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The Case for Commandments

The following is a transcript of Episode 138 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Tuesday, April 25th, 2023. 

In his recent article in our journal Sources, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove cites Yitz Greenberg saying that, “It doesn’t matter which denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”

I like it. And I also sometimes wonder what that is actually about. Maybe there’s something deep in the Jewish psyche about our desire for exceptionalism, such that our communities always seem to fall short of our expectations. Or maybe it’s a reminder to us maybe more positively that Judaism and the Jewish people are such complex entities and identities that any subgroup, any subtribe or sect or denomination, it’s always gonna feel something like a parody of something bigger, even if those subgroups are actually the only way to feel in some way of being at home. 

I identify this in a lot of ways. I grew up in one denomination, in modern Orthodoxy, and now I live a kind of strange denominational identity. I belong to a conservative synagogue. That’s where I go to the most. I send two of my kids to a modern orthodox high school, and I lead a pluralistic Jewish institution.

I journeyed out of belonging exclusively to Orthodoxy in my early twenties, largely because of my growing commitment to gender egalitarianism and my belief that that commitment could and never would be fully embraced with an orthodoxy. And yet, I suppose I still linger around orthodoxy cause it provides an immersive texture and speaks the language of obligation in ways that I think conservative Judaism is widely failing to maintain.

I belong in some ways to both of these communities and also in neither. I think that my struggles with both communities live at the intersection of liberalism and whether these ideologies, these denominations embrace its tenants too much or not enough, or put more pithy, I often experience orthodoxy as too conservative and conservative Judaism as too liberal.

Maybe all of that irony suggests that these groupings need entirely new names. I’m not sharing all of this today because my Jewish identity is particularly interesting, nor because I want to valorize ambivalent or ambiguous identities over committed ones, but maybe because it’s our exact role as Jews and Jewish leaders to embrace being both connected to and committed critics of our own communities.

So when Michael Walzer talks about the connected critic, he suggests that the distance of the connected critic to their community should be measured in inches. It’s not about standing detached on afar and feeling smug about those who you’re looking down on, but rather that belonging itself is rooted in the ability to feel close to the center and to try to leverage that belonging towards trying to make change.

The connected critic who can handle correctly both their sense of belonging and the timeliness, the accuracy of their criticism can reorient the very community to which they belong. Cosgrove’s article’s entitled “A Choosing People,” The article anchors the whole issue of this journal dedicated to the topic of Jews and law, and first he offers a brief but sweeping account of the ways that Jews have become broadly autonomous from the binding force of Jewish law and obligation, what we call halakha.

He writes, “The decisions of Jews to observe or not to observe or mitzvot are made by way of personal choice and communal affiliation. Some still in compliance with the halakhic system, understood to represent the will of God, but the majority, independent of such consideration. God’s presence, once the mean means for Jews to understand themselves as living in accordance with divine will, has retreated to the shadows. This bond, once the scaffolding by which Jews throughout the world could transcend differences of geography, culture, and intellectual inclinations, by way of shared religious practice, is tattered. The commitments American Jews have towards halakha reflect their relationship to their Judaism as a whole. Episodic, voluntary, and more often than not, a matter of mere nostalgia.”

And then, as a good connected critic, Cosgrove turns the lens inward to his own particular community, the Conservative movement in which he serves as one of its leading rabbinic authorities as the senior rabbi presiding over Park Avenue Synagogue on the East side of Manhattan.

Cosgrove notices that what defines the cons shrinking Conservative movement is a yawning gap between the predilections of its people and the concerns of its leadership, between the assimilated Jew and Halakhic observance, and thus describes the movement as, “A caricature of the adage, a leader without followers is just taking a walk.”

We’ll talk further today about Cosgrove’s diagnosis and especially his prescriptions, but I wanna first say that I find this kind of public writing to be thrilling. It’s easy to take potshots at other denominations, the ones you’ve rejected or never chosen. It’s also to easy to offer criticism of your own community when you’re relatively powerless in it. We call that punching up, and it’s widely lauded as being morally courageous, even if at the same time it’s often counterproductive to getting those in charge to actually make any sort of change. 

Here, instead, a major leader of their own community, wrestles out loud in public and in writing with his community’s deepest limitations, rooted not in criticism of this or that policy, and acknowledging and spelling out all of the historical conditions that have yield the complexity of this moment, so it’s not about blaming a particular leader, and tries in that process to set forth an agenda for change, knowing fully well that he will be among those most held accountable for whether or not that change agenda can be implemented. 

