What do you hope to achieve with your book?
The most important thing is I want people who have been labeled 'lapsed' Jews to feel entitled to their own religion. There are thousands of people like me, who left organized Judaism because it no longer seemed porous or open enough to engage with their points of view. I want them to understand that, as far as I'm concerned, they're practicing a more vital and genuine form of Judaism than many people who are going to synagogue every weekend. Just because those guys own the synagogues and the federations doesn't mean they own Judaism. A lot of us so-called lapsed Jews feel kind of guilty, like we've abandoned something, but I would argue that those of us who have pursued alternate courses have done so in order to preserve the Jewish spirit, not erase it.
Second, I want to help make institutional Judaism a bit more participatory.
What do you mean by institutional Judaism?
Synagogues, schools, philanthropies, federations. I want them to realize that the path towards the abundant and healthy Jewish community that they aspire to is not by increasing the height of the walls around this thing. It's by tearing them down, and letting people engage in a really honest conversation about what Judaism is and what they want it to be.
Why do you think your book has been perceived as controversial?
I think it's because a lot of people are still looking to Judaism for answers rather than to provoke more questions. They like to think of the world as this weird complex place, but religion as a place where they can receive palliative care, for the inevitable crises of real life.
Judaism seems to have been developed for precisely the opposite purpose. The purpose of Judaism was to help people break their attachment to the dead images of somnambulant religions and instead create mechanisms and conversations through which we could reckon together with the great ethical and existential quandaries of being human beings.
They are. The trick for Jewish clergy is how they can emerge from their jobs as ministers to their jobs as teachers. When we're in compromised states, such as after a death or a birth or any intense life milestone, we tend to want naturally to revert to a childlike state and to have a parent figure help bring us through it. The thing we have to ask ourselves, though, is if there's a way for our rabbis and religious leaders to help people through that while keeping them aware that this is really just role playing. It's not that the rabbi really knows what happens after death, or knows that God loves the person, but to acknowledge that there are certain rituals that help us through these times.
There are people running into shuls for all sorts of reasons these days. It's up to Judaism and Jewish institutions to rise to the occasion, like any good therapist or any good friend, to say, 'I get why you've come here. The answers to what you're looking for are more elusive than you might suspect. Though Judaism might not provide you with those answers, it can provide you with the process through which you can become comfortable and even begin to enjoy the seeking that you're currently in.' People ask questions and are really desperate for comfort. What I think we have to learn to do is to give people different kinds of things to chew on that can help mollify their immediate anxiety, but to do that through helping the person engage rather than sleep.
So when you write about going back and reinterpreting the text and discovering its true origins, can someone who believes the Torah is the word of God still participate?
I think the challenge to engaging with Judaism in that way is that if you really engage with Torah honestly, you start to realize that Judaism encourages, and perhaps requires, us to understand that our positions about God or Torah or Judaism are all provisional. We can't understand what's really going on. So when people think they really know what God is or really know what Torah is, those people end up getting into trouble if they want to engage with these texts. The texts create more questions than they answer. Judaism has so much wrestling in it.