Think Again: American Jewry's Cassandra

Give Jack Wertheimer credit for telling it like it is

jonathanrosenblum88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Despite his position within the American Jewish establishment, Jack Wertheimer, Provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has emerged, in a series of articles in Commentary, as the Cassandra of American Jewry. "Who is Afraid of Jewish Day Schools," (December 1999) took mainstream Jewish organizations to task for their failure to adequately support Jewish day schools; "Surrendering to Intermarriage" (March 2001) berated the national Jewish leadership for throwing in the towel on intermarriage; "The Rabbi Crisis" (May 2003) described the transformation of Rabbi Cohen into Rabbi Bob, a figure no longer judged by his knowledge of Torah but by his skills as a hand-holder, and the resultant lack of job satisfaction among the heterodox clergy and their dwindling numbers; "Jews and the Jewish Birthrate" (October 2005) catalogued the disappearance of American Jewry due to intermarriage, delayed marriage and small families, and urged American Jews to adopt the pro-marriage and pro-natal attitudes of the Orthodox. Two themes run throughout Wertheimer's writing. First, without taking Judaism seriously, there is no hope of reversing American Jewry's decline toward extinction. Second, Jews must learn once again to think in terms of communal interests. The latter requires abandoning the easy assumption of the identity between Jewish and American values. It also requires conceiving of the community as something more than a conglomerate of individual consumers. IN THE June Commentary, Wertheimer, together with sociologist Steven Cohen, issues another one of his periodic jeremiads, this one entitled "Whatever happened to the Jewish people?" Wertheimer and Cohen detail the plummeting ethnic identity of American Jews - a subject with important implications for Israel-Diaspora relations as well as the future of non-Orthodox Jewry worldwide. The statistics they cite are both clear and chilling. Only 47% of Jewish adults under 35 respond affirmatively to questions asking whether Jews worldwide have some special responsibility for one another. The comparable figure for Jews over 65 is 75%. Jewish organizations experienced a 20% drop in membership in the '90s alone. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of households contributing to Jewish federations dropped by one-third. The reasons for this precipitous decline in ethnic identity are not hard to discern. For one thing, Jews no longer live in tight ethnic enclaves. While two-thirds of Jewish post-World War II baby boomers have mostly Jewish friends, that is true of only one-third of their children. Most Jews today marry non-Jews. Even in the best-case scenario, the non-Jewish spouse's identification with Judaism is likely to center on particular religious practices, not an emphasis on Jewish peoplehood and history. The modern globalist perspective downplays boundaries between people. Both younger and older Jews are sensitive to the charge that giving to specifically Jewish causes, or other communal involvement, reflects a "narrow tribalism." Far more Jewish charitable giving goes to cultural or non-Jewish causes than to Jewish ones, and that percentage is ever growing. A 2003 study of $5.3 billion dollars of gifts by Jewish mega-philanthropists revealed that only 6% went to Jewish causes. Even the Jewish Federations have dropped the "One People" rhetoric, based on the mutual responsibility of Jews for one another, in favor of appeals to generosity on behalf of individuals in need. That a large portion of Federation spending goes to hospitals with few Jewish patients, even as Jewish day schools - the only proven bulwark against assimilation and intermarriage - go begging no longer occasions surprise or requires justification. Not surprisingly, identification of American Jews with Israel and giving to Israel (among the non-Orthodox) has declined rapidly. Adjusting for inflation, Federation allocations to Israel dropped 2/3 from 1985-2005. Since 1989, the number of Jews who say that support for Israel is an important aspect of being a Jew has dropped from 73% to 57%. Young Jews in Israel and America mirror one another in the minor role they give to their Jewishness, among multiple sources of identity. But the result is that they will have ever less to do with one another. ON A more hopeful note, Cohen and Wertheimer state that ritual observance has not shown a parallel decline. That finding, however, ignores how low that level of ritual observance was to start. More important, it ignores how little the religion of American Jews has to do with traditional Judaism. The religion practiced by those American Jews who still name Judaism as their religion conceives religion primarily in terms of its emotional impact on the individual - i.e., as a matter of personal spiritual elevation. By contrast, Torah Judaism, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noted, is not so much a religion at all, but a legal code for a nation. Many of the commandments can only be performed in a communal context or when the Jewish people dwell together in their homeland. Others, such as the prohibition against taking interest from a fellow Jew, are designed to reinforce feelings of solidarity between Jews. Indeed, the lack of communal feeling described by Cohen and Wertheimer is antithetical to Torah Judaism. In his Laws of Repentance (3:11), Maimonides includes in the list of those who have no portion of the World to Come one who separates himself from the community. Even though he commits no sins, if he does not perform mitzvot together with the community, does not share in their suffering, does not join in their fasts, he is not considered one of them and has no portion in the World to Come. The Jewish people were chosen by God and entrusted as a nation with a universal mission - nothing less than bringing all mankind to a recognition of God. Yet the very concept of chosenness, and thus Jewish nationhood, is anathema to most American Jews, despite its constant reiteration by the Torah. Any talk of boundaries between them and non-Jews causes panic attacks. In a Commentary symposium on the state of American Jewish belief nearly 10 years ago, the overwhelming majority of heterodox theologians could not bring themselves to affirm the Torah's description of the Jews as the chosen people. Cohen and Wertheimer lament that a people that has lost pride in itself will no longer be able to move the world with its message. The real tragedy is that most Jews do not even know that Judaism has a message, or that they are its bearers.