Culture, Identity, Politics, Religion

Whose Ten Commandments?

In this month’s Commentary magazine, Jack Wertheimer once again takes on all the terrors of (assume a creaky old gramps voice here) those young people today. Except that it isn’t actually those young people today who are best characterized by his complaints.
Here are his complaints in order (This is just the outline, for the full effect, you’ll need to go see the actual essay):
I. I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt to ‘repair the world.’
II. You shall not be judgmental.
III. You shall be pluralistic.
IV. You shall personalize your Judaism.
V. Meaning, meaning shall you pursue.
VI. You shall create caring communities.
VII. You shall encourage the airing of all views.
VIII. You shall not be tribal.
IX. You shall celebrate your Jewishness.
X. You shall hold the Jewish conversation in public.
Just to get them out of the way, I’m just going to skim over my major wuts in is piece:
I’m kind of mystified by number 5. Is he saying that Jewish survival, should it have, for example, no Torah at the center, and no community, is worthwhile for its own sake? Why? Number ten, OTOH is classic Wertheimerian krechtzing. He just doesn’t actually get that there is no non-public square anymore. I know the guy is basically a grump (and sexist, though that doesn’t come out so much here) who spends his editorial time complaining about “the kids these days,” but does he really want to advertise the fact that he has no idea what year it is and is unaware of the use of new technologies and how people – not just Jews- actually live?
Still, even a stopped analog clock is right twice a day: He’s right that the term “tikkun olam” which doesn’t really mean what people think it means, has even in the more general way it is used currently, come to be essentially meaningless (Rabbi Jill Jacobs takes this on concisely in the introduction to her first book).
I also agree that being judgmental is now considered to be the greatest insult (not just in Jewish circles, either) but I think that the world wants not less judgmentalism, but more. Judgment is the great human gift – not everything is acceptable, and indeed, there are things which are not Jewish, no matter how says they are. Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky takes this on over at jCast in his review of David Teutsch’s A Guide to Jewish Practice: Volume 1 – Everyday Living in which he points out,

This work – and I suppose by extension Reconstructionist Judaism in general and maybe all non-Halakhic Judaism – seems unable to say that anything is assur, just plain forbidden. Its alternative ethos is that if good values can be attained through a given practice, if individuals or communities can make something work, then classical Jewish norms have no business stopping them. But for me, this is no prescription for Jewish integrity or keeping faith with the Torah and Sages, and risks a kind of self-indulgent narcissism…
Tattoos come in for positive evaluation in the Reconstructionist Guide, with no discussion at all of the biblical prohibition, because they can “evoke spiritual meaning or use Hebrew words that connect to the act of prayer as a form of walking meditation” [pp. 87-88]…
And very dismayingly, this work of Jewish practice cannot even bring itself to affirm monogamy and sexual fidelity within marriage, gay or straight, as absolute Jewish norms. While Jews have generally favored monogamy, Teutsch writes, “it is not obvious that monogamy is automatically a morally higher form of relationship than polygamy.” If “polyamory” – multiple romantic and sex partners – were practiced with honesty, flexibility, egalitarian rules for men and women, with trust and without jealousy, it could help couples “avoid some possible forms of exploitation” and avoids “the violation of vows and the need for secrecy” as found in most affairs. “Perhaps some people can manage it successfully and live enriched lives as a result” [pp. 217-227].
Wait … what?! What did I just read?

