Yehuda Kurtzer Wins Bronfman Brandeis Contest: Read His Full Proposal Here

Jewish Prayer (Image)
Photo by Diego Lemas

UPDATE: Huge congratulations are in order for Yehuda Kurtzer, who has been chosen as the winner of the Bronfman Brandeis contest. His biography and proposal are below.

This is the 10th entry in the Bronfman Big Idea Series.

About the Author

Yehuda Kurtzer is a doctoral student in Jewish Studies at Harvard University, where he is writing his dissertation on the Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora and their relationship to the rise of rabbinic piety. As part of this project, Yehuda focuses on transformations in Jewish identity in the changing ancient world.

An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowships and Bronfman Youth Fellowships, Yehuda has served as a teaching fellow at Harvard and for the past two years as an Instructor in History at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. Yehuda has worked as a Research Fellow for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum helping to bridge the worlds of Jewish Studies and Holocaust Studies, and as a consultant on rabbinic texts for Facing History and Ourselves.

He has lectured and taught widely in adult education settings, including The Curriculum Initiative, the Brandeis Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy, and NYU’s Center for Online Judaic Studies. Yehuda also helped co-found and continued to help lead Brookline’s Washington Square Minyan. He lives in Brookline, MA with his wife Stephanie Ives and their son Noah.

[Further links in body of text below.]

“The Sacred Task of Rebuilding Jewish Memory” by Yehuda Kurtzer

Jews Have Six Senses: Quoting Jonathan Safran Foer

“Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger.

The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep while stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.

When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”

~ Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (p. 198.)


The next great step for the Jewish future will be the reclamation of the Jewish past. I believe that the most successful, interesting and engaging programs currently invigorating the Jewish world are seizing upon this idea, and implementing the gifts of the Jewish past in surprisingly progressive and fresh ways.

I feel part of this process through my various communal initiatives and both eager and equipped to study and articulate its roots and its implications. The innovation I propose to advance at Brandeis is not a limited program but a powerful programmatic and public policy statement on what authentic Jewish memory means, from where it derives, and how the Jewish community can reinforce its values both in theory and in practice.

Keep reading to learn more.

Yosef Yerushalmi on Jewish History & Jewish Memory

Yosef Yerushalmi (Image)

The intellectual history of this phenomenon lies in the dialectic between Jewish history and Jewish memory. In his now-classic Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Yerushalmi described the birth of Jewish interest in historiography as a distinctively recent and modern phenomenon, one divorced from the mechanics of memory.

He famously called Jewish historians the “pathologists” of the declining power of Jewish collective memory, unable to (and uninterested in) rehabilitating an exercise that stands in “radically different relation” to the past than their historiographical task.

In his final words Yerushalmi admitted to falling short of addressing the growing alienation between Jews and how they remember their history, and he placed the burden on himself – on the historian and his ilk – to “build the bridge to his people.”

So while using historiography and the scientific, myth-undermining power of history to sound a death knell for the life-giving force of Jewish memory, Yerushalmi wistfully hoped that the historian might seize the mantle of authority to reinvigorate a Jewish world challenged by the demise of its mythic past.

Assessing whether Yerushalmi was right or wrong is difficult. Certainly much of the history of the tension that he described in the earlier chapters is mesmerizing and unimpeachable. What’s more, Yerushalmi paradoxically showed that the historian building a bridge to the past was actually simultaneously destroying that bridge.

As much as a historian may show us from whence we came, that map to the past invariably includes a good deal of demythologizing that makes a return to the ethics and values of the past more treacherous and less appealing. Indeed, as scientific historiography is a product of the modern world, its impact is adjoined to progress much like other technological advances. Scientific history often rejects the models of the past, and challenges us to do better.

Rabbi David Wolpe on History versus Memory

Rabbi David Wolpe (Image)

And yet, neither Jewish thought on this issue nor Jewish practice has adhered to Yerushalmi’s vision. Some 20 years after the publication of Zachor, Rabbi David Wolpe argued the precisely opposite thesis in his synagogue on Passover.

The distinction between history and memory, Wolpe argued, was irrelevant to the future of Jewish practice. We may accept that the Exodus cannot be proven archaeologically, but that empirical discovery should have no ramifications for how the holiday is celebrated.

The irony of this affirmation coming from a student of the Positive-Historical school of Judaism notwithstanding, Wolpe powerfully reaffirmed the mantle of the memorialist: What we know shall not sever us from what we choose to remember.

If Yerushalmi-to-Wolpe symbolizes the intellectual trajectory of these ideas, the same tension and reaffirmation of a selective version of the Jewish past is playing out in much more dramatic and visible ways within the Jewish community today.

Jews en masse are reclaiming and prioritizing the work of the Jewish memorialists, producing a postmodern reclamation of an inspired and inspiring past. The Jewish claim on the history that we want to tell has moved from Yerushalmi to Wolpe, from the academy to the synagogue, from the historian of the Jews to the Jews themselves. Yerushalmi’s lament was premature, and his charge misdirected.

In the Jewish world, I see this new claim on memory deeply manifest in the proliferation of emergent and independent spiritual communities, and more importantly in the massive reclamation of traditional Jewish text as the key anchor to Jewish growth and affiliation.

It seems now that the most effective vehicles of progressive Jewish dynamic vision are those anchored in the framework of memory, in the quest for mythical nostalgia, in the desire for what I call “new authenticity.”

Photo sourced from The Official Website of Rabbi Jason Miller

Reconnecting with Judaism: Boston’s Young Jews as a Microcosm

Boston (Image)

The data around Boston alone is staggering. Hundreds of Jews seek out adult Jewish education classes premised on old-fashioned texts and old-fashioned methods. Talented and motivated young adults, most with minimal training in rabbinic Judaism, enroll to become rabbis in a program that prioritizes Talmud and textual fluency above all else.

Young Jews in their 20s and 30s – everyone’s most desired demographic – seek out independent prayer communities precisely because they don’t simplify the service or elaborate too much on a basic paradigm. American Jewish leadership is being transformed by institutions like Pardes in Israel, wherein traditional Jewish learning is cast as an invigorating means to seize authenticity, to enable Jews to stake a claim to and own their tradition.

What is most striking about all these institutions is that none entails a rejection of progressivism or radicalism. Many of them, by design or by accident, are extremely hip and cutting-edge. But somehow egalitarianism, progressivism, and transformation now take root using the old tools of yeshiva study, halakhic language, and minyanim that fancy themselves as “shtibls.”

This is again a powerful paradox: Rather than employing the language of newness and dissociation from antiquated old models, those models are being rehabilitated to convey that newness – that renaissance – much more effectively.

The New Progressive Jewish Reality: “New Jewish Culture”

The history of ideas then is overlapping with the new progressive Jewish reality. As these successful organizations and programs succeed at their work, a new and more correct definition of Jewish memory emerges: Jewish memory is positive and proactive, a progressive execution of the components of the past in the work of the present.

The phenomenon of the “New Jewish Culture” that has received significant media attention has been mistakenly characterized as “new.” What is most significant about this phenomenon is its deep reclamation of particularism and its reformulation of that particularism in innovative art forms.

I once heard Professor Jeffrey Shandler lecture about the irony of the popularity of klezmer music, that the old shtetl world would be horrified to know that their greatest living legacy is the clown in the corner playing a musical instrument. But the knowledge that klezmer may not be the most heroic artifact of the shtetl cannot compete with packed concerts and CD sales.

New Jewish culture may not represent the Jewish past with historical accuracy, and its version of authenticity may be inauthentic to the past; but the key to its success is in the channeling, constructing and transmitting that very authenticity.

The Allusion of Tradition

In other contexts, young Jews are drawn in by allusion to, rather than illusion of, tradition. The Havurah on the Hill, which is part of the reclamation project of Boston’s Vilna Shul, characterizes its programs as informed by a “nice hint of tradition.”

Never mind that the structure and often content of its programs are decidedly new; the reincorporation of familiar paradigms is critical to the appeal (even as they are extremely new to many Jews in their own processes of ‘return.’)

What is Jewish Memory?

What is Jewish memory, after all, but deliberately constructed mythical nostalgia that binds one to a past even in radically reinterpreting that past?

Jewish memory scoffs at the definition of memory as a first-order photographic capture of experience lived. Instead, Jewish tradition ironically celebrates temporal distance from the actual event being remembered, translating the event into ritual, nostalgia, and myth.

