Greece and Rome: Ideas, Technology, and the Problem with American Judaism

Much of our communal energy over the last three decades has been aimed at creating platforms, leaving the content pretty much up for grabs.

Most people have trouble naming a Roman philosopher. That’s understandable: there aren’t any.

Okay, I exaggerate. Roman philosophers existed: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and more, but, in truth, these Romans didn’t create new philosophy as much as re-package earlier philosophy developed by the Greeks. The three philosophers named above, for example, were basically “self-help versions” of the earlier Stoics. Cicero was more a jurist and orator than a thinker. What little Roman philosophical development there was took place in Greek areas of the Empire, like Alexandria. Almost no original philosophical thinking developed in Rome.

In fact, both the basic sciences and basic philosophy were developed by the Greeks. The Romans applied these ideas to engineering, law, and military organization; they excelled at all of these, building them on the solid foundations of Greek thought. While the Greeks specialized in content, the Romans specialized in form. While the Greeks specialized in science; the Romans used that science to develop technology.

But while Greece was followed by Rome, Rome itself was followed by the Dark Ages.

Looking at North American society today, I can’t help but see a parallel. Most of our creativity and energy seems to be dedicated to form rather than content, to technology rather than substance. As a society, the people we lionize are not thinkers or philosophers, but entrepreneurs; our main achievements are technical, not ideological, and investment in technology and “applied research” trumps basic sciences and humanities. We praise ourselves on being practical and efficient, in creating systems and organizations. We pay more attention to distribution platforms than to the content that lives in them.

In the Jewish community that dynamic is replicated. We launch innovative frameworks for Jewish life that are as creative in their form as they are thin in their substance. Much of our communal energy over the last three decades has been aimed at creating platforms, leaving the content pretty much up for grabs. Our forebears were Jewish Greeks; we are Jewish Romans.

Besides the zeitgeist, there are specifically Jewish factors that contributed to this development. First, sometime in the 1970s we determined that building “Jewish identity” was the goal of communal activity, but we never defined what were the components and basic substance of that identity. Adopting a non-defined notion of “identity” allowed for our communities to have low entry barriers and remain inclusive. It also allowed individual Jews to retain a sense of belonging to the Jewish community while their energies were mostly devoted to integrating into general American society. Notions of identity that placed higher demands on Jews, in terms of learning and practice, were perceived to be both exclusionary and limiting.

The focus on frameworks also permitted us to avoid difficult divisions. In a time when Jewish unity and continuity were perceived to be critical, we were understandably afraid of anything that would widen gaps or start ideological wars.

We responded to the perceived (and real) threats of assimilation by creating “gateways” to Jewish life, but we ended up treating those gateways as goals unto themselves—doors to nowhere—rather than first steps towards more demanding content and richer meaning.

We also avoided content for the simple reason that our leadership class—both lay and professional—wasn’t equipped, for the most part, to engage in serious conversations about Jewish texts, culture, and ideas. We understandably hire people for their organizational skills, and we generally accept a tradeoff of modest Jewish knowledge. The proportion of communal leaders who, for example, speak Hebrew or have formal Jewish education remains low; how can leaders guide communities toward destinations they don’t know themselves? 

Like my statement about Roman philosophy, this is all an overgeneralization. There has been, over the last few decades, a lot of innovative content created, alongside new ways of approaching traditional Jewish content at a high level. But, from my vantage point at Jewish Funders Network, which lets me see the overall picture of Jewish giving, I can offer a non-scientific assessment that I venture is not far off the mark: we invest in meaningful and “thick” Jewish content only a tiny fraction of what we invest in structures and frameworks.