So, Elliot, Rabbi Cosgrove, thank you for being on the show today. And thank you for your courage in writing this, and being eager to talk to me today about this. And I guess, let me start maybe a little bit more positively, and then we’ll get into some of the challenges. What’s the story that you think conservative Judaism still has to tell to American Jews, and what makes you optimistic or makes you think even that, that that story can succeed?

Elliot: Yehuda, it’s great to be here on the podcast and thank you for the gracious invitation, the gracious invitation to publish an article in Sources, fabulous colleagues to be side by side, as well as, just to be connected to all things Hartman. Look, I think the journey of the conservative movement makes perfect sense the trajectory of an Eastern European Jewry arriving both geographically, sociologically, historically, on American shores, the old world journey from a more insular, traditional lifestyle into the open opportunities of the American Jewish experience. 

We were the right movement, in the right place, at the right time, because our ideology reflected that transitional moment, from the old world to the new, linguistically, economically, the first time that the immigrant Jewish community were getting university educated, thus, the connection between scholarship and faith, I think the great synagogues, be it in Baltimore or Great Neck or otherwise, these reflect sort of the suburbanization of American Jewry.

And we were exactly the movement that caught the ideology of that demographic in that moment. And thus the rise of the Conservative movement. The problem is that we made it, right? We have successfully integrated as Jews into America. It was once a case that we had to explain what America was to an immigrant Jewish community.

The issue now that we need to explain what Judaism is to an alienated, secular, assimilated, American Jewish community who may be proud of being, you know, it’s not a self-hating Jewish community, but it’s a Jewish community who are, Eugene Borowitz, of blessed memory, had this term, “muranos in reverse.”

Right, we’re not hiding the fact that we’re Jewish. We’re actually quite proud of the fact that we’re Jewish, but we just don’t know what Judaism means and what it means to practice that Judaism. So I’m sort of giving the punchline at the very beginning here, but for me, I think the journey is the same journey, it’s just going in the opposite direction. That no longer is it to create some sort of progressive expression of Jewish identity by which Jews can acclimate to America, but rather it is to provide the pathway by which this assimilated American Jewish community can find their way back into the religious tradition.

So the good news is I think the pathway is there. The bad news is, is that it’s a radical reorienting of what the conservative movement should be.

Yehuda: I want to come back to that last comment, but I, I do wonder based on something you said right at the beginning, which is, is it possible that some of the denominational Judaisms, and here I don’t just mean Conservative Judaism, it could also mean Reform Judaism and to some degree, modern Orthodoxy. Is it possible that they’re still rooted in too much Europeanness? 

That some of what might have been baked in, was, in some ways, an imported identity predicated on a certain type of Jewish otherness, that managed to accommodate itself effectively, given that American Jews were in a place of relative otherness through the middle of the 20th century. 

But then once those conditions lift, that there’s something that is still fundamentally European about these Jewries, and maybe that’s why it has a hard time appealing to a generation of American Jews who have no Europeanness left.

Elliot: I think it’s a very thoughtful point. Reform, Conservative, Orthodoxy, they’re all European inventions. And I think you’re right. I think that the manner by which Jews did or did not integrate into secular society was dramatically different in 19th-century Germany than it is in 21st-century America.

So I think the coin is different. Is that fundamentally a shortcoming or, I don’t know, I’m gonna have to think about that one.

But they are European inventions that are on American shores. And I think it’s also probably why some of these denominations have yet to caught catch fire in other contexts in, what be it, Israel or elsewhere. So I think context does make a huge difference.

Yehuda: Yeah, it might even be that Jews who might have been attached to those attitudes in Europe or who might have been around them when they went to Israel they effectively jettisoned them. And whereas, Jews who came to America brought those frameworks with them and it’s not clear whether they continue to work well.

That leads to a harsher question about conservative Judaism and this denominational infrastructure, which is, you know, you’re presiding over a thriving congregation. It’s not universally and empirically the case that Conservative and Reform synagogues and their Judaisms can’t thrive in America. There are plenty of such congregation. But it does sometimes feel as though those thriving congregations do so in spite of the baggage of their movement. as opposed to fueled by it. I suspect, you don’t have to say this, I’m sure your lay people are listening, you don’t have to say whether or not, like, you feel saddled by that stuff.

