Ear­li­er this week, Yehu­da Kurtzer wrote about a recent Com­men­tary arti­cle by Jack Wertheimer and the trans­mis­sion of mem­o­ry. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Do the Jew­ish Peo­ple need more books? And are books the key to Jew­ish inno­va­tion? In the 1920s Franz Rosen­zweig wrote that It could hard­ly be assert­ed that the great urgency of the present moment is to orga­nize the sci­ence of Judaism or to prompt both Jews and non-Jews to the end­less writ­ings of books on Jew­ish sub­jects. Books are not now the prime need of the day. But what we need more than ever, or at least as much as ever, are human beings — Jew­ish human beings, to use a catch­word that should be cleansed of the par­ti­san asso­ci­a­tions still cling­ing to it.”

Rosen­zweig then, and we in the busi­ness of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion now, sense that the con­di­tions in which mod­ern Judaism is strug­gling for a con­tin­u­ous foothold require some­thing more than the per­pet­u­a­tion of Jew­ish knowl­edge for knowledge’s sake; that our seek­ing, study­ing, teach­ing and learn­ing needs to focus on human out­comes. Accord­ing­ly, the trend in the so-called inno­va­tion sec­tor focus­es heav­i­ly on just the Jew­ish human beings” that Rosen­zweig calls for: on inno­va­tors them­selves, on peo­ple with ideas who fall between the mar­gins of the institutions.

And yet it has always seemed iron­ic to me that with all the advances in our knowl­edge of Jew­ish his­to­ry, and the suc­cess­es of Jew­ish Stud­ies in the acad­e­my, that we know now more about the Jew­ish past than we have ever known before; but as a com­mu­ni­ty, we tend to care about the past less than ever. To para­phrase Leon Wieselti­er, our col­lec­tive igno­rance of the clas­si­cal Jew­ish past may be the scan­dal of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Jew­ry. I am con­cerned that the fix­a­tion on new pro­grams – even in the embod­i­ment of new indi­vid­u­als to lead the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty – is alone insuf­fi­cient to make a cred­i­ble claim for the lega­cy of what this gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish life is going to leave behind, that we are sub­sti­tut­ing pro­gram lead­er­ship for the thought-lead­er­ship that ulti­mate­ly has kept intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry in pro­duc­tive par­al­lel with actu­al Jew­ish history. 

I see the clas­si­cal rab­bis as the par­a­dig­mat­ic bridge-builders between the per­pet­u­a­tion of ideas and the pro­gram­mat­ic work of inno­va­tion: they were archi­tects not only of an extra­or­di­nary lit­er­a­ture – one that they tied to the authen­tic­i­ty of the Bible through an ide­ol­o­gy of call­ing it a sec­ond Torah, the oral Torah – but also of sys­tems for Jew­ish life to enable Judaism to change pro­duc­tive­ly through a peri­od of exis­ten­tial challenge. 

So I am not sure that a book – even if it is not the book that Rosen­zweig derides – turns the tide for the inno­va­tion sec­tor (which is not to say I was not grate­ful for the phil­an­thropic exper­i­men­ta­tion that brought it about!). But it does make me hope­ful that we are remem­ber­ing the lega­cy of the trans­mis­sion of ideas that has helped define Jew­ish life in the past as we do the work of redefin­ing Jew­ish life in the present. 

Yehu­da Kurtzer is the pres­i­dent of the Shalom Hart­man Insti­tute of North Amer­i­ca. His first book, Shu­va: The Future of the Jew­ish Past, is now avail­able