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August 03, 2010


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Are you saying, in other words, that many Jews who identify with Conservative or Reform Judaism are closer in spirituality to Reconstructionism? If that is the case, I suspect in part its owing to the lack of theological clarity (indeed, vagueness appears to be a virtue here) and consistency in Reconstructionism, including the fact that non-religious Jews can find much that is hospitable within the Reconstructionist worldview (at least as articulated by Mordecai Kaplan), although here is where its rationalism would appear to clash with a rather peculiar re-valorization of "Jewish folkways" (sans the traditional religious or spiritual meanings of Jewish rituals and holy days) and the persistence of the (Zionist) notion of an historical homeland for the Jews.

There's some overlap here with New Age "religiosity" insofar as many post-war American Jews "wanted 'tradition,' ethnic pride, and community, but...did not want obligation" (Michael J. Satlow). In other words, the longing for tradition and community shorn of traditional forms of religious obligation arguably concedes too much to the social and cultural conditions of post-modernity. Reconstructionist Judaism does serve to blur conventional conceptual and categorical boundaries between (secular) humanist and religious worldviews, and this is in happy congruence with the fact that few of us have systematic worldviews, as "our values and beliefs are more like a collage than a Canaletto [cf. Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term 'bricolage']. They do not even have consistency of perspective" (Ninian Smart). Reconstructionist Judaism is well-positioned to exploit this state of affairs.


The Newsweek list and its reactions are really somewhat fascinating. The Newsweek list is a general list of the "heavies" in the Jewish world, plus a few people who have been in the news, usually on the left wing of their respective denomination (be it the left wing of orthodox or reform).

The Forward list, on the other hand, is a reaction to the paucity of female rabbis (not entirely surprising since mainline orthodoxy does not ordain women) by giving a list of nearly every female rabbi of any significance.

That said, both lists are pretty useless. The Forward list because many of the individuals listed are fairly minor, and the Newsweek list because it's really just a list of well-known rabbis, not influential ones, and because it largely ignores the ultra-orthodox world beyond their spokesman.

And...why are we talking about this on a law blog?

Patrick S. O'Donnell


"The Faculty Lounge: Conversations about law, culture, and academia"---so, it seems there's room enough for the topic.

David Bernstein

FWIW, number 16, Menachem Genack, is my 3rd cousin once removed, as is somewhat more closely related to Julius Genachowski, the head of the FCC (who is my fourth cousin).

David Bernstein

And, substantively, I've lost track of who the Satmar rebbe is, but surely he is more influential in practice than almost anyone on the list.

Bob Strassfeld


Seriously? The Satmar Hasidim number (according to the all wise Wikipedia) approximately 130,000 adherents internationally. Jewish world population is something in the neighborhood of 14 million. The Satmar have also isolated themselves not only by their extreme position on issues of Jewish observance, but also in their anti-Zionism. How is the Satmar rebbe, whose name you can't recall, the most influential rabbi in the U.S.?


Bob, because most American Jews pay virtually no attention to anything any rabbi says, but the 100,000 or so Satmar in Brooklyn do, more or less, whatever the rebbe says. Show me another American rabbi who has 100,000 devoted followers. And that 100,000 will be a lot more in a few decades, given very high birth and very low assimilation rates. Did you read about the Satmar woman who died recently who has 2,000 descendants, even though one of her children was murdered in the Holocaust, and another died in an accident?


Oh, and I would add that at least some of the stringency on all sorts of halachic issues being demonstrated by Orthodox Jews as a whole is being driven by the Satmar. In particular, they are a large market for kosher specialty products, so if you are in that market you will want to meet the rebbe's standards.

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