A Talk with Rabbi Leon Morris: Old Answers to New Questions

By Ami Nadiv

This week, we had the pleasure of hearing from Rabbi Leon Morris – the President of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. Rabbi Morris spoke to us about his experiences as a rabbi and as an educator. I was inspired by Rabbi Morris’s daring to craft a religious identity that, although sometimes fraught with tension and dissonance, seeks to integrate the multivocality of the Jewish world.

There are many parts of Rabbi Morris’s journey that merit discussion; however, I find myself especially moved by his journey to the Rabbinate and his vision for the Jewish future so I will focus specifically on those aspects of his story.

Rabbi Morris was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania where he was one of two Jews in his class. R’ Morris, however, always felt himself unusually drawn to the rich world of Jewish life. Eventually, he found his way to NFTY (the youth movement of Reform Judaism). There, he encountered like-minded Jewish teens and there he began exploring what the Jewish world has to offer him and what he may have to offer the Jewish world. Eventually, Rabbi Morris rose to become NFTY’s national president.

Listening to Rabbi Morris speak about his youth, I was struck by how many of his experiences mirror my own. Growing up, I shared the perennial loneliness Rabbi Morris expressed; I was so deeply and peculiarly in love with a tradition that many of my classmates found antiquated and of little relevance to their lives. In high school, I didn’t find NFTY, but I did find NCSY. There, for the first time, I discovered a world in love with exploring Jewish identity, a world sturdy enough to explore but malleable enough that I still might introduce some of my own longings and insights into its structures. This early and enduring love for Judaism and the Jewish people is what draws me to the concerns and vision for the Jewish future Rabbi Morris outlined in his speech.

In the world of 21st century American Judaism, Rabbi Morris’s religious identity is somewhat of a curiosity. He’s a Reform Rabbi in love with halakha – he believes fervently in the right to choose, but regularly chooses to commit and obligate himself. At first blush, the postmodernism that predominates his religious thought seemingly contradicts/undermines his commitment to orthopraxy. Why should one continue to uphold Halakha’s stringencies when one no longer believes in a sense of divine obligation? As a committed religious personality and as a student of the western university, this question is one with which I and my friends frequently wrestle.

To resolve this seeming contradiction, Rabbi Morris suggested a shift from what he terms “First Naivety” to what he calls “Second Naivety.” First Naivety, he explained, is the literal belief in Judaism’s metaphors and narratives – the belief that God actually split the sea and spoke to the Jewish people in a cloud of thunder and lightning. Second Naivety, however, acknowledges the processes that produce religious rites and beliefs but still chooses to consciously reenter the world of symbols and metaphors. For example, when Rabbi Morris davens the Mi Sheberach prayer, he doesn’t conceive of it as a divine petition but as an expression of collective yearning that those dear to him will recover from whatever sickness ails them. Rabbi Morris, however, retains the framework of the inherited metaphor and expresses his yearning as if praying to a God who heals the sick. Thus, Halakhic observance becomes a decision to relate to the world through the deliberate use of symbol and metaphor.

Ultimately, however, Rabbi Morris believes that the religious experience of Second Naivety is unsustainable on a collective level – it is sufficient to address the spiritual dissonance of one personality but insufficient to remedy the theological crisis of Judaism in the 21st century. The solution of Second Naivety falls short as an operative, collective theology because it requires a preexisting commitment to Jewish texts and rituals – it is ultimately a deep sense of nostalgia that drives one to seek meaning in rituals that have lost their theological force. However, many Jews don’t feel a sense of loss over their lack of religious observance; most, in fact, are quite happy living as normal people. Thus, for Jewish leaders who want all Jews to be engaged, the challenge of Judaism and Postmodernism remains.

To this end, it may be instructive to turn to a different idea proposed by Rabbi Morris, a process which he refers to as the “Beit-Midrashification” of Jewish life. He explained that Judaism in the modern era is dominated by rites that have lost their vibrancy. Jewish life has become inaccessible, stale, and insipid, and there is a pressing need to revitalize the Jewish world with a creative energy that will enable modern Jews to engage with Jewish tradition. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the head of a Jewish learning institute, Rabbi Morris suggested that the remedy to the stagnation of Jewish life is the integration of textual learning and discourse into Jewish ritual. He urged us to start living the discourse and the creativity of the beit midrash. He dared us to imagine what Jewish rituals could look like as dynamic, Socratic experiences, rooted in Jewish texts and open to the thoughts, questions, and yearnings of all Jews.

Rabbi Morris proposed this idea as a way to reinvigorate a struggling Jewish world, but I think this process can also address the spiritual crisis outlined above. If we can return Jewish texts to all Jews, then their sense of ownership and commitment to the text and its people will increase accordingly. For many, just this simple process of textual reclamation may be sufficient to motivate them to reclaim their ancestors’ religious rites. Moreover, the model of the beit midrash can offer the Jewish people the collaborative space to experiment and create new rituals and ideas. The beauty of the beit midrash is that it transforms the milkhemta shel torah (the war/discourse of Torah) into a symphony of new ideas and pluralism. It’s in this creative space that Jewish people can listen and learn from one another, bring new meaning to ancient texts and rituals, and restore Judaism’s innovative spirit to enable us to overcome the challenges of our day.


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