Mann is the author of 2 books: Sex, God, Christmas & Jews,
Intimate Emails About Faith and Life Challenges, a finalist of the
Koret International Jewish Book Award, and How to Get More Out of
Being Jewish Even if:A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You
think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping
kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew School or E. All of the above!
Mann is also the author of Jewish E-Mail, a column syndicated to
Jewish websites and newspapers in the U.S. and Canada and the producer
of beingjewish.org (More bio
He speaks and writes about Jewish identity, continuity,
intermarriage and assimilation. These will be our topics of
Here's a soft-ball: give us the shortened 500 words explanation of
your concept of "Freedom Judaism".
When the temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, Judaism was forced to
reinvent itself. Over time, our leaders brilliantly came up with a way
to perpetuate Judaism that was not centered on the temple. They invented
Rabbinic Judaism or what some call Halachic Judaism.
Today, perhaps as many as 90% of the Jews on the planet no longer
lead a life governed by Halacha. (Orthodox Jews and a small number of
others make up the remaining roughly 10%). Yet Jews and Judaism still
exist. If we do not live in era of the Temple or Rabbinic Judaism, what
is this era? I believe we are reinventing ourselves as radically as when
the temple was destroyed.
I call this third new era Freedom Judaism. It began when Jews were
first emancipated in Europe. In the last 100 years or so, Freedom
Judaism has become a radical new reality for Jews because of 7
1. Mobility: Almost all Jews alive today live in a country other than
the country of their great grandparents. This modern exodus is many
times greater than the Biblical exodus from Egypt. In addition, the way
people regularly move from city to city today is a smaller ongoing
2. The Holocaust: The post-traumatic shock of losing a third of the
Jewish people deeply affects Jewish and non-Jewish thinking, especially
in matters of spirituality (attitudes toward God) and Jewish Peoplehood.
3. Establishment of Israel: What should a free Jewish state be? This
historic work in progress poses endless challenges, among them: Who is a
Jew? How do democracy and theocracy coexist? How does a people that has
been powerless for 2,000 years, ethically use its newfound power? What
does a Jewish homeland mean to the Diaspora? How does realization of the
dream of a Jewish state impact Jewish theology, messianic thinking,
prayers, holidays, etc?
4. The shrinking of the globe: Today, knowledge and travel are
quickly accessible to an unparalleled percentage of the Earth's
5. The empowerment of women: Women in the West have unprecedented
rights, education, and opportunities. As a subset, Jewish women are
perhaps the most educated and influential women in the world today - for
that matter, in all of human history! Today, Jewish women routinely are
esteemed professors, doctors, lawyers, rabbis, judges, legislators,
businesspeople, members of a myriad of other professions, and volunteer
leaders. Some of the most successful innovations in the Jewish world
today come from Jewish women: prolific writings, new and inspiring
Jewish liturgy and music, new programs, and institutions such as the
Jewish Healing Centers. Unleashing the talents of 50 percent of the
Jewish people bodes well for a Jewish future.
6. The liberation of the Jews: Jews today can more freely choose
where to live, work, attend universities, participate in government, and
join organizations than at any time in history, (though anti-Semitism,
especially outside of North America, is active and dangerous.) Jews also
have great freedom of choice in deciding how, or even whether, to
practice Judaism, another religion, or no religion. 6a: Intermarriage: A
significant aspect of Jewish freedom that deserves special mention is
the loving embrace (literally) of non-Jews, such that intermarriage
today is commonplace. The long-term effect of these marriages is not
known, but there is little question that they will impact the future of
7. The Western ideal of individual Freedom. Jews live in societies
today that embrace the idea that we each choose what we want in our
lives. Nobody has the right to impose anything upon on us (we protest
when the government wants to tax us or even tell us to wear seatbelts).
This is the notion of the sovereign self. Each of us is a king or queen
in charge of our own lives.
I am not suggesting that Freedom Judaism is preferable or better than
Halachic Judaism. What I am saying is that this is reality today. And we
need to face this reality honestly, fearlessly and creatively.
Do you see Halachic Judaism adjusting to the new circumstances the
way people like Samson Raphael Hirsch adjusted to emancipation, or do
you see 'Freedom Judaism' replacing Halachic Judaism? Halachic Judaism
is doing well in terms of birth rate, while Freedom Judaism is suffering
from assimilation, intermarriage and low birth rate.