But I am curious about, whether, if we recognize that something isn’t totally working in the inheritance of this infrastructure from the past, and if our work fundamentally is about articulating a Judaism that works for the present, what do we continue to gain by doing so through the framework of a movement that has a history, as opposed to saying we’re just gonna build an American congregation. And be willing to kind of challenge all of the ideological, normative, stylistic, assumptions that we’ve had to carry, because we’re not just a Jewish congregation, but a conservative Jewish congregation.

Elliot: Look, I don’t think, I say this in the article, I don’t think denominational labels carry the weight that they once did. I think they’re helpful, they’re useful, institutionally they can provide infrastructure, educators, rabbinic support. I think there’s a place for some of the bells and whistles of of denominations. 

But I don’t think American Jews, to your point, are making congregational affiliate, if we are lucky enough, if American Jews affiliate with a congregation, it’s not necessarily because they know who Solomon Schechter or Kaufmann Kohler or the great ideologues of the movement are. It’s because it has a good early childhood, because it’s a warm welcoming community, it’s because the rabbi gives good sermons, or the cantor has a beautiful voice, or they have a good kiddush afterwards. There’s a whole series of other reasons that are probably primary over movement ideology. 

I still think that there is a place, I always ask myself the question of, I’m on the Upper East Side and there’s about five different Reform synagogues nearby, walking distance away from me, as well as some Orthodox. And I say, well, what is it that prompts someone to come into Park Avenue Synagogue, when their dietary habits in their private sphere might be identical to that of a member of a Reform congregation nearby. 

And so what is the differentiated place in the marketplace that a Conservative synagogue has in the, that world of choices. 

And I think that the idea, and I touch on this a bit in the article, I still think that Park Avenue Synagogue is one of many synagogues that represents a series, and the the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary said this very well, I don’t remember his exact language, but it might not be a catechism, that, you know, to join a Conservative synagogue, you therefore sign off on X, Y, and Z. 

But rather it’s because, whether it is a matter of accessing tradition, whether it is a matter of the Israel conversation, which is not a Halakhic conversation, but a more centrist politic when it comes to Israel, I think certain the conservative synagogue leans small-c conservative on questions of gender and otherwise.

And also this is sort of an awkward thing to say, but I’m sort of bringing up Colonel Jessop from a Few Good Men. They want me on that wall. They need me on that wall, right. There’s an expectation within my community that even if my congregants are not observing Shabbat or keeping Kosher, it’s not a question that that’s a messaging from the pulpit, of values that are championed, right.

I recognize the intermarriage choices of American Jewry. I have a very active conversion program. I have a very inclusive, warm and welcoming embrace, the non-Jewish members of our Jewish families. And I say proudly from the pulpit that we are a community that prizes in marriage or endogomy, and that’s a messaging that works for me and it works for my particular community on 87th and Madison.

Yehuda: It’s a really interesting distinction, especially the one where you say, my community, and you say this in the article, your community is not Halakhic. You start the article very eloquently talking about how rarely you get Jewish legal questions, and how oftentimes, people’s fixation with what they think should happen in synagogue lives at odds with their own personal choices. It sounds a little bit like, okay, well therefore, it’s the in-between denomination, between those who don’t care about Halakha, and make no pretense to care about Halakha, and those who care about Halakha, whether or not they actually do, and somewhere in between, of, the individuals may not live by Halakha in terms of their own choices, but they expect the rabbi to. And, I don’t know, I kind of wonder,

Elliot: Well those are two very different things. The lived lives of Jews and what they expect their rabbi to, and then just the idiosyncratic choices of, the Jew and the pew are more likely not in the pew, right. 

How is it that the Jew, and I mentioned this in the article, who might have a totally traditional state of mind when they’re in the sanctuary, but then go out to the golf game, or go out to lunch immediately following synagogue services. Or the person who’s very upset, because we make have a liberalization in the prayer service, we cut something, or we change a melody, but I know, I know because I see my Jews walking in and out of Upper East Side eateries, right. I know the live lives of the Upper East Side. 

I don’t think that’s unique to conservative Judaism by the way. I think that’s American Jews that pick and choose those areas, right. I have couples who I married, who are fabrente, militant feminists and secularly powerhouses. But then when it comes to their wedding, they want it to be, by the book and traditional, even if that means they check feminism at the door otherwise. 

