Judaism Dis­rupt­ed: A Spir­i­tu­al Man­i­festo for the 21st Century

By – May 23, 2023

In this deeply mov­ing new book, Michael Strass­feld — a retired pul­pit rab­bi — is both wor­ried and cau­tious­ly opti­mistic about the fate of lib­er­al Judaism in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. He views Judaism as an his­tor­i­cal­ly evolv­ing civ­i­liza­tion, which reflects the influ­ence of Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism. 

Strass­feld was ordained as a Recon­struc­tion­ist rab­bi and spent many years in the pul­pit at the Soci­ety for the Advance­ment of Judaism, a flag­ship Recon­struc­tion­ist syn­a­gogue. Like Kaplan, Strassfeld’s goal is to retain the core of Judaism, but open it up to the changes that unfold in dif­fer­ent times. He wants to devel­op a new Amer­i­can min­hag that is open to the val­ues of today’s lib­er­al soci­ety. He enu­mer­ates eleven core prin­ci­ples that embody this new min­hag, whose hall­mark is free­dom. Some of them are more uni­ver­sal­ist, such as Car­ing for the Planet”and Engag­ing in Social Jus­tice,” while oth­ers are more tra­di­tion­al: Cre­at­ed in the Image of God,” Liv­ing in a Moral Uni­verse,” and Turn­ing and Return­ing: Teshu­vah.” There are also some prin­ci­ples that relate more to mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion, such as Liv­ing with Aware­ness” and Work­ing on Our Inner Qualities.”

In the con­text of this book, dis­rupt­ing” is a holy activ­i­ty that ques­tions received val­ues and works to forge new ones. Kaplan, in found­ing Recon­struc­tion, was a dis­rupter. The younger Strass­feld, who with col­leagues wrote the Jew­ish Cat­a­log books in the sev­en­ties, and brought do-it-your­self Judaism to a new gen­er­a­tion, was also a dis­rupter. The havu­rah move­ment, with its empha­sis on par­tic­i­pa­to­ry Judaism, both changed Jew­ish prac­tice and was ulti­mate­ly assim­i­lat­ed into the main­stream. Now Strass­feld posits it is time to fur­ther wel­come dis­rup­tion. Judaism must be open, for exam­ple, to envi­ron­men­tal­ism, inter­mar­riage, gen­der flu­id­i­ty, and a more nuanced rela­tion­ship to Israel. 

True to his sub­ti­tle, Strass­feld intends this book to be a man­i­festo. He wants to remake Judaism from the inside, to use those core val­ues he has iden­ti­fied as sign­posts for reli­gious ser­vices and com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice. It is an ambi­tious goal, but one he sees as nec­es­sary if lib­er­al Judaism is to grow.

Dis­rupt­ed Judaism is a very per­son­al book. Strass­feld is open about his own life, his fam­i­ly, and his career. His writ­ing is both a tes­ta­ment to a long and dis­tin­guished career in pro­fes­sion­al Judaism and a call to new chal­lenges and opportunities.

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.