The state of Ju­daism

Jack Wertheimer takes a close look at the prac­tice and sta­tus of the Jewish re­li­gion in Amer­ica to­day

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • ALAN ROSENBAUM

Dr. Jack Wertheimer, a pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Jewish his­tory at the Jewish Theologica­l Sem­i­nary, cap­tures the essence of Jewish ob­ser­vance in 21st-cen­tury Amer­ica, in this fas­ci­nat­ing, thor­ough, and ex­ceed­ingly well-writ­ten vol­ume. Wertheimer, who has au­thored and edited more than a dozen vol­umes of Jewish his­tory, uti­lized ex­ten­sive sur­vey data, in­ter­views with 160 rab­bis of ev­ery stripe, and vis­its to count­less syn­a­gogues to paint an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of how Ju­daism is prac­ticed in the United States.

The re­sults, dis­tilled into 270 pages of The New Amer­i­can Ju­daism: How Jews Prac­tice Their Re­li­gion To­day, will al­ter­nately ap­pall and in­spire read­ers, as it presents a pic­ture of an Amer­i­can Ju­daism filled with jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tions and con­tra­dic­tions.

To­day, writes Wertheimer, more than two mil­lion in­di­vid­u­als of Jewish parent­age no longer iden­tify as Jews, the in­ter­mar­riage rate is spi­ral­ing rapidly up­wards, and Jews ex­hibit lower lev­els of reli­gious com­mit­ment than other groups in the US. Even among those who prac­tice their faith, he says, Ju­daism has largely be­come a type of “cafe­te­ria re­li­gion,” in which its prac­ti­tion­ers choose only those as­pects of the re­li­gion that ap­peal to them.

Yet, there are pock­ets of strength among the ru­ins. There is an in­creased spirit of reli­gious ex­per­i­men­ta­tion among all branches of Amer­i­can Ju­daism. Is the cup half-empty, or half-full?

Wertheimer pro­ceeds sys­tem­at­i­cally, an­a­lyz­ing Jewish life in Amer­ica through three dif­fer­ent lenses, from the daily prac­tice of Ju­daism by or­di­nary Amer­i­can Jews, to an ap­praisal of the state of the Re­form, Con­ser­va­tive and Ortho­dox move­ments, and fi­nally, by scru­ti­niz­ing a num­ber of out-of-the-box re­newal move­ments in Amer­i­can Jewish life, in­clud­ing Ortho­dox out­reach move­ments, niche groups such as Re­con­struc­tion­ism and the Havu­rah move­ment, “pop-up” and “indie” syn­a­gogues, and gay and les­bian con­gre­ga­tions.

The au­thor sur­veys Re­form, Con­ser­va­tive and Ortho­dox Jewish prac­tice in Amer­ica, and pro­vides an hon­est ap­praisal of the strengths, weak­nesses, suc­cesses and fail­ures of each group, by the stan­dards of each move­ment. Wertheimer’s re­ports of his dis­cus­sions with rab­bis are fas­ci­nat­ing. One Re­form rabbi, he re­ports, said that “God is very dis­tract­ing to most Re­form Jews... Most peo­ple are not cer­tain about their re­la­tion­ship to God or Ju­daism.” An­other rabbi, lament­ing the val­ues of some of his con­gre­gants who value their chil­dren’s ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties over their Jewish stud­ies, says, “The God of soc­cer is a jeal­ous God.”

Wertheimer notes how for much of the Amer­i­can Jewish world, the un­der­stand­ing of Ju­daism as a nor­ma­tive sys­tem with clear dos and don’ts has largely been aban­doned. In­stead, he writes, it has been re­placed by a type of “Golden Rule” Ju­daism, in which what he calls the “new com­mand­ment” of tikkun olam, re­pair­ing the world, has taken on pri­mary value. He has­tens to note that while there is value and mean­ing to this con­cept in Jewish tra­di­tion, for Jews with lit­tle con­nec­tion to their faith, so­cial jus­tice serves as a sur­ro­gate re­li­gion for a wide range of causes, of­ten with lit­tle or no re­la­tion­ship to Ju­daism.

While Ortho­dox Ju­daism is gain­ing strength in Amer­ica, he writes, the Modern Ortho­dox sec­tor con­sti­tutes just 3% of Amer­i­can Jewry over­all, and the haredi (ul­tra-Ortho­dox) sec­tor is mak­ing rapid gains, par­tic­u­larly among Jews ages 18 to 29. He dis­cusses the “cul­ture wars” that are cur­rently be­ing waged in the Modern Ortho­dox world, rang­ing from the sta­tus of women in the syn­a­gogue, to the treat­ment of ho­mo­sex­u­als in the Jewish com­mu­nity. He also notes the in­creased growth of the Sephardi com­mu­nity in Amer­ica, and their grow­ing im­por­tance in Amer­i­can Jewish life.

In the con­clud­ing sec­tion of the book, Wertheimer as­serts that Ju­daism in Amer­ica is un­der­go­ing a type of re­vi­sion, akin to a mu­si­cal remix, in which Jewish prac­tices are re­tooled, edited and ad­justed for the modern age. This type of remix is prac­ticed not only by less tra­di­tional move­ments, but, he says, by Ortho­dox groups as well which have adapted new In­ter­net tools and cre­ated web­sites.

Re­gard­less of how Ju­daism is adapted and changed, he sug­gests, the chances of its sur­vival will in­crease when par­tic­i­pa­tion in reli­gious life is fre­quent, when Ju­daism is ob­served in all set­tings – not just the syn­a­gogue – and when it is prac­ticed thought­fully, mind­fully and with de­lib­er­a­tion.

The New Amer­i­can Ju­daism is in­ci­sive, well-or­ga­nized and non-judg­men­tal. Wertheimer takes a sub­ject that in the hands of a lesser au­thor would have been turgid and dry, and turns the story of Amer­i­can Ju­daism into an ab­sorb­ing nar­ra­tive.

At the out­set, the au­thor states that his pri­mary goal was to ex­am­ine the reli­gious ac­tiv­i­ties of or­di­nary Jews, and iden­tify what is be­ing made avail­able to those who seek reli­gious in­volve­ment. He has cer­tainly suc­ceeded. Any­one who wants to un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and their re­li­gion would be well served by read­ing this book.

(Shan­non Sta­ple­ton/Reuters)

A JEWISH fam­ily walks in Wil­liams­burg, Brook­lyn, on Yom Kip­pur.

THE NEW AMER­I­CAN JU­DAISM By Jack Wertheimer Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press 400 pages; $29.95

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