Right, we all have different access points, the person who eats treif year-round, but on Passover, don’t let that drop of chametz cross the lintel of my household. That’s just, I think, American Jews picking and choosing. The question is, how can or should the conservative movement respond to an American Jewry that’s a picking and choosing American Jewry, that’s a question I’m trying to tackle.

Yehuda: Yeah, and I’m very sympathetic to that. I felt that way for a long time. I felt I was having this fight with my friends in modern Orthodoxy, 25 years ago, who, whose critique to those to the left of them was that they were always picking and choosing. And I would just turn to my friends and say, so are you. You’re, the fact that you’ve chosen a certain interpretive strategy or hermeneutic strategy, Halakhic strategy, you’re engaged in the same process as well. 

And one of the ways that Jews attack each other is to say my choices are rooted in obligation and your choices are rooted in choice. Right, because, like, you know, if you’re to the right of me, you’re a fundamentalist, if you’re to the left of me, you’re a nihilist, right? Something like that.

Elliot: Right, and the line that I’ve been attacked on most from the community on, or the harshest emails, was not what I expected it, because about midway through the article, I describe my observations as a conservative rabbi, and I say, and I would contend that the difference between Reform, Conservative, and modern Orthodox Jews is a difference of degree, and not of kind. 

And Orthodox friends and colleagues have said, whoa, whoa, whoa, wait, don’t group us into your volitional picking and choosing lifestyle. We live according to Halakha. We live in the framework of Halakha. And actually, they’ve made observations which I’m actually not positioned to weigh in on, that, say, the Young Israel community, for instance, that they would say that that actually, Elliot, the modern Orthodoxy that you know here on the Upper East Side, is not Orthodoxy in the Young Israel of the suburbs, or the yeshivish sort of Orthodoxy. They actually are living in a halakhic framework, not the way you and your left of progressive Orthodoxy, to sort of center of conservative, so that’s been, you might know more about that than I do. 

Yehuda: I don’t know. It just feels, that runs aground pretty fast, because that, by the same token, conservative Judaism in the suburbs of Chicago or in Toronto, doesn’t look anything like conservative Judaism of San Francisco. 

So, if, maybe the categories aren’t Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, but take Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and then spell out all of the chaos around these choices that exists through all of the institutions that live there, and it will probably be a lot messier than it would appear, simply through the denominational labels. 

But I guess, if that’s the case, right, so, given the dynamic that you’re navigating with your people around Halakhic observance and obligation, what their expectation is of the denomination to which they belong, and the rabbi, one of the most pointed pieces of critique that I that I saw in your writing was about how conservative Judaism, institutionally, still wants to try to hold the line, by being really concerned with Halakhic process and the question of various permissibilities. 

So the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement still continues to take on questions, I would say, editorially, mostly, in the effort to try to permit things, because they want to permit people to do things that they would otherwise already be doing. Whether it’s like eating legumes on Passover or using iPads on Shabbat, they’re gonna try to figure out a way to make permissible that which people are already doing, which suggests the rabbis are living within a Halakhic discourse to try to make sure that the choices that their people are making without caring about Halakha, are also within a Halakhic framework. 

It kind of, I kind of got a sense that you felt that that was something of a futile exercise, or maybe not where conservative Judaism should direct its attention. I’m trying to hold that together with this question of, should the movement, can still be focused on Halakha, even if it’s people are not, or should the movement kind of be out of this Halakha conversation entirely.

Elliot: All right, I’m not sure if I’m prepared to answer in and out, because I do think that there is a place for taking the issues of the day, whether that is feminism, whether that is LGBT. In your, in your intro remarks, Yehuda, you yourself acknowledge that the traditional, as your personal lifestyle may be, you found a home for, amongst other reasons, egalitarianism and gender roles within Orthodoxy didn’t speak to in a way you might have grown up. 

So I do think that that question still stands, but I also believe that, you know, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is the brain trust of the conservative movement. Those are the top scholars, that’s where an extraordinary amount of energy, over the decades, my heroes are on, and whether it’s driving on Shabbat, whether it’s legumes on Passover, whether it’s electricity or otherwise, and I’m saying that Jews are gonna drive to shul or not, Jews are going to turn lights on or not. 

