Culture, Identity, Justice, Politics

Does Jack know Jack?

In a rather redundant article in Commentary, Jack Wertheimer makes another set of his sweeping – and entirely annoying – statements about how the young folks, they’re just so dumb.
He starts out with a perfectly fine, if not particularly new or startling, laying out of the observation about how expensive it is to live a Jewish life. He then veers off into a bizarre, and only tangentially related, screed about how it’s organizations that encourage young Jews to do “Tikkun Olam” who are to blame for the state of affairs in which young Jews don’t contribute to the Jewish people, and somehow links that to why no one can afford to educate Jewish children adequately.
Now normally I’d just be happy to agree with another Jewschooler who commented offblog that, “Really, the only thing more consistently wrong in American Jewish life than Commentary Magazine is Jack Wertheimer.” In fact, I find his sweeping statements about how women are to blame, young people are to blame, anyone is to blame except people like him doing what he thinks they ought to do at all times so wrong that really I just ignore anything that comes from him nowadays. Normally, I think that he’s just irrelevant. Or perhaps just apoplectic to the point of being unable to do anything but bluster.

And in fact, the organization and one of the people whom he takes direct and inexplicable aim have already articulately responded.
So why am I bothering to comment at all, you ask? Because, while he’s completely inarticulate at saying so, there actually are a few legitimate points to be found in the ranting.
To be fair (and let me hasten to add, every time Wertheimer opens his mouth he says something I find offensive) he doesn’t actually say – as he has been accused – of saying that Jews, young or otherwise, shouldn’t engage in Tikkun Olam. In fact, he begins his – I hesitate to call it essay – commentary by noting,

Well before the recession, the national Jewish population study of 2000-01 claimed that “seven percent of American Jewish households have incomes . . . below the federal government’s official poverty line, and double that proportion, fourteen percent, have incomes that . . . can be considered ‘low income.’” That is below the national average, but the needs of these people are real and should be a primary concern of the organized Jewish community.

In other words, he is saying that Jews should be committed to taking care of their own in need, and that part of our education should be letting young Jews know that there are such people.
He’s certainly correct that by and large, the Jewish community goes out of its way to try not to face the number of Jews who are poor, or just barely struggling along. Except for those few organizations that target the photogenically pathetic elderly, most Jewish organizations are firmly opposed to the idea that there are poor Jews. Or even working class Jews.
It’s all over the place – think about your average program for young adults – they’re often called “Young Professionals” programs. I will never forget hearing from a 20something, “well, I’m not a professional, so I guess I’m not wanted.” And that’s just the beginning – how about the disgusting underpaying of people who work in Jewish organizations – many of whom are Jewish – who are just squeaking by? And then of course there are those who are just regular old poor – working three jobs to make ends meet or not able to work at all.
However, why Wertheimer singles out young Jews, David Rosenn, Ruth Messinger, and organizations like Repair the World for his criticism I’m not sure… After all, it’s the elephants that have set up this particular trend, so why are they now surprised to see it?
Wertheimer is right that “Tikkun Olam” is not a commandment and is in fact a quite modern idea. It’s a kabbalistic – and thus more or less woo-woo idea about how to repair God through ritual acts. It’s not about doing good for others (we do have that, it’s just not called “Tikkun Olam”). It’s also become a largely meaningless idea even if one buys it as a genuine ethical imperative as part of our tradition (what’s in a name? any other rose…) because it’s turned into the kittens and puppies show.
What Judaism has always required is g’milut chasadim and Tzedakah, which makes demands of us and our time and money – and in fact, requires of us to give first to our families, then to our Jewish brethren in need, and then to our wider community. It isn’t about feeling good, it’s not about how you feel at all, or what you want to do. It’s a completely un-American, counter-cultural idea of duty and obligation based on laws. The rabbis are clear about why this is so: If you do something because you feel good about it, then when you don’t feel good about it, you may not do so much. Instead, they set out laws that require every Jew to engage in a rational and reasonable amount of righteous behavior – all across the board, not just in terms of charitable giving – and in a way that won’t beggar your family.
It sounds ickily self-centered, but in truth, it isn’t; it’s a perfectly sensible way of ordering needs in the world. Certainly it’s away of sifting priorities so that we don’t get overwhelmed with the outsize task of fixing everything no matter how far or how near. It doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try to help those who aren’t Jews, just that one should make sure one’s family isn’t starving first, and in the Jewish community, that means understanding that other Jews are family first. Those who want to read this as racism or some other unpleasant “ism” are not being fair to the Jewish tradition of making rational judgment. It is exactly along the lines of the question of what one does when two people are walking through the desert and only have enough water for one. The rule is, the one who owns the water drinks it and lives. That way, at least one person does.
Luckily, we aren’t in the desert, and there’s plenty of (metaphorical) water. Water can be money, or time, or energy, and we have plenty of it. Mr. Wertheimer seems to be stuck on the idea like a little kid who thinks that Ima’s love is only enough for one, and if we have a sister come along, there won’t be enough. Okay, realistically, that does occasionally happen, but not here. Tzedakah, like love, like, in fact, g’milut chasadim – acts of loving-kindness – grows the more you do it. There is enough for all of us.
I don’t think I have the energy to complain about Mr. Wertheimer’s mis-quoting, or perhaps simple obtuseness, about David Rosenn’s and Ruth Messinger’s comments about not using others’ distress to build Jewish identity, except to say that Jewish tradition itself recognizes that service to others is on a higher level when not motivated by others’ recognition of their act (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, is the most famous, but by no means the only, statement of this).
I think that Wertheimer is (I can’t believe I’m saying this) right to worry about the fact that we’re not creating places where young Jews know anything deeply about Judaism. We are creating Jewish communities where charity burnout is going to come very quickly because we can’t sustain everyone everywhere all the time. And without a grounding in why we are obligated to help others, in a generation or so, we’ll just be a bunch of people with curly hair and big hips whose grandparents cared about making the world a fit place for God.
But blaming the organizations that are channeling genuine Jewish energy and desire to help into channels that actually succeed at helping others is just nuts. All of the people that Wertheimer castigates for being somehow against Jewish identity are indeed helping to build Jewish identity. Of course service to others isn’t all of Jewish identity, but if we can build bridges to people who might not otherwise have had any connection, maybe they’ll come around long enough to learn about the other, equally important parts. And Rabbi Rosenn and Ms. Messinger not only don’t have any problem with that, they’re happy with it; they just don’t think that identity should be the focus of their organization, rather that service, done well, for the sake of those who need it, should be the focus, and it should be done because we’re Jewish. The Jewish part is secondary, but that doesn’t make it either irrelevant or useless. But if it’s not for the sake of those who need the service, what have we become? Should we fail to attack underlying problems just so our identity building can continue? This is like the ridiculous blowing out of proportion that we hear all the time from organizations like AIPAC and AJC where inflating worries about Israel and anti-Semitism is designed to scare elderly Jews so that they’ll donate and the organization can continue to pay people’s salaries. Not that there’s anything wrong with finding work for people – after all the economy is bad, I don’t want anyone out of work, but can’t someone put these folks to work doing something useful?
I suspect that the point he really wants to make is that our priorities of turning outward have lead the American Jewish community to underfund education. He’s certainly right that we don’t spend enough money on education, and that in the very short run, it’s causing a lot of Jews to grow up with incredibly sketchy knowledge of Judaism, and even people who put some effort into it and may be leading community members, are likely not to know a lot. And that’s a shame, but it’s not a problem stemming from service organizations. In fact, as I’ve said before, if we pulled every cent we spend on holocaust museums, pro-Israel settler PR flacking, ridiculous ad campaigns that compare Israel to a small penis, organizations who exist just to exist and do so by scare tactics, well, hell we could probably send every Jew in America to day school. So, Mr. Wertheimer, could you please get cracking on shutting those down and sending the money to education?

