Sh’ma was supposed to promote multiple viewpoints, but none were heard
h’ma has breathed its last. Not, chalilah, Krias Shema and the acceptance of ol malchus Shamayim. I refer instead to an American Jewish periodical of that name, which after 50 years and 751 issues, has announced that it is ceasing publication. Leading Reform theologian Eugene Borowitz launched it in 1970 with the goal of creating “a dialogue in difference,” and he assembled an advisory board stocked with big names on the American Jewish scene like Eli Weisel, Yitz Greenberg, and Harold Schulweis. It was a boutique journal for communal insiders and “thought leaders,” rather than a mass-market publication, never topping more than a few thousand subscriptions.
Over the years it covered the lot of Jewish theological and social topics (although I checked and there was never anything in all the years on the sugya of palginan dibura). Joshua Rolnick, who headed the board of directors of the Sh’ma Institute, the journal’s sponsor, told a writer for Jewish Insider that “Sh’ma’s commitment to pluralism was something special. The way it approached a particular theme, turning it again and again.”
Sh’ma’s editor for the past 21 years, Susan Berrin, told the writer that since the announcement of its termination, she had “heard from readers, writers, and donors that it spoke to so many different types of people, that it created a conversation where people who were scholars, academics, laypeople, all different kinds of Jews could talk to each other in very thoughtful ways….We modeled a place where people who had very different attitudes could actually find a place to have a conversation.”
There were indeed, at least in its early years, a few learned Torah Jews who wrote in its pages, sharing an authentically Jewish perspective. Whether it was a forum for “different kinds of Jews [to] talk to each other in very thoughtful ways” is, at least from my cursory review, more debatable.
When, for example, Dr. Judith Bleich wrote to critique innovated Jewish rituals — one of those she addresses is washing a newborn girl’s feet to accompanying prayers as a substitute for bris milah — she began on what was presumably intended as a conciliatory note: ”Preoccupation and concern with the development of meaningful rituals and liturgical materials often reflect a sincere, at times passionate, desire to give expression to deeply rooted religious feelings…. However, all too frequently, the suggested rituals raise basic theological questions and ironically, despite the sincerity of their authors, prove to be embarrassingly inappropriate when presented as a new link in the chain of authentic Jewish tradition.”
In response, The Jewish Catalog authors Sharon and Michael Strassfeld, who were pioneers of do-it-yourself Judaism and serial ritual creators, shot back: “We have noted the same pattern of response by the Orthodox: a pat on the head for those of us involved in creating new ritual and a word about our ‘sincere, at times passionate, desire to give expression to deeply rooted religious feelings’ followed by an impassioned attack on why the ritual itself is inappropriate and the entire enterprise halachically unacceptable.” They go on to accuse her of being “intellectually dishonest” and “perpetrating frauds.”
But at least back then there was some semblance of a pluralistic airing of diverse voices, “thoughtful” or otherwise. Yet later on that seemed to have changed, and by the time I took notice of Sh’ma some two decades ago it was chareidi-free.
Back when I was making a first foray into involvement in Jewish communal affairs, I decided to challenge the reality that a journal like Sh’ma, whose raison d’etre was promoting a multiplicity of viewpoints, had so completely shut out those of Torah Jews. I contacted the editor, Ms. Berrin, and although I don’t remember the exact details of our conversations, I recall being struck by the fact that this urbane, well-read woman truly had no idea there were significant numbers of “ultra-Orthodox” Jews who could use a pen quite handily to write intelligible, intelligent English prose.
I think I even followed up by supplying her with the names of numerous promising candidates to contact about writing for Sh’ma. Whether she ever contacted any of them, I don’t know, but none of them ever appeared in its pages.
But I did. Not long after we spoke, the editor called to ask if I’d participate in the journal’s back-page feature, called “Nishma,” in which a pasuk or passage from Chazal is chosen and four contributors are asked to offer an insight thereon. The verse that had been chosen for the four of us to parse was that of “And Yaakov awoke out of his sleep and said, ‘Surely G-d is in this place and I knew it not.’ ”
So, the Reform rabbi emeritus mentioned that favorite heterodox chestnut — “wrestling with G-d.” The modern Orthodox rabbinical student spoke of “living in a global age that celebrates difference” and “creating multicultural optics for making G-d our G-d.” The resident scholar in Women’s Studies at Brandeis talked Kabbalah, which I’m not proficient in, so I’ll skip her piece.
And me? I saw a serendipitous opportunity to share the Brisker Rav’s insight on this pasuk. I wrote:
Rashi interprets the phrase “and I knew it not” as implying that had Jacob known of the place’s great sanctity he would not have slept there. Astounding! Awakening from a magnificent prophetic vision assuring his own future well-being as well as the perpetuity of the Jewish People, Jacob’s immediate response is not one of joy but of concern at having improperly (and unwittingly) impinged upon the site’s holiness. After all, Jacob describes this place as the house of G-d and the gateway to Heaven.
In Jewish terms, however, a true spiritual experience — however personally empowering — is above all a vehicle for the ultimate goal of relating to the will of the Holy One. Better to forgo the experience, says Jacob, when it comes at the expense of overstepping the bounds of the holy.
As it happens, the lesson the Rav mines from this pasuk encapsulates the essence of the Torah response to the entire heterodox enterprise of make-it-up-as-you-go Judaism. So much for newborn baby foot washing.
Although Sh’ma never did, in the ensuing years, come around to include chareidi voices, about five years later, it did run an entire issue all about us, the “Haredim.”
What did this issue, whose theme was “Inside Haredi Judaism,” contain? Perhaps an insider’s description of the roaring cauldron of intellectual horsepower and passionate engagement that is first seder in Lakewood? How about an outsider’s account of first exposure to the majesty and magnetism of hundreds of souls on fire in the darkened beis medrash of one of Yerushalayim’s great mashpi’im? Maybe the multilayered safety net of chesed in astounding proportions that is a given in so many communities? Or the selfless commitment of so many idealistic young people to devote summer vacations and entire careers to drawing Jews close to G-d?
The actual contents were these: An essay by Samuel Heilman, a bona fide hater, on the ballyhooed “shift to the right”; a piece profiling a blogger who’s a “Hasidic heretic”; a piece by a sociologist on “diverse voices in Haredi society,” such as how even Toldos Aharon women find ways to be subversive in how they wear their black kerchiefs; a musicologist writing about Hasidic women in Williamsburg who sing Yiddish songs. The only saving grace of the entire issue was an interview with Rabbi Nosson Scherman.
So, Sh’ma as a “dialogue in difference”? With a “commitment to pluralism that was something special”? Then color me black and white.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 785. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com