I believe Freedom Judaism has already replaced Halachic Judaism for
all but Orthodox Jews and a few others. As I noted in the earlier
response, perhaps as much as 90% of the Jewish world today does not lead
a life governed by Halacha. For that matter, most Jews today have very
little knowledge of Halacha!
In the emails I've received over the years, I have found that many
Jews are interested to hear what Jewish law has to say about an issue.
However, when faced with a decision like: Should I get a tattoo? Jewish
law is but one of many "voices" they will consider as they
ponder options. They might be influenced by Jewish law and tradition,
but they certainly do feel or act bound by Halacha. A much more
widespread example is not keeping kosher.
As for the issue of birth rate, I agree, those who observe Halacha
have more babies and this is one reason there will always be a part of
the Jewish world that observes Jewish law. I would not say however, that
birth rate is a barometer of the health of Halachic Judaism.
Only a few centuries ago, most Jews lived Halachic lives, yet most
Jews today do not. How many times have you heard a non-Orthodox Jew say,
"My grandparents, or great grand parents were Orthodox?" Birth
rate is not able to sustain widespread observance of Halachic Judaism. I
listed 7 (mostly wonderful) changes in our world in response to an
earlier question that partially explain the decline in Halachic Judaism.
In a word, I sum them up as: freedom. This is why I say we are now in
the third Jewish era that I call Freedom Judaism.
The issues of assimilation, intermarriage, low birth rates etc are
significant challenges for Judaism. Many Jews are upset that these
phenomena will mean the end of Judaism. I believe they will end Judaism
as we know it... but not end Judaism. They will change Judaism.
The evolution from Temple Judaism to Rabbinic / Halachic Judaism took
several centuries as the oral Torah was codified and written and as new
institutions replaced the Temple. I believe we will evolve much faster
this time. The next 50 years will be pivotal. Some consider these
changes frightening and disturbing. Judaism is changing... as radically
as when the Temple was destroyed. I do not know what we will look like,
but I think this era of Freedom Judaism is perhaps the most exciting
time in our people's history to be a Jew.
I understand all of your points about Freedom Judaism; it make a lot
of sense. The only thing that I would disagree with you about is your
overall sense of optimism. I am pretty pessimistic about the future of
Judaism because I sort of imagine Freedom Judaism ending with a bunch of
half-Jews who feel culturally Jewish to varying degrees. This wouldn't
be too bad, because I think such people will lead moral and ethical
lives, but it does sadden me that there will be very little
distinctively Jewish about their lives.
I agree that the next 50 years are pivotal, and in that regard, they
will be exciting to live through. But I find myself getting more and
more depressed with the state of Judaism every time the holidays come
around. Take last year for example. I live in a Jewish fraternity house
which means I am surrounded by Jews who are OK identifying as Jews. Yet,
on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my hall mates are opting out of shul in
favor of watching football, doing homework, going out to dinner, etc.
What I am trying to say is that I don't see Freedom Judaism yielding
particularly Jewish results. It may produce ethical people that get Bar
Mitzvahed, but if that is all the Jewishness new age Jews possess, the
future might not be so bright for Judaism.
I share some of your fears. I should clarify one point. I am not
suggesting that Judaism be a free for all. I am saying that in this era
of Freedom Judaism anyone can and does choose whatever they want. If
Judaism is to be chosen and continue, we will need to reinvent ourselves
in ways that make Judaism and our institutions relevant, compelling and
sustainable. We can not impose Halacha, Judaism or anything else on Jews
in an era of freedom.
I'll put things a different way: I once gave a lecture and an 80 year
old man stood up at the end of the lecture and asked: "These issues
of intermarriage and assimilation you describe did not exist when I was
younger. Don't you think anti-Semitism in a way was a blessing?"
My reply was, "I would not call anti-Semitism a blessing. It is
true, that as a result, the Jewish people learned many positive things
and we were kept together....but I would not want to trade places
Jewishly with my great grandfather!"
So yes, I am optimistic. As I wrote earlier, I do not believe Judaism
will end...Judaism as we know it will. But we have always evolved. Over
thousands of years the Jews and Judaism have changed a lot.
