December 20, 2022
Rabbi Joshua Stanton and Rabbi Ben Spratt report on a resurgence in American Judaism and what it says about American religious life.
Is the new model for American Judaism a deliciously eclectic Brooklyn food hall or the brick-and-mortar synagogue built by previous generations? Rabbi Joshua Stanton and Rabbi Ben Spratt, who each lead a synagogue in New York City, speak with Eboo about their new book, “Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging.”
Rabbi Joshua Stanton is spiritual co-leader of East End Temple and Senior Fellow at CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, and CBS, and his work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Daily Beast, Vox, the Associated Press, Religion News Service, and the Jerusalem Post, as well as in documentary films and international media in over a dozen languages.
Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is the senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. He cofounded Shireinu for Jewish families with special needs; Tribe, to engage Jewish millennials through grassroots leadership; and New Day Fellowship, to foster connection between Muslim and Jewish millennials. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue, Associated Press, Religion New Service, the Jewish Week, and numerous podcasts.
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Can a Jewish awakening inspire America?
Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America Podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel.
If you had to summarize the story about American religion in the early 21st century, it would be a story of decline. There’s less participation. There’s increased scandal. It just feels like bad news all the time. That’s why I’m so happy to welcome my friends Rabbi Ben Spratt and Rabbi Josh Stanton to the Interfaith America podcast, because when they look around their own faith of Judaism, they see inspiration. They see hope. They are committed to Jewish renewal. They are committed to awakenings, which is the title of their new and very important book.
I am interested in the awakening within Judaism, and I’m interested in the awakening within American religion as a whole. We’ll get into both. Rabbi Josh Stanton is spiritual co-leader of East End Temple in Manhattan and senior fellow at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Both of them are regular contributors to the public conversation about Judaism and religion in America.
Rabbi Josh Stanton, Rabbi Ben Spratt, it is so good to have you here. I love the book Awakenings. I’ve read it twice. I learn new things every time. I’m probably going to read it more than twice because it’s not just a book about a Jewish awakening, a Jewish revival, I think it’s a book about a religious awakening. It’s a book that many religious communities can learn from, and I think that American religion can learn from. I’m super excited to talk to you guys about this. Thank you for writing it, for sharing it, and for being willing to come on the Interfaith America podcast with me.
Just so our audience knows, I have known Rabbi Josh Stanton since before he was a rabbi, since when he was discerning the rabbinate with our evangelical friend, the Rev. Paul Sorrentino at Amherst College. I met Rabbi Ben Spratt six months ago, and we hit it off like childhood friends. I’m looking forward to a very, very comfortable, warm and textured conversation about religious revivals using a Jewish example. Let’s start with each of you telling us about your professional roles and how you got there. Josh, why don’t we start with you?
Rabbi Joshua Stanton: I’m the spiritual leader of East End Temple in Manhattan and director of leadership at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. My work at CLAL is a direct outgrowth of my learning at the Interfaith America, previously Interfaith Youth Core. It’s about pluralism within the Jewish tradition. It’s about what we have in common and what we don’t have in common, and how we navigate both realities. Being a spiritual leader, I keep saying, Eboo is a rabbi to me. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I don’t mean that in the sardonic New York humor that I have come to imbibe. He is really a spiritual leader to me. I have to say that in both areas of my work, I am learning from one of the greats.
Patel: Well, one of the things I love about the book Awakenings is it’s kind of a call to be rabbis to each other. I will be a rabbi to you if you will be a rabbi to me. That’s definitely how I understand our friendship and colleagueship over almost two decades now. Ben, tell us about your professional role and how you got there.
Rabbi Ben Spratt: First and foremost, just such an honor to be with you, Eboo, and grateful for the budding friendship here. I join Josh in being one of the many who’s been a longtime fan of yours and certainly sitting at your feet as being my teacher, my rabbi. I’m the senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom. This is a large Reform synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
For me, one of the great elements of my work here is, I’m looking at a synagogue that is 180 years old. Right now we’re celebrating the 180th year. It’s a synagogue that started on the Lower East Side as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. It moved to the Upper East Side as a Conservative synagogue, and then evolved in the 1930 to come to the Upper West Side as a Reform synagogue, and it’s never fractured or merged.
That narrative, I think is one of the great legacies of, how does a community evolve, change, and transform while holding together? That’s some of the courage I feel like I get to draw upon and the wisdom that I draw upon, and then in my own life. Religion fractured my family apart. I come from an interfaith family. Much of my rabbinate has been about taking a religious tradition that can sometimes be used as a tool for division, and how to reimagine it as actually a conduit for connection.
