What is Empowered Judaism? And How Does It Compare With Today's Messianic Judaism?

May 25, 2021

Kaunfer, Rabbi Elie, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights), 2010.

Elie Kaunfer is the son of a pulpit rabbi. He never planned to become a rabbi himself, but he changed his mind due to following his passion to create an intense prayer-based egalitarian community of millennials like himself, hungry for a life filled with the satisfaction Judaism is meant to supply, while too often settling for compliance and formalism.

While Kaunfer previously worked as a journalist, banker, and corporate fraud investigator as a graduate of Harvard College, he subsequently completed his doctorate in liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was also ordained. He is the pre-eminent advocate and visionary of the Independent Minyanim movement. The book tells you how and why that happened, how and why independent minyanim have gone viral, and why you just might be interested in what they have to offer.

The movement has grown chiefly among Jews in their twenties and thirties, in urban areas, largely coastal but not in all cases. These minyamin are a communal expression of a vision for Empowered Judaism, “an engaged approach to what it means to live life as a Jew” (143). This vision is serious about Jewish observance, is tradition-insistent, egalitarian, and represents a shift from ineffective standard motivations driving Jewish community’s concern for this demographic: concern for communal preservation, future preservation of Jewish communal institutions, and combatting the communal decay attendant upon intermarriage and secularism.

Instead of these overworked motivations, Empowered Judaism pursues an egalitarian and communal vision of Jews experiencing a meaningful and robust engagement with the texts and substantive satisfactions of Jewish living. Such skills and satisfactions must not be left to elite experts and academics. This is a rich Judaism for everyone else, and especially for millennials. Unlike the havurah movement of the late sixties and early seventies Empowered Judaism is not so much a protest against institutionalism as a complementary development meeting needs and serving a public under-served by standard Jewish community structures.

It all began with the founding of a prayer community, Kehilat Hadar, which then birthed the Hadar Institute and Yeshivat Hadar, the first egalitarian Yeshiva in the West. None of these expressions seeks to be a farm team for institutional Judaism (as was the case with the Havurah Movement), but rather to engage and equip a passionate Jewish laity, empowered with textual skills, and grounded in communal prayer practices, in a non-denominational climate of egalitarian mutual respect and support.

While non-denominational, the movement is not pluralistic. The Jewish practice it advocates is robust, and egalitarian. While others said it couldn’t be done, Empowered Judaism is doing it.

From the Introduction and first chapter we learn how Rabbi Kaunfer, son of a congregational rabbi, grew up in New York City intimately acquainted with institutional Judaism, spent time in Israel, and davened in a wide variety of contexts. Yet he found himself facing dual dissatisfactions. Sparked by seminal experiences in Israel, he longed for a passionate prayer community, and also for an egalitarian expression of this communal life. It did not exist. In the midst of his professional career as banker, journalist and fraud investigator, he eventually had a meeting of the minds with two likewise motivated friends, and they launched a minyan, meeting at first in a series of Manhattan apartments, Kehilat Hadar. In Chapter Two, “Independant Minyanim Nationwide: Significance and Impact,” Kaunfer describes the mechanics of building such a prayer community, generously sharing lessons in what to do, what not to do, and why. This chapter will spare careful readers the chagrin and disappointments flowing from making their own mistakes nicely anticipated and remedied by the measures Kaunfer supplies. He chronicles how Independent Minyanim spread, not by institutional contrivance but by virtue of the power of the vision and ripeness of the times.

Chapter Three surveys leaders of various minyanim in the United States and in Israel, who describe the shapes the vision has taken in differing social and geographical contexts. As with Chapter Two, this is an intensely practical chapter.

Chapter Four explores “Engaged Davening: How Empowered Jews Pray,” sharing with readers the particular shape and standard practices of such minyans. On display is the relationship between values and communal structures or mechanics. While values are non-negotiable, mechanics vary.

