Interview with Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Rabbi Ethan Tucker is President and Rosh Yeshiva at Mechon Hadar. Rabbi Tucker also directs Mechon Hadar’s Center for Jewish Law and Values. Rabbi Tucker studied at Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa of the Kibbutz Hadati movement. Tucker was  ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He earned a B.A. from Harvard College and a doctorate in  Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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Rabbi Tucker recently published together with Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg a book on egalitarian prayer called  Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law (Urim Press, 2017). The book starts with the assumption that gender equality has spread even among the religiously observant traditional communities necessitating  a need to re-examine old questions.  The book presents the wealth of Jewish legal material surrounding gender and prayer as a resource for grappling with these issues. The book presents the texts on both sides of the issues, letting the texts speak for themselves. The goal of the book is not to decide law as much as clearly analysis texts.As one Amazon reviewer, aptly evaluated the book: “Whether a reader agrees with the two rabbis who authored the book or not, he or she will find a wealth of information in the book that will prompt thought.”

The presentation of the texts in the book show the use of the scholarly approaches to Rabbinics as well as the many contemporary articles on the issue. However, one of the innovations of the book is the integration of these academic writings into the textual method of the Yeshiva allowing these ideas to enter the rabbinic study hall, the beit midrash.

This interview is on the broad theological premises of Rabbi Tucker’s approach allowing the reader to see his method, which focuses on values of the halakhah. His approach is to attempt to listen to what the tradition says and then to think about what tools we might have for responding to tensions between ourselves and the texts.  Tucker honestly wants to listen to the many voices in the texts and see where that takes him. Since the book does not advocate a specific halakhic position, he is free to show the complexity of the system.

In the book, Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law as well as in the interview, Tucker opens up the possibility that the root of the obligation gap in rabbinic sources is in fact about social status in a society where women would be compared to slaves and minors. Today, in Tucker’s reading, the rabbis would not have made this comparison.

Tucker explicitly rejects approaching the Rabbinic texts with an agenda to find a leniency or starting with what one desires to prove before one starts. In addition, Tucker does not believe in the “adjustment of the law” as in liberal approaches.  In fact, he states that the entire language of “halakhic change” and “authority and innovation” as anathema to the project of the book. However as amply displayed in the interview below, this leads to a certain amount of passive voice of implying that choices need to be made, law has to be adjudicated, and decisions need to be made, but purposely without discussing how this relates to issues of authority and normative halakhah.

Noticeably, Tucker actually makes an argument about the rebellious son (Ben Sorer uMorer) that justifies the original law in its original context.  He rejects the idea that the rabbis saw some divine laws as  immoral and sought to marginalize them, as claimed by many liberal approaches.

During the 2015-2016 cycle of Torah readings, Rabbi Tucker sent out a phenomenal weekly Torah email, where he developed each week a different topic clearly showing his approach and explaining it fully,  The essays and the source sheets are available here. They are worth reading and I look forward to seeing those essays as a  book. The publication of these weekly classes will provide a seminal theology and theory of a halakhah concerned with values. I posted about some of these sheets when they came out. In contrast, this book on prayer is more of a hundred-page worksheet of sources, which only begins to touch on bigger questions and  without an explicit presentation of his theory.

At times, Rabbi Tucker’s approach can seen  to be addressing a specific audience with specific reactions to their prior teachers-especially on topics of submission, community, and rationality- offering a needed corrective. (For example, the era whose religious approach was already mediated by the modernism of Peter L Berger may not see the dichotomies the way he sees them). But for many, his is the voice that resonates with them as offering the answers to their religious quest. For those who want to see how Rabbi Tucker was presenting these ideas six years ago, see this write-up of his local talks, which gives the earlier kernel of these ideas.

The interview below is on his meta-halakhah, not his actual legal positions or on the way he understands specific texts.

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  1. What is new in the book about  Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law  that is not already in the many volumes on the topic? (See appendix at end of interview for prior literature)

Well, the book indeed stands on the shoulders of prior efforts. I would say the original contribution of the book is twofold.

First, it brings together scattered discussions in one place.  The important book Women and Men in Communal Prayer—despite its title—focuses only on Torah reading.  The Frimers have addressed the topic of minyan over the years, but have mostly been focused on women’s prayer groups (that omit or modify parts of the service that require a quorum) and Torah reading.  The Conservative movement dealt with these various issues in a series of responsa over the years, but there was never a unified presentation of the whole.  We tried to unify the major discussions around prayer, Torah reading and minyan in one discussion.

