Commentary Magazine


America’s Universalist Jews

To the Editor:

There is much worthy of discussion in Jack Wertheimer’s essay [“The Ten Commandments of America’s Jews,” June], but I was struck most by the following portion of his closing paragraph: “Perhaps the time has come to take a fresh look at the original Ten Commandments, which open with a different I: the voice of a commanding God reminding a specific people of its particular historical experience and proceeding to issue judgmental commands and injunctions.”

Perhaps, but probably not. At the heart of liberal American Judaism is a rejection of the commanding God who chooses one people over others, one strip of land over others, and insists that asking “What Would Moses Do?” is the pinnacle of Jewish moral achievement. Most of us know that the Ten Commandments were written long after Moses, that our “particular historical experience,” at least as far as the Bible is concerned, is largely fictional, and that the “judgmental commands and injunctions” came not from God but from the priests and rabbis who used the God of their respective imaginations to promote their own agendas.

The problem with liberal American Jews isn’t that we have rejected the Judaism of the Bronze Age, but that we haven’t yet invented a Judaism for our own age. We have yet to offer a public theology—a theology that takes form as liturgy—that takes either the Shoah or science seriously. We have yet to articulate and implement a new pedagogy rooted in the serious textual argument and theological doubt that have been the lifeblood of Jewish culture. We have yet to create a liturgy that doesn’t command us to abandon the truths we hold on Friday in order to participate in the service we chant on Saturday. We have yet to foster a synagogue for spiritual maturation, contemplative education, and social engagement, and we continue to beg Jews to support country club–style institutions too often hijacked by Israeli politics and devoted to bad theater and a level of education that one can surpass with a few hours on Google.

The problem with liberal American Jews is that we have outgrown the Judaism our liberal American rabbis and educators offer us. What we need are leaders, rabbinic and lay, who—like Hillel, Luria, the Besht, Wise, Hirsch, Herzl, Kaplan, and Wine—dare to reinvent Judaism for their time. We need a Judaism rooted not in the commands of a cosmic king but in deep and passionate debate about the meaning (yes, meaning; when did meaning become a dirty word?) of our history and our texts. What we need is a shul that Albert Einstein—a lover of Zion and truth—might have attended.

If liberal American Judaism has a future, it isn’t in the past. If Mr. Wertheimer’s solution to the problems of liberal American Jews is a return to the Bronze Age, he is going to be very disappointed.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

_____________

To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer tries so hard to be irenic and is so narrowly focused that he misses the mark in his criticism of the new seventh commandment: “You shall encourage the airing of all views.” He misses the forest because he’s so engaged with the tree. Mr. Wertheimer fails to address the more pervasive and hypocritical problem of this inclusiveness: the regime of intolerant political correctness that governs Reform temples, Conservative synagogues, and the entire alphabet soup of organizations within the American Jewish establishment.

The suggestion that this commandment is meant to sacralize pluralism is risible. On the contrary, there ought to be a sign on the doors of liberal institutions stating, “Those who question political correctness or fail to translate tikkun olam in leftist terms need not enter.” The vast majority of American Jews are unaffiliated both with religious institutions and secular Jewish-run organizations. They have voted with their feet.

Dissenters from left-liberal political pieties find themselves increasingly unwelcome in American Jewish communities—or are welcomed only if they refrain from expressing their views.

As a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that focuses on immigration, I have been smeared by officials at major American Jewish organizations as a “white supremacist” for opposing amnesty and open-borders immigration. For the record, although the Southern Poverty Law Center “cleared my name,” I am still awaiting apologies from my Jewish accusers.

Though I have led a moral public life and pursued justice on many fronts, I have come to detest the term “social justice.” Most of those who routinely invoke it have done so on a narrow, ideological basis. If only our problem were too much openness!

Long ago, I’m told, if there were two Jews, there were three opinions. Go to a Reform temple today and seek an open discussion about President Obama’s administration or amnesty for illegal aliens. There you will find—on a high-turnout Shabbat—300 Jews and only one opinion. Perhaps another sign should be placed at the doors of Jewish establishments: “No Debate, please. We’re Jewish.”

