Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century

May 11, 2023 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Michael Strassfeld’s name may not be familiar to all those who read J-Wire.

Those of a certain age may remember the book he co-authored by his (then) wife Sharon Strassfeld and the late Richard Siegel- The (first) Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit.

It helped many to put learning into action with explicit steps to tie Tzitzit; make a challah; or even put on tefillin. And the last chapter was perhaps the most subversive of the lot- a chapter about Jewish Spirituality long before it was fashionable and written by the (then) Chabad Rabbi Zalman Schachter who went on to establish the Jewish Renewal Movement and Aleph.

Strassfeld became a congregational rabbi in later life- he became a rabbi at the age of 41. He retired in 2015 and has spent the years since then clarifying his thoughts which became this book.

In the section in the Torah [Exodus 19-20] is the story about the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There we are told that the people stated that they would follow the Torah Na’aseh v’nishma [we will do and we will listen/hear]. The Jewish Catalog was the first half putting into practice “we will do”. This book is more about thought- the hearing!

I picked this book up during Passover. The underlying theme of Passover, above all else, is freedom. That, too, is the theme throughout this book. Not all readers will agree with Strassfeld for he began life as Orthodox, not only the son of an orthodox rabbi but he began his academic life at New York’s Yeshiva University. For many reasons, but especially the Vietnam War, he first became affiliated with Havurat Shalom in Boston and later the Reconstructionist Movement.

There are many interesting insights in this book. The first that struck me was his observation that unlike other societies, the Torah does not start with a history of Jews and Judaism which would have been either the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai which we will celebrate in a few weeks or the escape from Egypt which we observed only a few weeks ago. No. Instead, there is a whole preamble in the form of the Book of Genesis!

Like Moses at Mt. Sinai, Strassfeld does have ten statements or utterances, but he describes them as Core Principles (pp46-47). As he notes, it was only after he had finished writing the book did he realise that, in reality, there was (at least) one more core principle which is “to use the previous ten to create a Judaism without borders leading to the freedom to be really connected to others.” He bases this on the fact perception he has that “Rabbinic Judaism was meant to be portable; it could be carried wherever Jews travelled in the world. Now we need a Judaism that is permeable, allowing the outside world to easily interact with the inner world of Jewish Life.” What the book then tries to do is offer thoughts, and indeed strategies, for us to function in an open and sometimes inclusive world where it is relatively easy to blend in.

For those who struggle with the question of how can Judaism with all its rules be relevant in the twenty-first century, he not only raises issues such as the climate or the role of money (and indeed the complex question of distribution of wealth) but he does offer thoughts on how it can be made relevant, especially to Generation x and those who come afterwards. For many of us, the seder of Passover can become perfunctory, repetitious and indeed irrelevant. Looking at the concept of freedom, he does not rewrite the seder in an attempt to make it relevant but rather offers insights and questions which will stimulate those participating at the Seder- and it will definitely not be a 30-minute Seder as one Haggadah is called!

In the final chapter, he addresses the questions each of us faces- how do we/can we live in an Open Society? I don’t know many who want to return to the enclosed walls of the Ghetto. At the same time, we are faced with many issues which could be the death knell of Judaism, including intermarriage or the loss of faith [only to remain as cultural Jews eating matza balls and bagels]. Also, nearly every Jew today has lived either nearly all their life or, indeed, all their life, with a State of Israel. Ignoring the current politics of Israel today (and that is hard), we can not imagine a time when there was no State of Israel- and the implication that has in each of our lives and our sense of security.

There are some who read this book who feel he has gone too far. Others will feel that he has not gone far enough. What I am sure of is that each person who reads it may not find the answers they seek, but they will be challenged by the questions and the issues Strassfeld raises.

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is associated with Notre Dame Australia’s School of Medicine and St. Vincent’s Private Hospital. Previously he was associated with UNSWMedicine, University of Ballarat (now Federation University); and St. Louis University. He served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for five years.

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