Second, I think we are unusually transparent in our discussion, though that is obviously for the reader to decide.  Let’s not be coy—we obviously have a perspective on this topic.  Nonetheless, we didn’t want the book to be simply an advocate’s manual.  Rather, we wanted to lay out the issues at stake and to give credence to egalitarian & non-egalitarian positions and how they could be substantively, not just formally, grounded in the sources.  Earlier treatments of the topic, in our experience, are either advocacy pieces that are happy to ignore or steamroll over troubling evidence to the contrary, or seek to shoot down any legitimacy for an egalitarian position whatsoever.  We have tried to locate the underlying values in the texts we studied such that the debates over gender and prayer are actually substantive debates about gender and prayer rather than arguments about halakhic authority and formal precedent.

2)      Can you explain your basis for gender egalitarianism? 

I think one of the most interesting things about the book is how we often maintain two arguments in parallel for a gender-equal practice in the synagogue.  We are trying to listen to what the tradition says about gender and prayer and then to think about what tools we might have for responding to tensions between non-egalitarian ritual and our increasingly gender-equal reality.

We don’t have an agenda on this topic that stands independent of the rabbinic corpus and the halakhic tradition. In short, when you explore this topic you find that the halakhic tradition provides two main pathways for thinking about the significance of gender in the context of communal prayer: 1) notions of honor and dignity, 2) maximal obligation in mitzvot.

The honor/dignity frame turns us towards a discussion of what is now dignified in terms of gender norms and whether that is different from earlier points in time.  We make the case that those standards have shifted and thereby so has the halakhah, which is internally concerned with these sociological categories.  However, we also create space for those who claim these concerns have not shifted and that gender equal participation in communal prayer might continue to lower the dignity of the service.

Some sources point to an obligation gap in mitzvot as the source of gender hierarchy and exclusion in communal prayer.  We try both to show that this is only one branch of the tradition and need not box out the honor/dignity frame, while also taking it seriously as a legitimate and even somewhat compelling way of thinking about our topic.

In this context, we engage the possibility that the root of the obligation gap in rabbinic sources is in fact about social status (a bolder category than honor/dignity).  We argue that this too must be reevaluated in a society where women would never be compared to slaves and minors (as they have been, without angst or embarrassment, in most earlier patriarchal societies).

3)      How can the law be adjusted for gender egalitarianism?

This is perhaps the most important point in our approach to halakhah. We don’t really believe in the “adjustment of the law.”  In fact, that whole language of “halakhic change” and “authority and innovation” is somewhat anathema to the project of the book.  We are not coming with an outside critique of halakhah.  Instead, we are trying to apply halakhah’s internal logic to a changing reality.

Think of halakhah as an eternal light refracted through changing lenses of reality.  You place a light bulb on a roadway with a red lens and all drivers know to slam on the brakes.  Take the same light and put a green lens in front of it, and the same law-abiding drivers floor the gas pedal.  This is not a shifting law, but a shifting reality.  Our claim is that the halakhah never cared about biology per se when it came to public prayer.  Rather, gender was a proxy for other categories of significance, categories that are themselves grounded in social realities.  A shifting response to gender and prayer may then actually be a more faithful fidelity to the underlying values of the halakhah.

4)      How do shift in categories work, especially in regards to gender?

The notion of a category shift is that an object or type of person might signify one thing in the context of one reality and something entirely different in another.  Here are two examples: Mishnah Bava Metzia states that if you find someone’s lost sefer, you must read it or at least roll it once a month.  The commentators make clear that this is because scrolls, when left in one place for too long, begin to decay through trapped moisture and other materials.  Only by rolling them and getting air into them are they kept in good condition, and one who finds a lost object must keep it in good condition until it is returned to the owner.

By contrast, the same Mishnah says that one who finds a glass object should not even touch it, since doing so could only risk its fracture.  Now, in medieval and later times, the word sefer comes to refer not to a scroll, but to a codex.  Same word, similar cultural function of reading recorded information, but completely different technology.  If one were to apply the Mishnah’s rule of reading a lost sefer once a month to what we call a book, one would only weaken the binding!  Thus the sefer of today plausibly jumps from the “use it to keep it in good shape” category to the “don’t touch it!” category.  The value is the same: preserve the lost object for its owner, but that eternal value is filtered through shifting realities and language.

