David Starr wonders: Just who are we, anyway?

The new Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation ponders the meaning of religious identity

Photo/Mike Lovett

David Starr in his new Lown Hall office

There are probably not many people who can say to a community adult education class of predominantly Jewish students, that “we are all Protestants,” but that is what David Starr did recently when he spoke about the challenges modernity poses to traditionalist commitments like tribalism and faith.

The combination of cutting insight and wry wit was characteristic of Starr, who is newly installed in Brandeis’ Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation.

No one gasped; no one was offended; no one thought he meant that he and the others were Christians. They understood, because Starr, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, had carefully developed an intellectual theme: The Protestant Reformation and the modern evolution of Western society have made religion – all religion -- a more private, less communal practice. People are free to pick and choose what practices and traditions they will continue, and which they will discard; many look skeptically at strong ethnic and religious identities.

“Now, if you think like a liberal Protestant, you say, ‘Freedom in and of religion is a good thing,’ and there’s a lot to that,” Starr said in an interview in his Lown Hall office. “But what does it do to a people’s ideas about peoplehood?”

Given the rich variety of languages, ethnicities, religions and cultures in Eastern Europe, “you think an eastern European Jew -- even a so-called secularist -- ever forgot he was a Jew?” he asks. “The Jews brought their tribalism and their Judaism with them to America, but America enables and challenges both of those elements and their relationship to one another. The question, in an open society like the United States is: What am I saying when I say I am a Jew?”

Another major difference with Europe is that “American freedom enables religious intensity and religious seekers, and Jews have become a part of that,” he said. “As a result they’ve gained a much funkier, diverse, energetic religiosity. That’s a good thing.”

But he returns to the same question, now with a twist: “Jews traditionally enjoyed a common narrative and a sense of collective purpose and destiny. With modernity’s fractures can we rebuild or rewrite that narrative, and if not, what does that do to our sense of peoplehood and sense of purpose?”

Some 15 years ago, concerns about the way the Jewish community in America was functioning led to the founding of Me’ah, a highly innovative joint venture in adult education mounted by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Starr was the founding academic director, dean and architect of the vision.

The program, which asks participants to commit to 100 hours of classroom study and additional out-of-class preparation, now has thousands of graduates. Telling the Me’ah story, analyzing that story, and discussing how to build on the experience will be at the core of a book Starr plans to write during his visiting professorship at Brandeis.

When Me’ah was founded, much of the American Jewish community “was by and large assimilated and ignorant of its own cultural history,” Starr says. “People were highly integrated into Western society and very well-educated in university terms. And there was a sense among the funders and creators of the program that the community’s extreme emphasis on children was problematic. You can’t run a culture that looks like ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Name for me any area of human life where children don’t need adults to function as adults – leaders, mentors and teachers? Yet most adult Jews couldn’t function as adults in Jewish terms.”

“Me’ah is not just about giving Jewish adults a bunch of information about history, texts and ideas,” he says. “We make the claim that through knowledge people would and could and should feel they could participate in Jewish public life. They could become ‘citizens’ in the business of the Jewish people.”

That interest brought Starr to Brandeis. “Israelis have a civic Jewish identity because they have a state. But they often lack a sense of where Judaism fits into that identity. American Jews, by contrast, lack a sense of citizenship in the Jewish people because they lack a Jewish civic space.” he says. “It is an open and fascinating question whether and how it might be possible to rebuild that sense of national identification for diaspora Jews. That question drives my work with the Bronfman Chair—the opportunity to study Me’ah and other contemporary phenomena as a way of thinking about possible models for Jewish civic education.”

Starr sees this problem as both a Jewish and a universal one: “It is clear that there will always be orthodoxies demanding and sustaining strong communities with strong boundaries. It is less clear how liberal ideals will fare, given their principled commitment more to freedom than to boundaries and definition. The question is can peoples and societies create some third way that maintains powerful traditionalist commitments yet remains porous enough to allow deeper interaction with those in the larger society.”

“Jewish life has always been about a dynamic relationship between past and present, continuity and innovation,” he says, “but there’s nothing that says this works all the time. In some eras it works better than others. Some eras are more stale than others."

Starr sees the Bronfman Chair as both “an attempt by a major Jewish philanthropist to spur innovation” and as an expression of the coming of age of the field of Jewish studies. “Instead of Jewish studies being isolated from contemporary Jewish life, it should be engaged,” he says. “It’s great to have people… saying ‘Let’s use the intellectual resources of the university to think about Jewish life.’ A decade ago, Brandeis might have said ‘Give us a chair in Bible, or in Talmud. What is Jewish communal innovation.’”

“Brandeis is a good place for this,” he concludes, “it’s its own intellectual community with its own standards and distinct from the Jewish community; yet it is also intellectually rigorous, committed to social action, social justice, liberal democratic values – all the things Justice Brandeis stood for, including commitment to the Jewish people.”

The Bronfman Chair is funded for its first five years by a gift from Bronfman Philanthropies of more than $1.5 million.

Previously, Charles Bronfman and his late wife, Andrea, established Brandeis' Institute for Informal Jewish Education, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Scholarship Fund, and the Professional Development Seminars: Advancing the Israel Experience. Bronfman also has served as a member of the Brandeis Board of Trustees.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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