Emancipation & Enlightenment

Here’s a partial transcript of sociologist Steven Cohen’s talk July 10, 2008:

Steven: "If you want to understand people, you need to know two things about them. Who do they hang out with and what do they value?"

He talks about the rise of individualism and empowerment.

"I was born in 1950 in Brooklyn. One of the most remarkable changes [since 1950] has been the extent to which Jewish social circles have been penetrated by non-Jews.

"In the 1950s, about 10% of Jews were intermarried. By the 1970s, it was 22.5%. By the 1980s, it was 40%. In 2000, 47%.

"About 15% of non-Jews who are going to marry Jews convert to Judaism, almost all of them women."

"Only about 25% of children of intermarriage grow up to say they’re Jewish.

"Reform Jewish kids with two Jewish parents, 15% of them by adolescence have been to Israel. Those with one Jewish parent, only 1%."

"In my generation, two-thirds of Jews had mostly Jewish friends. With kids my daughter’s age (twenties), two-thirds of their friends are not Jewish."

"It’s hard to find Jewish neighborhoods."

"My generation, baby boom generation. We are the generation of the Jewish sovereign self. We believe the self is sovereign as opposed to halacha, nostalgia, our parents… Our previous generation believed some combination of those. The burden of Judaism was hanging over your head. Guilt.

"I was raised in a home that was trafe outside and kosher insider. If you violate the Sabbath, you know you’re making a mistake and you should hide it."

"You still see that in places outside the United States.

"An Orthodox rabbi in Montreal says people are fighting for parking places near the shul. You can’t park at the shul. You park near the shul and walk the last three feet to shul.

"What happened between that generation and my generation…

"I told the story at the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative rabbis) and was told it wouldn’t happen like this now. People would go bye on their way back from the store and say, ‘Gut Shabbos, rabbi.’

"A Conservative rabbi says, ‘I can do better. If I walk to shul, congregants driving will slow down and escort me to shul so I don’t walk on my own.’"

Question: "The Conservative movement permits driving to shul."

Steven: "On the elite level, you’re correct. On the folk level, it’s held that this is not the right thing to do."

We’re talking about the breakdown of our guilt and we’re all sovereign selves, even Conservative Jews going to shul on Shabbos.

"When my uncle Soly married a non-Jew and moved to California, he was alienated from the family."

Now people believe in the inalienability of being Jewish, no matter what you do.

"When Arnie Eisen did our interviews in 1990, people said, ‘No matter what we do, we’re still Jewish. Even before my husband converted to Judaism, we had a Jewish home.’

"There are no more rules that can get you thrown out. That was not the sense in the 1950s or you’d be in social cherem."

"Voluntarism. Jews feel free to pick and choose how they live their lives as Jews."

"The Jewish Catalogue is a Jewish do-it-yourself catalogue. It’s the current generation’s Mishneh Torah. You don’t need to know anything, just read this book. A strong sense of autonomy. You don’t need a rabbi.

"Personalism. Jews are making decisions based on personal meaning. Anywhere you go, people talk about finding meaning in their Judaism."

Steven points someone out: "You said, ‘I connect to my Judaism when I read Torah.’

"I assure you there was no sense of ‘my Judaism.’ What the hell is my Judaism? It’s Judaism.

"There’s a sense of anti-judgmentalism. Judgmentalism wasn’t a word prior to the 1990s.

"Judaism is a personal matter. I can do it myself. I can make choices. Who are you to judge my choices? People get really upset if the rabbi looks like he’s criticizing their way of being Jewish.

"Rabbi Moe Allen was trying to get people to eat a little more kosher. He had a campaign called ‘Chew By Choice.’ There were congregants — Conservative congregants in a Conservative city with a beloved rabbi, nevertheless they were offended that the rabbi was implying that there was something wrong with my Judaism.

"Now we come to a new generation which believes in the ABCD rule.

"A = alienated. We young people, even if we are committed to being Jewish, want to be Jewish in a different way. Every Jewish generation has been this way.

"B – bland. You’re boring and bland because we’re all the same. This post-modern era prizes diversity, differences and excitement. We present a homogeneous model.

"C = coercive. We tell you what to do. Marry Jews. Support Israel.

"D = divisive. It divides Jews from non-Jews, Jewish culture from non-Jewish culture.

"There’s a strong urge in the current generation to obliterate the divisions that divide our culture. Obama represents the desire to wipe away differences.

"If I want to do Jewish, I want to do it on non-Jewish turf.

"Homes have become increasingly popular venues to do Jewish.

"Jewish turf is looked at as low-quality, non-intimate, and you get the people who hang out at that turf. On non-Jewish turf, you get hipper people. It’s open to everybody. I can bring my non-Jewish partner.

"We have examples of non-Jewish partners bringing Jews to Jewish events that are held on non-Jewish turf.

"We are witnessing a surge of innocation by young Jews. Look on the internet. Look at social justice. It’s no emphasis that the younger rabbis (Sharon Brous) are emphasizing social justice. Limmud. Non-religious Israels are engaged in the reclaiming of Jewish sources.

"In culture in general, there’s been a pro-am movement. There’s a thing called participatory journalism. We don’t need other journalists. We are the journalists. Blogging is an example. Filmmaking and music.

"The rise of emergent communities, Sharon Brous being the premiere example, and independent minyanim (overwhelmingly Conservative). Last year we counted 80, not counting Orthodox.

"The Mission Minyan, it says on the website, if you are bringing food to the minyan, please do not ride it over. Walk it over… And then it says, we’re queer friendly."

From the Mission Minyan FAQ:

10. Are you queer-friendly?
Yes. Very. The LGBT community is a visible, welcome and involved part of the Minyan.

11. Are you egalitarian?
Yes and no. Our community is comprised largely of feminists who believe in women’s full equality in society and in Judaism. We try as much as possible to demonstrate that through our events insofar as we believe halacha allows.

Men and women share responsibilities in leading services, leyning Torah and so forth, within certain guidelines. In our community, women lead certain parts of services, like Kaballat Shabbat, Saturday morning Torah services and P’sukei D’zimrah. Men lead maariv, shacharit and mincha. If a women is reading Torah, a woman is given the accompanying aliyah, and if a man is reading, a man gets the aliyah.

Perhaps the chief innovation that you will notice is our definition of minyan. A minyan has traditionally meant a group of 10 men. The Mission Minyan has innovated upon that term to define the quorum for prayer needed in our community as 10 men and 10 women.

12. Are you kosher?
Food served at Mission Minyan events is hechsher kosher, prepared in kosher kitchens and is not cooked or carried on Shabbat. Meals that are served in individual homes vary depending on personal observance. You will find that people are very open about their personal practice.

Dr. Cohen says many homes are becoming kosher so they can be a part of a community.

"The Orthodox are becoming the Jewish China. Just like Americans got to learn to speak Chinese because China is becoming dominant, so too non-Orthodox Jews need to learn to start speaking Orthodox because Orthodox children are triple what they were in my generation."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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