Jewish memory is not made more correct by its historical accuracy. This translation of event to practice bridges the chasm of past and future, and renders a specific historical event into an ongoing event of significance.

Understanding Memory Through Jewish Ritual

In a research project that I undertook several years ago at the US Holocaust Museum, I argued that this understanding of memory can be demonstrated consistently through Jewish history, ritual, culture, and theology. I also offered some thoughts as to how Jews must use this approach proactively to ‘remember’ the Holocaust, rather than fixating on the historicity of the Holocaust.

Jewish historicity is finite, but memorialization is timeless. Those limited conclusions can be widened dramatically in the interest of Jewish public policy. A new direction for the Jewish communal establishment will be to democratize, popularize and make accessible programs and institutions that are forming contemporary Jewish cultural memory, thus enabling Jews to stake a meaningful claim to their heritage.

I can imagine developing a national program facilitating access to institutions of Jewish learning, or working on helping these creative initiatives bridge their chasm to the institutionally-based Jewish community.

Pursuing an Understanding of Jewish Memory at Brandeis

This project feels particularly appropriate to me at this juncture in my professional life. I am currently completing my doctorate in Jewish history at Harvard, and eager to embark on my next intellectual project.

I have also found myself in constant tension as to the role of the academic in the world of Jewish leadership, especially as I have served in positions of Jewish leadership in the past several years that sometimes overlap and sometimes depart from my academic commitments.

My teaching at Hebrew College has prepared the way for this project, as I have been working with rabbinical students on refining their understanding of the relationship between ancient Jewish history and how rabbinic Judaism has elected to remember that history.

In my communal life I co-founded the Washington Square Minyan in Brookline, a start-up congregation attracting many young Jews and generating a buzz in Boston for its unconventional presentation of some extremely traditional conventions.

All this, combined with my earlier research at the Holocaust Museum and my ongoing partnership with Facing History and Ourselves in Brookline, incline me to believe that my next project is precisely this job: An opportunity to write a great book and simultaneously help chart the course for the Jewish future.

My project will revisit the binary of memory and history and how the times in which we live affirm a new paradigm that I hope to articulate.

In a work of history, theology, and ultimately programmatic public policy, I will seek to explain why the tide is shifting in the advancement of the Jewish past; what this shift means for the Jewish future; and how this moment in time must be leveraged.


Comments on this blog should be posted with the purpose of forwarding healthy conversation. If you have criticism of the proposal, please express it as constructively and respectfully as possible. Thank you in advance.



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80 Responses to Yehuda Kurtzer Wins Bronfman Brandeis Contest: Read His Full Proposal Here

  1. Maya Norton says:

    A Reminder to Commenters

    Your comments and reactions are most welcome, HOWEVER:

    Comments on this blog should be posted with the purpose of forwarding healthy conversation. If you have criticism of the proposal, please express it as constructively and respectfully as possible.

    Thank you in advance,


  2. Duh says:

    When you write comments within one minute between them we know you are the same person. One guy doesn’t like the proposal…we get it. Any other thoughts?

  3. Shai says:

    Guys, I read this proposal and I don’t feel any desire at all to pan it the way some of you have. It takes a little patience to understand where he’s coming from, but if you read any proposal with an eye to criticism rather than with a predisposition to try and grow from it and understand it, you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s. Try to understand what he’s saying. Respect that. There’s a person behind these ideas, and person’s deserve respect – even those you disagree with.

    It seems to me that Mr. Kurtzer is asserting that it’s always been a cultural trait of Jews to assimilate history in a way that makes history meaningful to them. Historical accuracy is rarely or perhaps never as important as the message and meaning we take from history. We like to believe that G-d speaks to us through history. We are thus a religion of real-time myth making.

    Kurtzer seems to be saying we should embrace this and create the myths for our own era without feeling we’ve spat in the eyes of our ancestors. We ought to feel comfortable with claiming our own authenticity, and not feel as though we’ve crossed some inviolable boundary that undermines authenticity. Each generation has, he seems to assert, it’s own right to establish what is authentic for them. It is the process that is relevant, not the fidelity to the past real or imagined.

    This seems to hew closely to M. Kaplan’s views, and in this respect I’m not picking up the innovation in the idea. Perhaps what is being attempted here as a project is an organized effort to choreograph a generation’s approach to meaning (I think he uses the word “memory” in a way that really boils down to “meaning”) so that we have some sort of common narrative that can unite us. Or, perhaps, he’s just looking to strengthen our flabby myth-making muscles by encouraging myth-nodes – places where groups of perhaps a hundred or so agree to a particular meaning-mode. But whatever he is doing, it requires giving ourselves permission to relate to history as personal and communal property. That seems to be the thrust of his book.

    What I don’t really understand is how the product of all this sustains community or us as Jews because I have doubts about whether a philosophy that is not grounded in deeds as the ikkar can work for Judaism. If we all get together to agree that something is meaningful, or put another way, that our common memory-myth of something is what binds us and we admit that we are just philosophizing ourselves into this commonality, isn’t this bond a bit too tenuous to last over time? How likely is it that the unaffiliated will expose themselves to this process of mass-memory making, when all that would be achieved is a community of like minded people?

    I’m wondering out loud whether creating a church of believers is the way to go. Rambam started with the first one – defining a Jew based on what he believes rather than his lineage. But in an era where one can read only blogs or periodicals or watch only tv stations whose contents we agree with, never being exposed to conflict, isn’t the perfidy against our cultural edginess? Why is the goal a _common_ generational myth? I mean, doesn’t it seem kind of like cheating for Jews not to embrace the process more than the result, thus elevating argument rather than coalescense upon new common memory? It could be I’m overstating this – it’s entirely possible that it’s meant for there to be argument within the process of mythmaking – but I didn’t see that stressed in the proposal.

    The idea seems to be very Boston – geared as he said to young 20-30 year old Americans. How does this translate to a world? What does my co-worker whose parents immigrated from Morrocco to Israel, who has almost no Jewish memory, gain from this? How do you reach his children? How do you take his parents, who are fine with their traditionalist-rote view of Judaism, and unite with them? Heck, how is it relevant to me? Is the foundation of this idea broad enough to be considered “Big”?

    I’m really not grasping how this is not just a very good further development of Reconstructionist Judaism. I don’t mean by labeling it thus to end debate, or to suggest that Reconstrutionist Judaism doesn’t deserve to be further developed – it’s just I’m trying to grasp whether this is really a “community project” in the broadest sense, or rather a sectarian one that advances the preconceptions of those who selected it. Is it an attempt to innovate, or an attempt to reclaim Reconstructionism for Mordechai Kaplan, or both?

    Is this just a version of academic manifest destiny?

  4. Gary Kulwin says:

    IMHO, this is an excellent proposal – it is elegantly written and offers thought provoking ideas. While I previously thought that Saul Singer had the strongest of the five finalists’ proposals, I am now deeply impressed by Yehuda Kurtzer’s writing after examining the full proposal in greater depth. While I could not easily argue that it is definitively the best of the proposals that I’ve read here on Maya’s blog, I don’t think that any other essay published here (including my own) was clearly better. Kurtzer is a very talented scholar, and I hope that we see more good things from him in the future.

    I do understand the perspective of some readers, though, that the academic style of Kurtzer’s prose may be somewhat difficult to clearly comprehend. Thus, I want to offer my own interpretation of what he’s really getting at here. (Of course, my simplification of someone else’s ideas may get them wrong; my apologies, in advance, to Yehuda where I misinterpret him.)

    In the “pre-modern” past, a critical part of being Jewish was studying our core texts – not only Torah and Talmud but midrash, halakhic responsa, philosophical works, etc. Of course, this emphasis on the core texts remains central in the life of Orthodox Jewry. On a “related tangent” – I just discovered a remarkable website – – that offers PDF copies of thousands of religious texts, mostly written in Hebrew. The desire to preserve core religious texts is certainly alive and well among one segment of contemporary Jewry.

    At the risk of using an overly simplistic metaphor – at some level, being a literate Jew is somewhat like belonging to a book club (like the famous Oprah’s Book Club). It’s not that all literate Jews share the exact same beliefs, or even that they are preoccupied with the same set of concepts. Instead, their commonality (with each other, as well as with their ancestors) derives more from the shared experience of having read this same set of books – the “core curriculum” of Jewish life. When Kurtzer talks about “memory”, a big part of what he is referring to is this sort of knowledge of the core texts.

