The issue of democracy in religion has come to the fore recently for Catholicism and Islam, with the growing importance and involvement of the Catholic laity, and moderate Muslims becoming more vocal and active after September 11. As these religions struggle with reconciling tradition and democracy, will democratic shifts have reverberations in the Jewish community as well? Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Vice President of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, spoke with Beliefnet about democratic trends in Judaism and the religious world in general.

The issue of democracy and religion has been important for both Islam and Catholicism in the past few months. Is Judaism becoming a more democratic religion?

Democratization is going on all over the world. The new technology and new economic capacity happening all around the world is also going to affect people's spirituality. If people feel increasingly empowered as individuals, they will also seek to feel increasing empowered spiritually.

The old model was: to challenge authority meant to undermine authority or walk away from formal institutions. I think now what we're seeing--and it's true in Jewish life--is that the old premise that challenging existing authority meant you either didn't believe in authority or hated the institution isn't true. People are hungry for Jewish connection. But they need that Jewish connection to flow from them into the institutions with which they will affiliate, not the other way around.

In fact, what's gone on is there have been three great moves--a kind of spiritual evolution for the western traditions. The first was that people had personal identity by virtue of the community or institution with which they were affiliated. The next phase was people thinking, "I am the center of my universe," and that individualism is an absolutely sacred thing. But that individualism proved to be incredibly lonely. Now I think people are saying, "I want spiritual community, I want authoritative institutions, but they have to be authorized by the individual members."

This may be the moment in which we finally understand that spiritual authenticity flows from the inside out, not the outside in.

So where do you see this going on in the Jewish community?

More people are spending more years studying Torah than ever before. It may break to the right theologically, but it's breaking as a function of people studying and then reaching conclusions for themselves. And that's a new thing. In other words, you're not doing what your father or mother did because that's the way we always did it. So that's true in an Orthodox community, where some people are nervous about it getting "too right-wing." But that same phenomenon that's making orthodoxy move that way is what allows for some popular synagogues to attract thousands of people, even though the parents of those kids never went to synagogue. People are saying, "My spiritual journey is mine to construct."

Where does this concept of democracy in religion fit in with the idea of Jewish peoplehood? If everyone has an equal voice, what do we have in common?

What if what we have in common is a belief that goes back that's even bigger than Jewish--it's the founding story of the Torah, that all human beings are created in the image of God? And what we share in common is not the superiority of one group over another, but a deep belief in the infinite dignity of every human being.

Do you think there are things about Judaism today that other religions, like Catholicism and Islam, can learn from as they move toward this more democratic spirit?

I do, but I also think there are things we can learn from them. If lessons flow at all, they always flow in both directions. I think what's going on in Islam right now is the first stirrings of the reformation that community has never had. It's interesting that it's happening at about the 1500-year mark, which is exactly when the reformation in Judaism happened and the reformation in Catholicism. Fifteen hundred years into the Catholic tradition, there was a reformation that gave birth to Protestantism. Fifteen hundred years into the religion of ancient Israel, there was a reformation that gave birth to rabbinic Judaism. I believe that right now we are in one of those periods of reformation for Jews as well. So it would be interesting for us to imagine that the people that so many Jews are most invested in loathing actually can teach us a great deal. What if we go through a reformation together?

With the Catholic community, I think what you see is remarkably conservative, traditional people willing to espouse their views and say hey, I'm not choosing between having my opinion and having my church. It is the best of what all orthodox traditions are because it is profoundly conservative but it is absolutely open and demands public accountability. I think that would be a magnificent thing for Jews to learn because I think right now Jews are really in a bind. We have those that understand the power of connection to tradition but are by and large afraid to really embrace this kind of democratic process. And we have others who embrace democratic process but seem to have a hard time striking deep roots in the tradition. It would be really interesting to be able to do both simultaneously.

Is there a particular vision that you have in mind for a Jewish community after it has gone through this reformation?

It would be that people would be simultaneously more informed about the Jewish past and more expansive and imaginative about the Jewish future. Right now we tend to have people who are good at one of those, but not who are good at both simultaneously. There will not be fewer ways of being Jewish--it's not that we'll all agree on what Jewish looks like--but there ultimately will be as many ways of being Jewish as there are people who want to be Jewish. And we will figure out the ethics of real diversity that will still allow us to be a people.

We often confuse the notion of community and peoplehood. Peoplehood transcends ideology; community generally doesn't. So why can't we be one people with many communities?

Do you think this democratic trend is taking place in the U.S. because of the strong democratic history of the U.S.?

Definitely. For me, July 4 is a holiday, and it's a holy day. [The U.S.] probably has been the best experiment in human dignity in the history of the world. It will be very important to see how religious tradition can both learn from it and contribute to it.

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