Further as I noted in the first answer, Jewish woman today are
perhaps the most educated women in the history of humanity. They are at
the fore front of some of most impactful and positive innovations in
Jewish life from new Jewish Music and liturgy to Jewish Healing Centers
and special needs inclusion efforts etc. We are unleashing 50% of our
people! This potential is most exciting for our future.
So put on your seatbelt and keep your hands on the wheel, be prepared
for forks in the road and new unusual destinations. I am not sure where
we are going, but I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be part of
this journey, to play a tiny role and live in this era.
I embrace and love the uniqueness of Jewish spirituality, ethics and
peoplehood. But who knows? Perhaps over time (decades or centuries from
now) Jews and gentile will believe similarly in such a way as described
in the Aleinu prayer when all people will know a single God and the
world will be perfected.
The role a rabbi should play in the community occupies some space in
your book. "So many Jews now have expectations of a rabbi that are
virtually impossible for one person to achieve".
But was is the role of the rabbi in this age of post-Halachic Judaism
If you examine your life, you spend almost all of your waking hours
1. Work (broadly defined)
3. Health or
When is the last time you had a question in one of these realms where
you thought: "I think I will consult with a rabbi or Halacha to
find an answer?"
For example: How should I respond to a customer? How much should I go
into my credit card line to pay my bills at home? How should I respond
to my daughter's desire to drive the car with 3 other teens, Should I
lose some weight? or I wonder what movie I'll watch this week?
These are pretty standard day to day questions. Would you think to
ask a rabbi or have your answer driven by Halacha?
Most non-Orthodox Jews today would say no. So what is the role of a
rabbi today for non-Orthodox Jews? I believe to become teachers of how
Judaism is relevant for day to day modern life. Said differently, to
teach how Judaism's wisdom can help answer questions like those above
and countless others.
The information must be relevant because in this era of Freedom
Judaism and the sovereign self, Jews freely choose the answers that
resonate and discard the others. The reality is that Judaism is just one
source of knowledge they consider. Granted this is a challenge for
rabbis, especially since Judaism is a tradition of commitment,
seriousness and obligation. But Judaism is also a tradition of great
benefit to individuals, community and all humanity. In their roles as
teachers, rabbis must be marketers of these compelling benefits.
And in spite of living in this post Halachic era of Freedom Judaism,
I believe rabbis have many opportunities to teach. Most Jews today will
not bind themselves by Halacha but are interested to know what Judaism
has to say about many issues. I say this based on the thousands of
emails I have received (to see some go here).
One other important role for the rabbi relates to major life events.
Jews still look to the rabbi when a family member has a bris, a bar/bat
mitzvah, wedding, a crisis, divorce or funeral. However, as you can see
from this chapter in my book, "I Will Not Circumcise My Son!"
, most Jews today will perhaps give the rabbi/Halacha a vote in how they
will run their lives, but not a veto.
Finally, rabbis continue to play a role as community representatives
Here's a question I compiled following some readers' remarks:
Is it time for rabbis to accept reality and officiate ceremonies for
Shalom again Shmuel:
My answer is yes with an asterisk. Marriage according to Jewish law
is not possible. A wedding with a rabbi that integrates Jewish
traditions is possible.
I believe we need to find every possible way to welcome intermarried
couples and show them the beauty of Judaism. To increase the chances
that this couple will want Judaism for themselves and especially for
their children, rabbis and our institutions need to show warmth. To do
the opposite will not make the couple "fall out of love," but
does run the risk of alienating them with the impression that Judaism is
a non-loving intolerant religion.
I've heard from couples who told me their rabbi said "No, I
won't perform the wedding, but I would be willing to come to the dinner
afterwards." I understand why a rabbi would have this position. But
the couple viewed this as a huge insult that made them want nothing to
do with Judaism. I understand their position as well.
Again, I acknowledge that asking a rabbi to marry a couple with the
traditional Jewish vow that the couple is being married "according
to the religion of Moses and the people Israel." is simply not
accurate or appropriate.