Patel: I love that. I think that leads right into my first question, which I’ll ask to you, Ben. What was the spark for this book? You’ve outlined two narratives: a personal narrative, a family narrative, and the narrative of a shul that has changed but not fractured or merged. How much of that played the spark role for this book for you? Josh, I’d love to hear your take on this also. How did the seed get planted for Awakenings?
Spratt: For me, the seed really started from a place of friendship. Josh and I go back many, many years and actually have co-created a number of different endeavors together. Starting from the place of relationship, I think we were able to lean into some of the struggles we were facing as young, rising rabbis and looking at a world that was often telling this apocalyptic story of the doom and gloom and the demise of American Judaism.
From our vantage points, we were seeing and feeling a very different story around us. We turned to each other quizzically and over a number of coffees started to imagine, what if the people around us, the people who’ve been maybe our teachers and even the heads of organizations that have shaped and molded us, what if they’re only telling part of the story? What if there’s something more here? It was really the in relationship and the fellowship of learning together, that we started to raise that question and decided to pull that thread, and went down a number of different rabbit holes that led us to realizing, we want to tell a bigger story that we think is all around us.
Stanton: I would add to that, if I may, that there was an element of timing in this also. That in the middle of pandemic and what I called the tri-apocalypse, which was the rise of fascism, profound pain that people were experiencing in pandemic, and the downfall of major Jewish institutions that were suffering in a human way, in a financial way, in a spiritual way, that Ben was someone I reached out to as a North Star. I said, “Ben, what’s going on here? What are you seeing?” Because I felt as though I had lost my clarity and vision.
Part of this through friendship was recalibrating our bearings. Figuring out how to move forward from an event that is unfolding. It’s not over yet. And yet is lightening in such a way that we can really begin building. Don’t just have to remain in a place of stasis or in a place of experiencing things happening to us, but can respond and proactively do things to make sure that as we emerge, it can be all the better for this time.
Patel: What you all write about so clearly is the narrative that other people have for your religious community is not the narrative that you had. You were compelled to put your story out into the world because you were connecting a whole set of different data points. I think that’s what a paradigm-shifting book is, and that’s how I feel about Awakenings. You’re shifting a paradigm of decline to a paradigm of hope and possibility. Now, I want to cite some of my favorite quotes from this book.
You say, “Our obsession with the narrative of decline overlooks threads of optimism and opportunity.” You continue, “American Jewish institutions have been left with a vacuum of new purpose, defending existing achievements and defaulting to past tropes.” Fill this in a bit. What is the narrative of the decline that is surrounding you? What are the past achievements that are being defended? What are the past tropes that are being defaulted to? Then I promise we will move to the positive stuff after this.
Spratt: If we look at the early 1980s, we get to see that about 73% of American Jewry were members of synagogues, were connected to organized Jewish life. As we look 40 years later, we see that that has declined by 40%, hovering just above 30% of American Jews are connected to synagogues. For most of the 20th century, the primary definition of Jewish identity was the sense of belonging to institution, organization. By that measure, this shows a radical and significant shift in the way that Jews affiliate. That’s often how we tell the story. That the rising generation, these are wayward generations, including the generations that Josh and I are a part of. What is often not lifted up is both how we’ve seen this pattern in the past and also some of the bright bloom of excitement today.
If we go back to the wake of the Holocaust in World War II, half of world’s Jewry was decimated in a matter of just a few years. It would be easy to simply tell the story of the middle of the 20th century as simply a floundering people that had nearly been extinguished, that were trying to simply survive. However, the story that actually blooms is we see this incredible impetus to reach and rise with purpose that comes out of that shadow.
The two driving purposes of that era was to create a sense of permanency, access, affluence, and power in America, to say that this is a place of belonging that will allow us to reach towards a glory day and the creation of a stable and strong State of Israel, a Jewish homeland that could be a shelter and a haven in a time of another shadow. We see how the boom of synagogue construction over that time period. We got to see this rise of Jewish affiliation that peaked again in 1980.
What’s remarkable today is yes, affiliation rates to synagogues are deeply, deeply, deeply diminished from where they were 40 years ago. We also see the bloom of Jewish pride hovering at 94% across every generation, which says that synagogues are not necessary, or as necessary, in the creation of Jewish pride and identity. That leads us to a real interesting opportunity to look at, so what is? If the 20th century synagogue gave the symbol of permanency, the symbol of fixture that we have made it and we’re not going away, what is doing that for Jews today to create that sense of pride and excitement?
