The Author & the Expert

‘How Jews Practice Their Religion Today’
Kiruv (Ira Berger / Alamy Stock Photo)

There are two ways of feeling at home in practicing Judaism. One is to make the Judaism that one practices an expression of oneself. The other is to conform oneself to the practices of Judaism. The Jew who takes the first path adopts the posture of an author, while the Jew who takes the second aspires to the self-assurance of an expert. If the first expresses power (more precisely, self-empowerment), then the second accumulates knowledge and know-how. This binary is, of course, reductive. The Jewish author does not, and does not wish to, altogether reinvent Judaism, nor can the Jewish expert forgo invention. But these two poles nevertheless are indicative of a basic division in contemporary Jewish life, and indeed, in all contemporary communities that purport to interpret a tradition.

In his new book The New American Judaism, an inquiry into the state of Jewish religious life in America today, Jack Wertheimer finds, to his dissatisfaction, too much of the first pole and too little of the second. The basic frameworks of Wertheimer’s narrative are well known. Traditional Jewish religious life in America is waning, beset by an epistemology that is suspicious of truth claims, especially religious ones, and by a culture that, orbiting around the twin foci of the individual self and the universal other, looks with indifference or even hostility on Jewish peoplehood. A relatively small but growing camp of Orthodox Jews, modern and ultra, resists these developments and cultivates the Judaism of the expert. Among the far more numerous Jews outside the Orthodox camp, Jewish literacy is typically no more than elementary, exogamous marriage outpaces the endogamous variety, and Judaism serves mainly as a framework for addressing universal moral obligations and the individual’s spiritual and therapeutic needs.

But now more than in the past, notes Wertheimer, this latter camp welcomes rituals, not as religious obligations but as spiritual and therapeutic praxes, and this novel posture is perceptible in the synagogue. In preparation for writing the book, Wertheimer conducted interviews with more than one hundred and sixty rabbis, which (coupled with other evidence) establish, in his view, that the non-Orthodox synagogue is not a stagnant, dying institution but a vibrant and essential space that has done much to accommodate itself to a changing clientele. One cannot but marvel at the energy and creativity of the congregational rabbis described in the book. (Of course, the reader would welcome confirmation of Wertheimer’s portrait from surveys of synagogue-goers, or interviews with them, but there seems little reason to doubt it.) The synagogue’s shortcoming, for Wertheimer, lies precisely in thinking of the Jews that it serves as its clientele. Too often, it sells them the Judaism that they want to buy, rather than challenging them to take on a thicker, more literate Judaism, a more obligation-centered Judaism, a Judaism that embraces both poles of the traditional tension between identification with the Jewish people and identification with humankind.

What is wrong with thin, therapeutic, spiritual, personalist, universalist Judaism? Wertheimer is a historian, not a theologian, and so his chief objection comes from the data. Surveys indicate that “Jewish religious identification and participation correlate strongly with all other forms of Jewishness.” An American-Jewish community interested in the replication of Jewish identity into the future should, therefore, cultivate sustainable religious practices. And yet survey data also shows that the thin Judaism that prevails outside Orthodox circles often fails to transmit to children.

Judaism will retain its vitality among American Jews to the degree that Jews are expert enough in it to be oriented by it.

In the book’s subtext, and sometimes in the text, Wertheimer also voices a substantive objection to some of the dominant expressions of Judaism in America: they are inauthentic, having departed too far from the fundamental commitments of traditional Judaism. He is especially suspicious of the close correspondence between the religious positions that Reform Judaism espouses today and the political positions championed by the Democratic Party. With obvious disapproval, for example, he contends that Tu Bishvat, the traditional New Year for trees, “has been redefined, Tevi Troy has noted, as a time ‘to indoctrinate children in environmental activism while cementing the Jewish community’s ties to environmental causes.’”

Wertheimer is no doubt right that a perfect correlation of religious and political identity is prima facie evidence that the latter has colonized the former. Just as the Constitution, a set of commitments originating in the deep past and interpreted over centuries, serves to check the passionate impulses of the present citizenry, so religious tradition should challenge and nuance an adherent’s political instincts. At the same time, many values supported by the Democratic Party are indeed Jewish values, and a Judaism that cannot speak to the pressing issues of the day, including climate change, is not worthy of the name. A reader might sympathize, then, with Wertheimer’s frustration, while distancing herself from some of his more cantankerous expressions of the problem.

The book’s survey of the American-Jewish religious landscape is wide-ranging and deeply informed, moving easily between helpful generalization and telling anecdote. In lieu of a comprehensive summary, I will note one especially intriguing set of findings, and one important lacuna. Near the end of the book, Wertheimer describes the phenomenon of kiruv, Orthodox outreach to non-Orthodox Jews. Such outreach is chiefly the province of the ultra-Orthodox rather than the modern Orthodox: perhaps because there is a greater sense of mission among the ultra-Orthodox, perhaps because the ultra-Orthodox do not worry as much about defining themselves against non-Orthodox Jews, and perhaps, more mundanely, because outreach work does not pay well enough to support a modern Orthodox lifestyle. In any case, the spectacular expansion of Orthodox outreach means that two stakeholders now compete for the attention and allegiance of non-Orthodox American Jews: the non-Orthodox (chiefly Reform and Conservative) denominational leadership on the one hand, and ultra-Orthodox kiruv workers on the other. They proffer dramatically different visions of what it means to be Jewish, and different expectations of their audience. The fundamental questions of American-Jewish identity surface starkly in this large, contested arena.

The important lacuna in the book is Israel. Wertheimer is, of course, aware of Israel’s central importance for many American Jews, but contends that he can sideline it in a treatment devoted specifically to religion rather than to ethnicity or identity. But these categories are, I think, too tangled, in theory and in the daily life of American Jews, to justify the inattention to Israel, especially when, as noted above, American-Jewish religion is important (even most important) for Wertheimer insofar as it can support a sustainable Jewish identity.

Two recent developments that bring non-Orthodox American Jewry into closer contact with Israeli Jewry arguably merit special attention. First, there is now a sizable Israeli-Jewish diaspora in America. While this diaspora might have identified as secular in Israel, in America it often affiliates with religious but non-Orthodox Jewish communities, which can furnish some of the sense of Jewish identity that Jews in Israel can take as a given. Second, whereas in the past Israeli Jews (especially of Ashkenazi origin) largely divided between Orthodox (or “religious”) and secular, increasing numbers of Israeli Jews in Israel are identifying, at least dispositionally, with non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, which have institutional presences in both Israel and America. These two developments, presumably mutually reinforcing, may produce a new pathway through which Israel impacts the future of American-Jewish religion.

While there is a prescriptive strain in Wertheimer’s book, he wisely refrains from detailed recommendations. The main contours of American-Jewish religious life have been and will be shaped, in any case, more by large social forces and geopolitical trends than by the conscious decisions of religious elites. But we can venture with confidence that Judaism will retain its vitality among American Jews to the degree that Jews are expert enough in it to be oriented by it, and that it will remain important beyond American-Jewish circles to the degree that American Jews can also find in it the resources through which to author a worldview.

The New American Judaism
How Jews Practice Their Religion Today

Jack Wertheimer
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 400 pp.

Published in the October 2019 issue: 

Tzvi Novick is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he occupies the Abrams College Chair of Jewish Thought and Culture.

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