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Winds of change

by David Suissa

June 14, 2012 | 11:46 am

David Suissa, President

David Suissa, President

Mainstream American Judaism, in a desperate attempt to remain relevant in a wide-open and freewheeling culture, has kicked open all its doors and windows, and at least one Jew is not happy. Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, has hit back with a stinging essay in Commentary called “The Ten Commandments of American Jews.”

Years from now, when historians try to understand American Jewish life at the turn of the century, they might do well to start with these commandments.

The biblical metaphor is apt. For many Jews today, “Me” has replaced “God.” Why follow a Creator you don’t really know when you can follow someone you really know — like yourself?

“The vocabulary of Jewish life has undergone a profound transformation,” Wertheimer writes. “The evidence is all around us: in books promoting ‘empowered Judaism,’ blogs singing the praises of ‘Do It Yourself Judaism,’ slogans celebrating a ‘Jewish renewal’ or a ‘Jewish renaissance’ in America, and more.”

This new vocabulary reflects “a consensus on what Jewish life ought to stand for — a consensus held by activists, rabbis, popular writers, organizational leaders, and other figures of influence.”

Wertheimer himself is a leading light of the Conservative movement and one of the sharpest observers of the Jewish scene in America — so his words carry more than a little weight.

In essence, the professor is warning us that mainstream Judaism has become so open-minded that its brains and boundaries are falling out. It’s “feel-good” Judaism, “all good” Judaism and “anything goes” Judaism all rolled into one.

Here’s what he describes as the Ten Commandments for the new American Jew:

“I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt to ‘repair the world’; You shall not be judgmental; You shall be pluralistic; You shall personalize your Judaism; Meaning, meaning shall you pursue; You shall create caring communities; You shall encourage the airing of all views; You shall not be tribal; You shall celebrate your Jewishness; You shall hold the Jewish conversation in public.”

The only missing commandment, it seems, is “You shall allow flip-flops in shul.”

But seriously, what’s not to like about these “idealist, expansive, and upbeat” modern-day commandments?

If you’re Wertheimer, plenty. Among other things, he doesn’t like the “acquiescence in an unbridled individualism and its evident indifference to collective Jewish needs.”

The professor has an unabashed weakness for collective Jewish needs. He rails against those who are “repudiating the claims made by Jewish peoplehood and tilting instead toward cosmopolitanism.”

He rails against how so much of Jewish life in this country “continues to oscillate between high-minded invocations of the need to repair the world and endless rounds of catering to subjective tastes and whims disguised as self-validating beliefs: ‘This works for me, so it must be right.’ ”

The emphasis of today’s ten commandments, he says, is “on what institutions owe to individuals — inclusion, safe space, unqualified acceptance of all types of Jewish expression — while virtually nothing is asked of the individual beyond the mere sentiment of do-goodism.

“Not by chance is the emblematic Jewish program of our times, Birthright Israel, a no-cost 10-day trip to Israel. Why a Judaism that expects nothing should itself be expected to appeal to anyone is a great mystery, but such is the essence of the new American Judaism.”

What I like about Wertheimer is how he blends intellect with tribalism. It’s one thing to exhibit tribal instincts when you drive a bus in Dimona and you’re always fighting terrorists. But when you’re one of America’s leading Jewish intellectuals? Not so easy.

That’s why his voice is unique and courageous. He’s not afraid to bring sophisticated thinking to “outdated” and visceral notions like tribalism and peoplehood. He’s not afraid to challenge sacred cows like diversity, and he doesn’t apologize for introducing out-of-fashion values like the need to identify and cater to “specifically Jewish interests.”

Wertheimer has given the Jewish community some hard questions to ponder: Is American Judaism losing its Jewish soul by overemphasizing its universal soul? Has Judaism become too open for its own good? Are we dumbing down our tradition in our desperation to save it?

How ironic that in a culture that worships openness, what Judaism may need now is the very opposite: a little more attention to boundaries, a little circling back to timeless, traditional values like peoplehood and God’s commandments.

It would be wrong to assume that setting boundaries will turn people off. To take one obvious example, the most successful Jewish outreach organization in the world, Chabad, has achieved its success without compromising one bit on Torah observance. In other words, tradition in itself is not necessarily an obstacle to bringing more Jews into the tent.

Of course, it’s no coincidence that Chabad is especially observant with one Jewish tradition that I’m sure Wertheimer appreciates: Loving your fellow Jew.

Love or not, the undeniably cool thing today is to be open-minded. It’s never been more popular to be open-minded about changing the Jewish tradition. But the true test of openness will be whether you’re also open to keeping this tradition—and reconnecting with your past, your God and your people.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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