5 thoughts on “Does Jack know Jack?

  1. well….important issues. i like doing tikkun olam and tzedakah a la danny siegel ( – and his follow-up tzedakah fund (
    i think there are lots of way to do it right (and many to do it wrong, too). choose wisely and let’s make the world a better place to be!
    and yes, i think jewish education is crucially important – doesn’t matter to me if it is an orthodox day school, conservative or reform, or a community day school, but jewish day school is the answer (with a good, healthy dose of tikkun olam, mitzvah heroes and tzedakah in the core curriculum!).
    arnie draiman

  2. “but jewish day school is the answer”
    *sigh*….. The greatest American hakhamim from the early 20th century didn’t even know what a day school was.

  3. Among the many frustrations I have with Jack Wetheimer’s article is that it recycles the out of context quote from the Forward’s well-meaning editorial on service. I most certainly did not say that “service can’t be about me’, since I deeply believe that who we are is strongly shaped by what we do, which is why I think Jews ought to live out their values of justice and compassion and not just talk about them.
    In any event, here’s a letter I wrote to the Forward in response to the editoral, and it applies to the Commentary piece as well:
    The Forward editorial “Not Only for Ourselves” raised important issues about the community’s increasing investment in Jewish frameworks for service. These endeavors can’t be viewed as just another effective vehicle for Jewish identity building. They must first and foremost be about the Jewish community making real contributions to repairing the world.
    Having said that, it’s simply wrong to think that people who engage in something as challenging and profound as authentic service will not come away shaped by their experience, and I regret that the editorial may have left some readers with the mistaken impression that I believe service shouldn’t be about shaping who we are as individuals and as a people. Quite the opposite.
    Jewish frameworks for service are important precisely because they reject the idea that service is exclusively to the benefit of any one group of people. A commitment to serve, especially on a communal level, ought to make a difference not only in the world, but also in the community that undertakes it. For how can we ever sustain the efforts required to achieve justice if we do not learn how to see seeking justice as a fundamental part of who we are?

  4. HI David!
    Yes, the odd thing is that it’s pretty clear that that’s your point even out of context, in my opinion. I don’t know what the bee in the bonnet is for Mr. Wertheimer exactly, but I suspect there’s a certain level of simple curmudgeonliness -and not in a good way. The problem seems to be not being able to see that the social changes he despises are 1. already set. There’s no going back, 2. Not necessarily bad, or at least not all bad. and 3. even if they were all bad, responding to them by saying: you. bad, Is not going to fix the problem.

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