The state of Judaism

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

A JEWISH FAMILY walks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Yom Kippur. (photo credit: SHANNON STAPLETON / REUTERS)
A JEWISH FAMILY walks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Yom Kippur.
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.