Patel: I’m going to turn to Josh to fill that part out. Again, quoting directly from the book, you write, “We are on the cusp of a Jewish awakening. New possibilities abound. We need a new unifying vision.” Why are you seeing new possibilities when there’s this decline in membership? What’s that new unifying vision, and what does it mean to be on the cusp of a Jewish awakening?
Stanton: What we had seen through the decline of central Jewish institutions, from the synagogue, to the Federation, to the fill out to any number of others, was the simple narrative of decline. While around the edges, we saw people building and creating new models of being. Those models were often around very, very specific needs. We are Jews of color seeking justice. We are LGBTQ people. We are women who are kept off of the biggest bimahs in America, but want our voices to be heard in prayer and in song. All of a sudden, those individuals, those groups, those leaders begin coalescing into communities of belonging in such a way that we could not ignore them anymore.
In many ways, Ben and I inhabit the old model. We are straight, cis, white, male rabbis in congregational settings. Finally, we looked out from the bimah and we said, “Oh my goodness. Maybe the biggest celebrations of Jewish life are not inside our synagogues, but were pushed to the edges.” Maybe now that our synagogues – and I think we might be exceptions to the rule at burgeoning communities. Now that our synagogues writ large are not as full, maybe we finally have space for all of these other centers of belonging to take center stage, to be at the podium, so we can finally listen and really hear deeply the people who had been building all along but were ignored.
What we were able to catalog in our book were all of the different centers that people had made their home. Be it the Jewish summer camp that coalesced around forms of prayer and song that were somehow too joyful for the synagogue context, and yet became so normative in Reform Jewish circles, and even Conservative and Orthodox circles, that now they’re on the bimah too. That Mayyim Hayyim, the center of living waters, a mikvah, a place for embodied ritual, that once was merely something that Orthodox women attended to in silence and in private, was coming to be a key organization of community building, of spiritual search, and of physically feeling Jewish for Jews in the Greater Boston area and around the country.
That people loved Jewish prayer, but didn’t necessarily want to sit and hear me tell them what page number to turn to. They wanted to go to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and cultivate a spiritual practice of their own making. That PJ Library might be the single best Jewish education tool that our religious schools now need to catch up to. That was uncovering 120% of the Jewish families that anyone thought existed, because if only we listen and provide something people need, they start showing up.
Patel: I’m going to throw you a crazy parallel here, which is, in Game of Thrones, the action is not actually in Westeros. It’s in the periphery. It’s where Daenerys Targaryen is. It’s in the North. I think one of the things that is remarkable about the two of you is you’re at the center, as you said, in terms of your identity and also in terms of your professional role. But you’ve paid such attention to what’s happening elsewhere.
The story you’re telling is like, “Hey, that’s where the action is.” It’s not that what you two do is not important. It’s not that being clergy should be diminished or dismissed. Doing bar mitzvahs, doing weddings and funerals, welcoming people to services and Shabbat, et cetera, that is really important. These other things are really important too. One of the things that I want to highlight, as a writer myself, I feel like what you guys have pulled off is a magic trick, which is, you are not shy about critique in this book. You critique concentrations of power.
You critique how too many wealthy people in the Jewish community control the direction of the community. You are very blunt about that. You critique Jewish nostalgia, and yet the vibe of the whole book is positive, hopeful, optimistic, and so you pull out the rabbit of hope out of the hat of despair. How do you do that? I feel like there’s both spirituality there and there’s a style there in terms of the craft of writing. Ben, how intentional were you two about that going in, and how important was it for you for this book to have a vibe of hope?
Spratt: Thank you so much, Eboo. I think this is actually a bit of wisdom that you yourself embody in your own writing. For me and Josh, this really gets to the heart of almost every religious tradition, which is that the power of the stories that we tell actually shape our sense of identity and our purpose in this world. The way that we were able to try to walk this line, is we saw that 20th century American Judaism really was defined by these two purposes, of finding a sense of acceptance and integration in America, and the establishment of the State of Israel. While there’s still plenty of work to be done in both these fronts, those purposes were largely achieved because prior generations were so successful.
The decline we see right now is actually because we are existing purposeless. That we’ve already achieved our purposes, and deep down, most American Jews already feel that and see that. It’s only when people beat the drums of either of those two purposes and say that actually we haven’t made it in America, or Israel’s fragile, that suddenly we see a resurgence of vitality and vibrancy. That suggests there’s an exciting moment that we can be celebrating what all that people have built in the past, and to acknowledge that with the changing evolution of this world, it calls for and demands for new ways of cohering, amassing power, and knitting people together.
