By Bob Bahr
For most of his four decades as a rabbi and prolific thinker of all things Jewish, Rami Shapiro has been counseling change in American Judaism. But it was the release of the landmark study of American Jews in 2013 by the Pew Research Center that confirmed his view that Judaism must create a new, modern, radically different path for itself.
Several results in the study were particularly depressing. Although 69 percent of American Jews were proud to be Jewish, 22 percent of all American Jews had abandoned Judaism. Having a good sense of humor was considered more important than Jewish observance as a component of Jewish identity.
For Rabbi Shapiro, the results are nothing to laugh about.
What he bluntly suggests is that the Pew study confirms his belief that the all-powerful, supernatural deity of the old rabbinic tradition has become a casualty of the Holocaust. “G-d should have saved us,” he said in an interview, “but He didn’t.”
Rabbi Shapiro will share his thoughts about the future of Judaism during a Shabbaton on June 3 and 4 at Congregation Shalom B’Harim in Dahlonega at the invitation of the congregation’s rabbi, Mitch Cohen.
“The murder of six million mostly good-doing Jews,” Rabbi Shapiro has written, “overwhelmed the rabbinic narrative. This is why it is easier to build a Holocaust memorial today than a Jewish library. This is why Never Forget rather than Shema Yisrael is now the true ‘watchword’ of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Shapiro’s conclusion is extreme. “I think for the vast majority of Jews, G-d is dead, and the Judaism that is represented by that notion of G-d is dead, and we haven’t invested in what’s next,” he said. “What we are doing at the moment, and it works for some people, is that we are tinkering with the old rabbinic model.”
He derides the notion that the modern nation of Israel has become the starting point for a new sense of religious identity. For younger Jews, particularly those under 40, he sees a significant decline in interest in Israel as the center of the Jewish world.
“Israel was going to be our new G-d,” he said. “In a sense, we made a fetish out of Israel. People are disappointed if not angered by the theocracy that operates within the democracy of Israel. I think people here in the United States find it very troubling.”
Rabbi Shapiro has his own action-oriented prescription for change called Judaism Next.
“Judaism calls for revolution, or it calls for nothing at all,” he wrote in his manifesto for Judaism Next. “Let us teach our children to invent the future and not preserve a frozen and romanticized past.”
Rabbi Shapiro, a graduate of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who was a pulpit rabbi for 20 years, is a prolific writer. He lectures widely, including most recently in Poland, and has written over a dozen books on Jewish thought and practice. He also holds a doctorate in Judaic studies from Union Graduate School.
He directs the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University.
According to a brochure about the program, he offers Judaism Next — rooted in the prophets, Jewish wisdom literature and the creative application of mitzvot — not to win people over to his way of thinking, but to spark fellow Jews to imagine their own visions for Judaism.
Who: Rabbi Rami Shapiro
What: Shabbaton on Judaism Next
Where: Lily Garden Wellness Center and Chapel, 941 Pecks Mill Creek Road, Dahlonega
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 3, and 9:30 a.m. Saturday, June 4
Cost: $50 for all of Shabbat, $36 for Saturday only; www.tiferetolam.com/upcoming-programs