Nowadays, the easiest ways to read up on ideas circulating in the Jewish zeitgeist are to skim tweets; skim catchy headlines on op-eds; or occasionally skim the op-eds themselves.
But that experience isn’t necessarily fulfilling or educational. There’s only so much that can be said in 280 characters or in a 1,000 word limit, and a skim is often followed by seeing the inevitable pile of comments and opinions that are various degrees of half-baked and uninformed. Perfect for doomscrolling, but not much else.
Jewish discourse on the internet can be toxic, as complex ideas and issues are often flattened into the most rabid versions of themselves. And as our discourse goes — so goes our community.
But the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic Jewish think tank focused on education and communal leadership, is trying to get us to change course. With Monday’s launch of Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, the institute is making the space to seriously engage with longform writing about the issues Jews care about.
“Now more than ever, in…a time that substitutes rhetoric for knowledge and loud assertions for learning, we need ideas not to cater to any passing need for entertainment, but to vivify our comprehension of ourselves and to guide us toward what is most enduring for us and our communities,” the editor’s comment says in the journal’s inaugural edition.
Sources is not something to skim — the essay that kicks off the print edition is the roughly 6,000 word “What happened to Jewish pluralism?” by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the North American branch of the Shalom Hartman Institute. In it, Kurtzer gives a broad history of institutional pluralism in the Jewish community and carefully walks through the failures that have made pluralism a divisive force today.
He does so not to give an opinion (other than that pluralism is ultimately worth salvaging) but to reframe debates on subjects like Israel around a larger question: What do we really want the Jewish community to be like, and how do we commit to our vision with integrity?
That question is the central theme of the contributions in Sources, which range from pandemic to Israel to #MeToo essays. Dr. Mijal Bitton, a scholar in residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, wrote “Is Jewish continuity sexist?” as a reflection on Steven Cohen, a formerly-leading sociologist of American Jews, having sexually harassed women.
After the news of the harassment broke in 2018, prominent Jewish scholars linked Cohen’s actions to his research on Jewish continuity (most notably, for Birthright, the free-Israel-trip-machine for young Jewish adults).
Cohen had spent his career studying whether Jewish women do or don’t marry Jewish men and how many Jewish kids they do or don’t have. This approach, the scholars argued, made Jewish continuity sexist. It turned women into little more than commodities for the Jewish community as incubators and mothers, and gave the ok for mainstream institutions to tell women what to do with their bodies.
Cohen being a sexual harasser seemingly confirmed that Jewish continuity was actually about misogyny and male power over women.
But Bitton struggled with this view “as a sociologist, a Sephardic Jew, a mother, and a feminist. Could Jewish pro-natalism and feminism be ethically reconciled?”
Her answer is yes — Cohen’s actions don’t nullify the need for Jewish continuity. But Bitton’s path to that “yes” is nuanced and deeply personal, and the Jewish community’s longtime approach to Jewish continuity doesn’t make it out unscathed. There is a vision for Jewish continuity, but little integrity, and Bitton takes communal leadership to task for it.
Sources give these Jewish ideas and conversations room to breathe. Like all great Jewish texts, to get the most out of it you have to find time to really sit down and read it (and reread it). In return, there is an honest and in-depth engagement with Jewish communal issues that is near impossible to find on Twitter, Facebook, or the op-ed pages of Jewish media.
And despite journals having a reputation for dense academic language that burns out brain cells in half a page, Sources is thankfully not an example of that. The writing is clear, accessible, and leans more internet-casual in tone — though of course, with leading Jewish intellectuals writing for it, Sources is still firmly rooted in academia.
Sources is published online weekly for free, and is available in a yearly print subscription for $36. Take a break from Twitter and Facebook and give it a read instead.