We see the natural inclination to guild the glory days is actually because change is hard and it’s painful. When we see the things that brought meaning and connection in the past, and we see the world moving on from it, whether it’s in movies, or music, or religion, or community, or politics, it hurts the heart. We start to feel alone and abandoned, and our inclination is to say and shout that the world is wrong because we’re feeling that pain rather than acknowledging that this is the way of the world.
All we have to do is look at the seasons, the rhythms of nature and we see that the world is in motion. The more we can embrace that motion, create the space for the pain, but also the bloom of what comes next, that suddenly we’re able to walk this beautiful line of honoring the past, celebrating with excitement the future, and holding space of how the former can actually give wisdom to the latter.
Patel: That’s so perfectly said. You’re basically saying, thank you to the past generations for doing the work that you did, and now it’s time for us to do the work that we do. It’s a different moment. It’s a different era. I think that that really is why the vibe of the book is so hopeful. Because there is a gratitude, a deep gratitude for the people who built synagogues. Then there’s the question, is bricks and mortar, who we have to be into the future forever. Thank you for running your leg of the race. Now it’s time to run our leg of the race.
You’re almost like academic sociologist about this in the book. Josh, I want to turn to you for this. One of the lines you quote that I just found so powerful is by Nigel Savage, who saysthe organizational map of American Jewish life reflected the psychic needs of American Jews from the 1930s to the 1980s. It worked for those generations. Then at a certain point, the map didn’t work. Literally, both physical buildings and the culture of religious institutions moved slower than the current culture. My PhD is in sociology. I think in this manner. I think institutionally. I’m very struck by what institutions do communities build in which eras.
Let me ask a very blunt question. If big suburban synagogues were one of the most important American Jewish institutions from, say, the 1950s to the 1980s, what are the key new institutions for a Jewish renewal?
Stanton: Beautiful question. The suburban synagogues, in my mind, were like the supermarket. They had just enough for everybody that they could all be in one place at the same time. We have just enough learning. We have just enough prayer. We have just enough pastoral care. We have just enough cultural activities that you’re going to find something here. We’ve moved into the era of the food hall, the hipster food hall from Brooklyn that has the best-curated poke bowl in New York City, the best falafel in New York City, the best deli in New York City, and not just deli, but specifically the best salami from the best deli. You want to bring together the best in small areas and then coalescing community around them.
We’re seeing the synagogues that are thriving are those like IKAR in LA. It is the best in worship service. The best in study. The best in social justice. My community is thriving because we are excellent at religious education as an extracurricular activity. We are excellent at social justice. We are excellent at pastoral care. The communities that are thriving focus on very specific areas that they can serve human needs. People show up for those needs to be addressed, and then they stick together because they realize that they have a whole bunch in common.
We’re finding this around advocacy organizations. For some people, their primary affiliation is with the American Jewish World Service because that is living Judaism for them. For some, their primary affiliation is with J Street because they want progressive Israel advocacy and a two-state solution. For some, it might be Interfaith America because what it is to be Jewish is to create American pluralism. Then what people stick around for is they realize they’re building the social connections. They realize that they’re having the fundamental need of belonging answered. Those are the institutions that are thriving. Those that gather for a purpose and then stay for an implied purpose that has never been said aloud, which is human contact in an era of profound loneliness.
Patel: Let it be known that it was said here first that 21st century Jewish life is going to resemble a Brooklyn food hall.
By the way, if you’re enjoying this conversation, you ought to check out my new book, “We Need To Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.” It’s a guide for those who want to make positive social change, and an invitation into the next chapter of American religion. A chapter I’m calling interfaith America. We Need To Build is published by Beacon Press and available wherever you buy books. Now, back to the podcast.
There was another institution in this book that you imagine and propose that absolutely caught my eye. It’s a new way of doing Jewish seminary. You point out that the current way of doing Jewish seminary is really not working. That there are fewer than 200 people studying for rabbinical ordination across nine Jewish seminaries. You propose something totally radical. What if there was one Jewish seminary where Reform, Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Jews studied together and became rabbis together?
I’ve had Jewish friends my entire life, since I was like five years old. I’ve been doing interfaith work for 25 years. I’ve known plenty of Jews, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform. I am a hopeful person, and I have no idea how all of these people, who have very different understandings of daily things like kosher and major definition of things in Judaism like intermarriage, how they are going to study for the holy rabbinate together. But because I am a helpful person and because I am trusting of the two of you, I am going to ask you how this institution is going to work. Ben?