That, that’s simply not the way that the the lived experience of the American Jew functions, that the vast majority, if you were to sort of redirect those muscles of rabbinic leadership, not into sort of this interpretive act of of emerging, why I now include this matriarch as opposed to not including the matriarch, but actually say, all right, how do I empower a Jew who doesn’t know how to open up a prayer book, to open up a prayer book, and daven? 

And I think Heschel had some great quotation once, that we, we spend so much time rewriting the prayers, but we’ve failed to actually teach people what prayer is.

And I think my critique of the movement, and I say this very delicately, because the members, these are my teachers. These are my heroes. These are people who are not just at home in the tradition, but the their menschkeit and their humanity are the very bars of aspiration for me. But the provocative thing I said is that the Committee on Jewish Law Standards should rename itself the Committee on Jewish Life and Spirit, that it’s sole focus to inspire, educate, and empower Jews towards a life of religious observance. So I think this would be the redirect I would recommend. 

Now it does leave me with a problem. I spend some time in the article making mention of Chabad. And Chabad makes no bones about it. They’re not accommodating themselves to modernity in the same way, to the intermarried family, to the LGBT Jew, to the questions of feminism and gender roles in the service, right, they’re not, they’re playing offense here, and they’re trying to do it one mitzvah at a time, but I can’t conscience that, personally. I could never preach, teach, serve, live in a community that didn’t accept someone explicitly and wholly in the fullness of their humanity. I just couldn’t. For me, that’s a red line.

So, appreciative as I am of the tactical choices Chabad has made, I see its limitations, too. And I so find myself, this is the problem having a rabbi on your podcast, cause it’s longer answers than you counted for, but I think that there is a place for progressive Halakha. It’s sort of a non-fundamentalist approach. A non-fundamentalist Chabad. How’s that?

Yehuda: Well, hmm. What I heard you saying originally is, there’s a place for progressive Halakha as part of a more expansive and comprehensive approach towards really engaging the life and spirit of modern Jews. That Halakha plays a role in that piece, but it’s not exhaustive. And we, as the intellectual leadership connected to this movement, should continue to do that important work of exploring whether this particular reading of the Taz could help me in the 21st century address a set of questions that the Taz never was gonna answer, that can’t be the sum total of what we use to inspire our people in terms of their lives and choices. 

But you threw a wrench there with Chabad, and I wanna I wanna play with Chabad, then, a little bit, cause Chabad has a totally different theory. Chabad is not comprehensive. Chabad is moments. When Mordechai Lightstone was on our podcast, I don’t know, a year or two ago, talking about what the telos, what the goal of what Chabad is trying to do is, get Jews to do mitzvot. Light Shabbat candles, wrap tefillin in Penn Station, or maybe eventually at home.

And it’s not about, like, of course it’d be great if people did those things all the time, but they don’t really care. And that’s what, partly what makes Chabad so effective in the marketplace is they just want to get people to do one thing. Do this and not that, and not engage the bigger questions of identity, not engage the bigger questions of ideological attachment and commitment.

And what makes our denomination so impossible, is that we want people to do all of these things, but, as you said, you want to engage people in their full selves and in their whole selves. And I kind of wonder whether we’re asking, is it too much? Cause that’s what it sometimes feels as a conservative Jew. Like it’s too much. I want to be deeply attached to everybody’s, like, complex identities evolving identities, and I want them to engage with Halakha, but I don’t want it to be the sum total. I also want to engage them in terms of momentary actions and mitzvot. 

And then it becomes so laden and so saddled with all of this stuff, that it, you know, leads to either people who kind of buy the whole hog, or people who say, I can pick and choose more effectively outside of this movement.

Elliot: Look, I know Mordechai, I like Mordechai, some of my best friends are Chabadniks, but what’s the win here?

Yehuda: Yeah.

Elliot: And what are we actually trying to do. And we really need a Chabadnik on this podcast, because I’m about to say something which I don’t know if it’s true, either in terms of mission or in terms of the data, but I don’t know, to what degree the Chabad tactic of one mitzvah at a time actually creates more Chabadniks.

Yehuda: Right. I don’t think it does.

Elliot: Okay, so, so my observations, and I couch this in the limitations of my knowledge of any cross-communal study that’s been done. I think it creates moments, it creates connectivity in the act of that moment, when a Jew self-selects into a Chabad community, they might find a warm welcome embrace there, but they don’t become Chabadniks. 

