This past Shabbat I was visiting a resort community as the guest of the associate rabbi. The special Friday night guest speaker at dinner was Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford . The rabbi got up to speak and in an informal style opened his talk by seeking to elicit responses from the assembled. One example: He would say the word Phoenix and then point his hand at the audience to get them to shout out Arizona.
When he did start speaking, after about 5 minutes I turned to the associate rabbi and whispered that this talk is straight word for word -Rick Warren, A Purpose Driven Life. I received a nod of agreement and for the next fifteen minutes heard a 1980-1990’s evangelical talk about God wants you to make the most of every moment and listen to the decisive moments in one’s life. When the rabbi was discussing how we have a million truths revealed in our hearts every day and we need resolve to follow them then I knew we were in the heartland of America. He also stressed the importance of peak moments and self actualization as well as the need to decisively commit oneself to Judaism.
Rabbi Cohen also announced that this week he would start his website – “Forty days to a better you.” At that point there was no uncertainty as to his teachings since Rick Warren’s book opens by saying it will take the reader on a 40 day spiritual journey and is divided accordingly. This method of leadership divides teachings into 40 days of purpose, 40 days of spiritual growth, 40 days of love.
What stuck in my mind from the talk was that Jews and Jewish texts don’t use the word “truth” for the moments of everyday life and feelings of the heart. That language is from the Second Great revival and the need to find grace and God acting in in one’s life. But whereas the early 19th century Evangelical text sought a single conversion moment, now in the Fourth Great Revival the religious person seeks God every day in their suburban family decisions..
So I walked over to Rabbi Cohen after dessert and asked: Who else he reads besides Rick Warren? He answered immediately Abraham Maslow on peak experiences, John Maxwell on leadership in Evangelical Churches, Eckhart Tolle on living in the moment and the Harvard Business School studies of Evangelical leadership.
The next day, Rabbi Cohen sought to continue the conversation. To be fair, I told him that I study phenomena like contemporary spirituality and that he is object of study in this conversation.
I asked him when he first got interested in the writings of the Evangelicals? After a cautious pause he answered that since his father was rabbi in the Atlanta Ga., one day when he was around ten years old he heard Robert H Schuller, the famous senior televangelist on the radio who preaches his Hour of Power show from his Crystal Cathedral and was hooked.Rabbi Cohen narrated how this interest continued for decades and that he sought out meetings with Evangelical leaders when he had a pulpit in Denver.
Rabbi Cohen described how he presents the material as learning wisdom from the gentiles and gathering sparks of Torah. It is no different to him than any other management or leadership training. Rabbi Cohen lead a session for rabbis at the RCA convention two years ago on “The Purpose Driven Synagogue- the need for Purpose Driven Leadership.” He gives sermons, available as podcasts, on American Evangelical topics like “The Road Less Traveled (C Scott Peck) or “Love is the Answer.” (Gerald Jampolsky- 1980’s newage)
This form of evangelical finding peak moments in the everyday grew alongside Centrist Orthodoxy for the last few decades so it is a natural fit. When asked if he interested in the recent changes to the Evangelical world over the last decade like-social action, stewardship, concern for the world, openness to the underprivileged- he answered not as much and only to help people be more in touch with their life mission and purpose. He is not interested in the Emergent post-Evangelical Church nor the widespread use of Pentecostal materials found in kiruv organizations. Rather, we now have an orthodoxy which expresses its modernity in the narratives of everyday life, our human relationship, how we budget our time, and how we narrate our suburban lives.
Is Rabbi Cohen late to the game of 1980’s Evangelical works? Not really. The groundwork was already laid by rabbis who were teaching a halakhah that reflected these values. Compare this late entrance to Maurice Lamm, explaining Orthodoxy in his late 1960’s books as popular psych which was twenty years after the post WWII popular psychology of Joshua Liebrman’s Piece of Mind.
Notice also how far this approach of love and decisive moments is from submission to a system. We look into our hearts for love. Rabbi Ethan Tucker wants to reopen the intellectual questions of high modernity and explain the texts of the Talmud in a new light. This Evangelical approach does not need to let any texts or laws interfere. The crucial religious acts personal and family oriented. One does not fight about changes in synagogue life since religion is situated in one’s heart and decisions about life’s course.
This interest runs in the family since Rabbi Daniel Cohen’s brother Benjamin Cohen wrote My Jesus Year A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith.
Postscript: As I prepare to post this to the blog, I received an email from another shul stating as its Elul teshuvah announcement “Re-energize your Relationship with God,” a phrase owing more to Evangelical language than to Maimonides or the Chai Adom.