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.