Chapter Five considers the evolution and character of Yeshivat Hadar, an education effort appropriate to the survival and thriving of Empowered Judaism. The Yeshiva offers a kind of boot camp approach to teaching textual skills and modeling Jewish discussion for interested and motivated millennials and some others. Admission is competitive, as they want students who are able and eager to work hard and then to transplant among other the substance and vision driving the effort. Students at the Yeshiva are subsidized, which is another reason for an application process seeking highly motivated students who will take what they learned and seed it in other social contexts.

The Yeshiva is not concerned with raising up a cadre of Jewish professionals. It is concerned with empowering Jews to learn, to love, and to live Jewish life. This is the first egalitarian Yeshiva in the Western Hemisphere. It is “a community that models and teaches how to become an Empowered Jew. . . [and] that understands halakhah as a language that expresses values, and not just rules, but believes that the language is a path for living out the will of God in the world” (132). The chapter presents a bundle of brilliant insights on how visionary education is done, what will not get the job done, and why.

Chapter Six, “Empowerment and Meaning: A New Frame for Jewish Life.” explores more deeply what it means and what it will take to shift the frame of Jewish communal experience from a preoccupation with institutional preservation to one of communal empowerment. Rabbi Kaunfer speaks of how the world has changed, and how the Jewish world must change, or sicken and die. Those vested in the status quo are likely to resist and discount what this chapter has to teach us. But I am persuaded that we would do well to take a deep breath, and perhaps a stiff drink, and pay attention. Understandable but anemic goals include institutional preservation, and communal survival, about which Kaunfer comments, “this framework is not interested in the substance of Judaism per se as much as in continuity (‘If juggling flaming torches draws Jews to date and marry each other, let’s fund the flaming torches’) The program content is simply a means to a demographic end” (144).

Despite their ubiquity, these engines will not drive the Jewish community to a desirable and worthwhile future. Instead, “the focus of Empowered Judaism is discovering what kind of substantive Jewish community we can build and engaging stakeholders to make it happen. In other word, a Jewish race preserved for its own sake, without any deeper connection to Torah, culture, Israel, or practice, is not on the Jewish empowerment agenda. . . Engaging young Jews is a means to an end: not institutional preservation or survival, but furthering a meaningful, substantive Jewish life” (144-5).

Millennials desire an Empowered Judaism that serves a non-denominational Judaism. What is important is not what label you embrace, but what you claim as your vision of Jewish life, its place in the world, and your place in it. “A world without convenient categories is a world that calls on people to take more ownership of the type of Judaism they want to practice in the world” (147). The chapter also talks about “the stability of instability,” indicating the logistical flexibility of the model coupled with its determined adherence to non-negotiable core values and core competencies.

Chapter Seven “The Path Forward: The Real Crisis in American Judaism,” is a brief recapitulation of the passions at the heart of Kaunfer’s book and of his labors, while the Appendix provides a further window on how Jewish prayer practices and texts have a deep, theological, and enriching intertextual relationship with the texts and substance of Jewish life. Brief and beautiful.

I cannot overstate the importance of this book if we are to develop and transmit a mature Messianic Judaism that evaluates itself by its depth rather than by the size of the crowds it might gather. The questions Kaunfer raises, and the answers he supplies have direct relevance to how change agents and leaders in the Messianic Jewish world should be thinking and planning.

The book is a cause for hope and for horror. Hope, because there are some who will read this book, allow it to cause them pain, and move on in that pain to find better answers than we often settle for, and horror because there are many who think things are just fine and anything that causes discomfort is to be avoided at all costs. To these I say, “No, the cost of avoiding the pain is just too great.”

While the Messianic Judaism of which we have custody is not identical to the vision Kaunfer treasures, there are, or should be deep parallels. But beyond that, the communal questions he raises are questions we should be raising, even if our answers differ from his own.

I do not find flaws in this book. It is well written and well edited, and the vision Kaunfer chamions is lucid and mature. This truth will make us free, but only if it first makes us uncomfortable. Such discomfort is meant to be the birthpangs of a better tomorrow.