    Among “modern and post-modern” non-Orthodox Jews, however, direct experience with the core texts is (until recently) pretty rare. The pursuit of “History”, as Kurtzer seems to put it – in other words, the scientific analysis of Jewish texts and Jewish history, based on the assumption that the core texts were man-made – is a major reason for the decline in direct text study. In other words, if you believe that all of these texts (including the Torah and the Mishneh) were man-made and not the word of G-d, then what purpose is served by studying them? Wouldn’t you be better off (i.e. saving time and effort) by having some scholar read these books for you, and explain to you the “highlights” (i.e. the key ideas in the texts and their ultimate significance)? For lack of a better term, we could call this “Cliff’s Notes Judaism” – learning about Judaism almost exclusively through second-hand sources.

    The “Big Idea” in Kurtzer’s proposal, as I understand it, is that we need to move away from this “Cliff’s Notes” approach and back to direct encounters with the core texts, whether or not we truly believe that these texts are of divine origin. Kurtzer seems to refer to this as the “new authenticity” – going back to study the same texts that our ancestors did, whether or not we comprehend and believe in these books the same way that they did. Of course, somebody could still argue that it’s not going to be worth the trouble for most non-Orthodox Jews (even if the core texts are being studied in creative new ways). Why participate in Talmud study, for instance, if you don’t accept the Talmud as a religiously binding text that prescribes obligations?

    I think that the counter-argument would be that “it beats the alternative”. Several generations of American Jews have grown up learning “about Judaism”, instead of getting directly engaged with core text study. We now see the emergence of a small, yet significant, segment of young Jews who seek out “direct experiences”. They want to participate more directly in Jewish rituals, without “intermediaries” (for instance, joining participatory minyanim instead of established congregations with professional leaders). They want to form their own opinions about the core teachings of Judaism, instead of only getting interpretations from a rabbi or professor.

    Indeed, the whole concept of American-style denominations within Judaism is starting to feel a little foreign, even to those who grew up as activists in these movements. Why turn to an official committee to determine what your opinion should be about issues like homosexuality or abortion, when you can read the central texts and form your own opinion? Why seek out denominational ways to affiliate, when some of the most powerful institutions in Jewish life (Hillels, summer camps, community day schools, etc.) are often trans-denominational?

    Dividing up along ideological lines seems to be a very Christian/Protestant form of religious affiliation (i.e. the Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.). Much more Jewish, IMHO, is to get together with those we don’t agree with and argue about the core texts that we share as part of our heritage. In other words, Kurtzer’s proposal seems to be about a lot more than just a call for “Jewish literacy” (ala’ Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book). Re-emphasizing the core texts could lead to dramatic re-alignments (organizational, cultural, etc.) in Jewish life.

    As I have learned from this process, no one Big Idea can undo all of the challenges facing the Jewish People. The best Big Idea proposals, however, can force us to re-think the “ways we do business” in contemporary Jewish life. In my own proposal, I questioned how we can engage in so much pro-Israel activity in American Jewish life, with so few expressions of Israeli culture (except within the limited confines of the Israeli expatriate community). Saul Singer’s proposal questioned how we constantly talk about the presence of non-Jews within our ‘communal boundaries’ (i.e. growing rates of intermarriage, non-Jewish immigrants to Israel, etc.), without engaging in serious discussion of whether it would be good policy to try to convert these ‘outsiders’. Likewise, Yehuda Kurtzer seems to ask how we can spend so much time thinking about Jewish beliefs and values, yet devote so little time looking into the core texts that apparently guided the beliefs and values of the generations before us.

    As Shai (I think) once put it – we seem to gain more insight through working together, and arguing with each other, than we would if we just contemplated the fate of world Jewry in isolation. Even if you disagree with the premise of Kurtzer’s ideas, you have to admit that these ideas do contribute greatly to our collective conversation.

    Kol Tuv, GK

  5. Ian Zwerling says:

    I think that you are trying to find something bigger than yourself to believe in, and this is the opposite of what his proposal wants. He doesnt want anything bigger than himself to believe in, which means that we dont believe in anything bigger than he, himself, also. Jacques Derrida was similar in this respect.
    What he really wants to say, but has failed to do so far is to say something already known. The six senses including memory is a confused way of saying that our relationship to God is based on hearing God’s voice, not seeing him. Christianity has a visual connection to Jesus, mainly because of the illiteracy of Christians in medieval Europe who learned the Bible from stained glass windows of Cathedrals. We are the people of the book which is contradictory to his hearing voices that tell him how important his own views are.

  6. Shai says:

    GK, I agree that Kurtzer adds to the “collective conversation”. But I didn’t pick up on your point that direct exposure to the texts are the primary way we negotiate our memory/meaning as a community. Most Jewish texts aren’t at all concerned with meaning nor history, but rather with matters of ritual law. Even those that aren’t concerned with ritual law mostly concern themselves with hashkafic matters. WIthin the texts themselves, you won’t find Kurtzer’s recognition that we digest history and excrete meaning (ew :-)).

    Kurtzer gave an example of our experience of the Holocaust and of Klezmer music as two phenomena that are experienced today in ways that are meaningful, not historical. We can add to that the exodus, the Purim story, and many others.

    So while primary exposure to texts might be a tool in developing our generation’s meaning-building skills, the exposure seems to me to be more of a loyalty-test than utilitarian in terms of meeting the objective of memory-making. Direct exposure is, in other words, a way to give ourselves a common frame upon which to hang our memories, and build a generational communal legacy. But the meaning comes from a perspective on how the texts fit into a historical context (most meaningful being our own historical context – assuming we can really grasp that in real time), not how history fits into a textual context.

    At least that’s how I interpreted what he said.

  7. Shai says:

    Ian, I don’t understand how your point about seeing/hearing derives from anything Kurtzer said. Maybe it’s because I’m not trying to contextualize him within the camp of deconstructionists, nor am I placing any judgment on people who place a higher value on what they extract from a personal Judaism than they would on a communal version. I am not convinced I have the only good answer to our problem.

    I think all approaches to Judaism try to find a balance between the rights of individuals and the community. Orthodoxy is by far and away the most communal oriented. Jews are expected to give up a lot of their personal autonomy for the sake of the klal. But what do you do in an era where personal autonomy is held in higher esteem than community?

    Modernity proposes a reshuffling of the priorities because we have a lot more personal choices than we used to. This is just a fact. Putting Judaism in a can and preserving it’s 17th century manifestation (what we have today) isn’t working for a lot of choice-making people. So what do you do? Force them at gunpoint? Let them just disappear into the dustbin of assimilation?

    In my view, you can’t just wish these choices away so that the way community vs. individual dynamics work out remains the same. Kurtzer and those who think like him are making a proposal for dealing with a situation that is very real. You may not like that he’s got a proposal that is created in his own image (I presume) rather than in an ideal Aristotelian version of global Judaism (which Kurtzer seems to argue never existed, like Kaplan argued – but Rambam seems to me to have disputed this), and you may think that such creations aren’t going to work. But the alternative isn’t just business as usual, either.

    So, what do you do? I think that’s what we’re all trying to grasp at.

    We’ve never really had so many choices before as people and as communities. How do you create a Judaism that people will choose? He’s trying to answer that question. Disagree or not, he seems to be proposing a Judaism that is nodal rather than stream-based – for a more segmented and disaggregated community of like-minded Jews.

    But first, to achieve this vision, he’s trying to create memory as the means for coalescing these micro-communities. So while it may be true that the global Jewish community will be much more varied (I think you think this is bad, if I grasp what you’re saying), nevertheless membership within it is still community-based and I don’t think you are completely accurate in saying that it’s created in his image. I think you would be accurate in saying that it’s not created in the image of a Judaism that has any concept of “correct belief” (the literal meaning of ortho-dox).

    Most orthodox people think that is a weakness of such systems. I tend to think that the evidence supports that view – but, we’ll see.

  8. Ian Zwerling says:

    My proposal answers these questions. Unfortunately, I cant work on it with a sponsor so I have to put it away until another day. I cant publicize it because of the effort and time put into it that has penalized me in other ways. I wish I could share it but I cant.
    The point about hearing God is the origin of Judaism. The whole point is that Judaism cant be deconstructed. It is a complete whole and he doesnt understand it so cant accept this. He needs to peel it like an onion to see whats inside. Because it is complete it only needs to be understood in its entirety.
    One cant deconstruct the Hebrew letters because they have a direct connection to our relationship to God. So where is he going to look.
    I recommend a fascinating web site that you may not know.