For me, my goal is to see those mitzvot as a portal of entry into being a lifelong hyphenated Jew. A lifelong, you can call it a conservative Jew, or Reforme Jew, an Orthodox Jew. I don’t care. But what I’m looking is for a sustained engagement with the riches of Jewish life, learning, ritual, worship, in the home, in the synagogue. I’m trying to frame the access point of mitzvah beyond just the mitzvah itself. 

And I think that’s a tactical difference. And you might be right. It might be too much. But that’s what I do every day, as a congregation rabbi, from cradle to grave, I’m trying to serve my community.

Yehuda: I like that you used the phrase hyphenated. You know, my sons, actually, in their modern Orthodox high school, are part of a small group of kids who are called the hyphenated last names club, or as they prefer to call themselves Hyphenation.

Elliot: That’s funny.

Yehuda: And they get together, a bunch of hyphenated last name kids, not all, but many of them come from denominationally complex backgrounds. Not surprisingly, an Orthodox school. They have the official foods of Hyphenation. Cheezits, Coca-Cola, hyphenated foods. They talk about hyphenated celebrities like Yankees shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa. A great moment in the history of Hyphenation. 

I’m mentioning it because they, I think, I’m not gonna speak for them, but I think that they know that they’re a little weird. That it’s a lot to carry. And whether the hyphenation is just a last name, or whether it’s the multiple commitments, it means that almost by definition, those who wanna live hyphenated identities, conservative, which means a fidelity to Halakha, and also trying to live in the modern world in a very particular way, or liberal Zionism, that you’re almost rigging the game, that you’re gonna be smaller and struggling. 

I don’t know. Do you think that there’s a way for conservative Judaism to continue to straddle that line and to grow, to be a mass movement, as opposed to what feels, oftentimes, like the diminishing, passionate, adherence to this nuanced position?

Elliot: Look, I sure hope so. I think that, for me, that’s, it’s like that final scene in The American President. To be a conservative Jew is advanced citizenship. To be, live a hyphenated life, it’s easy to be on right and sort of turn your head towards modernity in one way, or to be on, you know, the secular, other side of it and say no. 

But to be a conservative Jew, one framing of it, and there are multiple framings of what it means to be a conservative Jew, is this hyphenated existence, of tradition and change, of innovation, the past chancellor of the Seminary talked about polarities and balance, that we are the movement of “Yes, and.” Progressivism and traditionalism all in one.

I think that’s a hard rallying cry. It’s much easier to, you know, be on, on the other sides. You know, I don’t think that’s particular to conservative Judaism. I think the centrist movements, be they religiously mainland Christianity, politically, I think that entire sane center is under attack from the sides, and, which is a problem of our age. 

But look, for me, I can fake it in all sorts of places in my life, but when I’m standing before God, when I’m both, as a private Jew and as a religious leader, I have to be authentic. And for me, to be authentic is to bring the fullness of myself to bear and that means to wrestle with these questions openly. So I can’t imagine living my life or leading my community any other way. 

I can’t check my intellect at the door. I have to ask the questions of scholarship as they relate to faith. I have to recognize that the moment I live in now is different than the moment of 50 years ago. I have to preach and teach a Judaism that recognizes the distinct possibility that one of my kids could be LGBTQ. That one of my kids could come home with a non-Jewish partner. Right, I don’t live in 1950s Great Neck anymore. 

And I point this out in my article. I say, rabbis are destined to serve in the time in which we live. I didn’t choose this time. This is the time in which I live. So I’m gonna make the best of it. And for me, it’s this which makes most sense.

Yehuda: There’s something here around terror and safety that’s worth probing at another time. Because some of what you described, of, I don’t know the world that I’m about to encounter, can make us open epistemologically, can make us open to whatever the world throws at us. And then there’s always gonna be those who say, precisely because there’s this kind of open corridor, for the Jewish people, it requires a kind of retreat into a certain safety, that you, as a religious person, as you said, you don’t wanna do. 

You did say something suggestive in the piece, which is that you drew distinction between Halakhic and commanded. And you suggested that there’s still room to grow around the sense of commandedness. So what does that look like, if it’s not entirely bound up into the world of Halakha? Where is there room for American Jews to think about commandedness, in ways that might go beyond the more limited purview of denominational choices or even behavioral choices?

