Commentary Magazine


The Ten Commandments of America's Jews

In the past two decades, the vocabulary of American Jewish life has undergone a profound transformation. 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. In what has been called the big tent of the new Judaism, the theme of inclusion reigns, with synagogues declaring their intention to create caring communities, family-friendly environments, and, especially, homes for “diversity.” An advertisement for an educational retreat in Atlanta holds out the promise of having it all: “An Open, Remixable, Meaningful, Connected Jewish Life.”

Although much has been written about disunity among today’s American Jews, what these words reflect is, in fact, 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.1 The locutions themselves are worthy of explication; more important is what they tell us about the meaning of Jewishness in contemporary America. Here, in summary form, are what might be called the ten commandments, the new do’s and don’ts, of contemporary American Jewish life.

I. I am the Lord your God, Who took you
out of Egypt to ‘repair the world.’

No trope is more common today than the injunction to engage in tikkun olam. The Hebrew phrase has an ancient pedigree, with spiritual if not mystical connotations; but of decidedly recent vintage is its current interpretation: namely, that Jews are uniquely responsible for improving the lives of their fellow human beings. For many, indeed, the imperative of social action defines the essence of Judaism. In American Grace, a study of contemporary American religion, Robert Putnam and David Campbell report that Jews (unlike their Christian counterparts) tend to be tongue-tied on matters of belief and religious observances but speak with great certainty about their responsibility to help “repair the world.” So important has this mission become that in some quarters it is held to supersede all other commandments. In the words of a young Reform rabbi in Los Angeles: “Don’t keep kosher, that’s fine; don’t keep Shabbat, that’s fine; marry a non-Jew—whatever. But understand that it will take away your Jewish identity if you don’t fight for justice.”

II. You shall not be judgmental.

Within wide sectors of the Jewish community, it has become a truism that there is no single correct way to be Jewish, and that the measure of Jewish authenticity is whether it feels right. As one of the more prolific younger writers on Jewish topics has put it in explaining his “Buddhist-Judaism,” “it is more authentic because it is more faithful to the truth of my experience.” Nowhere is the ethos of nonjudgmentalism said to be more necessary than on the sensitive issue of intermarriage. Jews who intermarried were once regarded as transgressors of a great taboo; today, the great taboo is criticism of Jews who intermarry. Hence the rebuke greeting a writer who suggested that celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas in an interfaith home was a falsification of both faiths. “What you are doing,” declared an official at an organization dedicated to reaching intermarried families, “is really the most divisive thing that Jews do to other Jews these days, which is to tell your fellow Jews that they are not ‘Jewish enough.’”

III. You shall be pluralistic.

Flowing directly from the refusal to render judgment on rights and wrongs is the conviction that Jewish organizations and communities must strive to serve as a big tent for all kinds of Jews. Many have come to believe that diversity, especially when it comes to every conceivable variety of family configuration, enriches Judaism by exposing people to different ways of thinking and living. For some, the imperative of inclusion has even taken on sacred significance, traceable to the rabbinic legend about the patriarch Abraham’s tent, whose four sides were left open to all comers.

IV. You shall personalize your Judaism.

 There was a time when most Jews roughly agreed on the key components of Jewish identity as well as on collective Jewish needs. In our time, large numbers of Jews appear convinced that they alone determine not only how they will be Jews but what it means to be Jews. We live, many believe, in an age not only of freedom but also of multiple and shifting identities. Hence, each Jew is empowered to invent his own version of Judaism via a personal journey through many different forms of engagement and disengagement. “Our identities are multiple and constantly under construction,” writes a young modern-Orthodox rabbi. So, too, is our understanding of Jewish commitments.

V. Meaning, meaning shall you pursue.

 It follows from the previous commandment that the way for institutions to compete for the temporary attention of individual Jews is to offer them “meaningful” experiences. For some, the quest for meaning may take the form of a tikkun olam trip to aid the needy in faraway places. For a relative few, it may even lead to a deepened acquaintance with Jewish texts. “A Judaism and a Jewish community without Torah as its center isn’t going to survive,” declares an influential young rabbi, adding, “nor is it clear to me why it should.” By these lights, Jewish survival for its own sake is meaningless.