  9. Ian Zwerling says:

    sorry, I believe its

  10. Shai says:

    Ian, unfortunately if you wait for a sponsor, nobody might ever hear your ideas. What would be served by that? If your ideas can only be developed by you, and it seems it is your innovation alone and depends on qualities only you bring to the table, so why worry about someone stealing it? I’d like to hear the ideas, personally.

    Anyway, the views you state are not accepted by traditional sources across the board. For example Menachem Kellner goes into depth in two books of his, one on the subject of the decline of the generations and the status of rabbinic authority, and the other on Rambam’s battle against the mystical underpinnings of some streams in Judaism, that G-d is NOT the source of halacha per se. Rambam would be the source of some of your assertions, such as the impossibility of the personification/deconstruction/non-unity of G-d. There are streams of thought that do not agree with Rambam (at least at one time, there were). On the other hand, your perspective on the quality of Hebrew letters is a mystical belief that Rambam probably would have ridiculed.

    The fact is that today, yes – a lot of Judaism is a mixture of both Rambam’s rational and Halevi’s mystical view. A lot of effort has gone into squaring that circle, and this gives the impression that Judaism is “whole”. But, that it took time and effort to get to this point is a matter of historical record. Maybe you could argue that the Aristotelian ideal exists, and today we’ve finally uncovered it in its wholeness. That would seem to undermine the concept of the decline of the generations (Halevi’s view) – though the Rambam would be triumphant in that perspective (he believed the movement toward the Messianic age would be a result of the advance of mankind’s knowledge of G-d).

    I dunno. I can’t really figure out what you’re talking about – by not revealing your proposal I can only draw from hints. I can’t fathom how any of what you spoke of in your last 3 posts is relevant to Kurtzer’s submission or what you said before. Are you saying that there is some sort of ontological “right” out there that Kurtzer isn’t understanding? How do you prove that? What are all your unstated assumptions? If you want to argue that Kurtzer’s proposal is a disaster, don’t you think you have an ethical obligation to explain why? Ian, if you want to have a discussion you’re going to have to take a chance and expose your proposal and thought process to a fuller review. Else, it’s just not possible to understand why you are so upset and feel as strongly as you do.

    BTW, you’re welcome to criticize my proposal, too. I don’t seem to have benefited from your review.

    Shabbat shalom.

  11. Tsvi Bisk says:

    What Was Wrong With The Bronfman Contest?

    I must begin my comments with a “Due Diligence”. I submitted my own proposal “Covenant with the Future” which did not even make the semi-finalist stage. And although I immodestly thought my proposal to be superior to 4 of the 5 finalists I did not expect to win or was surprised at the winner.

    The “prize” of this contest was a 2 year sinecure at a prestigious university. The jury was composed of professional academics. I only have an MA from what is considered a “B” level institution and I will be 65 years old this fall. That the winner was a young doctoral candidate from Harvard (who will probably have his PhD by the time he accepts his position) is therefore no surprise to me.

    I was personally rooting for Ariel Beery who had formulated a truly future oriented comprehensive vision that was indeed a big idea and was capable of accommodating many of the ideas in my proposal and the proposals of several others. Ariel is also young, full of inhuman energy and a practical and successful social entrepreneur who has already established several initiatives that are having profound impact on Jewish life. He also writes in a clear businesslike manner without the pretensions of academic obfuscation. But I was doubtful he would win also – no PhD and too hyperactive for the serene atmosphere of academe.

    There is therefore a fundamental ethical problem with the contest – it should have been made clear at the outset that the fundamental standards of the contest would be academic and not entrepreneurial (which the name of the contest – “Big Idea” – intimated). This is legitimate, but it should have been made very clear and thus many of us would not have invested so much time and energy in preparing our proposals. (Ironically, several of the proposals of the finalists looked as if they had been prepared in an afternoon). Not Beery’s or Kurtzer’s.

    I also want to disassociate myself from some of the personal attacks on Kurtzer and Singer which Maya quite rightly removed from the Blog discussion. I believe that Moses married a couple of Shiksas and that Jewish tradition says that the Messiah will be a descendent of a Shiksa. Tying this to Singer’s proposal I have – in my recent book “The Optimistic Jew” – called for the establishment of a Jewish organization called “Ruth” dedicated to welcoming the non-Jewish spouses of mixed marriages as well as developing a non-religious way for non-Jews to join the Jewish People.

    Now to my substantive criticism of the choice. It is a “small idea”. It is a valuable small idea to be sure, but it relates to a rather minor (albeit valuable) target group. Beery’s is a “Big Idea” – one that can embrace the entirety of Jewish activity in the 21st century. And as Shai Litt points out Kurtzer’s proposal contains no actionable projects. It is (as befits academe) a mostly intellectual exercise. It is also past oriented – or at best oriented to “the future of the past”. It limits itself to religious texts rather than relates to the existential totality of Jewish existence. In this it relates to Judaism – the religion of the Jewish people – rather than to Jewry per se (as does Boteach’s proposal).

    But what is really wrong with the proposal is summed up in his words:
    “It seems now that the most effective vehicles of progressive Jewish dynamic vision are those anchored in the framework of memory, in the quest for mythical nostalgia, in the desire for what I call “new authenticity.”

    To this I can only quote one of my intellectual heroes. Arthur Lewis, the Black Nobel Prize winner in economics, who criticized the ethnic kitsch of black cultural nationalism by writing: “ . . .only decadent peoples on the way down feel an urgent need to mythologize and live in their past. A vigorous people, on the way up, are more concerned with visions of its future.”

    Nostalgia is the problem, not the solution; nostalgia is the disease not the cure. Beery recognized that the digital age will change the framework of Jewish life as much if not more than the industrial age which enabled the formation of American Jewry, the establishment of Israel and “God Help Us” the perpetration of the Holocaust. It is future oriented, as is Singers, Litt’s, Kulwein’s and mine (and I would assume dozens more) as pretensions to “Big Ideas” should be. Kurtzer’s is essentially pre-occupied with the past and its potential affects on the future – it does not have the ambition to create a different future reflecting the constraints and using the tools of the digital age.

    I would call this a sadly missed opportunity if I wasn’t sure that Ariel will pursue and realize his aims no matter what.

  12. Ian Zwerling says:

    What Im saying is that there is only one good solution to any problem. Its like the sweet spot on a drum. One’s philosophical axiom is what deviates into every other concept and opinion. Im saying that you have to know truth to say anything truthful. You have to be totally honest to know what truth is. Any attempt to reduce a problem doesnt change the problem and certainly doesnt solve a problem. There is only one essential truth, not many, its what all of us share if we know it or not. Kurzer has turned the saying that for every two Jews there are three arguments into a doctrine, hoping that the third argument is God’s.

  13. Tsvi Bisk says:

    Mr. Zwerling is simply getting silly “Bronfman’s main goal is to drive us to drink”? Indeed?!

    In science there is one truth, in math there is one truth (but many formulas to get to it). In the political organization of society vis-a-vis the inalienable rights of the individual I would argue there is one truth (but various ways to achieve it). But in culture? In religion? You sound like the medieval Catholic church!

    And despite my own criticisms about the contest they never attributed all knowledge of truth to Kurtzer. Where did that come from? If that were true they would not have had five finalists and 20 semi-finalists or encouraged Maya to have this blog discussion.

    As for the so called form letter — would you have had Sarna write over 200 hand written notes? I thought the letter was proper and dignified and personally signed. Criticisms of the contest and the winner should be substantive and not personal or silly. I have cited my criticisms above. I have gotten over it and wish Kurtzer well in his academic career (and in the writing of his book — I am sure it will contribute to Jewish scholarship but would be surprised if it were transformative). The lesson I have learned is never enter a contest run or juried by a University. They have their own constraints and sub-culture and we were all a bit foolish to expect them to act other than as a university.

  14. Maya Norton says:

    Listen, Ian. It’s so simple. If you post a valid comment and end it with an insult, I have to delete it according to the policy of promoting healthy discussion.

    That level of criticism has no place here.


