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Southern California Rabbis study the disappearing boundaries of Jewish identity

Board of Rabbis members kicked off the Shalom Hartman Institute Beit Midrash Series for 5774 on October 16 with a lively exchange on the vanishing boundaries between Jews and non-Jews – especially in America. Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, was guest presenter and challenged rabbinic colleagues to rethink the “boundaries and belonging for contemporary Jewish life.”

“We’re witnessing the disappearance of the difference between Jews and non-Jews,” said Kurtzer, who inspired a wide range of provocative questions and comments from the participating rabbis. “This is the product of a cultural climate that’s extraordinarily welcoming and vibrant. If we can no longer make a distinction between an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ what is an alternative way of explaining Jewish identity?”

Kurtzer bought up questions of intermarriage, identity and synagogue membership – and quoted from sources ranging from Leviticus to comedian Lenny Bruce (“Jewish and Goyish”). Judaism’s “public relations” and presence in the public square, Kurtzer said, have never been better. This emancipation means that American Jews are free “to participate in one realm of Jewishness (such as ethnic and familial ancestry) and not others (such as Jewish religious life).” At the same time, non-Jews are joining synagogues and embracing Jewish rituals, such as using a huppah (canopy) in marriage ceremonies.

The beit midrash (house of study) session and luncheon was hosted by Rabbi Joshua Hoffman at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, and is part of an ongoing series organized by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California/The Jewish Federation in partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Kurtzer received his doctorate in Jewish Studies from Harvard University, where he wrote his dissertation on the Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora and their relationship to the rise of rabbinic piety. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowships and Bronfman Youth Fellowships, he lectures and teaches in many academic and community educational settings. His newest book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, focuses on Jewish identity and meaning, offering new insights on contemporary Jews and our relationship to Jewish history.

“We’re in the presence of someone who thinks seriously about these issues,” said Hoffman, a Board of Rabbis Executive Committee member. “Dr. Kurtzer gives lucid, clear presentations, and we’re honored to sit and study together today.”

On January 14, the Hartman Institute will bring acclaimed scholar Dr. Tal Becker to Los Angeles for the next in the beit midrash series with the Board of Rabbis.

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