Will you come with me and find it?

6 comments on “What is Empowered Judaism? And How Does It Compare With Today's Messianic Judaism?”

  1. I guess with some major differences this movement is similar to such things as seeker-sensitive/missional church plants in Evangelicalism, "Fresh Expressions" in the Church of England, or Fr Malllon's "Divine Renovation" movement in the Catholic Church.
    I look forward to readung the book.

    1. Good to hear from you Wolf! Sorry to be so tardy in responding. Yes, it is a well-written and interesting book. I will send you a copy of my recent scholarly article which interacts with Kaunfer and with related matters. I will be interested in your response. Coming to you via FaceBook.

  2. Thanks, Stuart, for a wonderful book review and recommendation. I appreciate its apparent emphasis on davening and study conducted by and “owned” by the Jewish everyman, that is to say, motivated from the bottom up rather than from the top down relative to some perceived hierarchical institutional structure. Thankfully, these days, there is a wealth of resources to aid in such endeavors. At some point, nonetheless, Jews must address themselves to Clal Yisrael and the totality of the Jewish community, and they really should not ignore the facilities which others have taken great pains and resources to build for the benefit of all. On that note, I’d like to recommend also another book that can serve as a resource to those pursuing an empowered, self-actuated Jewish life. It is “The Concise Book of Mitzvoth” compiled by The Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Israel Meir haCohen) and published by Feldheim Publishers in English and Hebrew on facing pages (English adaptation and notes by Charles Wengrov) Copyright 1990. Its focus is “the commandments which can be observed today”, including the distinction between those which can be observed generally and those only in the land of Israel. These summarize a Torah-informed life and its values which are demonstrated by a conscious awareness of the ways by which we can and often do conform our thoughts and hearts and actions with the principles of Torah, and which are embedded in Jewish perspective and culture. The emphasis of this book is to make that awareness explicit, because only by recognizing that we are doing these things intentionally do they rise to the level of obedience to HaShem. Intentionality, or “kavanah” is precisely that characteristic which constitutes “empowerment” consistent with the notion of “Empowered Judaism”.

    In many ways, modern “Messianic Judaism” began only a half-century ago with the empowerment of Jews rediscovering the Jewish nature and sources of the apostolic writings and the ancient Israeli rabbi they elucidate, as distinct from prior misconceptions purveyed in Christianity, Jewish Christianity and Hebrew-Christianity. Since then, that empowerment often has been stalled or inhibited by resurgences of such prior views. The “new” paradigm was uncomfortable to many at that time, and individual “empowerment” is uncomfortable to many at any time. This is one reason why aspects of the US Constitution, such as the Second Amendment and other inalienable individual rights, are so often deemed too dangerous to be exercised freely at the individual’s discretion. The new radically-Jewish paradigm described in Mark Kinzer’s book “Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism” was likewise uncomfortable, and has been debated by some ever since its publication in 2005, even though it merely restated the paradigm which arose some three-and-a-half decades earlier and which was implicit in the work of one Rabbi Lichtenstein in the late 1800s, who continued to lead his traditional synagogue community after becoming a disciple of haRav Yeshua ben Yosef.

    It does, however, make many people uncomfortable when such Jews follow the example of R.Lichtenstein by davening with other traditional Jews in traditional synagogues or in the traditional manner. It makes them uncomfortable that Jewish messianists are developing alternative theological views as they revisit ancient Jewish texts in Tenach or Apocrypha or the apostolic writings or later Jewish literature. But, it may be argued, change is seldom comfortable, and growth without change is impossible. This is why we must encourage one another: ‘hazak, ‘hazak, v-nit’hazek”.

    1. Shalom Dror!

      I am well acquainted with the book you mention by the Chofetz Chaim and own a copy. From the time I first opened it I marveled at its clarity and simplicity. This is not something easy to do. Only a person who is a master of a discipline will be able to explain it in simple terms. This he succeeds in doing.

      Thank you for your contribution.

      Hanukkah Sameach!

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