  15. Shai says:

    C’mon, Ian. Lo b’shamayim hee. Even if there is one essential truth, it’s beyond our reach. Kohellet summed up the search you are entertaining as “vanity”. I am not aware of a single source who believes truth is like a drum, and that anything people do ever goes further than approximating some ideal truth. We live in a real world, and real people make mistakes. We’re human beings. We are even sometimes complete idiots. That’s what tshuva is for – because life is a process and we are trying to make ourselves better all the time. You may not feel that Kurtzer’s idea is THE idea that takes us all the way from point A where we are, to point B where we need to go, but even if you don’t follow his idea, can’t you agree that it at least contributes to your sense of direction – even if you’re travelling the other way?

    We are all necessary parts of the Jewish people. All our contributions can be accounted for by first valuing the giver, then evaluating what’s given. I think every person deserves that respect, even when we disagree.

  16. Ian Zwerling says:

    Shai, Im very sick with the flu so I cant really answer now. Your question is the essential one though and I do have an answer for it but I cant because its a big part of my theory.
    As to respect, I believe there is such a thing as inauthenticity. Love the sinner hate the sin is closer to my opinion.

  17. Ian Zwerling says:

    theres a feature article on today’s JPost about the Jewish Revival movement that seems to mirror the winning proposal completely. I dont know what the originality of the proposal is if it is already being implemented.

  18. Yo says:


    I understand your gravitation towards a future oriented proposal, but your gushing over Ariel Beery’s proposal over other finalists is not something I agree with. “Creative Zionism” was never sufficiently explained by him [what does it mean?], and the international coffee houses/get together places didn’t strike me as the solution to the problems of the Jewish community.

    The winning proposal didn’t impress me all that much either. But it’s not the authors fault that he won. The contest was an academic contest passed off as a general contest. Many people wouldn’t have applied if they knew that the focus was on the teaching and finding a professor rather than the idea.


    You are mad, and are acting out. Why don’t you share your “Big Idea” instead of pretending it is so great but refusing to talk about it. No one will steal it.

  19. Ian Zwerling says:

    I wouldnt have entered it if I was hiding it, would I? I entered it because I thought it was critical at this dangerous time were living in. Thats the only reason. Of course Im afraid of it being stolen. Academic life involves alot of stealing and cheating, not to mention plagiarism.

  20. Ron Wegsman says:

    Am I missing something? I see a very well argued rationale in Yehuda Kurtzer’s paper but I don’t see what he actually proposes to do.

  21. Ron Wegsman says:

    Oh, now I see. This is all about writing a book. Well a book is good, whatever it’s about.

  22. Yo says:


    Who insulted Maya? I did not. Did I miss a deleted comment or something?

    Why are you still so bent out of shape? You’ve known for weeks now that you didn’t win. Why are you still so angry? It’s time to get over it. You were not destined to win, maybe you will win next time…if you stop harassing Sarna, which is a bit funny.

    Share your idea. It will give us something new to talk about. I double dare you.

  23. Gary Kulwin says:

    Hi, Shai –

    I think that you’re right in noting that my interpretation of Kurtzer’s work may have deviated a little from what he was actually trying to convey. In particular, I seem to have over-emphasized the role of classical texts in his model for Jewish renewal. Part of the problem I had was in bridging the gap between the theory and the specific examples in Kurtzer’s proposal. The examples he uses to demonstrate the emergence of the “new authenticity” include rabbinical programs and adult education classes that are text-centric, as well as the popularity of Israel’s Pardes Institute (which, BTW, is not a ‘new phenomenon’, since Pardes has attracted students to its program since I was in college more than two decades ago). As Kurtzer wrote: “In the Jewish world, I see this new claim on memory deeply manifest… in the massive reclamation of traditional Jewish text as the key anchor to Jewish growth and affiliation.”.

    He does, of course, refer to other examples of preserved Jewish memory – notably Klezmer music, prayer services that “stick to the text” by avoiding simplification or elaboration, and traditional holiday observances. I still think my “Book Club” metaphor works well here; a more accurate metaphor would perhaps expand this to be a “Book/Music/Holiday Club”, but somehow it all seems to get back to the idea that there is a canon of classical Jewish cultural sources (in the form of texts, music, rituals, etc.) that we can draw upon to craft our own individual identities. This collective adherence to a core canon preserves the essence of community – shared experience – even as it provides for radically different forms of individual interpretation and practice.

    I think that the bigger challenge I faced while interpreting the essay, however, was determining where Kurtzer’s work stands in relation to other Jewish thinkers. It’s funny that many of the readers of this proposal view Kurtzer as some sort of ‘post-modernist’, while I interpreted his writings as ‘neo-traditionalist’. In other words, while his writing may appear to be “left-wing” from an Orthodox perspective (as it asserts the importance of personal meaning in Jewish thought), it also appears rather “right-wing” from a Reform or secular perspective (with its emphasis on returning the Jewish canon to the center of Jewish focus).

    Maybe the real beauty of this proposal is that it’s somehow “post-modern” and “neo-traditional” at the same time. Kurtzer gets around the Enlightenment without ignoring it; similarly, he embraces the Jewish canon without accepting its meaning at face value. As he puts it: ”This is again a powerful paradox: Rather than employing the language of newness and dissociation from antiquated old models, those models are being rehabilitated to convey that newness – that renaissance – much more effectively.”

    Of course, the classic texts don’t seem to support this approach. As you noted, “within the texts themselves, you won’t find Kurtzer’s recognition that we digest history and excrete meaning”. That’s appears to be a contradiction – unless you assume that we’re not studying these texts in the way that they were originally intended to be read. Another way of putting it: we may not be the descendants that our ancestors were expecting… 

    I think that one area where we may disagree is the role of “history” in Kurtzer’s thesis. I think that Kurtzer views “history” (or at least, one version of it) as a potential threat to memory, and his arguments seem to defend the role of “memory” independent of its historical/”objective” validity. Kurtzer seems to break with the “historical school” of Jewish thought, which tried to integrate a scientific understanding of Jewish history within our collective consciousness. IMO, this ‘historical’ mindset seems to be a direct consequence of the Enlightenment period, and consequently a driving force behind the birth of the non-Orthodox movements. Our community was confronted with a new understanding of Torah and Jewish law as man-made (instead of derived from divine origin), and therefore had to find a way to reconcile this “awful truth” with the desire to continue being Jews. While Kurtzer recognizes the seriousness of this challenge, it doesn’t deter him from seeking to reclaim the canon for use by current and future generations.

    For instance, while Kurtzer seems to greatly admire Yerushalmi’s work, his critique suggests that the threat from demythologizing Judaism (that Yerushalmi articulated) is passe’, since we no longer need to care about the veracity of our “myths” in order to benefit from their intrinsic value. (Of course, we have to ask: what is the real, lasting value of any myth when it becomes recognized as such?) In other words, historiography no longer stands as an obstacle to having a “meaningful” relationship with the Jewish canon. Going back to what I wrote earlier: is this a “post-modern” idea, or a “neo-traditional” idea? Sure, it affirms the viability of non-Orthodox belief systems, but it also apparently rejects the notion that we need to consider the historical-scientific view when crafting those belief systems.

    To put it another way: I would agree with you, that Kurtzer is not trying to have us reclaim Jewish history by asking us to read the core texts. Instead, he is trying to reclaim the core texts (as a vehicle for “living Jewishly”) by asking us to deliberately ignore – or at least, suspend our awareness of – Jewish history (not in the sense of collective memory, but in the “historical-scientific” sense, where the Torah winds up as just another impressive artifact left behind from an ancient civilization that we, for some reason, choose to identify with).

    As you noted in an earlier post, the core question behind the entire Big Idea contest (and all of our proposals, in one way or another) is “How do you create a Judaism that people will choose?” Kurtzer, in my view, answers this question with more questions that need to be addressed. If we (or at least, some of us) really want to be Jewish, what is preventing us from maintaining a more richly Jewish life? If the core problem is that we can’t easily reconcile our ‘scientific’ mindset with our attraction to ‘collective myths’, can’t we get past it by asserting a deeper ownership of the myth that lets us reinterpret it? As Kurtzer puts it: “What is Jewish memory, after all, but deliberately constructed mythical nostalgia that binds one to a past even in radically reinterpreting that past?

