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NY Jewish Week Reviews Yehuda Kurtzer’s Book, “Shuva”

‘Kurtzer asserts that we cannot simply replace memory with history’

The New York Jewish Week has reviewed the new book by SHI-North America President Yehuda Kurtzer, “Shuva, The Future of the Jewish Past.”
Here is an excerpt from the review by Jerome A. Chanes, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center: 
The book’s subtitle, “The Future of the Jewish Past,” sets forth Kurtzer’s agenda: the history-memory dynamic is but a vehicle for looking toward the next stage — the Jewish future — in which the ideological frameworks developed in Jewish thought and practice over the centuries can enable “the absorbing of the changing world into ongoing definitions of Jewishness.” Kurtzer is clear with respect to his own prejudice: he does not like “our constant archiving of our past,” and would much prefer “investing in the humanity in our stories that echo in our souls.”
But how do we do this, Kurtzer asks? With history replacing memory we have lost a connection to our past, and we are confused and anxious. Further, pluralism and universalism, fueled by history, make it more difficult for some to live Jewishly. And normative religion does not work for everyone. What’s the answer?
Kurtzer makes a good effort to square the circle. In consecutive chapters, “Shuva” examines central motifs of the Jewish experience as they are contoured in history and recontoured for contemporary Jews. “Mitzvah,” Yir’ah,” “Ahava,” “Hurban,” “Teshuva”—“commandedness,” “awe,” ‘love,” “cataclysm,” ” returning” — these are the concrete manifestations of the Jewish experience. If we understand these, argues Kurtzer, we can understand our profound relationship to our past without becoming obsessed with that past or driven to tear it down. 
Kurtzer’s proposition may be a tough one for modern Jews. The modern experience is one in which we are informed by the rational thought and battered by the empirical data that we encounter as “history.” Kurtzer asserts, however, that we cannot simply replace memory with history and not have a crisis in Jewish identity. In fact, sociologists have been telling this to American Jews for decades. “Continuity,” a buzzword we know all too well, is to Kurtzer a passive pursuit, suffused with nostalgia, instead of the pro-active pursuit of a workable history-memory dynamic that it ought be.  “Shuva” tells the community that, absent the content of “Mitzvah” (“Commandedness”), continuity is worthless.  Jewish communal professionals, take note!

Click here to read the complete review.


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