Uh, yeah, no kidding. What, indeed?
Wertheimer goes on to object to young Jews rejecting to the notion of a tribe (what he means is that he objects to the idea that many Jews – and this isn’t even vaguely a phenomenon of this generation – actually it’s perhaps even more of that of his own- are cosmopolitan, and view solving problems for the world, or other peoples, as worth investing our time and money in). Oddly, many of those Jews invest that time and money as Jews (back to his complaints about Tikkun Olam). Actually, there is a thread of legitimacy to this one. I think, if one were to state this more reasonably, one could refer to the notion of circles of tzedakah – Jewish tradition actually rejects the idea of giving everything away and not caring for one’s own first.
Even when I was very young, I thought those historic individuals who decided to give everything to the poor and live on offerings were actually rather selfish – what were their families eating? I wondered. Jewish tradition advocates, rather, taking care of oneself first, then one’s immediate family, then one’s community, and only then the wider world. The question today comes in because we don’t live in communities of only Jews. Today, community is a rather nebulous concept, and it becomes much more difficult to decide how to allocate resources. This is actually a very difficult – perhaps one could even say, a talmudically difficult- question, and Wertheimer dismisses it far too easily.
He also objects to “caring communities.” Again, he is rather imprecise. Does he really object to people being pleasant to one another? I doubt even he really goes that far. Rather, what he seems to be unhappy about is an uneven model: synagogues have become, in many congregant’s eyes, fee-for-service institutions. They pay what they want, and expect to get certain services. But then, they also want to feel warm and good, and have that institution take care of them, without realizing – there is no “institution.” The institution is us. If we want community, we have to provide it. If we want to be in a place where we care about each other,and provide safety nets for one another, we have to contribute to it. It’s the difference between a friend and a therapist. With the therapist, if you don’t pay your bill, you don’t get help. With a friend, there’s no fee, but to have a friend you have to be a friend. Same for Judaism, and community.
The rest of Wertheimer’s complaints merge into a kind of grayish, undifferentiated mass. He complains about celebrating Judaism (what he means is that he objects to young Jews insisting that the evidence is that we have no good reason, at least in the USA, to live in fear of our neighbors), about pluralism (really, is it that important that we all fit into very narrow categories? I wonder where I would go, since I’m a halachicly pretty traditional (except on specific things where I consider myself more stringent, such as who counts in a minyan: I believe everyone has chiyuv), textually obsessed, geeky, politically (very) liberal Jew. I like the Conservative movement’s big tent, but if the orthodox started counting women as equals, I could see myself there, too). This flows into his complaints about being open to airing all views and personalizing our Judaism.
Wertheimer seems to be worried that this generation (never mind that it’s just as true, if not more so of the previous generation) isn’t parochial enough. He notes,

Michael Berger astutely observed in a riposte to Kaunfer: “If something is yours, you don’t feel the need to ask ‘why’—it’s just yours. The French don’t wake up every morning asking why should French culture exist—it just does, it’s theirs, and many of them are proud of it.”

Really, he can’t aspire to Judaism being more important than French culture? In fact, this little aside elucidates an attitude that is more problematic than ones he is complaining about. I actually agree with several of his points (and believe me, that doesn’t happen often), but this little aside stopped me dead, because the reveal here is that he apparently doesn’t actually believe that Judaism has anything to say.
To say that “we should be proud of it just because it’s ours” implies that there is no greater meaning to it. This is actually far more radical and sad than any of the attitudes he critiques. At least the people who want Judaism to have a big tent think that there’s a holy mission there, an important one; at least the people who want to personalize Judaism feel that some piece of it will speak just to them, and have meaning; at least the people who think that anything goes feel that somehow there is something holy about Jewishness that can connect them to the divine. But saying that we should be Jewish without any further examination, that we should be Jews just because – well, that implies a deep lack of faith. It means there is nothing deeper to him, and Jack Wertheimer: on behalf of the cheerful greeters, the open-minded, the cosmopolitans looking to save the world through their Judaism, on behalf of all these people, I reject that. I proclaim with perfect faith, that there is more to Judaism than “I love it because it’s mine.” I disagree with all kinds of Jews about all kinds of things. But I love Judaism, because it is holy, because it speaks with meaning, and because it connects us to the divine through torah. And so do all those people you dismiss out of hand.
Perhaps God loves Israel just because we are God’s, but as a human being graced with the blessing of judgment, I require more out my path, my halacha. I live a Torah life because God commanded it, but if God were evil, I would be right to reject him. Even Abraham asked if the Judge of the world should not do justly. or as my mother used to say to me, when I was a child, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?”
As it happens, I do love it, and it is mine. But if other people love it, that makes it no less mine, even if I think they’re wrong about what it means, or how to do it. It’s curious that nowhere in the diatribe is there a word about the God, or prayer, or for that matter, even about study, let alone about halacha. Curious.

