Culture

Slamming Torah: There's an App for That

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Sarah Silverman, Hipster Jew Goddess.

Last week the Forward covered a “trendy Jewish spoken word” happening in the trendy neighborhood of Park Slope in the trendy part of trendy New York City known as Brooklyn. If the E! network hasn’t made you wary enough of the word “trendy” this article surely should. Basically, it’s about a doctoral student and an app techie using grant funding to study what makes Judaism trendy with millennials. And if that doesn’t set off any alarm bells in your head, let me be very clear: the title “Sermon Slam” shouldn’t fool you. Despite the religious-themed location, if God was invited to join in the party it was to sit and be talked at, not about let alone with.

For those of you unfamiliar with Judaism or hip lingo: Instead of reading the Torah portion, and perhaps even the Haftarah portion, then wrestling with the meaning of the portion through a discussion involving comparative texts, the Sermon Slam for young adults involves attacking the weekly Torah portion with a style akin to a poetry slam – rough-edged spoken verse rooted in the performer’s emotions and personal (potentially uneducated) perspective:

“Spoken word poetry has become increasingly sexy. …When you synergize that with something that sounds boring, like a sermon… it’s an ancient tradition that we’re now embracing and making our own. It’s for the people, by the people. That feels exciting to those of us in our 20s and 30s.”

I’m far from Orthodox, in fact I don’t identify as a Rabbinic Jew (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist) at all. But this self aggrandizing hyperbole annoys me more than black hatters arguing over sleeve length ever could. Seriously, is Judaism so desperate for adherents that we’re getting grant funding to make the Torah “sexy”?

It gets worse. Apparently making the Torah “sexy” doesn’t involve actually reading the Torah as much as it involves creating a postmodern pastiche of Biblical words and pop culture lingo:

References to iPhones and to Facebook popped up in the same sentence as “Kiddush.” And the hallowed Hebrew names of God, “Adonai” and “Elohim,” were uttered in the same breath as “s–t.”

And now you know why I avoid obnoxious hipster Judaism like the plague. With its goddess worship of Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham and its conversion of New York into the New Zion, this religion has nothing to do with God and Torah and everything to do with Judaizing the kind of liberal self help ethos already prolific within the New Age and Buddhist movements. What’s next for Sermon Slam, a Chopra-esque two-hour fundraising featurette on PBS?

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“I want to change the public understanding of Torah,” [Sermon Slam creator David Zvi] Kalman said. “I want it to be viewed as something that is actually quite vibrant — because it is.”

So why do you insist on poets orating all over it like kosher Andres Serranos? To observe the vibrancy of the Torah one need do no more than read it with an open mind and heart, something lost on the hipster Jew generation whose limited attention spans are more easily drawn to social media than the ancient text, parts of which “often bores young Jews”. Torah: What do you mean I can’t Snapchat it?

The perpetual ADD-Selfie with which millennials seem to be plagued leads to the crux of the problem: Sermon Slams are creative in theory, but ultimately barren in results. Mash a college Hillel Shabbat dinner, with its audience of horny twentysomethings looking to hook up and get wasted at the after party (except us few adherents looking for a real Jewish connection who usually get assigned to “do the Hebrew bits”), with a rhythmic therapy session and what do you get? The same kind of monotonous selfie stew brewed up on Girls. I don’t study Torah to hear problems; I study Torah to seek God, so we can solve them together.

Two years ago I attended the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Baltimore, Maryland. It was the 25th anniversary of the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky spoke together on stage to mark the event. As I sat up front, I made a point of looking behind me to take in the crowd’s reaction. Much to my disappointment, the group of young professionals directly behind me were too busy texting to notice they were witnessing history. After the lecture the two speakers headed off stage and were caught up in a slew of press, unable to get to the door. Realizing they were only feet away I turned to the young women behind me and said, “Go up to them! Shake their hands! They want to see you – you’re the next generation!”

“Yeah, whatever, I’ll take care of it,” was the snotty response I received before a pair of menacing eyes receded behind a glitter-cased iPhone.

Rushing up to Wiesel and Sharansky I reached past the crowd of reporters and security, proffering my hand to the man who survived a Soviet gulag. “Thank you,” I shouted.

Sharansky’s eyes lit up, as did Wiesel’s. “No,” he responded, “Thank you.

That is the tragedy of Sermon Slam. These millennials are too busy entertaining themselves to pay attention to God’s voice in the conversation. A Judaism struggling for their attention believes it must reward this hideously selfish behavior instead of simply turning to a perceptively untouchable God, seeking His face, and saying thank you.

I guess there’s no app for that.

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“Israel is still in danger. Israel is still threatened. Israel still needs the Jews of the Diaspora, more than ever before. And I don’t feel a commitment. …We have not mobilized our people for Israel, not enough. …Come on, it’s such an honor to work for our people. And somehow, we have not managed to inspire, young people especially, what an honor it is to work for our people – for Jews to work for the Jewish people.” – Elie Wiesel, JFNA GA 2012