Another example: the heresh—a deaf person—is exempted from a range of mitzvah obligations and thus disqualified from performing various rituals for others.  But the Talmud already points out that these exemptions (and corollary disqualifications) only apply to a deaf-mute.  Even though a deaf person who can speak is commonly called a heresh, a speaking deaf person is not in the legal category of exemption.

The Talmud even backs this up with a textual basis/derivation: Much of the time when the term heresh appears in early sources, it is matched up with shoteh (a mentally incompetent person) and katan (a minor).  The Talmud argues that this juxtaposition is substantive: these three types of people are instantiations of the more general category of those who lack da’at, basic mental competence and responsibility for one’s actions.  By their speech, speaking deaf people reveal their mental competence and are thus plainly obligated in all mitzvot.  When we come to consider contemporary deaf-mutes who speak sign language, it is thus highly plausible—if not self-evident—to suggest that they possess da’at and thus shift categories from exempt to obligated.  Again, nothing has changed about the law—it was always about da’at and always will be—but the mapping of deaf-muteness onto lack of da’at has been destabilized and perhaps vitiated.

This is the same sort of process that can be argued for around gender.  In many areas of ritual law and practice, women are treated as exempt, marginal or excluded.  But they are almost always so classified along with slaves and minors.  This forces us to ask: what does the word ishah signify in those sources?  Is it a term pointing to those with a certain chromosomal and biological makeup?  Or is it one member of a set of three (women, slaves and minors) known to be adjuncts or second-class citizens in the larger Greco-Roman world in which the Sages lived?

Until recent decades, it was self-evident that those with XX chromosomes, as a class, were subordinate in all kinds of ways.  The category shift argument—proffered already several years ago by Rabbi Yoel bin Nun and developed further by me in a recent essay—suggests that the Sages’ original intent in these halakhot that speak about women, slaves and minors was never about biological sex per se, it was about class and power.  Now that those variables have shifted dramatically in our society, women shift from exempt to obligated.  The halakhah stays the same: those with power must subordinate themselves to serve God.  And this is the key point: according to the category shift argument, maintaining an exemption from mitzvot for contemporary women because of their biology actually risks failing to direct them to fulfill their Biblical obligations in a range of mitzvot!

5)      Can we have egalitarianism without adjuncts taking care of the family?

This is a great question, and I am frankly not sure what the answer is.  I have tried to play this out in an essay as well.

My general principles are as follows: 1) The nature of the Torah’s vision of mitzvot is democratic.  It is not a system where a select group of priests do the mitzvot; it is a vision of a mamlekhet kohanim.  We should therefore be generally biased towards more obligation not less.  And if the Torah assumes that people are meant to have children, it must be that care for a family can be fully integrated into an obligated life.  2) There is no question that mitzvot often require the support of others, or a kind of focus and presence that can be hard to attain unless someone else is creating that space for you, particularly in contexts where small children need to be cared for.  3) We can usually hit the right balance here by recognizing that most mitzvot can be performed by all without any real difficulty.  Let’s be honest: most positive mitzvot take a few seconds to perform and can be done even when caring for children.  We are mostly talking about the time consuming practices around public prayer and ritual.

A close look at rabbinic precedents on sharing obligations with more limited resources reveals some interesting models.  In some cases, balancing broad obligation was accomplished in shifts—the way all traditional communities handle the obligation of megillah, where there was never understood to a non-obligated class of adults.  In other cases, we find that participation can indeed be divided up, but the set of adjuncts is shifting, rather than permanent and essentialist.  For instance, even if all adults count in a minyan, they can’t all go at the same time.  [Truth be told, this was always understood in terms of the division between the older/retired/batlanim class and the working family units, but that is another story.]  But one can go while the other cares for the child, without making this essentially about gender.

I think this approach can get us where we need to go.  But we do need to have some culture shifting here, no question.

6)      What is unique in your method of learning? How can you look for a reason for a Tannaitic source or an early medieval commentary and then use the reason or value outside of its reception in the tradition?

Well, I don’t think we think of ourselves as using any sources outside of their reception in the tradition.

As we engage gender, we are trying to find reasons and values in our sources and to understand them.  We are actually deeply invested in understanding those sources within their reception in the tradition.  In fact, we probably make some of our readers uncomfortable when we seem to justify and explain why it might have made sense to exclude women from minyan!  We take seriously the notion that there have been and still are human societies where enfranchising women in a given activity is perceived as lowering the honor or seriousness of that activity.  While we might lament that, seek to change those realities or even preach against them, it might be that until we do, the halakhah’s concerns around honor indeed argue for a less than egalitarian regime.  We don’t think that is true of the world we are writing for, but this openness to multiple realities and to the underlying concerns of our sources is a feature of our work.