Spratt: Thank you, Eboo. I think that’s an appropriate level of skepticism. As I’m sure you’ve heard often, if you get two Jews in the same room, you’re going to hear at least 10 different opinions. What it would be to take Jews from different denominations, throw them together, and imagine that we would all hold hands in harmony under a single institutional umbrella may feel farfetched.
Yet I think, as Josh and I were exploring, we actually had the experience in rabbinic school. I went to a Conservative rabbinic school. I went to The Jewish Theological Seminary. Josh went to Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. We noticed that some of our professors actually were shared professors. Here we had two institutions that were blocks away from major bastions of, I would say, secular academia of NYU and Columbia University, and already at that point, we were noticing that while we had two different movements with different ideologies and different cultures that surrounded them, the fundamental areas, aspects and pillars of learning were actually very similar.
As we started to talk to colleagues, Orthodox colleagues, Reconstructionist colleagues, Renewal colleagues, we were noticing that much of the learning that needs to happen to become literate in Jewish text and tradition actually is very similar. Where the distinction comes is how you go and operationalize that learning. How do you go and transmit it into the ideologies that cohere people together? That’s one layer that we actually believe, is that fundamentally, there’s simply a natural structure that exists where if we have an expert in Talmud education, that is probably an expert that would be vital and helpful for people irrespective of their denominational identity.
The second layer of this is actually that denominational identity is becoming less and less of a driving idea or principle in Jewish self-identification in the world. We get to see here in America that most people identify as being Reform has to do with aesthetics rather than philosophy. We find that most people who identify as Orthodox has to do with more of the aesthetics and the people around than it actually does by theology.
As we’re starting to explore what are the new ways that people are cohering and enjoying it together, and it’s actually mostly based on action. We see some great examples of organizations that are blooming to model this. Hadar is a remarkable organization that has started from a worship independent experience, where we had people that actually were laity, that were shaping and creating prayer together that did not identify with denominations, and then actually grew into a whole Yeshiva. Actually grew into a whole platform of learning that doesn’t care actually whether you are Reconstructionist, non-denominational, Humanistic, Orthodox. If you are willing to dive into the waters of Jewish wisdom, let’s bring you together at the same table.
We see more and more of these organizations that are suggesting that it is not the philosophy that perhaps should divide us, but perhaps the experience itself allowing each individual to express that in our own personal philosophy.
Patel: I want to underscore something here, which I just think is a pattern in the book, which is, the two of you notice something happening that is a wrinkle in the process, and you’re like, “Hey, that’s maybe where we need to go.” You notice that Reform seminaries and Conservative seminaries share faculty occasionally. It’s the kind of thing that most people wouldn’t notice, and you think to yourself, well, wait a second. If they can share faculty, why can’t we study together? If we can study together in some classes, why can’t we live together? If we can live together, why can’t we dive into Jewish wisdom together, et cetera?
I just love that pattern. I think there’s a great wisdom there. Pay attention to what is happening at the edge that is creative, and ask the question, what does it mean to build an institution that might make that the center?
Stanton: Could I add one other thing, Eboo?
Patel: Absolutely, Josh.
Stanton: Ben said something that I think is so key about Hadar as an example. Pardes is another example and Shalom Hartman is another. There is a shift also away from clergy to lay leadership. People who did not have the title rabbi, or cantor, or educator, for so long have been ignored in Jewish circles, and all of a sudden it’s becoming evident that they’ve been doing brilliant work all along. One of our questions is whether we can also blur the line between the 200 people who are working towards ordination at any given point in time in the country and the thousands or tens of thousands of people who are hungry for deeper learning and more paths to leadership, but don’t need a five-letter title to feel whole in their lives.
Patel: That resonates with a key metaphor that I’ve been using. I write about it in We Need To Build, and I’ve been talking about it in my speeches, which is that America’s a potluck nation and that any community is a potluck community. What I mean by that is that if you don’t welcome the contributions of people in the community or the nation, then the group starves, and you miss out on a bunch of great dishes.
I think a huge part of what you write about in Awakenings is, look at all these people standing up and taking leadership. Look at all of these people who want to be Jews by choice. Look at all of these Jews of color and LGBTQ Jews who are starting organizations. We need to welcome their contributions into the Jewish community just because our institutional structure currently isn’t geared for that. Again, it was geared for a different time. Thank you to the people who ran that leg of the race. What does it mean to create a space and a structure that welcomes the contributions? Bring your delicious dish to the table.