The results of that are a “dumbing down” of Jewish Life and a hollowing out of American Judaism. Most American Jews today define their Judaism in terms of kinship and victimhood. The scariest finding of the 2013 Pew study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, is that 73% of American Jews say that the Holocaust is “an essential part of what being Jewish means to them” — beating all other choices the survey offered for essential elements of Jewish identity. One may wonder how there could have been any Jews before Hitler. The paradigm of victimhood (be Jewish because others try to kill us) is not only grotesque but also dangerous and dysfunctional; neither an individual nor a group should assume an essential self-definition as a victim. While showing teenagers the ovens at Auschwitz may provide a strong emotional impact, we can’t try to replace Mt. Sinai with Birkenau.

The other deceivingly dangerous finding of the Pew report is that 94% of Jews are proud to be Jewish. Yes, that’s great, but what exactly are they proud of? Einstein? The fact that cherry tomatoes were invented in Israel? Most of all, it seems, being related to genocide victims?

Emphasizing “Jewish values” doesn’t always solve the problem, because most people can’t define what a Jewish value is. Liberal Jews will quote general liberal values as “Jewish” and conservatives will do likewise. The most they’ll do to make them “Jewish” is to cherry-pick a quote or two from the Talmud to bolster them.

A paradigm of kinship won’t cut it for a generation that sees itself as universalist and abhors tribalism. If sophisticated DNA mapping would prove without a doubt that all Jews are related, would that change how young Jews in America feel about Judaism? And, in fact, kinship was never what Judaism is about; Jewish peoplehood serves a purpose, rather than being an end in itself.

I wouldn’t like to be interpreted as maligning our investment in frameworks and structures. Those are critically important. Without effective, attractive, and culturally appropriate delivery systems, any minority culture is good as dead.

However, it’s critical for the funding community to realize that the main challenge facing the Jewish world is one of meaning and content. The world we live in is one in which old certainties are being shattered, one in which not only are cultures being challenged, but the very definition of human nature is being questioned. In a free marketplace of ideas, Judaism needs to articulate how it provides meaning, comfort, thickness, and transcendence to people’s lives. In a global world, Judaism needs to articulate what it contributes to the conversation of humanity. In other words, the questions of “why” and “what” need to get at least as much (or more than as much) attention as the questions of “how”.

Ideological challenges are not new to the Jewish people. In fact, Judaism can be seen as a permanent interaction and synthesis between the zeitgeist and the volkgeist (the spirit of the people). This is, arguably, the creative genius of Judaism and the key to its survival and relevance. Confront and adopt; resist and adapt; learn and synthesize.

To do that, however, Jews need to steep themselves in Jewish content. Torah and texts, history and philosophy, prayer and meditation, arts and culture, experiences and ideas, family and community, action and reflection, all form the base upon which that dialogue can be built.

Earlier this month, the Aviv Foundation and the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah sponsored a Jewish Funders Network gathering called “Beyond the D’var Torah: How to Unleash the Potential of Rich Jewish Content”. Funders from all over the country met to discuss what Jewish content means, why it matters, what its place is in the larger fabric of Jewish life, what obstacles confront it, and how philanthropy can best address them. We also heard from Sarah Hurwitz, former speechwriter to President Barack and Michelle Obama, who movingly described her own Jewish journey and the extreme difficulty she experienced of trying to enter the palace of Jewish texts and knowledge for those who reach adulthood without growing up familiar with it. (A video of her remarks is available on the JFN website.)

That gathering was a small first step toward the dramatic reorientation that Jewish funders, and the Jewish community more broadly, need to undertake. It was half a century ago that Rabbi A.J. Heschel described the Jewish people as a “messenger who forgot the message”; in the interim, our memory has not improved and our crisis of meaning has only deepened.

Reconnecting with “the message” will take effort, commitment, resources, and humility. Doing so doesn’t mean returning to the past, but it does mean better understanding our roots so that we can grow stronger new branches that reach new heights and strike out in new directions. “Renew our days as of old,” says Lamentations, guiding us toward the right paradox. American Judaism can avoid the fate of the post-Roman Dark Ages, not by trying to be Romans who seek a Greek past, but by moving even further forward—to a Renaissance.