Our innovation, such as it is, is being willing to take that value-based consideration into what we see as a different reality.  But our fundamental claim—as is the claim of anyone engaged in traditional psak—is that if R. Tam or the Meiri or the Levush were to confront our reality, they would say exactly what we are saying.  (Provided, of course, that they agreed with our assessment of reality, which they might or might not have.)  So, to the extent there is something unique, it is maybe only in light of more recent tendencies towards a hyper-formalism in psak halakhahin the modern period.  But—using an example for those who have read the book—the way we talk about minyan and gender is virtually identical to how the Beit Yosef talks about a minor leading Arvit when he builds off of the Ra’avad’s value-based analysis of the Mishnah that seems to prohibit that.

7)      Are you uprooting the Shulkhan Arukh and Ahronim?

We are not interested in uprooting anything.  If we say a minyan can be gender blind, even though the Shulhan Arukh clearly does not, we are not uprooting the Shulhan Arukh.  We are claiming that when the Shulhan Arukh excludes women (along with slaves and minors) from minyan, he is not talking about biology, but is expressing, in shorthand, a value category that is either about social gravity or obligation in mitzvot (which is itself plausibly about social gravity of a higher order).

8)   How can our values influence our understanding of the tradition?

Another big question. My overarching approach is to insist that there is only one conversation: What does God want of me?  The moment we isolate halakhah from values, the word of God from what we think is right, we create religious and moral Frankensteins.  We create a halakhah that is amoral, valueless and all about discipline.  And we create a morality that is prone to being trapped in an echo chamber of self-righteousness.

A deep process of Talmud Torah is one in which two things happen in parallel:

(1) I listen deeply to the tradition and to what the tradition is saying and I challenge my preconceptions.  The values I came to the table with may only be a part of the story; they might even be wrong.  But I don’t bludgeon those values with the formal discipline of submission; instead I open myself up to being persuadedby the sources of our tradition.  This has to be an exercise in intellectual and moral curiosity and humility and is, to my mind, what any true learning is about.

(2) My deeply felt moral instincts come from somewhere, and when they stubbornly persist even in the face of honest listening to the tradition, they can be presumed to be of some worth. Our Sages said about the Jewish people: If they are not prophets, they are descended from prophets.  There is some kernel of prophecy that the Jewish people retain in their halakhic instincts even in our own time.  A true journey into the discourse of values and morality then searches the tradition for sources and perspectives that capture these values in the distinctive language of halakhah.  Sometimes a person can do this on their own, but usually they need a guide, someone who knows the territory of the rabbinic canon and who can show them the way.

The overarching goal is simple: the telos of the conversation is eliminating the perceived gap between morality and halakhah.  Angst about the conflict between the two is not to be valorized; it is an opportunity to strive for synthesis and resolution.

9)   You use the Dor Revi’i  to increase the role of ethics in our halakhic understanding. How?

The Dor Revi’i is a remarkable and fascinating Talmudic commentary by R. Moshe Glasner, the great-grandson of the Hatam Sofer.  He was an early 20th century figure steeped in deep traditional learning and asking fundamental questions about Torah.  (He was also one of the early religious Zionists.)  He is, to my mind, one of the most powerful voices for insisting on a unified conversation that incorporates our internal normative Jewish tradition and the larger framework in which the Torah embeds that tradition: the human project of stewarding God’s physical and moral world.  You can read more about him here.  I think there are some who “disagree” with the Dor Revi’i who don’t understand him, taking him to mean that universal standards of morality always trump halakhah when the two come into conflict.  I think that is incorrect.  The Dor Revi’i would have defended circumcision tooth and nail, even if he lived in an environment hostile to it as a form of barabarism.  What he would have done, however, would be to argue for circumcision’s fundamental morality within the terms of an ethical discourse, bringing the Torah’s unique perspective to the conversation.  He would not have hidden behind the Torah’s authority in order to dodge the conflict.  That distinction is critical, in my view.

Others oppose his way of thinking because they have come to see a willingness to follow seemingly immoral halakhot as the acid test of true religious devotion.  I have written about this view in the context of the Akeidah.  I think it is a misreading of the Akeidah—Avraham would not have understood the command to sacrifice (not murder!) his son as unethical—and is a very dangerous blueprint for religious life.  It buys religious obedience in the short term at the expense of the proper internalization of the values of the tradition in the long term.  Rulers who ultimately rule based on power and authority are generally considered tyrants, whose rule we escape at the fist plausible opportunity.  I don’t (want to) relate to either God or the Torah in that way.