Spratt: Absolutely. I think you capture this beautifully, Eboo. It’s what makes it so exciting for me and Josh. Almost every religious tradition starts with the margins. You look at the figure of Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, they’re in origin stories. In narrative stories, it’s always is the person who has experienced oppression, marginalization, and abandonment that is the one that actually blooms truth into the world.
That is actually some of what we’re seeing in this notion of a potluck nation. Is instead of simply just the melting pot metaphor that most of us were raised with, what we’re seeing instead is people very proudly taking their personal narrative, their personal experience, and the many intersecting threads of both pain and hope and lifting it up into the world in a way that creates new spaces of belonging. Instead of the mythology of let’s all be one and the same, could we lift up the story of Babel as the very vision and maybe wisdom of the world as it’s meant to be, is we’re never supposed to be centered in one place, all speaking the same language, all doing the same thing. We’re supposed to be scattered in this world creating hubs of belonging and taking the shadow and turning it into light.
That’s really what we’re seeing in all the spaces here. As Josh already reflected, when we look at the margins of American Judaism right now, the people who didn’t find their place of belonging in the boom of synagogues, these are the people who are starting up the Hadars, the TischPDXs in Portland, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, that now creates a new network up in Maine. We’re getting to see this innovation comes out of the struggle of people who didn’t find that belonging, and that is where wisdom has always bloomed in this tradition and in every religious tradition.
Patel: I love it. Look, I want to take this in a slightly different direction, a different variant on the general theme, which is pluralism, and back to the idea of this single seminary in which Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox Jews can study together. Really what you’re doing is, it’s this vision of an institution that can hold together pluralism, including its tensions.
One of the ways I found that demonstrated in your book, and again, in a radical way that I just deeply admired, was the way you two write admiringly about the Habad movement. My wild guess is that you two have lots of disagreements with the Habad movement. Lots of disagreements with the way they understand gender, the way they probably understand sexuality, the way they understand intermarriage, and yet you write several just glowing paragraphs complimenting the energy they bring to the Jewish community. Can you just elaborate on that?
Stanton: Let’s go back to the interfaith potluck metaphor and the potluck that is America metaphor. Let’s say that I have celiac and don’t eat gluten products, and you bring the best cake imaginable to this potluck. I could sit there and tell you all of the reasons why I won’t eat it, or I could talk about what is beautiful about it. I could say, “Wow, you just did the icing in such a detailed, careful way, and the layering on that cake looks amazing. Are there internal layers as well? How did you get a cake that tall to stand up perfectly?”
Why would we spend all of our time critiquing each other? The critiques can remain implied. How wonderful that we can also do Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good in one another. What if we could spend the time that we usually devote to criticizing and demeaning each other to learning from each other? It’s not to say I am going to become a Habad rabbi. It’s not to say I am going to send my community members to the Habad houses. It is to say, maybe I should go to a Habad house and learn about their extraordinary hospitality. Learn how they, more than Reform communities in many cases, actually wind up making LGBTQ people feel really welcome.
How is it that an ultra-Orthodox community that believes in centuries-old gender norms makes LGBTQ people feel more welcome at a Shabbat than my synagogue? What can I do better? That’s the blessing of it. That’s the opportunity.
Patel: I think it’s a big part of the blessing of your book, and it’s a huge lesson, which is the principle I take from this, is just assume you’re going to disagree with people. Just assume that. Once you assume that, then you are basically free to see the things that you admire about them. It was clear to me that that was a very intentional move on your part. You are not speaking about a reformed Jewish awakening. You’re speaking about a Jewish awakening that is welcoming to a range of identities, including ideological diversity. I found that so powerful.
I want to underscore one other thing that I loved about this book, which was the way you wove in Jewish sacred text, Jewish sacred story, Jewish tradition. You do this with many stories about Moses, who of course we in Islam view as a prophet. You write about how the pagan priest Jethro plays such an important role as an advisor to Moses, helps the Jewish people survive 40 years in the desert, helps them create a more just society. You write about how Moses says that he wishes everyone had the gift of prophecy.
You weave these stories into your book as a way, I wouldn’t say of justifying your sociological observations or your proposals for Jewish renewal, but inspiring them. How did it work for the two of you as writers? Did you read Jewish text and then go into the Jewish community with different eyes, or did you make sociological observations and then returned to the text and find ways that those observations were grounded in Jewish spiritual tradition?