VI. You shall create caring communities.

In contrast to the world of large Jewish organizations and religious institutions, which are judged as being coldly unwelcoming in spirit, welcoming itself is now highly prized and enjoined. Synagogues train official greeters to keep an eye out for newcomers; a congregant in need of professional counseling may receive aid gratis from a fellow congregant; the unemployed may benefit from a rabbi’s discretionary fund that has been newly expanded for just this purpose. The burden of responsibility rests entirely on the institutions, which must avoid having expectations of those benefitting from their care.

VII. You shall encourage the airing
of all views.

The glory of Judaism, in the current reading, lies in its openness to debate, controversy, and dissent. This not only distinguishes Judaism from dogmatic religions that brook no questioning but also justifies the individualism at the heart of commandments II through V. Of late, the virtues of freewheeling debate have been invoked largely in order to create a space for Jewish criticism of the state of Israel, thereby provoking the need to define rules of civil discourse on inherently polarizing issues. Are Jewish anti-Zionists, for example, to be given a platform by the organized Jewish community? What about supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement? By and large, the needle has moved progressively toward the side of those wishing to push the proverbial envelope.

VIII. You shall not be tribal.

The state of Israel, beyond its specific policies, has become problematic in a more general sense as well. In some circles, the very notion of holding a special allegiance to a country or people is seen as an unfortunate throwback to an era of blind chauvinism. Why, increasing numbers ask, should I feel any special responsibility to a people with whom I am connected solely through the accident of my birth? One leader has advocated a balanced solution: “We must understand that tomorrow’s Jews will simultaneously be Members of the Tribe and Global Citizens.” Others balk at the “tribe” part altogether, repudiating the claims made by Jewish peoplehood and tilting instead toward cosmopolitanism.

IX. You shall celebrate your Jewishness.

But if engagement with the Jewish people has become more awkward, pride in being Jewish has not. By every measure, American Jews of all ages express no discomfort with their Jewishness; to the contrary, and unlike Jews of an earlier era, they neither worry about anti-Jewish discrimination nor feel any pressure to prove that they belong as Americans. What they find irksome is the opposite: namely, reminders of external threats or inner weaknesses. “Don’t talk to us about the Holocaust, or anti-Semitism, or having babies,” a leader of programs for young people recently chastised the older generation of communal activists. Rather than indulging a “crisis narrative” or fretting over the future, we should be celebrating the present—a moment of dynamism and creativity in which new forms of Judaism and Jewish culture are flowering and from which Jews in other lands, especially Israel, have much to learn.

X. You shall hold the Jewish
conversation in public.

In line with the celebratory impulse, today’s Jews feel no compunction about discussing Jewish life in publications with a wide general audience, from the op-ed columns of the New York Times to the web pages of the Huffington Post. In this era of Jewish security, it is said, no aspect of Judaism, whether flattering or embarrassing, should be relegated to the sidelines of parochialism. This strikingly reverses the habits of the past, when, as the legal scholar Suzanne Stone has noted, a sharp distinction was drawn between conversations in the house of study or within the Jewish community, where fractious debate was both safe and welcome, and conversations in the public square, where “the honor of religion [was] at stake…and expression highly regulated.” Today, the mandate is to exhibit no such concern about “what the Gentiles will say” and to be unafraid of being heard and read by all.

What is one to make of this constellation of do’s and don’ts? Surely its most striking features are its stance and its tone: idealistic, expansive, and upbeat. Presenting Jewish life positively and without fear, it dismisses talk of Israel’s vulnerability or of threats to Jewish survival in the United States. The impulse to share Jewish folkways with the world at large, and to discuss in public and without inhibition the most intimate aspects of current Jewish life, reflects a strong sense of security and “at-homeness.” If anything, the greater dangers are seen as parochialism, the failure or refusal to credit the intertwining of Jewish and Gentile lives, and the consequent impulse to isolate Jews from their business associates, their friends, and, in a growing number of cases, their family members.

For the newly expansive approach, it is an article of faith that Judaism benefits from diversity and openness, which in turn help foster creativity and even a “renewal” of Jewish life. By contrast, efforts to impose limits on whom Jews should marry, how they should structure their families, or what they should believe, in addition to being retrograde in themselves, can lead only to losses and stagnation. Seeking to be inviting and enticing to Jews and Gentiles alike, the new American Judaism shuns prescriptive language and limits its demands to the doing of good as defined by universal ethical principles.