10)   How does the study of the rebellious son help us in this ethical quest?

The rebellious son is, in my mind, one of the most misread passages on this topic.  A number of contemporary scholars see it as a classic case of a Biblical law that the Rabbis found to be immoral.  They then set to work marginalizing the law and killing it through the death of a thousand qualifications.  The law is perceived as immoral because of its execution of a juvenile, its punishment of a disposition more than a crime already committed. The famous statement of at least one Sage that “the case of the rebellious son never came to pass and never will” is taken by some as a defiant program for eliminating this blight of unjustice on Jewish law.

I think this is all wrong, and my critique is great example of playing out the method I described above.  If we really listen, and I mean really listen, to the text and context here, I think we emerge with something quite different than the above reading.

First of all, it is noteworthy that I know of not a whimper in rabbinic sources about the law that says one executes a child for cursing their parents.  I think it is very difficult to claim that Hazal were bothered by the death penalty served up to the rebellious son; they are silent in too many other parallel places where improper use of words alone condemn a person to death.  We then have to be honest that we engage in this sort of “pre-crime” enforcement all the time in areas where we are worried the basic structure of society is at stake.  If you walk on to a plane with a firearm—even though you never picked it up, threatened anyone, much less fired it—you can be locked up for 20 years.  Further probing of context should lead us to recognize that the Torah is operating in a framework in which there is no strong central government, no meaningful monopoly on violence in the hands of the state and the death penalty is a basic tool of discipline in a more unruly and violent society.  A child disobeying a parent in earlier generations is more like the assassination of a police officer in our own than we might at first realize or be comfortable admitting.  All of these hard questions and openness to learning have to be a part of the process.

Second, we have to be careful not to project our own—reasonable and moral!—misgivings about applying this law today onto those of earlier times.  Indeed, a close reading of the passage where Hazal “eliminate” this law reveals nothing of the sort.  The Maharsha (R. Shmuel Edels, Poland, 16th c.) has a great reading of that passage.  The Talmud’s formulation is: “Can it be that because this young man ate some meat and drank some wine that his father and mother will take him out to execute him?  Rather, this case never happened and never will.”  Maharsha notes the presence of the father and mother in this depiction; indeed, it is unusual that the Torah itself involves them in the due process required to execute the boy.  He sees the Talmud as noting that, once the father and mother need to sign off on the execution, there is no way any parents will actively participate in the execution of their own child.  This is not a moral critique of a law, rather a clear-eyed view of the reality of the law’s application. (In addition, perhaps the Torah’s sense that only a child whose parents have completely given up on him is really the sort of threat we should be dealing with in such an extreme way).  Beautifully, the Maharsha goes on to say that the law was nonetheless taught because of the deep values to be learned from it.  Adolescents can be dangerous and parenting is serious business.  Parents should approach their work as a life-and-death responsibility, because if their child indeed becomes a threat to society on their watch, they bear responsibility.

11)      What is the influence of your teachers at Yeshivat Kibbutz Hadati?

Rav Elisha Anscelovits taught us many things, but I will highlight two:  1) Never be afraid to try to identify what a mitzvah or practice is about, what are the values that are guiding it.  He goes further, which is essentially to reject as problematic an aversion to seeking out reasons for mitzvot.  When we both first encountered R. Elisha, we still had unreformed instincts to treat halakhah as a set of boundaries and rules, a kind of formalistic game, as opposed to a force for purpose and meaning.  R. Elisha helped us start treating halakhah less like an electric fence and more like a compass.  2) Never dismiss any source you come across.  Try to understand it on its own terms and generally don’t just overrule it with the force of more precedents on the other side or with your presumed ethical superiority.  If you really believe in the multivocality of halakhah, if you really take seriously the gemara’s injunction of aseh ozneka ka’afarkeset—make your ear like a hopper—then you have to account for all views that arise.  We hope that comes through in our effort to give full voice to the non-egalitarian sources we analyze throughout the book.

We also feel a great debt to Rabbi Bigman, not only for creating the yeshiva where we spent many years of happy study, but also for the wisdom he shared with us from his many years as a communal rav.  Rabbi Bigman’s psak is always so intrinsically humble and grounded in the facts of the people standing in front of him.  This book, by its nature, had to make general pronouncements.  But I hope we have done our teacher proud by trying to retain a humble tone that recognizes that any analysis of halakhic texts, no matter how correct, may also be bound to a certain audience with certain boundary conditions.