Stephen Steinlight
New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer correctly identifies a phenomenon that is prevalent in some Jewish religious and cultural institutions: a movement to attract the unobservant and often the intermarried, at the cost of subordinating the importance of Jewish law and practice. It is a product not only of the reigning secular culture of universalism, but also of demographic and economic concerns of individual Jewish synagogues and institutions.

The movement has diluted the Jewish experience to the point that affected institutions can seem more universalist than Jewish. I recently attended the bar mitzvah of a boy whose father was Jewish and whose mother was not. The father said that Judaism comes down to being a good person. If he were right, there would be no reason to be Jewish or to adhere to any religion; it would suffice to be a kind beach bum.

The problem with Mr. Wertheimer’s critique, however, is that non-Orthodox Jewish institutions must also play the universalist game. The market for potential members and benefactors consists primarily of nice, benighted, lapsed Jews. Institutions need their memberships and cannot question their motives.

Yet it would be suicidal and heretical for Jewish institutions to accept their view. If Jewish institutions abandoned the teaching of the Torah, which is based on Jewish exception (the Torah was given to us, and we as a tribe accepted it as a covenant on Mt. Sinai), they would be abandoning the covenant and ceasing to fulfill their essential function. To Jews for whom the Torah matters, these institutions would become irrelevant.

Therefore such institutions would take on a dual identity—both welcoming culturally “modern” Jews and providing authentic Jewish teaching and practice. This duality would soon become untenable.

Gary Walk
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

_____________

Jack Wertheimer writes:

Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s letter serves as Exhibit A for the existence of yet an 11th commandment dominating American Jewish life: You shall convince yourself that we live in such unprecedented times that all the wisdom of the past is useless. Alas, the human condition has not changed all that much. Perhaps that is why the Decalogue continues to resonate with billions of our contemporaries the world over, Christians, Muslims, and, yes, even some liberal Jews. And perhaps for that same reason, not all of his trailblazing heroes have enjoyed great success. Acknowledging the failure of the last two individuals on his list to attract a significant following might temper his enthusiasm for reinventing a Judaism so at odds with the sacred texts and traditions of the Jewish people, let alone the religious needs of actual Jews.

Rabbi Shapiro asks, “When did meaning become a dirty word?” I never called it that. One of the glories of Judaism is the encouragement it offers those who seek the rationale of commandments and, indeed, the meaning of Jewish texts for their lives. Those strivings, however, stand in tension with a countervailing value announced in Exodus where the people of Israel pledge na’ase v’nishma: “We will do and then listen.” There is a time for concerted action and a time for meaning-making. Today’s one-sided emphasis on the latter reverses the pledge of our people to God and to each other and states: If this is not personally meaningful to me, count me out; I will not act to support my people, to observe the commandments, to live as a Jew. For the good of the Jewish people, we have to rebuff that solipsistic mind-set.

Stephen Steinlight offers us the obverse side of the happy talk about diversity in American Jewish life; ironically, it is purchased at the price of a stifling conformity. Where I differ with him is in not letting dissenters off so easily when they vote with their feet. Jewish organizations are able to maintain their outdated public-policy positions because they are insufficiently challenged by dissenters. To take Mr. Steinlight’s last example, it is simply not true that there is only one opinion in most Reform temples. One would never know from the strong alliance of the Reform movement with the left wing of the Democratic Party that there are a good number of Reform Jews who are ideological conservatives or independents. And one would not know that because the latter have failed to demand that their views be heard.

Gary Walk addresses a central concern in my article: the tilt to universalism at the expense of Jewish commitments and needs. Mr. Walk contends that “Jewish institutions must play the universalistic game to thrive or even survive.” His subsequent remarks make clear that they do so at great cost to themselves in the form of lost coherence and Jewish authenticity. Moreover, as they continue to ignore Jewish needs, they will hemorrhage ever more members who can find other venues to express their universalism.




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