Spratt: Such an astute question, Eboo. It’s actually a question at some point I’d love to ask back to you because I feel in your writing as well, there’s this interplay of what sparks the ideas. For me and Josh, one of the great Jewish technologies is this idea of havruta. This notion that if you want a path of wisdom, it has to be in fellowship. That one cannot actually become wise in the world sitting alone in a room.
What’s remarkable is that it is the idea that text is supposed to be the conduit of connection, the way in which two people build a fellowship, and that the most ideal study partner is the one who looks at the world differently from you. You want the person who challenges your ideas, who encourages you to twist the text and look at it in new ways. For me and Josh, we were sitting with text. Maybe this is just what rabbis like to do because we geek out on text all the time and weave it into sermons and reflections and pastoral care. It was an opportunity also for us to have the humility of recognizing that in many ways, there is nothing new under the sun.
Many of the changes that we see right here, many of the struggles, the pains, and the hopes are things that are already deeply embedded in this tradition, and maybe even in others. We wanted to go and explore that to see how this wasn’t some revolution that we were talking about, but actually an ongoing flow of tension in our tradition, of what inevitably happens as you start as a marginalized people and have to in scrappy startup ways, find ways of cohering and having your needs met.
Inevitably, what’s going to happen in order to do that is you’re going to coalesce into a community and create structures to support that community and start to consolidate power in a more and more efficient way. Then what happens, we see this in Jewish sacred texts again and again, is then there’s the need to upheave all that you’ve built because suddenly there’s people who are no longer at the center of power, they feel marginalized. Those people cry out and want a new structure of power.
And so for us, we wanted to go back into these texts, both because this is the pathway to wisdom and Jewish tradition, but also because these texts gave us some wisdom and vocabulary that we might not have otherwise seen. Often I find in my own life, if I’m looking just at the two inches in front of me, it’s terrifying. If I’m driving my car, I’m swerving left and right, trying to react to these two inches. If you can pull back and draw on a perspective that you see the long arc ahead of you and behind you, slowly you’re able to make much more intentional, thoughtful choices that tell a story of purpose, that anchors us in the sense that we are continuing on in that conversation that started many thousands of years ago and hopefully will continue thousands of years beyond us.
Patel: That’s so powerful. As we move towards the end of this interview, and thank you again so much for this time, I’m curious, Josh, what have you learned from other religious communities? Again, we’ve been friends for nearly two decades. I know all about your interfaith work. I know that you hosted Cordoba House. When New York City wouldn’t host it, Rabbi Josh Stanton would. You are a careful observer and a beautiful relationship builder with other religious communities. What have you learned from other religious communities as you have formed your ideas around a Jewish awakening?
Stanton: I want to connect a couple of dots because I think they relate to the deep psyche of American Jews, especially after the Holocaust. Part of the narrative of decline comes from inherited trauma. If you were to look at my family tree, there would be more dead branches than living branches. For Jews after the Holocaust, the notion of a relationship with God, a good God, a powerful God, has been incredibly challenging. The eternal question of where was God at Auschwitz stays with us. Other religious communities helped me zoom out, never forgetting the pain of my family but understanding that there was a world bigger than that pain, and that I need to understand the bigger world in order to understand myself therein.
Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, leaders of so many traditions encourage me to work on my relationship with God. They give me hope that I can have a relationship with God. That God might actually care about me. That there is a benevolent spirit in the universe out there. That my pain is real, and that belief in God does not negate that pain. That is probably the single biggest learning that I’ve done. It’s the reason, by the way, that we quote Richard Bulliet in his study of Islam, Islam: The View from the Edge. Because there’s so much that I’ve learned from Muslim leaders about community, about connection, about the American experience, but above all, about faith, and a faith that is strong enough, a faith that is fierce enough that it can endure tragedy and still give us hope.
Patel: There are so many moments in building Interfaith America for 18, 19 years – t was Interfaith Youth Core and now Interfaith America, but so many moments when, for example, dozen Muslims or whoever at Interfaith Leadership Summit would go off and do their afternoon prayer. I’d watch a group of Jews and I’d overhear one saying, “Hey, don’t we have an afternoon prayer practice? Anybody know how to do it? Because they’re doing theirs, shouldn’t we be doing ours?” That’s one of the things I love about interfaith work. It happens in a ritual. It happens in connection to God, as you were saying, Josh, but when you watch other people do something, you get inspired about your own. You get inspired about your own.
In my last question, I want to summarize your book in this way. I think Awakenings is basically about a shift from a narrative of decline to a celebration of all the energy and contributions that are out there in the Jewish community, and a commitment to building the new and creative institutions that can include all of those energies. I think that this is a process that the whole world should go through.
