An Interview With The Editor Of “Can Robots Be Jewish”

The editor of Can Robots be Jewish: And Other Pressing Questions of Jewish Life had the same childhood rabbi as  Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, as well as the same arguments with him about the role of women in public worship at the modern Orthodox Lincoln Square synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side.  Yet, this editor claims she argued better than Kagan, as she had a Sunday morning bat mitzvah a few years after her where she read the haftarah the Song of Hannah, and gave a dvar Torah in front of a sanctuary packed with guests, as compared to Kagan’s Friday night chanting of the Book of Ruth in front of the congregation.

In her new edited collection, Amy Schwartz continues to pose questions to rabbis, and as their editor, to argue with them.  The book is as successful as her bat mitzvah, though it is not competing with the Supreme Court Justice or others.

Since 2005, Moment Magazine has been posing questions to rabbis from a variety of denominations in its Ask a Rabbi column.  Schwartz, editor of the column since 2011, has selected 30 of the columns, apportioned them among the categories of science, sex, modern life, values, politics, and the nature of the universe to create a collection that could serve well as an introduction to Judaism because of the way that it showcases how rabbis think about a wide variety of issues.

Schwartz considers her  Jewish background and life “eclectic” for she grew up at a modern Orthodox shul which she returns to regularly, and worships at a Reconstructionist synagogue when away for the summer and a Conservative year-round. Along with her many years as a journalist at the Washington Post and other publications, her diverse Jewish experiences position her well to construct the array of questions this book ranges over.

For instance, on the question of whether Jewish children should sing Christmas carols, answers ranged from a reminiscence of a prominent rabbi who joined in the singing and knew the words to all songs at a holiday party, to an expression of “let your child do what is best for him or her,” a discussion of the difference between the religious and evangelistic nature of caroling itself as opposed to singing in a holiday concert, an explanation to the child of why and how Jews and Christians are different and don’t need to be part of each others ceremonies, and an all-out ban on the practice.

As in this example, what this collection does well is give nuance and anecdote to explain and illustrate whatever issue is under discussion in a modicum of space (each entry is limited to 250 words).  Or, as Orthodox rabbi Yitz Greenberg says in intro “There is no one all-conquering version of the truth; nor does my movement (whichever one it is) possess a monopoly of wisdom or insight.”  In this fractured time, it’s helpful for all of us to acknowledge and realize that we need multiple ways to see an issue.

In case you are wondering, Kagan and Schwartz both currently attend the Conservative Adas Israel congregation in Washington DC.  No word on what the rabbis there think of either of these congregants though…

Here is some of the discussion I had with Schwartz about the book, edited and condensed.

BK: Where did the idea for the book come from?

AS: My editor started the feature when she took over Moment. It’s a good way to showcase the breadth of Jewish thought on these topics, and generally. The two things that are striking are the breadth of the tradition and the graceful way it handles differences.

BK:  Why is this book timely?

AS: What we came to realize, over the years and then particularly as I was editing it and putting it together, is that that ability to navigate difference is such an important message for today.  Our whole society is looking for ways to get out of this style of disagreement we’ve become accustomed to, where everyone is the enemy of those who disagree with them. It seems to be more and more difficult to find a common framework. It is true in politics and also in the Jewish community. It’s not really a good time for reasoned disagreement or dispute. We need to find our way back to that, because traditionally, we love to argue. It’s a fundamental Jewish value. We get so much out of argument.

BK:  What to you is the value of this volume?

AS:  I want people to realize it’s possible to learn something from people you disagree with. That’s part of our mission generally at Moment, and it turned out–almost by accident–that running this feature is a way of displaying this in a really accessible format.

BK: What will a reader gain from reading this book?

AS: By asking a broad range of questions it manages to give a lot of major points of discussion of a particular issue and a lot of nuggets of wisdom–you can come away with almost a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations sense of words of wisdom from various places in the tradition. You can get an overall sense, just a first glimpse, of the issue the question addresses and the arguments that have been had about it. It gives you a sense of how denominations disagree, the different ways they approach tradition, and also the ways they change over time.

Take organ donation – all the rabbis of different denominations point out that as the science of organ donation evolved, Jewish teaching evolved in response to it. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in the Modern Orthodox answer, traces a whole sequence of how rulings changed over time and how one prominent decisor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, kept returning to the question and writing new responsa as the science kept improving. It’s very enlightening.

The book is a great way in for those who don’t have a way in. Jewish knowledge is so daunting, it’s a huge corpus if you do not know where to start. This is helpful, you can pick up and read around, and maybe come upon nuggets that illuminate parts of the ongoing drama.

It is fun when rabbis choose the same texts and come up with different answers, and fun when different texts lead to the same answers.

BK:  How do you choose the questions?  Are they news events, things your kids ask you, things you are thinking about personally?

AS: Not news events, because as a print magazine we think 6 weeks ahead.   We think in September about what people will be talking about in November. Sometimes we peg questions to holidays. In editorial meetings, we kick around ideas and reject a lot of them. Many are rejected because they will not get good answers, either because they will generate narrow technical answers as to what’s right or wrong, or because everyone will agree.

We want questions that people will think about and that will inspire readers to reflect, and rabbis to reflect. I like to make the rabbis work a little bit. Sometimes a rabbi will call me and say, “What do you want? What are you looking for in this question?” and I talk to the rabbi and say, “Well, here are some issues we think maybe the question raises.”

I love a question that will bring a bit of pushback.

BK:  Who is the audience for the book?  Is it functioning as an Introduction to Judaism text?

AS:   I do think it is an introduction to a certain aspect of Judaism, not by giving answers, but by pushing a person to ask more questions.  That’s a great way to be introduced to Judaism.  If you know a little, you’ll learn more. If you know a lot, say, if you’re a rabbi, it’s a busman’s holiday.  I think there is something for everyone, at whatever level.  Also for non-Jews, on issues like “What do Jews think of tattoos?” this a good way to start.

BK: How does this fit into your earlier career as a journalist at The Washington PostHarper’s, and The New Republic?

AS:  I spent 20 years as editorial writer and op-ed columnist.  I learned to write short, and with a wide social context.

The voice I used for writing the notes and chapter headings was one I worked hard to get right.  Essentially it is a voice I’ve developed, the commentator’s voice. For context, I am a recovering pundit. I wrote editorials for a long time. I’m used to pronouncing.

BK:  How did your relationship to rabbis change in the time doing the column?

AS: Over the years of editing the feature, I’ve become friends with more rabbis.  I always liked rabbis, they are impressive people for the most part. I’m always impressed by the kinds of things they’ve been engaged in, the help they’ve given people.  I  discovered from the robot question that lots of rabbis in their teens were sci-fi geeks, more than you’d expect.

BK:  Anything I did not ask that I should have?

AS: No, it’s good to end with a question!

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