Elliot: First of all, I do wanna recommend that everybody reads the companion piece. I’m paired with my dear colleague and friend and teacher Leon Morris, who has a great piece on this issue, making a distinction between surrender and submission. And it was an honor to be paired with him on the idea of, is there still a place for being commanded in this world of radical autonomy? And I do think there is. 

And I can only speak sort of personally, theologically, not just as a rabbi, but as a Jew, the idea that that which I am doing is somehow in response to a God whose will will always be ever elusive to me, but whether it is lighting Shabbat candles, ordering on this side of the of the menu, but not on that side, observing the festivals, that in that moment of observance, I think Heschel talked about mitzvah as a place where, sort of, the heavens and the earth meet, that I am actualizing, responding to, or just being commanded by the Kadosh Baruch Hu, by God, that, for me, is an incredibly powerful category of religious motivation. And that’s not nostalgia or it’s not just something that my parents did or it’s not just something that I want to pass down or, or some sort of Kaplanian notion of, this is what Jews do, and so these are the dietary habits I, but, no. 

It is an expression of a covenantal relationship with God and for that reason, I am observing this or that mitzvah. And I think, not just for me personally, but I think that language has traction in the soul of American Jewries. I think American Jews remain curious and engaged and aspirational about the question the fundamental religious question of what is it that the Lord asks of me.

Yehuda: I agree with you. I especially see it alive and well in communities that are connected to narratives of social justice, or justice more generally. Oftentimes, the vocabulary of such movements is rooted in a sense of, you are obligated, especially once you see something, once you discover an inequity and injustice, it’s not a matter of kind of personal choice or preference, and therefore I need to spend my time there. I feel a sense of being called by it. 

This was very common in Ruth Messenger’s writing and speaking throughout her time at American Jewish World Service, of you do not have the luxury of being overwhelmed, she oftentimes said. That’s a language of obligation. So it’s fascinating that American Jews can be simultaneously compelled by a language of obligation in one direction, but maybe need to be a little bit persuaded around the language of obligation in a slightly different sphere. 

It suggests that we are, we’re drawn to different spheres of obligation, but the problem is not obligation altogether. I guess the flip side of that is you do use the language in this piece around the marketplace of ideas. We want American Jews to choose into this place. And I had a conversation with Rabbi Noah Kushner out in San Francisco, who argues that the minute we introduced the vocabulary of the marketplace of ideas, we’ve basically lost, because we’ve capitulated to a Capitalist, market-driven infrastructure, that we’re always gonna be fighting against, and that we’re always gonna be trying to win, and that we may never, we’re never really gonna be able to compete between Saturday morning services and the golf game. 

So how do you navigate that question of, do I want to try to position this as, can I compete within the marketplace of ideas, or do I wanna speak a language of obligation and commitment and figure out whether that can be something people can hear, because they do feel like they they pull against each other, in some sort of way.

Elliot: I’m not sure they do. I would need the full context of what Rabbi Kushner was saying, and Rabbi Kushner is a hero of mine, but I love serving as a rabbi in the Upper East Side where I know I have to deliver the goods.

Because, the Upper East Side, and I know you have listeners all around the world, is a beautiful place, full of wonderful people, but a congregational body who has 18 different choices of how to spend their Friday nights and how to spend their Saturday mornings. And for me, that animates my rabbinate. 

Because I know that, the same way that restaurants need to be good and the gym needs to be good, that, you better believe that the sermon and the cantor’s voice and, Rabbi Kushner might take issue with this, but the product of Jewish life and living has to be compelling, A, because that’s why I became a rabbi, to create the most dynamic vision of Jewish life and living, that I can, with the breath that I breathe. 

But also because I know, I know that people on the Upper East side, and frankly, people all over America, are gonna vote with their feet. So, for me, I love the fact that, I, it makes me hustle. It makes my staff hustle. That means you can never get lazy and I can’t imagine being a rabbi any other way.

Yehuda: Mm-hmm. And maybe even the language of mitzvot, then, operates within that competition. If I can help my people understand a framework and a language of obligation, that’s its own version of kind of competing for the marketplace. 

So, last question is really a kind of, in some ways, a tachles question. You said at the end of your piece, I’m quoting, “The calling of the hour is to train a generation of rabbis, Jewish educators, and communal professionals with the spiritual, pedagogic, and practical skills to capture the hearts and souls of an American Jew for whom Jewish affiliation is one of individual and voluntaristic choice.” 

