People of the Book:
The Power of Disruption with Rabbi Stanley M. Davids '65 and Professor
October 3, 2023
Jewish history isn’t neat and orderly. Subversive prophets, mystics, martyrs, intellectual movements, competing religions, migrations, cultural cross-pollination, wars, persecution, musical innovators, feminism — they’ve all disrupted Jewish experience. Re-forming Judaism: Moments of Disruption in Jewish Thought, a new book from CCAR Press co-edited by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids ’65, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El of Greater Atlanta, and Leah Hochman, Ph.D., associate professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies, explores the disruptions and disruptors that changed the course of Jewish history from the Tanakh to COVID. Hochman and Davids mobilized distinguished scholars and rabbis — including many HUC-JIR faculty and alumni — to contribute essays that demonstrate how Judaism has responded to these disruptions as it has formed, re-formed and re-formed again in surprising ways. We sat down with the editors to learn more about their project.
Leah Hochman, Ph.D.: This book was Stan’s baby. Stan had the idea to look at disruptions in Jewish theological experience — moments in which Jews could have gone one way but chose to go the way they went.
Rabbi Stanley M. Davids: At times I’ve found myself having to defend Reform Judaism as an unexpected eruption in an otherwise smooth-flowing Jewish history. There is an assertion that we got here in a straight line: Moses to Joshua to Judges to the Men of the Great Assembly to the Rabbis and so on. That linear format is beaten into the heads of everybody who has a serious interest in studying Jewish texts. I know that’s not true. Disruption is an immutable constant in the history of the Jewish people. So I reached out to Leah.
LH: I find the dynamic of tension or unresolved issues to be quite productive. The tension of things holding together — the anxiety of it — that’s the place where you learn the most. And Stan’s right, Jewish history has not been one, unified, smooth path. Jews and Judaism have survived a lot of innovation, competition, conflict, and opportunity.
LH: Jews in different places and different times have figured out how to incorporate those moments and make meaning of them. I’m a big fan of a good story. The authors of the essays in this book, each in their own way, have told a piece of the long, really amazing story of how Jews have made meaning out of chaotic moments that could have been destructive but ended up being constructive.
SD: Once we understand the process of disruption, we can perceive elements of disruption and better respond to them. In the book, there’s a chapter written by Cantor Evan Kent, Ph.D. ’88. He talks about disruption in the music of the synagogue and the role of summer camps and Debbie Friedman. That disruption dragged synagogues into a new world that they were not interested in. Many cantors wanted to block her music from the synagogue because it wasn’t classical 19th-century German music. But some music leaders recognized a truth and adopted and adapted to move forward.
LH: I think it’s useful to ask: Who in our history has lived something like this? What are the moments that have created us the way that we have come to be at this moment? What can we look back to in our history and see differently to help us in our present and to construct a future that’s better for our children?
SD: My HUC-JIR education allowed me to deepen my understanding of Jewish texts, and it gave me the intellectual equipment that allowed me to understand changes and disruptions in the texture of Jewish culture, Jewish faith, Jewish teachings. It also allowed me to draw close to some brilliant people who took me under their wing and made certain that I would not be a gadfly, but rather someone who would always strive to know and understand.