Friday, October 12, 2007

What's The Big Idea? Part Two: Annointing a Secular Messiah

I have been giving more thought to the Bronfman Foundation’s contest to find the Big Idea that will transform American Judaism, and the more I think about it the more I pity the winner.

In effect the Foundation will anoint a secular messiah, set her or him on an academic throne for two years, and pay her to perfect the Big Idea. Can you imagine the stress this person will be under? The winning idea is supposed to change everything, to create a Judaism that will capture the imagination of millions of Jews, and it must be produced under the pressure of peer review, foundation watchdogs, and unrelenting media attention: “Have you got IT yet? Have we been transformed yet? Are we there yet? Huh, Mommy? Are we?”

And when it doesn’t work, and it won’t, what happens to our anointed one then?

Why won’t it work? Because we American Jews don’t want to be transformed. We like things just the way they are.

Think about it. If we wanted a more mystical Judaism, we could join CHaBaD Hasidism or Jewish Renewal. If we wanted a more secular Judaism we could join the Society for Humanistic Judaism. If we want a lot of tradition we have Orthodox Judaism, if we want less tradition we can try Conservative or Reform Judaisms. If we want to blend progressive humanist values with tradition we can become Reconstructionist Jews. And if we want Zionism we can make aliyah to Israel. There isn’t anything missing from our options. There is no Big Idea out there.

But even if there were such a Big Idea and a Bigger Brain to think it, it would never last the two years at Brandeis the Foundation is giving the winner to produce it. Why? Because we Jews are hyper-critical. We would pick the idea apart so viciously that the Thinker would have to rethink it so often that she would forget what the original idea was in the first place. Look at me: I am criticizing the very idea of a Big Idea. Just think what I will do to the poor sap who wins the Messiah contest? I will crucify him, and I promise you I won’t be alone.

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