I’m in. I’m with you. There’s a pipeline problem. There’s a crisis around rabbinic education. We have not nearly enough communal professionals. Our best and brightest are not always choosing lives and careers with the Jewish people. What’s not being done and what needs to be done?

Elliot: All right. That’s a whole podcast for another day, that I’m actually investing a huge amount of my time and energy in. I realize that I, and you, as well, Yehuda, we’re no longer the youngest in the room. And if we, as Jewish communal professionals, aren’t also investing in who’s gonna come after us, and there’s a depletion in ranks that was pummeled by way of COVID, and otherwise, it’s not just rabbis, it’s also educators in our Jewish day schools, it’s also JCC professionals everywhere. There’s a serious pipeline problem. 

You see this taking place, and I don’t know, I know we’re wrapping up, but you know what the duration of a rabbinical education is, what the cost impediments of a rabbinical education is, are we tapping young talent who are coming out of the Jewish camping system, or USYs, or springboard fellows, or the best and the brightest right at that moment, when, you know, I have a niece who a Rosh Eidah, a division head at Camp Ramah, and she has all the markings of great rabbinic leadership. And she’s working at Deloitte right now. She should be well. I love it, and please, God, she’ll take care of me in her retirement.

I’m just saying, what would it take to get that person, who has the interpersonal, the organizational, and the intellectual skills to inspire a community? Right? That’s what I want to do. I want to see Jewry replenish their ranks, to create vibrant communities and create a virtuous cycle, whereby communities will be vibrant enough, a subset of whom will go on to aspire to become Jewish educators, rabbis, cantors, and communal service professionals.

Yehuda: I gotta push you a little bit harder, Elliot, cause it’s, the things that a community does when it just feels it needs to replenish the ranks, don’t get you the quality product of what you’re putting out at Park Avenue Synagogue every week. 

You are a rabbi with a doctorate, which makes you very unusual in this field. You can bring together the greatest talent imaginable, whether it’s in leading prayer or in speaking or in teaching. People can tell the difference between when something is thick and something is thin. And all of the market trends in our community right now are going to push the field around pipeline, towards making it easier, faster, smoother, more accessible, cheaper to put people into these roles. 

How do we simultaneously do what you’re telling us and demanding of us, holding us to a high standard, this is what it should be. It’s, to be the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue is, you’re playing for the Yankees. You can’t make it, you get shipped outta town where you’ll be fine playing out in Minnesota. You want this to be serious. 

And by the way, you’re right. That’s the Judaism that will compel people to pay membership and to show up, but all of the market forces around this are gonna push us towards lightening the load, making it easier and faster.

What are we gonna do, that’s both gonna get the best and brightest, make them work really hard to become the most excellent, and simultaneously build a movement out of it?

Elliot: I think we have to change the market forces. Right, so, why is it that someone wouldn’t self-select into a five-year rabbinical program with or without the PhD, like I was trained in? Well, maybe it’s because of the duration. Maybe they wanna start a family, maybe because they’re worried they’re gonna be saddled with debt and they’re not gonna be working for a hedge fund. They’re gonna be working for, right, so, the Jewish community has failed to create a scaffolding and infrastructure by way of philanthropy, by way of, you know, you have a diminishing number of students, but you have a proliferation of programs.

So that unto itself speaks to the left hand not speaking to the right. Or maybe it’s because, you know, there are opportunities for institutions to work closely together in a way that they never have before. And the philanthropic world needs to prompt them to do so, in a way that’s uncomfortable, but ultimately for the good of the Jewish community.

And ultimately, and I think you’re gonna take this as a cop-out, but I’m gonna say it anyway. I think unless the rabbinic role prized, both in word and in deed, I, I live in a bubble. I have demographic and philanthropic trends that my colleagues would give their right arm for, on the Upper East Side. 

So what’s happening in the community in New Jersey, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, South Shore Long Island, how can those communities receive support internally and nationally, by which the best and the brightest will look to their rabbi or cantor and say, you know what? I’d love to grow up to be like her or him. That’s a job I’d love to do. That’s what we need to do.

Yehuda: Thank you for listening to our show. And special thanks to my guest, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove. You can read more of Rabbi Cosgrove’s article at the website 

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon and Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative. Music provided by Socalled.

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