    BTW, forgive me if I’m talking in circles a little here; discussing this kind of heady stuff is a real challenge (I feel like I’m back in grad school). I would really feel much more at home in an Israeli mini-mall, eating some falafel. 🙂

    Shabbat Shalom (or Shavua Tov when you read this), GK

  24. Ian Zwerling says:

    I live in a kibbutz for 20 years being a socialist. I left free market economics back in the US to boil in its cauldron to produce the witches brew we call an economy imploding that we are only starting to witness today. But I knew it was an unsustainable system and we as Jews, like Karl Marx, think in a dialectic mode. We dont do anything unless it is in opposition to something else. In a kibbutz, after tearfully abandoning Stalin, they began to celebrate the holidays but in an agricultural framework, in intentional opposition to a religious framework. We ate pork steaks on Rosh HaShana.
    This proposal is nothing new but a reclaimation of religion from those seen as inauthentic. I dont really think its worth discussing in greater detail than that.
    As to it being post-modernist or neo-traditionalist, once again it is a dialectic of both, since it is using both systems to synthesize something “new.”
    Something Ive always said, and I love quoting myself, is that you can never achieve anything good during a time of crisis. It only appears to be good because it promises something different and usually radically new, a break with the past. In fact that is its intention, to stake out a new future. If anything is good, it must be time tested and ride out the storm. There is no future in the past, no better future in a better past.
    I lived through the Jesus revolution in America and growing up in the deep south the only Jew in my school, I wasnt impressed either, because I felt the desperation of those who sought salvation through Jesus. How could I be impressed by this?
    Every generation believes its better than the last one, even in this post-modern framework, they are retrieving the past as their own.
    Only in philosophy is there salvation for religion, and not religion per se but in understanding its beliefs. We live in a new world of technology and science. We cant retreat from it, we can only learn how to tame the beast, and it isnt in a prosaic return to a glorified and mythic past.

  25. Ian Zwerling says:

    Someone asked what the proposal winner meant by the binary of historicism and mythology.
    From Wikipedia
    A major theory associated with Structuralism was binary opposition. This theory proposed that there are certain theoretical and conceptual opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy, which human logic has given to text. Such binary pairs could include Enlightenment/Romantic, male/female, speech/writing, rational/emotional, signifier/signified, symbolic/

  26. Ian Zwerling says:

    More on binary opposition

    In critical theory, a binary opposition (also binary system) is a pair of theoretical opposites. In structuralism, it is seen as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language.

    In post-structuralism, it is seen as one of several influential characteristics or tendencies of Western and Western-derived thought,[citation needed] and that typically, one of the two opposites assumes a role of dominance over the other. The categorization of binary oppositions is “often value-laden and ethnocentric”, with an illusory order and superficial meaning.[1]

    A classic example of a binary opposition is the presence-absence dichotomy. In much of Western thought, including structuralism, distinguishing between presence and absence, viewed as polar opposites, is a fundamental element of thought in many cultures. In addition, according to post-structuralist criticisms, presence occupies a position of dominance in Western thought over absence, because absence is traditionally seen as what you get when you take away presence. (Had absence been dominant, presence might have most naturally been seen as what you get when you take away an absence.)

    A more concrete example of a binary opposition is the male-female dichotomy. Some western thinkers, including structuralists, believe that the world is organized according to male and female constructs, roles, words, and ideas. A post-structuralist view is that male can be seen, according to traditional Western thought, as dominant over female because male is the presence of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence or loss. (Alternatively, Western thought could have viewed female as a presence, and male, subordinately, as the absence, or loss, of an invagination or theoretical “hole” of some kind.) The correspondence between each of the dominant Western concepts such as presence and male, as well as others such as rational (vs. emotional), mind (vs. body), thoughts and speech (vs. writings) are thought to show a tendency of Western thought called logocentrism or phallogocentrism.[2]

    The critique of binary oppositions is an important part of post-feminism, post-colonialism, post-anarchism, and critical race theory, which argue that the perceived binary dichotomy between man/woman, civilized/savage, and caucasian/non-caucasian have perpetuated and legitimized Western power structures favoring “civilized” white men.

    Post-structural criticism of binary oppositions is not simply the reversal of the opposition, but its deconstruction, which is described as apolitical—that is, not intrinsically favoring one arm of a binary opposition over the other. Deconstruction is the “event” or “moment” at which a binary opposition is thought to contradict itself, and undermine its own authority. Although deconstruction can not explain how a rational basis for defending itself can then be maintained after it has removed any objective basis in structuralism it may have had.

  27. Ian Zwerling says:

    My daughter is in givati and two of her soldiers died today. Say a prayer for our fallen heroes and my daughters safety in Gaza.

  28. Shai says:

    Aussie, whatever Kurtzer’s meaning, he’s free to set us straight. Most of us submitted to Maya’s site and had opportunities to clarify what we meant. Yes, none of the finalists ever bothered to respond to comments, but if you want a fair hearing, you’ll get it here.

    GK, thanks for your reply. It’s all awaiting Kurtzer’s book now, to see what he really means. The essential thrust of his view is that history has meaning for Jews. How we translate that meaning into our lives is the prerogative of each generation, because what’s meaningful changes with time. The rest seems to be commentary.

    Again, I’m not sure what’s groundbreaking here – it seems like classical Kaplan to me, based on what I’ve read about his views (I’ve not read his books, only anthologies and articles on Reconstructionist thought – so I’m not sure footed here). So the submission has the “Kaplan” criteria down, but what about the “Birthright” criteria? How is this a practicable idea that serves to change how we see ourselves and our place in our community, any more than the existing offerings do? Because of this shortcoming, I agree with Tsvi that the “bigness” of the idea is disputable – maybe with the benefit of the insights of others who understand the proposal better (responses from the winner would be nice) I’d grasp what I’ve thusfar missed, but for now I don’t see its relevance to me, and I’m disappointed that the winning proposal doesn’t have broader application than 20-30 year olds in America. As others have noted, what will this be about besides a book?

  29. Shai says:

    Ian, I’m so sorry to hear of what happened in Gaza today – oy. So sad. My prayers are with the troops protecting our lives. May they go from strength to strength, and return safely having completed their missions successfully.

  30. Maya Norton says:

    Hi Aussie,

    There are over 20 new proposals coming this way. I have been busy all day e-mailing the authors. It is your choice as to whether you would like to submit– I am glad to have you– but again I emphasize my serious request that you keep it respectful at all times.

    I don’t discuss the number of hits I receive each day, but you can see by looking at the series landing page (please refer to your e-mail or search the blog’s sidebar) that your proposal will be given serious thought and consideration by my thoughtful readers.

    You know how to reach me,


  31. Maya Norton says:


    It is my ongoing request that you use ONE identity on this website.

    As I can clearly see that you are identifying yourself with the same e-mail and two different user names, this is not the case.

    Please choose one and go with it– it doesn’t have to be your real name, but to have an honest and open discussion, I believe it is important to have set identities with each other.



  32. Shai says:

    Aussie, typically a submission gets about 30 comments, especially if the author responds to questions asked.

    You get back what you put into it.

  33. Maya Norton says:

    Dear Readers,

    Comments about the Israeli government are in no way related to this post and will be deleted.

    There are many excellent Jewish blogs that focus on government and politics where these comments would be more appropriate. I encourage you to reorient your efforts.

    Thank you,


  34. Aussie,

    Your anger at Maya is misplaced and irrational. This is her blog, not yours, and she can set the rules however she wants. I appreciate her deleting your nasty comments in particular. Stop picking on her and try doing something productive.


  35. Dan says:

    And this is relevant to the Bronfman Prize, Ian, because……..

  36. Shai says:

    Ian, it’s water under the bridge.

    About the only thing you can do now is serve up your proposal and see if it resonates with everybody and with the situation the way you expect it would have had Brandeis’ selection process been everything you assert it wasn’t.

    Else, there’s really no point to stirring the pot any further.

  37. Ian Zwerling says:

    Maya, just tell me youre going to delete all my posts so Ill just go. Im sorry I hurt your feelings. Please just tell me to go and I will and never bother you again.

  38. Maya Norton says:

    Hi Ian,

    As you know, I have been deleting comments that do not add to the conversation because they are:
    – Not respectful to the author of the proposal or other commenters
    – Not relevant or detract from the quality of the discussion

    It is my strong impression that you do not have anything to add to this post beyond the comments you have already made. If you would like to comment on the upcoming proposals– about 45 are on their way over the course of the next two months (a formal announcement will be made here soon), I ask that you strictly adhere to and respect the rules of this blog.

