Friday, July 15, 2011

On Reenchanting the Jewish Communal Infrastructure

I like what Ariel Beery, Nina Bruder, Sarah Kass, and others are saying about JDub's wind-down as a call to action. The Jewish communal infrastructure - like all social structures - continually faces the threat of stasis. JDub's crisis embodies this challenge.

Max Weber warned us that this would happen. More than a century ago the German sociologist explained that the covenantal, salvation religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – systems that have defined the societies of much of the world and all of the West for more than 1500 years – exist within the tension of two competing energies.

On one side of Weber's scale of religion rests charisma, or, perhaps "innovation" in contemporary terms. Charisma manifests itself through religious sensibilities igniting prophecy, spreading magic, and untethering inspiration. At the scale's opposite end perches rationality, an urge for the lasting structures that societies generate to regulate, systematize, and mediate charismatic energy. Properly functioning religious systems and the societies based upon them facilitate movement on the scale between the opposite poles of charisma and rationalization.

According to Weber, ideal religious systems are inherently in flux. Charisma is temporary, its results unpredictable. Rational religious structures, though they seek stability, thrive by remaining open to a dynamic relationship amidst the spirals of the spirit.

When charisma and rationality become static and unbalanced for an extended period of time, religious structures produce insidious forms of entropy and oppression ranging from boredom and lack of meaning in the experience of everyday life to societies trapped in authoritarian violence.

While Weber anticipates the vacuum of communal stasis, he also suggests the possibility of openings for religious figures and movements that might eventually emerge to salvage sensibilities of magic and depth from fossilized covenants:

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals… (Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1904)

In days ahead on, Steven M. Cohen and I will share an opinion piece on why - without a coherent Jewish cultural policy to develop, implement, and sustain innovation - our infrasture faces stasis. The good news is that organizations like JDub have shown us how much talent and innovation is available to address our imbalance if we can find means and courage to sustain them.

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