If you think about American religion, it is a story of decline. Falling membership, continuous scandal, et cetera. There has to be energy at the edges. There have to be movements at the periphery. I want to just ask you, what can American faith and philosophical communities, from atheists to Zoroastrians, what can American religion as a whole learn from the way you are outlining a Jewish awakening so that American religion as a whole can have our own awakening?
Spratt: First of all, for two often overly verbose rabbis, I think we should sit at your feet to learn concision because that was a fabulous summary of the book, and maybe we should have just put that out into the world. Thank you for that, Eboo. I think that there’s a few things. Modern positive psychology posits that in order for a person to thrive, they really need three things. They need a sense of gratitude. They need a sense of purposeful hope, and they need a sense of belonging in community.
What I think is really powerful is that when you look at the essence of what most faith traditions deliver to the world, there are practices of prayer that are meant to inspire a sense of blessing and appreciation for what is right in front of you. A sense of responsibility and ritual that is meant to inspire a person that they are here for a reason, and that that reason is to somehow reach for a better world for themselves and for others. Thirdly, to try to create frameworks and structures that enable and facilitate connection in community, which we certainly in this moment in America know more than ever is difficult.
I actually think this is really important because, in the midst of decline, we are also recognizing that some of the essential deliverables, the value propositions of religion, are more needed than ever. The question is, why is there this mismatch right now? A lot of it is because we have lost sight of the purpose of religion. The purpose of religion has never been about the church or the synagogue or the mosque. It has never been about the imam or the priest or the rabbi. These are actually tools that are meant to be delivering those deeper value propositions.
If you look at the history of every faith tradition, you see many different examples of how power is consolidated and how leadership is evolved, and also the structures that are meant to deliver that gratitude, that purpose, and that community. When we see the decline of trust in religious leadership in America and the institutions that have underpinned that leadership, we should take a moment and pause for the mourning and the grief that can come from that. These are centers of belonging that people have felt for generations. Yet we also can look up at the larger landscape and see that it’s inevitable. We can become excited to see what does America need more than ever right now?
The greatest plague is not actually COVID right now. It is, as Joshua pointed out, it is loneliness, it’s solitude, and the depression that comes from that. What is the greatest challenge in many ways in America? It is the divisiveness where we have no ability and no tools to know how to bridge that division. What does religion offer? An ability for a person to say, you are not alone in this world. You are here for a reason. You are needed and necessary, and also the person next to you is needed and necessary.
Perhaps if we could encourage faith leaders and laity to see that these traditions can offer the very self, the very balm that is needed in the wounds of America today, we can instead look at how to drive those forward and let the organic masses come together to create the new organizations, the structures, and the leadership to underpin them.
Patel: I love that. Thank you for that, Ben. Josh, take us out with something hopeful and something sacred about what the Jewish awakening, as you outline it, how it can help provide an American religion that is absolutely caught in a narrative of decline?
Stanton: Religion is bigger than the institutions that serve it. As Ben said, when we put institution before people, both do poorly. When we center human needs, we can thrive. The decline of many denominations across spectra of belief is because we have centered institution. That means that there is profound hope for the future the moment those of us who are blessed to be at the center take a deep breath, create space, and listen deeply.
Patel: Rabbi Ben Spratt, Rabbi Josh Stanton, friends, colleagues, rabbis, people I admire and follow and learn from, I can’t thank you enough for being on the Interfaith America podcast, telling us about the Jewish awakening, and helping us consider what it looks like to have an awakening across American religion. I appreciate you, friends.
Spratt: Thank you so much, Eboo. It’s such an honor. I’m so grateful for you.
Patel: Thank you. I’m so grateful I had the chance to talk with Josh and Ben. They’re such glass half-full people. They shift the paradigm from decline to possibility. They shift it from criticism to mutual enrichment, and I think that’s what we need right now. We need a commitment that begins in our attitude and in our approach to the world of moving forward together. That’s what I got from the conversation with Josh and Ben.
To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse nation, visit our website, interfaithamerica.org.
Interfaith America with Eboo Patel is a production by Interfaith America and Philo’s Future Media. I’m your host Eboo Patel.
Our Interfaith America team is executive producer Silma Suba, senior producer Monique Parsons, coordinating producer Teri Simon, researcher Neil Agarwal, with editorial support from Johanna Zorn. Production by Philo’s Future Media team, executive producer Keisha TK Dutes, producer and engineer Manny Faces. Share the show with a friend and rate, follow, subscribe wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.
Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.
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