What to do instead? When a couple is "rabbi shopping,"
calling synagogues till they find a rabbi who says "Yes, I perform
intermarriages." I think the response should be: "Yes, the
rabbi will 'officiate' but always needs to meet with the couple in
Meeting the couple and discussing the issues and challenges of
intermarriage is critical. The rabbi should respectfully and gently pose
questions about their individual faith, how they plan to reconcile
differences and most importantly how they plan to religiously raise
(As an aside, many young couples think "love conquers all"
and that they will just work things out when the time comes. This plan
is often naive. I say this based on emails I've received from unhappy or
confused children and parents of such marriages. Hopefully the
conversation could lead to many more with the rabbi as well as
connection to resources available such as Interfaithfamily.com and
Having said all that, in my mind "officiate" can be
flexibly defined. I think rabbis should find ways to be a part of the
ceremony with a judge doing the legalities. I'm not sure about
co-officiating with a clergy of another religion ...that could be an
especially difficult situation for a rabbi. I also can see a problem if
the couple flat out says they plan to raise the children in a religion
other than Judaism.
Every case is unique, but In general, in addition to a rabbi
participating, as far as I am concerned (and I know some would
disagree), the ceremony could include many Jewish traditions from a
chuppah to Jewish blessings/music and breaking the glass. Personally I
would be comfortable with the synagogue being the venue.
The bottom line for me is I love Judaism and intermarriage is a big
reality today. To reconcile both, I think we need to find every possible
way to have intermarried couples embrace Judaism and Judaism embrace
them...including having a rabbi somehow be a part of the actual wedding
ceremony (and not just at the dinner afterwards.)
A new study shows that young American Jews are more and more
alienated from Israel. One quote: "Every measure indicates a
decline of attachment"
Why? What should be done as to reverse this trend?
During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, I brought a transistor radio to my
largely non-Jewish high school to hear the hourly newscasts. I quickly
realized that I was one of the few people (Jewish or non-Jewish) who was
this concerned about what was happening during the war.
Since that time I have always observed lesser concern for Israel all
the way to alienation with sadness...but understanding.
Unlike most American Jews especially younger Jews, I had a strong
personal connection to Israel. I had uncles and cousins who were
fighting during this war. I had been to Israel many times. In addition,
I deeply valued the importance of Israel, as many members of both of my
parents' families had perished in the Holocaust.
Most American Jews don't have these personal connections. And there
are three additional reasons that many young Americans feelings for
Israel are at best apathy at worst alienation.
One is that the average young American Jew has experienced little or
no anti-Semitism. Unlike their parents and grandparents (and me), the
current generation of Jews did not feel the Holocaust, the establishment
of the State of Israel, the Six Day War or the Yom Kippur War. To those
who lived through the events, these were serious survival threats that
were tangible examples of the existence of anti-Semitism.
In contrast, young Jews today have grown up seeing a strong and
secure American Jewish community, a mighty Israel and loving and
accepting non-Jewish neighbors. For them the notion of Jewish peoplehood
and the necessity of an Israel is not as compelling as it was for
earlier generations "who knew Pharaoh."
A second reason many young Americans feel negatively or apathetic
towards Israel is misconceptions or ignorance of Israel. Most American
Jews have never been to Israel. Their understanding of the Middle East
is largely a result of what they see in the media. Israel is often
portrayed as an oppressive occupier, an evil apartheid state.
If you are young, see and hear awful things about what Israel does to
the Palestinians, don't know the history of Israel, and you don't feel a
strong gut feeling for the need for a Jewish homeland as a safe haven
from anti-Semitism, the result can be alienation.
There is a third reason for alienation. When famous Israeli authors,
or the Israeli government, or say the former President of Israel (Katzav)
insult American Jewry or the Conservative or Reform Movements, this can
and does repel American Jews.
What to do you ask? Education. American and Israeli Jews have many
misconceptions about each other. American Jews do not adequately
understand the existential and anti-Semitic threats faced by Israel and
other Jews. Israelis don't adequately understand American Jewish life.
Fortunately many fine educational efforts are happening. Birthright
Israel (getting Jews to Israel) and The Israel Project (getting accurate
and fair media coverage) are two great example. These efforts should
grow. Having Israelis participate and interface with American Jews in
these efforts is a win-win. Programs like Wexner that bring American and
Jewish leaders together are part of the solution. I'll throw out another
idea, there should be a huge high school exchange program for American
and Israeli youth to live in each others homes for a quarter or
Understanding will result and rather than alienation, Jews in Israel
and America will have the blessing of connection.