13 thoughts on “Whose Ten Commandments?

  1. It’s astounding that Wertheimer approvingly quotes that line about French culture, given his policy positions on Judaism. Sure, the French don’t wake up every morning asking why French culture should exist. But does anyone suggest that people of French descent living around the world should attend expensive private schools in order to improve their chances of marrying other people of French descent, and that the bulk of their charitable donations should go towards supporting those schools?

  2. It is not necessary to call somebody a grumpy, old reactionary crank while disagreeing with their ideas. In fact, it can detract from the argument by making the author seem unserious. Besides, none of these are necessarily disqualifying traits for Jewschool (well, maybe reactionary).

  3. It’s not necessary, but it’s apparently true. Although I would never reject the term “unserious.”

  4. The French are having an identity crisis. It’s ironic that he uses France as an example when THE central issue in France right now is whether or not the French are losing their French-ness.

  5. Is it really not necessary to state someone is a grumpy, reactionary crank WHEN TIME AFTER TIME THEIR PROSE INDICATES THAT THEY ARE? OK. for the sake of HaRav Soloveitchik, perhaps a rephrase: These ideas reflect a grumpy, reactionary crankiness. Better?

  6. I thought the point Wertheimer made about the American uproar against the aliyah ads was fascinating. “American Jews are free to criticize aspects of Israeli society that bother them but woe unto Israelis who dare speak openly about assimilation, the Achilles heel of American Jewish life.”
    As someone believes that as key stakeholders in the Zionist dream, diaspora Jews have a full right to express their views on Israel, I also think that as part of the Jewish people, Israelis have a full right to express their views on diaspora Jewry.
    That said, despite all his criticism of American Judaism, I still believe that it is far more pluralistic than Israeli Judaism. And so what if American Judaism has list its “tribal nature.” If people want to use religion to promote social action and caring for refugees, that’s fine with me. Far better than using religion to exclude and harass people.

  7. Actually, the French government provides a network of French lycees all around the world. I agree, though, that the quote doesn’t make Wertheimer sound very knowledgeable about the French and their angst.

  8. I read the article, and I dont think this piece is fair. some of what he said were simple sociological observations, not judgements either way. And where he was judgemental, it was of the extremes – he is not suggesting there is something wrong in wanting meaning ALONG with “tribalism” but in an anti-tribalism that finds ANY loyalty to Am Israel and to Medinat Israel to be profoundly uncomfortable.
    And yes, children, not all discussion is equally public. It is still possible to talk off line. And some forums are more or less widely read than others. And yes, there ARE antisemites (though that doesn’t mean you need to stock up on ammo)and they ARE listening.
    And yes, a sense of givenness about Jewish identiy can serve as a base for debate, questioning, and search – people whose Yiddish language and parochial backgrounds made their Jewish identies unavoidable invented many of the most radical ideologies in Judaism – however its sociologically difficult to get back to that given the paucity in the diaspora of Jewish neighborhoods, use of Jewish languages, etc. The off the derech orthodox are interesting for still having some of that though.

  9. Considering he is a scholar with a relatively wide knowledge of both Jewish history and contemporary American Judaism, Wetheimer seems strangely blind to the major conclusions of much of contemporary Jewish studies scholarship. He ominously warns that cosseted American Jews need to be warned of the “rules of Jewish history,” by which he presumably means “if you think things are ok now, just wait, the anti-Semites will be ascendent soon.” Much of contemporary Jewish studies (from Salo Baron until today), has worked to provide a much more nuanced account of the place of Jews in a variety of societies, and the way that Jewish and gentile cultures are always co-constituted. For Werheimer to invoke a set of historically transcendent “rules of Jewish history” is simply ignorant.

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