It is no coincidence that the ideas and attitudes embodied in the new American Judaism are largely indistinguishable from the cluster of ideas and attitudes that inform liberal American culture at large. The abhorrence of chauvinism, the refusal to privilege any culture’s values over any other’s, the emphasis on doing good: What are these if not the hallmarks of today’s regnant multiculturalist dispensation? As noted 15 years ago by the late Charles S. Liebman, Jews, like their neighbors, increasingly embrace an ethos “marked by voluntarism (radical choice), autonomy (the license for invention), personalism (the quest for personal meaning), universalism (the abnegation of parochial collective identity), and moralism (the emphasis on the moral and ethical value of rites and customs).”2 If, at mid-20th century, Jews in record numbers joined synagogues in silent agreement with the slogan “the family that prays together stays together” and in a later period embraced a more inward-looking pride as ethnic assertion was sweeping the land, today’s Jewish vanguard faithfully reflects the culture of the moment.

Upon closer inspection, however, the new Jewish consensus (like, it must be said, its American prototype) is hardly without ironies, contradictions, problems, and costs. Take, for example, the goal of fostering diversity and inclusion. Lofty aspirations, they can also yield the reverse effect on what can actually be said and done. In order to bring everyone under one big tent, potentially divisive issues must be shelved—leading right back to the narrow rigidity that the new inclusiveness was ostensibly designed to replace.

Nor is that all. Take the case of AVODAH, a domestic Jewish service organization that recently announced a program to send its alumni to engage in social action in Israel. One hundred alumni promptly petitioned for the program to be canceled on the grounds that AVODAH was in violation of “its own commitment to pluralism.” Why? Because the non-Zionists among them would feel “marginalized” by any activity conducted anywhere in the state of Israel. Ironically, it is the “edgier” organizations such as AVODAH that are most susceptible to being hoisted on their own petard and thereby hobbled in their pursuit of their self-defined missions.

In addition, diversity itself turns out to be a misnomer—if for no other reason than that, simply stated, non-pluralists need not apply. For all the talk of how enriching diversity can be, some of the most “inclusive” Jewish institutions are loath to make room for those, especially Orthodox Jews, who depart from their orthodoxies. In the liberal rabbinical seminaries, where sub-ethnic cultures and folkways are valued and professorial candidates are sought from all over the world, no effort is made in the recruitment of faculty to add diversity of ideological outlook. And when it comes to the left-leaning political consensus, to “settled” views on family life and abortion, or, indeed, Jewish understandings of social justice and tikkun olam, no effort is made either to seek or to accommodate dissenting voices. On these matters, inclusiveness is a bridge too far.

No less selective and arbitrary is the exercise of free and open discussion. As suggested earlier, the most controversial issue agitating the organized American Jewish community today is how to deal with criticism of Israeli policy. Such criticism is portrayed by the new Judaism as healthy and even helpful because it reminds Israelis of the need to live up to the highest Jewish values. But rebuking one’s fellow Jews, a corrective commanded by the Bible, appears to be a one-way street. Twice over the past years, Israeli government agencies ran afoul of American Jewish organizations by sponsoring TV commercials suggesting that Jewish life in America can lead to assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity. Both sets of commercials, in keeping with the form, were terse and blunt. The message they delivered was also factually true. Moreover, the ads were in Hebrew, placed in Israeli media, and directed at an Israeli audience. Nevertheless, they elicited outrage on the part of leading American Jewish organizations offended by the message that all may not be rosy in American Jewish life. In quick order, the Israeli sponsors pulled the ads. The lesson? American Jews are free to criticize aspects of Israeli society that bother them but woe unto Israelis who dare speak openly about assimilation, the Achilles heel of American Jewish life.

By far the most problematic aspect of the new consensus is not its internal contradictions and hypocrisies but its substance—in particular, its acquiescence in an unbridled individualism and its evident indifference to collective Jewish needs. The emphasis of today’s ten commandments 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.