    If you feel insulted or offended by your comments being deleted, simply aim to contribute to a healthy, on-topic discussion. If not, another blog might be a better fit for you.


  39. Ian Zwerling says:

    I was only trying to promote discussion. I noticed no activity since the announcement. My comments may indeed be detrimental to a healthy and positive discussion so I accept your advice.

  40. Maya Norton says:

    Dear Ian,

    Unfortunately more 50 rude/unproductive comments have been deleted, which have been very much detrimental to the discussion, one reason why it wasn’t more robust on this post.

    I look forward to a healthier discussion on upcoming proposal posts in the future and hope you will help me in making it happen.


  41. Ian Zwerling says:

    Bye, Maya. good luck in life. though I may have shot down this idea but I dont blame myself for that, it doesnt hold up to criticism. I wont involve myself in your future discussions since you are blaming me for the last of robust discussion on this one. I hope all your dreams come true.

  42. Ian Zwerling says:

    I never expected that living in Israel, I would be treated as a Jew, an outsider whose very existence is a contentious issue. Because I see things differently than most, and Im usually right unfortunately, I dont fit into the mainstream opinion so find myself treated as an outsider. But isnt our religion a religion of individuals. That is its importance, that each person is significant in his own right. Each played a role in the development of our religion and world view.
    This is a test post. If I am deleted I know I have no place at this blog. I will try to promote dialogue instead of restrict it. But as I said this is a test post.
    I have said before that I think the unique dynamic of Boston life has had an influence on this contest and it isnt saying it is unfair or unjustified. I dont think it need be any other way. As long as this contest is based in the reality of Jewish life, even if it is limited to the Boston area, it is legitimate.
    In todays Haaretz, there is an article about Jewish intermarriage in Boston, that 60% of the non-Jewish spouses prefer to raise their children as Jews. This is a very high percentage in my opinion and points to something interesting happening in Boston that may be indicative of the development of Judaic-Christian values in America to a new level.
    I have often said that WWII was a war fought over Judaism, just as the Civil war was fought over the emancipation of the slaves, WWII was fought over Jews significance as the foundation of American Christianity, over pagan Nazism. It is interesting that Eisenhower was of Germn ancestry and led the war against his fatherland.

  43. Ian Zwerling says:

    This is the link and it is worth reading. It was written by the social research institute at Brandeis.
    Please dont delete me.

  44. Maya Norton says:

    Thanks for the link, Ian.


  45. Shai says:

    Ian, assume all you say is true. So what? I don’t think the Brandeis contest was the last word about anything, so I’m wondering, why do you think it is? Why waste another minute talking about it? What will another post on Maya’s blog speaking about Boston change about anything? There’s a time for everything under the sun – now’s the time to put this matter behind us.

    Here’s how I feel about it Ian, if you want dialog then stop hinting about your solution and start putting it on the line. Why not post your proposal with the other 45 that Maya’s recently received? What are you worried about? That people won’t understand it? That they won’t accept it? Yeah, all that could happen – but are you really serving the purpose you espouse by keeping it secret?

    I can almost guarantee you that you’ll have at least twice as many comments as anybody else, and it’ll give you an opportunity to develop your idea further in the face of the questions that will be asked of you. I gained a lot from what I invested in providing comments to others, and from comments to my own idea. I think you’d gain, too.

    As I see it, your best option is to put your idea forward for consideration – after all, even ideas that are not acceptable as they are can foster derivative ideas that are acceptable. Ever notice that almost all the prayers are said in the plural? It’s because Judaism is a TEAM SPORT! Nobody’s perfect, so maybe together we can improve your idea? It’s worth a shot, no?

  46. Ian Zwerling says:

    Shai, I appreciate the support. My idea is being considered by others. But I dont want to talk about my own idea here anymore. I want to see if I can be useful in discovering the significance of other’s proposals. I hope to look at yours soon, sorry I havent. I have three goals with this blog. One is to find the value of each proposal, two; to promote the value of this blog which is unique and important, three; to try to understand why Maya is so charismatic, why her personality is so powerful, what the source of her power is that makes her life so important and indispensible. I think a mountain should be named after her someday because I dont know where so much potential comes from. I cant figure out this phenomena called Maya. The only comparable example I can think of is Jesus walking on water. Several times Ive mentioned that she is right in regulating this blog, only to return to a negative outlook but she has won and this is a testimony to her power.

  47. Shai says:

    Ian, chill, dude 🙂

    Well, if they don’t like your proposal, I’m sure you’ll be welcome to submit it here.

  48. Ian Zwerling says:

    I forgot and Maya has reminded me that Zion represents the ingathering of our exile community and we are in the building process. I want to embrace our brethren and help rebuild our strength and power. All my life Ive done it myself and Ive even forgotten until Maya and her blog that Ive never really been alone, I have only felt that way. We should rejoice in our good fortune and bless Maya for leading the way. God Bless her.

  49. Maya Norton says:

    Thanks, Ian. Much appreciated. We get the point. (Seriously, no more compliments, please.)


  50. Jerry says:

    You like her, you really really like her.

  51. Ian Zwerling says:

    Jerry, thanks for your comment. But it doesnt begin to describe it She is the perfect combination of passion and reason.
    I was surprised by something I said earlier, that our religion is the story of individuals.
    Taking this statement and applying it to Kerzer’s proposal, I admit I have more respect for it now, surprising myself. In a way, the practice of our religion and its worship is infalliable. If our religion is perfect, which I agree with, then in whatever guise or form it takes it can only be positive and meaningful. Its like every facet of the diamond reflects light perfectly.
    To return to Maya, nothing she can do can be anything less than perfect, because she is herself.

  52. Ian Zwerling says:

    The only reservation I have and the reason that my proposal wasnt relevant to this contest is what the importance of the practice of religion is. Does it contribute to our understanding of life, is it time well spent? Being a secular humanist myself, I have a problem of religion ever being coersive. Does religion, our religion, not others act as a form of liberation? Our religion is connected to its core with the idea of liberation, the march of freedom. In its development, there was a dialectic of question and answer, anarchy and construction. A time for love a time for hate, etc This process was developmental. The question remains to where does it lead and how can it be practiced to maintain its integrity and usefulness? I have often contended that the people of the bible were not worshipiping anything or anyone. They were acting as agents of history, reacting to events with the spirit of God present, like Maya. Can one deconstruct our religion and reconstruct it, or can it only be practiced with integrity by each person individually acting as an agent of history?

  53. Ian Zwerling says:

    Its what Tsvi Bisk said quoting his favorite economist. Does it reflect a decline in our religion looking back. Can we ever recapture the past, in memory as Kerzer suggests. What is memory anyway?

  54. Shai says:

    Ian, Maya is nice – I met her. She’s about 6’7″ and can break a man in two with her bare hands. But can we move onto another topic? I mean, unless she’s positioning herself for sainthood or beatification, isn’t all this getting a bit over the top?

    Now, getting to your proposal – again – WHY DON’T YOU SUBMIT IT AND STOP TALKING ABOUT IT AS IF IT’S DEARLY DECEASED OR A VICTIM OF LOVE UNREQUITED!!! Sheesh. I mean, not for nothing but isn’t the point of the Bronfman blog entries to talk about the ideas? You said that was one of your goals, right? To see which ones have import? So stay on topic!!! I can’t speak for Maya, but for me, it’s getting a little discomfiting Ian. I’d love to hear your views on the ideas, but your views about Maya are best kept private. It’s gotten to the point where, and I suspect I don’t speak only for myself, I feel like I’m intruding on something. This blog isn’t the place for that. Just my humble opinion.

  55. Shai says:

    Ian, regarding your comment – you quote from Eccleasiastes (Kohelet) “a time for hate, etc”. Then you speak of “a decline of religion looking back”.

    Kohelet also said the following: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.”

    Therefore, no point looking to the past and deriding the present – what was then is now if you look at history enough. It seems that Kurtzer is not taking the view you espoused in his name – he might be saying that there is no “better” or “authentic” that is less within our reach today, than it was when we we espouse as “better” or “authentic” today was in its day, relative to what came before it. There is an enormous amount of doctrinal development in Judaism – it’s really kind of pointless to relate to it as something static that can be worshipped in and of itself. I think Kurtzer is trying to take this realization (which is a Kaplanian belief as far as I can tell) and institutionalize it.

