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Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 108-110 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0027

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I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Avi Weiss, who is invariably described as an extraordinary human being and a remarkable Jewish leader. He is known to be big-hearted, with a great lifelong passion for Am Yisrael, remarkably open-minded, bold, and creative. He has helped to create a new form of “Open Orthodoxy,” including his role in founding and leading Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a truly remarkable Orthodox yeshiva that values intellectual openness and commitment to universal as well as Jewish needs around the world. He has modeled “spiritual audacity” (a venerated term in our movement), in ordaining Rabbi Sara Hurwitz as the first Orthodox woman rabbi, and in creating Yeshivat Maharat for Orthodox women seeking rabbinic ordination. When histories of our generation are written, Rabbi Avi Weiss’s story will surely be a prominent thread of the narrative.

These qualities are very much in evidence in Rabbi Weiss’s 2008 book on spiritual activism. Virtually every page of the book breathes with his ahavat yisrael, his capacity for bold, independent, and creative thought, and his courageous style of leadership. Strikingly, these qualities are balanced by signs of deep humility, demonstrating that he is not only a yodei·a seifer, but a person who has allowed the tradition’s best wisdom to shape his character. In my experience, this kind of humility is a rare and precious quality in a community leader of Weiss’s stature.

As such, there is much to learn and appreciate in this book, describing Rabbi Weiss’s unique brand of Jewish activism. But, in my view, the book suffers from two flaws: one minor and the other serious.

The minor flaw is the way in which sections of the book read as a defense, even an apologetic, for Weiss’s signature style of dramatic, confrontive activism. This feature of the book is, however, understandable when one considers how powerfully Rabbi Weiss has been attacked on numerous occasions by establishment Jewish organizations, particularly those most directly engaged, as he has been, in issues of Jewish defense. In the book, Weiss recalls many incidents in which he flew to the scene of an offense against the Jewish people, engaging in what today’s young people might call “in-your-face activism,” far too bold for the establishment organizations. With all that Weiss has accomplished, he has earned the right to promote his own style of activism against decades of criticism, and in so doing, to challenge all of us to consider bold action when it is called for.

More serious, however, is Weiss’s fundamental concept of “spiritual activism,” grounded almost entirely in Holocaust memory and the narrative of Jewish victimization. As the mother of three young adult activists, my heart sank when I read at the start of the book, “The image that has most defined my activism is that of the SS St. Louis” (p. 5), the boat packed with nearly one thousand Jews that sought refuge in the U.S. in 1939, only to be turned away, sending most of its passengers to their deaths in the Shoah. Holocaust consciousness pervades the book, even as Weiss asserts in a number of places that he understands the risk of what he calls “negative Judaism,” emphasizing our history of suffering, as opposed to “positive Judaism” (p. 36)—that is, the teachings and practices of our tradition. His definition of spiritual activism is primarily based on his response to the question he imagines his children and grandchildren will ask him, “Where were you when Jewish lives were on the line?” (p. 8).

But in the twenty-first century, the wise children at the proverbial seder table are grappling with a very different set of questions. For them, the sacred work of activism is not about defense of Jews against anti-Semitism but about universalist concerns such as hunger and homelessness, first world privilege and its relationship to global poverty, and impending environmental disaster. Surely, we must continue to teach our children that the Jewish people is their family, the Jewish community is the home where they will always be welcome, and Torah is an endless repository of wisdom to guide them through their...

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