To be sure, some have wished to raise the bar of expectation. Last November, Elie Kaunfer, a serious and energetic younger rabbinic leader, courageously made the case for a more demanding Judaism at the annual assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. In his talk, titled “Our Birthright Is Torah,” Kaunfer urged his audience to “articulate why it matters for Judaism to survive,” answering his own question by invoking Torah as “our system, our language, our heritage.” But then, out of a reflexive deference to his audience and to the prevailing temper of the times, Kaunfer promptly went on to universalize the “our.” Torah “has something to say to everyone,” he asserted. “Not just kids. Not just day-school graduates. Not just synagogue-goers. Not just rabbis. Not just New Yorkers. Not even just Jews!”

Such is the current Jewish ethos. It demands a global consciousness and rejects tribal allegiances so that the Torah might evidently no longer be described, as the Pentateuch itself does, simply as morasha kehillat Yaakov, the inheritance of Jacob’s community, but as God’s gift to all humanity. Evidently, for something Jewish to be meaningful, everyone must find it meaningful; it must speak to the world. But as the scholar Michael Berger astutely observed in a riposte to Kaunfer: “If something is yours, you don’t feel the need to ask ‘why’—it’s just yours. The French don’t wake up every morning asking why should French culture exist—it just does, it’s theirs, and many of them are proud of it.” Not so, evidently, for the exponents of today’s Jewish consensus.

The betrayal of Jewish particularism is the most insidious consequence of that consensus. Jewish collective needs are minimized or kept at arm’s length even by those, including rabbis, who should be most concerned about the welfare of the Jewish people. So blatant is this tendency that Elliot J. Cosgrove, the editor of a recently published collection3 of theological reflections by non-Orthodox rabbis, can write of his fellow contributors:

With very few exceptions, the lack of mention of Israel, Jewish peoplehood, and other markers of Jewish particularism—theological, national, cultural, or otherwise—serve as notable data points shared among these thinkers. While Jewish, these theologians are not parochial, in that they insist on existing side by side with other faith traditions and with our common humanity, and addressing the shared concerns of the universal condition.

A generous reading of Cosgrove’s assertion might determine he is noting that the pendulum of Jewish life, which in the second half of the 20th century was firmly fixed on Jewish particularism, has swung in our time to the opposite pole of “global citizenship.” A less generous reading would begin by asking what manner of shortsightedness accounts for this refusal to see, first, Jews as a people with its own interests and, second, the reestablishment of a Jewish state as a singular theological event of our times. As our religious thinkers shift their gaze to “the universal condition,” who will tend to the condition of the Jewish people? Who, if not rabbis, will develop a Jewish, rather than a universal, theology for an American Jewish population that lacks religious mooring? And as American Jews comfort themselves in the knowledge that anti-Semitism is alien to American society, who will teach them that the rules of Jewish history probably have not been suspended despite the relatively benign spirit of our time? The experience of Jews in such thriving democracies as France and England suggests a more vigilant approach is necessary.

The point is not to cower in fear but to think beyond the moment, to identify specifically Jewish interests, and to formulate strategies in furtherance of those interests—precisely the agenda eschewed by the new American Jewish consensus and its cosmopolitan mission. 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.” If rabbis indulge in such solipsistic legerdemain, is it any wonder that those who know no better conceive of Jewish identity as entirely subjective, devoid of collective obligation, and subject to no authority but the passing dictates of one’s conscience?

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. That Decalogue, after all, has had a long shelf life, and is likely to outlast the self-defeating ten commandments of today’s American Jews.


Footnotes

1 To see how widely the new consensus is held, readers may consult the opinion pages of the English-language Forward, a national Jewish newspaper; Sh’ma and Zeek, journals of progressive Jewish thought; the official organs of the non-Orthodox religious movements; and recently published books such as Jewish Theology in Our Time, edited by Elliot J. Cosgrove (more on this later) as well as my own edited volume, The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape. Dissenters from the consensus include many but not all Orthodox Jews, recent immigrants and their children, and political conservatives—minority populations, all.

2 This summary of Liebman is by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen.

3 Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations and Future of Jewish Belief (Jewish Lights, 2010).

About the Author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Among his contributions to COMMENTARY are “Judaism Without Limits” (July 1997), “The Orthodox Moment” (February 1999), and “The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism” (September 2007).




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