  56. Silent Masses says:

    Ian, please stop with the creepyness. Thank you.

  57. Ian Zwerling says:

    I am being creepy, I admit but its only that I’m not ashamed of heaping praise on someone deserving it. It may be weird but its the only way I can show my appreciation for what this person is doing. Ive lived in Israel over 20 years and this person is the first one with an ounce of altruism in her nature. Its as if I discovered a hidden treasure. I could go on and on but Ill control my rhetoric from now on. It was requisite. But if it is a religion of individuals doing God’s work, isn’t it appropriate? I think so.

  58. Maya Norton says:


    As I said before, I appreciate it, but this is the last comment I am going to keep on this subject. All others will be deleted here and on other entries.

    If you say “I am being creepy, I admit,” that’s an excellent sign to stop.



  59. Ian Zwerling says:

    Shai, a point well taken. But Ill use an example and Im surprised how Ive changed my opinion on Kerzer’s proposal.
    If youre familiar with the Given’s Imaging company in Yoqneam. They created the capsule camera that replaces the colonoscopy. The discovery and creation was based on the medieval writings of a Jewish scholar, from Yoqneam. Ill find the link for you if youre not familiar already with the story, which I trust you already are.

  60. Shai says:

    Ian, I’m familiar with the invention but not the connection with a medieval Jewish scholar. If all Kurtzer’s idea boils down to, and perhaps yours, is the idea that almost all ideas are derivative rather than new (heck, according to Kohelet, all ideas are new – there’s nothing new under the sun), then yep – it makes sense.

    But derivative ideas can also be based on a _misunderstanding_ of the original intent, and even turn the original idea on its head purposefully to represent a new perception or worldview. Therefore, I wonder allowed whether the two examples are as close as you say.

    Do you think that the invention of the capsule camera was an attempt to solve a problem today, or an attempt to be faithful to a medieval Jewish scholar? Nobody’d probably care – it wouldn’t matter.

    On the other hand, it matters a great deal to people that their Jewishness is “authentic”, meaning consistent with the past. Kurtzer, I think, (I wished he’d answer for himself already), seems to be saying that every age should be enabled to write its own script, with a nod to the past but without giving the past a veto on the future. This type of view actually is quite common today in the Jewish intellectual world OUTSIDE the orthodox sphere. My question then is how/if the idea will ever have broader application. To me, a truly big idea is one that has application to all Jews, irrespective of age, irrespective of location, and irrespective of stream or lack thereof. This isn’t to say all other ideas have no value, but I wouldn’t call them “big” ideas.

  61. Ian Zwerling says:

    I agree with your reservations over this process. However, we are a people who venture unafraid into the unknown and all we have to fear is fear itself. I dont think its necessary to go backwards to the origin but apparently he does. I think theres enough in the present to find meaning in but he apparently feels we need to reconnect with our origins to go forth. This could be a fateful hesitation. I dont think its a time to go backwards and self-doubt is seen as weakness today by others. But he wants to rake the coals and find nuggets of value in the sacred texts, who can argue with that. He thinks the established wisdom hasnt paid off and who can argue with success, which he has a large share in. Maybe finding a future in our past is too literal but each generation seeks to redefine reality and this is no different. It all depends on if he is doing it with a pure heart and today pure hearts are hard to come by.
    My mention of Given Image, which I love the name of, thinking of God as the creator, was to suggest that the basic framework of our religion provides endless avenues to explore. It is an open book that leads to endless and often enlightening exploration in. Our success as a people, far beyond our numbers, indicates a special nature, something that frightens others. Maybe the proposal seeks to demystify Judaism for the unenlightened. This is a kind of assimilation I oppose.

  62. Ian Zwerling says:

    Here’s an article on the Jewish scholar Shmuel

  63. Ian Zwerling says:

    Here is an article from Pardes online about their outlook and about the importance of having a pure heart.

  64. Shai says:

    “It all depends on if he is doing it with a pure heart and today pure hearts are hard to come by.”

    How’s that different than “it all depends on people in Boston” or “it all depends on people who are 20-30” or “it all depends on people who believing xyz”?

    At the end of the day, “Big Ideas” are big because they solve a problem for people as they are – it allows them a bridge to reach potential they already have. It doesn’t require that they modify their capacities to comply with a solution, as elegant as it might be. Our own tradition tells us “we are near to it”. It’s not in heaven.

    So, if you speak of “perfection” as you often do, and endless avenues to achieve it, then what difference does it make that we’ve used Judaism’s “basic framework” to get there? How does this become more than belly button gazing?

  65. Ian Zwerling says:

    Pragmatism. Results proving the theory. He is democratizing Judaism and reopening it for a new look. We live in a highly specialized world that has lost its soul, its meaning. He seems to want to bring the ingathering back to religious belief by each person in their own right finding new meaning in the sacred texts. In a collective effort, a lot is lost in the translation and he wants to return to original texts.
    Do I see it as useful? I dont but I do believe in intellectual examination of whatever resource is available and I believe we need to find it in our own nature, unadulterated, pure and honest. But I can only speak for myself.

  66. Shai says:

    I hear ya. But “democratizing Judaism” without defining a “Constitution” might only be democracy, and not Judaism at all. The question is how can it also be Judaism.

    I don’t think he’s speaking of “each person in their own right”. I think he’s speaking of communities of people in their own rights doing this – even whole generations of people in their own rights. But likely it is that there would be many Judaisms in his scenario – I wonder how he’d pull that off.

    But anyway, that all these micro-Judaisms work together, and that they do it with the intent of expanding the common ground makes it more of a “constitution-writing” process than it is a “democratization-process”.

    Does that cause a lot to be lost in translation? Maybe, but I think he’s saying that’s a price we should be willing to pay to escape the focus on our own natures and make them part of something bigger than ourselves – a community building force, not just a self-building force – because only by doing so can we build a Judaism that is relevant to our day. Well, that’s what I seem to get – but I’m not sure ’cause he’s not joining in on the discussion. We’ll have to wait for his book, it seems.

  67. Ian Zwerling says:

    He seems to be looking for something that we already have, Israel. Israel is democratized Judaism. Maybe he is trying to create an alignment between American Judaism and Israeli, promoting a spiritual union between the two peoples. Memory in my definition is the unity of time and place and life in Israel is a constant living memory of who we were and who we are. This is the richness of living in Israel and something missing in American Jewish life. In a way he is throwing a lifeline to a lost Judaism, a virtual return to Judaism and its march towards freedom. The parting of the seas in our escape from bondage in Egypt may be due to our liberation of sacred memory.

  68. Ian Zwerling says:

    For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed; Then He openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, That He may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man. He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword.” (Job 33:14- 18).
    In a dream time and place are reversed, time is replaced with distance. Memory is an awakening of thought in a particular time and place. Sacred memory is the turning of a dream into a reality. We are living in God’s dream but no longer receive His instructions. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, resisted this theocratic worldview, insisting that doubt is the basis of empirical knowledge and truth.

  69. Ian Zwerling says:

    All religions have sacred memories that carry the faith from generation to generation. These memories can be conveyed in rituals, which transform the believers’ view of life and the world. Many of these memories are observed as holy days or seasons. Most patterns of sacred memory are cyclical in nature, occurring over the course of a year and repeated every year.

    These designated times provide balance and a measure of predictability both to religious life and to its intersection with secular life. Rituals call to mind a particular event or revelation important to the religion. These recurring themes insure that future generations will be exposed to the most important events, beliefs, and memories of the religion.

  70. Ian Zwerling says:

    I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).
    The duality of Descartes philosophy is reflected in this passage. Christianity is different from Judaism in its knowledge of God. Christianity is based on seeing God, visions of God and Judaism hearing God.
    The proposal is an attempt, much like Protestantism, to move away from symbols and images back to a more original knowledge of God.

  71. Maya Norton says:

    Thank you for your participation on this thread. All further comments on this post will be deleted.


  72. Pixellate says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Pixellate!!!

  73. Esther Graf says:


    for the Old Synagogue in Essen/Germany I search a portrait of Yosef Yerushalmi. I found one on your site. Is it possible to get a digital highres of it?

    I am looking forward to hear from you.

    Esther Graf

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