Preaching the controversy
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Preaching the controversy

New website and podcast aims to discuss — if not solve — Orthodoxy’s tough issues

This page, from 18Forty.org’s website, shows the topics it explores.
This page, from 18Forty.org’s website, shows the topics it explores.

When a new podcast promised an interview with the writer Shulem Deen, I wasn’t surprised. I had heard the author, whose memoir “All Who Go Do Not Return” chronicled his exodus from a Rockland County chasidic sect, on another podcast. He’s a good interview subject, with an interesting story to tell.

But as I dug deeper into 18Forty, the podcast, I was surprised to find that its creator is an Orthodox rabbi.

Rabbi David Bashevkin lives in Teaneck; by day he is director of education for the Orthodox Union’s youth group, NCSY. His extracurricular activities include writing — he has a humor column in Mishpacha magazine, and his book “Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought” was published last year — and tweeting, so podcasting was not an unexpected development.

But Shulem Deen?

Why would an Orthodox rabbi want to bring an ex-Orthodox voice into the Jewish conversation he was hosting?

So I spoke with Rabbi Bashevkin and his partner in the venture, Mitchell Eichen. They told me how they had come to start the project, and what their plans were. I listened to the Shulem Deen interview. And then, before I had a chance to write this article, in a post called “Reflections four months after launch,” David Bashevkin apologized for another interview that went too far.

“In one of our interviews regarding Biblical Criticism, one of the interviewees expressed thoughts that veer beyond the pale of traditional Jewish thought,” Rabbi Bashevkin wrote. “This is not what I was looking to promote and it is certainly not what any of the institutions I am affiliated with promote.”

This raised a whole set of new questions. What happened? What will he do differently?

But first, the basics What is 18forty? Why was it created? Then we’ll look at the question of what happened, and what happens next.

18forty is website and a podcast that focuses on a different theme every month. Since launching in May, the podcast has dealt with “Talmud,” “OTD: Leaving Religion,” “Comedy,” and “Who Wrote the Bible?” September’s theme is “Jewish Peoplehood.” Shulem Deen was one of three interview subjects for the “OTD: Leaving Religion” series. (OTD stands for Off The Derech, or Orthodox path.) The podcasts are mostly hourlong recordings of Rabbi Bashevkin interviewing a guest; in briefer solo segments he introduces or summarizes a series of related episodes. The website supplements the audio with video essays, lists of suggested readings, and summaries of the interviews.

18forty is named for a year that promised kabbalists the messiah, but delivered modernity instead. It was the decade when the telegraph and locomotive penetrated into the world of the Jews of Eastern Europe. 1840 also was the year that one of Rabbi Bashevkin’s favorite chasidic rebbes, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, began his public career.

“There were some in the Jewish community who looked on technology as the enemy of their society,” Rabbi Bashevkin said. “There were others, like the Izhbitzer, who looked at modernity and saw an opportunity to confront new questions.

David Bashevkin, left, and Mitchell Eichen

“At 18forty, we contend with both of those voices.”

Rabbi Bashevkin believes that the Jewish community of 2020 faces a similar radical change.

“The world changed because of the internet, the confluence of ideas we interact with every day,” he said. “Our construction of our identity is now less a problem of ‘Am I in?’ or ‘Am I out?’ but rather, ‘I have so many choices, it’s a paralysis. How do I construct any meaning at all?’”

“There are so many choices coming at everyone. We’re trying to construct meaning from all these conversations.”

The funding for this project comes from Mitchell Eichen, who lives in Bernardsville. The impetus comes from Mitchell’s son. The senior Eichen grew up secular; he and his wife decided to send their son to a Jewish day school. “We said if we wanted to have Jewish grandchildren, we had to indoctrinate him into some Judaism,” Mr. Eichen said. Along the way, the Eichens joined a modern Orthodox congregation. “There are maybe only five or ten walking families,” he said. “Most of us came to religion late in life. We all drive five to 15 miles to get there. I drive nine miles. “We’re all to various degrees very respectful of Shabbos. We’re all kosher. We’re not a strictly Orthodox community in the sense of Teaneck.”

In 2014, the younger Eichen graduated from the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. Then he went off to college. (And don’t worry: He has since graduated and is studying at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school.)

“He was exposed to a bunch of things that were just anathema,” Mitchell said. “Things that weren’t taught, weren’t explained, weren’t even brought up in Kushner. I didn’t know any of these things existed. I’m talking about the things you get exposed to in secular college life — biblical criticism, how morality applies today, the politically correct environment — all these things that create a challenge to your Jewish identity when you’ve been brought up in the Orthodox world.”

Mr. Eichen took up the issue with Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, Kushner’s head of school.

“We’re sending the vast majority of our kids to secular colleges. Kids get exposed to these things. By not exposing them in a day school environment, we make their adaptation and retention even harder. In this new world, they’re getting this completely contradictory messaging. The kids are unequipped to deal with them. They move to the other extreme, and say maybe the whole Judaism thing is just ancient history, it’s a myth, it doesn’t apply in the real world I’m being college educated for.”

This conversation caused so much controversy that it was taken down, at least for now.

Shouldn’t the Kushner curriculum change to accommodate these realities, “so they’ll be able to hang on to the Judaism they’ve been taught for 13 years?” Mr. Eichen argued that it should be. But Rabbi Rubin convinced him that “this was a heavy lift to bring into a day school.

