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January 28, 2021  

Zionism, Mysticism, and the Law: Sam Shonkoff and his students on American Judaism today



What is really at question is the American way of life. What is really at question is whether Americans already have an identity or are still sufficiently flexible to achieve one. This is a painfully complicated question, for what now appears to be the American identity is really a bewildering and sometimes demoralizing blend of nostalgia and opportunism. ––James Baldwin

In recent months, shows about Jewish thought and theology (Pretend it’s a City, Unorthodox) have populated Netflix’s “Trending Now” tab. But what does it mean to be an American Jew in 2021? Why are many Jews today turning towards Hasidism and more conservative forms of religion in a time of unprecedented secularism? Are spirituality and personal faith compatible with traditional Jewish precepts? Why is it the case that Jews have both benefited from and been victimized by white nationalism? And how does Zionism, Jewish nationalism, fit into this story?

To think about these questions, Podcast Editor Josh Wagner spoke with Sam Shonkoff, Professor Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California as well as two of his students. Sam’s research delves into the intersection between secular spiritual practices and the contemporary Hasidic movement, especially in the thought of not-quite theologian Martin Buber. For Buber, religion was less about acting according to the letter of the law than cultivating a sense of “embodied theology” in the everyday––faith as less of a regulating authority than source of spiritual transformation (tiqqun). His students, Eva Sturm-Gross and Jonah Gelfand both took Sam’s Jewish Mysticism seminar at Oberlin College and became fascinated with the downright odd and weird mystics in Jewish thought. Eva is a junior from Vermont who works at a bakery and is majoring in Studio Art and Religion with a minor in Jewish Studies. Jonah just graduated from Oberlin last June and has followed Sam to the GTU and hopes to continue his personal and professional engagement with Jewish thought. Both Eva and Jonah grew up as secular Reform Jews, yet have decided to become more seriously devout. 

While their experience cannot speak for all American Jews, Sam, Eva, and Jonah tell a story about their return to a practical faith in a time of uncertainty and doubt.

To find out more, listen to the episode on Podbean, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you usually find your podcasts!



Sam’s latest book on contemporary Hasidism, edited with Rabbi Ariel Evan Mayse: Hasidism: Writings on Devotion, Community, and Life in the Modern World


The book on top of Sam’s desk at the time of recording this episode: The Obligated Self

Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought by Mara H. Benjamin


Eva’s art Instagram

Martin Buber’s I and Thou

January 22, 2021  

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings: On her Late Husband Elijah Cummings, Black Feminism, Civil Rights…


In this episode of Back in America, I speak with Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, political consultant, and activist. She recently ran to represent Maryland’s 7th District in Congress after undergoing a double mastectomy.


Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings is the widow of Congressman Elijah Cummings, a good friend of former Congressman John Lewis. When Lewis died in 2020, hundreds of Twitter account accidentally posted memorial photos of Cummings since the two looked so much alike!


On Back in America, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore. Cummings discusses the ongoing fight for civil rights. “I fight for the right to exist. I fight for the right of everyone to be recognized on the level of our common humanity. I fight for the history in this country that has been suppressed. I am the fourth generation from slavery in this country. My parents grew up in the Jim Crow South. My late husband, Elijah Cummings grew up in the Jim Crow South. They were born into a world that denied African Americans the right to exist,” she said.


We also spoke of Black feminism and the importance for Black women to take charge of their struggle against racist and institutionalized patriarchy.

In recent months, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings has been working to publish We're Better Than This: My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy, her husband’s final, unfinished book. The book came out last September and she talks to me about the importance of getting her husband’s voice out there.

We're Better Than This - My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy


January 7, 2021  

The Promise of a Better Human: James Clement on our Transhuman futures


In this week’s episode, Podcast Editor Josh Wagner takes a look at transhumanism, the philosophy, and ideology that the next stage in human evolution will arrive through artificial enhancements. Started in the early 1990s in Silicon Valley, transhumanism has accrued a wide variety of adherents, ranging from Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk to Jeffrey Epstein, who believe that the human body itself needs to be upgraded. In their minds, such technological enhancements will increase the quality of life and abilities of every human being––“if nature is unjust, change nature!”


But, are such transhumanist dreams even possible, and would such biological enhancements actually help transform the human race rather than reinforcing the social, racial, and economic divides which are tearing at the foundations of our democracy?


Joining us this week is James Clement, director of BetterHumans, the world’s first transhumanist-oriented biomedical research lab. A former international tax lawyer and brewpub founder, Clement now works on the scientific side of anti-aging, often collaborating with Havard geneticist George Church to discover why certain humans are able to live for more than 100 years. At the heart of his transhumanism rests a fundamental belief in human capabilities and their liberation, beliefs which motivate his biological research. For him, transhumanism is a real technology, fundamentally linked to medical vaccines, stitches, and contact lenses. The only difference is that, like any new technology, transhumanism is not fully understood, especially by Americans who are resistant to such changes.


At the core of this interview lies a concern that a so-called transhumanist utopia, while possible, may not be entirely desirable. Like Odysseus’ searching beyond the limits of human cognition in Dante’s Inferno, transhumanism crucially aspires to alter our relationship with our own bodies, potentially increasing carbon emissions, overpopulation, and racial/social inequalities.


James Clement: 


Transhumanist Manifesto: 


Humanist Manifesto: 

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