12)   How are you different than the Conservative Judiasm of the 1970’s and 1980’s whose egalitarianism declared women rabbis as obligated as men. And how are you different than Open Orthodoxy’s quest to read between the lines to create leniency?

Let me back up for a moment and acknowledge that none of the process we went through in this book would have been possible without those earlier iterations of the conversation.  Speaking personally, I am indebted to my rav hamuvhak, avi mori, R. Gordon Tucker, who not only taught me Torah from a young age but also went through his own journey on this topic.  He was educated and raised in observant, non-egalitarian environments in his youth and davened and practiced that way throughout college.  He arrived at JTS around the time when the issue of women’s ordination—and corollary ritual roles—was being taken up and he quickly became an advocate and a leader on that front.  It is hard to imagine how I could have arrived at my own thinking on this matter without his influence over the years.

But a closer look at the debates and arguments tossed around in the early 1980s in the Conservative movement around this topic did not really embrace an egalitarian regime of obligation.  Nor was it really a values-based discussion at all.  The most prominent papers written in favor of a more egalitarian approach were those of R. Mayer Rabinowitz, who argued that the widespread availability of siddurim rendered the formal requirements for the sheilah tzibbur obsolete, and that of R. Joel Roth, who suggested that women could electively obligate themselves in mitzvot.  These were what I would call classic workarounds: they took the exemption and exclusion of women for granted, but then pondered whether there was a way to end-run around it.  There was no claim that the underlying categories behind the gendered halakhot needed to be mapped differently onto contemporary women, much less that contemporary women might be fully obligated just by dint of their social status!  This, it seems to me, is one aspect of our own analysis that is dramatically different from those earlier efforts.

I can’t speak for Open Orthodoxy—I am not even sure what that delineates anymore—but I see what we are doing as part of a larger conversation about the interaction of a gender equal world with a rigorous commitment to and grounding in the halakhic canon.  I have heard a number of people say that they can buy the conclusions of part I of the book—full equality of leadership of the service—but not part II—full equality of citizenship through minyan.  I am not sure that is a truly principled distinction, it might just be the right next step for a whole set of communities.  I also think the category shift approach is still sinking in.  When I first taught it myself 15 years ago, I thought it was crazy and no one in the audience would buy it.  I now find that for more and more people it is the only intuitive way to think about it.  I think those of us who are honest here should recognize that there is a process at work on a spectrum.  My own bias is to see allies everywhere, not competitors or rivals.  We’ll see if I am naïve or prescient in the long run.

13)   At various points you have defined yourself in three different way: as following the 19th century Rav Bamburger about keeping the community in tact as a whole, other times as non-denominational, and other times as kibbutz Hadati? How do these relate and how does it not matter?

I think these all tie together for me, and the unifying element is taking responsibility.  Rav Bamburger remains a powerful model for refusing to relinquish a covenantal vision for the entire Jewish community; that continues to motivate me in deep ways.  The most powerful (and perhaps scary) dimension of a multi-generational covenant is that it binds everyone.  That means that every Jew is the addressee of the Torah’s mitzvot, whether they acknowledge this or not.  And a key corollary of this: every Jew is the Torah’s constituent and the Torah is accountable to them.

In many ways, I see a non-denominationalism as the American-Jewish translation of that attitude.  Yes, many communities and even religious leaders might say that they have no interest in Torah or mitzvot, only peoplehood and Jewish identity.  But a covenantal vision of Torah doesn’t really have the luxury of simply letting people opt out and then reaping the rewards (such as they are) of a smaller, tamer, more monolithic constituency.  Instead, we must ask ourselves:  How do we create a vision for Torah and mitzvot that is not that of an interest group but of a vision for national destiny and purpose?  And that will also require some respectful persuading of fellow Jews as part of that process.

Kibbutz Hadati and the wing of religious Zionism it represents captures this as well: We have to take responsibility for the entire Jewish enterprise in the modern world and we must insist that secular politics alone cannot be the answer.  I think the most interesting parts of religious Zionism in Israel right now are asking how the instincts of many self-described secular Jews are woven into a covenantal framework for all Israelis.  See Yoav Sorek’s latest book, Haberit Hayisraelit for a great example of this sort of conversation.

I think these different strands also have in common a certain irresponsible disregard for realpolitik.  That is sometimes a weakness, but the payoff in the integrity of the larger project is worth it to me.

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