“There are a lot of constituencies you have to satisfy. First you need a curriculum. Then you have to teach the rabbis, who by and large are not familiar with a lot of these issues. When I mentioned biblical criticism, they said they had never heard of such things. A lot of the people teaching in the modern Orthodox schools are coming from more charedi backgrounds. Then you have the parents. And the board. And if one school does it, will it be an outcast?”

Along the way, Mr. Eichen was introduced to Rabbi Bashevkin, whom he tried to convince to write a curriculum. Instead, Rabbi Bashevkin convinced Mr. Eichen that these issues could be addressed with an online presence, targeting post-college young adults.

“You’ll pardon my analogy, but just like the Talmud created an intergenerational dialogue over hundreds and hundreds of years, we’re trying to create a dialogue,” Mr. Eichen said. We’re not here to pound you if you don’t believe, or to feed you pabulum. We’re not here to be apologetic. We want to introduce issues not spoken about in modern Orthodoxy, while trying to also show the modern Orthodox point of view.

“For some some issues we have no answers, we just have to say that we’ll continue the dialogue and maybe we can reach a higher level. Dialogue keeps people engaged, keeps people in the room.”

It was in the spirit of dialogue that Rabbi Bashevkin reached out to Mr. Deen, the ex-chasid. Their conversation covered the high points of Mr. Deen’s book and life story in ways that had come out in other podcasts, but it also brought Mr. Deen into the ongoing Orthodox conversation about how Orthodox Jews should relate to their children whom they fear may leave the fold, and how those who do leave should relate to their parents. (Mr. Deen counsels unconditional acceptance for parents and boundary-drawing for the children.)

Rabbi Bashevkin said his approach to this issue drew from his experience in a Facebook group devoted to dialogue between frum and off-the-derech Jews. One of the organizers of the group, who goes by the name Philo Judaeous, also was a podcast guest.

“In the course of understanding the story of why they left, we may better appreciate why most stay,” Rabbi Bashevkin wrote in introducing the topic. He also brought on as a counterpoint Kelsey Osgood, a convert to Judaism who reviewed Mr. Deen’s memoir for the New Yorker.

For the theme of “Who Wrote the Torah,” Rabbi Bashevkin presented three guests.

The first was Rabbi Gil Student, who grew up in Teaneck. “He talks about how initially he started out in a Conservative, Solomon Schechter environment where they taught biblical criticism openly and honestly,” Mr. Eichen said. Biblical criticism begins with the idea that the Bible is the products of human authors, and uses that hypothesis to solve problems in the biblical text that ancient interpreters solved through midrash. “Then he became more frum. Now he doesn’t believe in biblical criticism,” Mr. Eichen said.

“The second person was Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman. He’s a legitimate biblical scholar who comes at this very honestly, very openly, but as an Orthodox rabbi. He sees things through that lens. He has a phenomenal way of reconciling these issues through his scholarship. His latest book” — “Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith,” published by Maggid, an Orthodox imprint, which Mr. Eichen co-sponsored — “talks to these issues.”

The third voice Rabbi Bashevkin brought to bear on the topic was Sara Susswein Tesler, who taught biblical criticism at the Orthodox SAR High School in Riverdale before moving to Israel.

“She’s an observant Orthodox woman raising her children in an Orthodox way, but she believes in biblical criticism,” Mr. Eichen said.

Three people, three interviews, three different perspectives on biblical criticism.

“I’m very comfortable in adopting a more traditional belief in the Torah’s transmission,” Mr. Eichen said. “I don’t necessarily believe this thing was created by five different guys in the Second Temple era after the first Exile. The more I read and the more I learn, I’m getting more comfortable living in a world of conflict. Some days you’ll have more questions. Some days you’ll have more faith. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”

So where did this series cross the line? Why the need for an apology?

“We’ve always been getting feedback on who we choose to highlight,” Rabbi Bashevkin said in a second interview this week. “A lot of people pushed back — why am I speaking to people who went off the derech? Why am I talking about biblical criticism?

“I relate to a lot of different audiences and ages. I do work with high school students and teach college students. I write books for adults. Different people know me in different audiences. What makes this site tick is that not everything I do is for everybody.”

The problem came in Ms. Tesler’s interview.

“She was a little more accepting of the conclusions of biblical criticism and a little cavalier about this approach. It was expressed as, ‘Of course that’s true,’ “ Rabbi Bashevkin said. “I’m not frightened someone could do this. But that’s not what I’m trying to do on the site. I did think this was inappropriate for my listeners. I’m trying to have a conversation about how to negotiate it.”

He removed the audio file, until it can be reedited to focus on what was his central question in the conversation, “a fundamental question about educational method.

“Does it make more sense to expose high school students and teens to some of the issues biblical scholarship poses to our traditional knowledge of Torah mi-Sinai” — the traditional view that the Torah was revealed by God to Moses on Sinai — “or is it better to focus on learning chumash, so when the students grow up they’ll have this cultural storehouse, so if any questions or concerns come up they’ll be equipped to deal with it? She thinks exposure therapy is a good idea in our high schools. I am not a huge fan of exposure therapy on the high school level. There might be a value added to three kids in a hundred, but the vast majority would be served better, and the risk reward ration is better, if they come to these questions when it interests them.

“Navigating the doubt is much healthier. So that’s why I took it down.”

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