jewish influence, the overwhelming quantity isn’t planned from above.
It’s simply the case that great masses of Jews associate with ideas, groups, strategies and movements not because the big bucks told the Jewish people to do so, but because they like them. Maybe they like them because of the deep-down philosophies, and maybe they like them because of the nifty brochures, and that’s the way Judaism always has been and always will be, because that’s the way all societies are and always will be: lots of disparate groups bound together by some pretty basic shared notion. With Judaism, it’s “being Jewish,” and it contains many groups with seemingly no other bond than that.
But when talking about a “Big Jewish Idea,” Rosenblatt’s a Jewish organizational elite speaking to other Jewish organizational elites, reflecting in little sense the Jewish population as a whole — who almost entirely fail to care what’s going on in Judaism’s grand halls. Those who do care don’t take a holistic view of the grand halls, and focus on one or two (like Solomon Schechter and the University of Judaism, but not Agudath Israel). The idea that the Jewish community is mobilized by any one idea, or can be, is patently false, as is the premise underlying the suggestion — that Judaism ever was mobilized by one idea.
If pushed to find a source for this false premise, one might point the finger at United Jewish Communities, which came about as close as anyone since Moses has to achieving universal Jewish allegiance (it’s possible the State of Israel got more, but we’ve never had numbers on Zionists vs. Anti-Zionists, so we can’t know). And it did so with a very clear message: donating to Federation is what Jews do. It was helped along by 20th-century modernity: distribution of information had become cheap enough that a single organization could reach out to a great quantity of people, but organizations of a smaller size — and much moreso individuals — couldn’t afford to send their own messages as well.
Federation was the “big Jewish idea,” and was the foundation of big Judaism. But that’s only so because the Jews and Jewish organizations apart from it had far less of a voice, so that their sizeable memberships (in aggregate) don’t really show up as easily when one looks at what Jews were doing in the 20th century.
Though big Judaism’s influence is perpetually and quickly declining, it’s still assumed to be Judaism’s core among its clubby crowd. So, even when the numbers for a program coming from that crowd are obviously ridiculous when looked at in terms of the overall Jewish population, they seem impressive to the elites of big Judaism because those small numbers are all they ever meant when they said “Judaism.”
For this reason, it’s actually a bit comical to see Septimus and Stern tossing back-and-forth over the next big Jewish idea. Septimus has hundreds of thousands of readers at MyJewishLearning.com, and while Stern has fewer in his Beliefnet blog, his other writings certainly bring his overall readership at least close to six figures. “Where is the next big Jewish idea?” we see Stern and Septimus asking, but by the standards already set, a couple of answers are staring them in the mirror.
Effecting change in the Jewish community isn’t anymore about being a Goliath (if it ever was); it’s about being an army of Davids.
One slap on the wrist to these fellows: in ridiculing Horowitz’s suggestion of “why not be Jewish,” they’re missing the major point that our information-age revelations about Judaism allow us to understand. Because of the lack of a unifying answer to positively assert one’s Jewishness, what we’ve found is a world of thousands or millions of answers. On the whole, these answers give us an impression much more of “why not” than “why be.” So, jumping on Horowitz for a failure to, in Stern’s words, “respect the decisions that young people are marking,” is unfair. If anything, it’s the young Jews who are in greatest quantities making their personal discoveries of a “why not” nature: Why not go to that concert, why not read that book, why not join that Facebook group?

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