U.S. Judaism Today, Striving To Stay Relevant
Rays of light

U.S. Judaism Today, Striving To Stay Relevant

Some ‘rays of light,’ but a leading Jewish historian warns of dangers of universalism.

A portion of the cover from Jack Wertheimer's new book, “The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today” (Princeton University Press). (Courtesy photo)
A portion of the cover from Jack Wertheimer's new book, “The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today” (Princeton University Press). (Courtesy photo)

With Yom Kippur now behind us, the results of the 2013 Pew survey indicate that 39 percent of the members of Conservative synagogues and 60 percent of Reform temple members will next show up at services on Sept. 29, 2019, the first day of Rosh HaShanah 5780.

That’s sobering and discouraging news, especially for rabbis around the country — and doesn’t even deal with the growing number of young Jews with no affiliation at all.

It’s no secret that rabbis have been blamed in large measure for the low synagogue attendance on Shabbat at non-Orthodox congregations throughout the year and for High Holy Day services often criticized as too long, boring and of little meaning to most attendees. But is that really fair?

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been a sharp critic at times of American Jewish religious practices, or lack thereof, over the years. But his thoughtful and enlightening new book, “The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today” (Princeton University Press), offers up a fuller portrait of what’s really going on in synagogues and religious life on the ground. It deals with the major, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles to traditional observance and practice, with Jews less likely than other religious groups in America to believe in God, attend services regularly and observe rituals. Most Jews have little Jewish education and can read little or no Hebrew. On a deeper level, in an age of self-help and self-actualization, most Jews don’t believe in mitzvot as obligations or a God of “Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots.”

(Orthodox Jews are the exception and are dealt with separately in Wertheimer’s book, which discusses the challenges and strong points of each of the major denominations.)

Despite these serious barriers to religious engagement, the book also deals with what Wertheimer calls “the rays of light” — the innovations and experiments in synagogues that give a measure of hope for the future.

While noting that “quite a few congregations fail to inspire,” Wertheimer writes of how impressed he was, in talking to many rabbis and volunteer leaders, with “just how much energy and idealism they invest in the task of building religious connections,” trying to meet the needs and desires of their members.

‘A Need To Rebalance’

In an interview this week, Wertheimer told me that he undertook this daunting assignment several years ago to follow up on a book he wrote 25 years ago titled “A People Divided: Judaism In Contemporary America.” That book, he said, focused on “public clashes” among the denominations “over Who Is A Jew in Israel” and other points of contention leading to sharper differences among and within the religious streams.

Much has changed since then, including the fact that increasing numbers of American Jews eschew denominational definitions altogether. But that doesn’t mean the practices among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal Jews are more in sync. Rather, they are more complex and varied, with some signs of overlap as well as widening gaps.

Wertheimer says that in his earlier book and in other writings, often in Commentary, he “tried to sound the alarm” about serious problems within American Jewish life as religious engagement declined and assimilation grew outside the Orthodox community. But by now, he observes, “the alarm bells have gone off, in part as a result of the [2013] Pew study, and there is less denial today. I felt a need to rebalance” the perspective.

In exploring what Judaism means to ordinary American Jews (and focusing primarily on the non-Orthodox, who make up the great majority of American Jews), Wertheimer over the last four years visited many synagogues and interviewed 160 rabbis (of all stripes) and dozens of other informed observers for his book. It is both academic (with 100 pages of chapter notes in the back) and eminently readable. Wertheimer is at times the neutral observer, offering plenty of data and vignettes; and at times empathetic, as he is in his praise for rabbis who “speak with realism about the powerful forces they are up against — and yet nonetheless, they persevere.” He can also be a caustic critic, as he is in observations that by confining Jewish rituals to the synagogue rather than home results (for the non-Orthodox) in “a minimalistic and enervated Judaism,” one that is “not only unfaithful to the teachings of Judaism but deeply destructive.”

Challenges And Successes

Wertheimer divides his book into three parts, starting with the religious lives of ordinary Jews and exploring why several million of them still choose to attend synagogue. Key factors are a sense of tradition, seeking community and social connections and/or life-cycle events.

Part two offers an assessment of the major denominations.

Reform Judaism, Wertheimer shows, is now the largest of the streams, having taken advantage of its being unbound by Jewish law. It has embraced popular liberal trends like social action, care for the environment and the welcoming of members of LGBT and interfaith families. But the author wonders how long the movement can sustain itself by championing autonomy without requiring any imperatives.

Conservative Judaism in the last two decades has seen a precipitous decline in its membership, number of congregations and Solomon Schechter day schools. Seeking to balance modernity and tradition, the movement has lost some members to Orthodoxy and more to Reform, and its organizational structure has had financial woes. On the positive side, though, Wertheimer notes that the remaining synagogue members are becoming more active and that there is more creativity in services, with more joyful music and congregational participation.

In tackling Orthodoxy, Wertheimer concentrates on “the battle for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy,” with the charedi (or ultra-Orthodox) element on the right growing dramatically in size and clout, and the more liberal segment of the movement pushing for increased inclusivity, including clerical roles for women and acceptance of gays and lesbians. Overall, American Orthodoxy has grown and moved rightward in recent decades and the tensions between and among the strands have grown deeper.

The third section of the book describes positive developments like the vitality within synagogues that are drawing people in by offering more personalized attention, shorter services, musical creativity and planful innovation. Wertheimer describes the tremendous growth of Orthodox outreach in the last two decades through Chabad, Aish Hatorah, kollel rabbis and others, noting that more non-Orthodox Jews are prepared to interact, study and pray with Jews who don’t look or dress like them — a contrast to the “reflexive hostility toward the Orthodox” seen post-World War II.

Another new phenomenon in the era of start-ups and “disruptive innovation” is the gathering of Jews for prayer in unconventional settings, from the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert to areas near the running of the New York Marathon each year. Services for millennials in bars, bookstores, lofts and nightclubs signify not only unusual locales — anyplace but the synagogue — but a rejection of conventional forms of prayer. Wertheimer is appreciative of the attempts to draw young people in, but he is wary of whether the episodic, pick-and-choose approach can be sustainable. About one prominent effort aimed at young Jews who are encouraged to “explore the multiple layers of their identities on their own terms and create Jewish communities that jibe with their other deeply held values,” Wertheimer notes “the apparent irrelevance of specifically parochial Jewish activities, let alone belief, religious practice or Jewish learning.”

Over-Emphasis On Universal

In the end, Wertheimer’s book offers a sober assessment of where things are today, recognizing that American Jews are not living in a vacuum and are affected deeply by the wider culture. “In practice,” he concludes, “utilitarian, therapeutic and secular liberal assumptions guide the behavior of contemporary American Jews, far more than do Jewish teachings.”

But in our interview, he emphasized that “this book is not designed as thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but as an attempt to capture the reality of today,” where the elite meet amcha (average folk). “I offer a number of judgments but I’m not prophesizing on where this will lead.”

While praising those rabbis and others who strive to help people see how Judaism can enrich their lives, he is critical of efforts to “try to turn synagogues into businesses and Judaism into a commodity.” He worries about the dramatic decline in the sense of Clal Yisrael, or Jewish peoplehood, among younger people and “the indifference to Jews who live in other places or live different kinds of lives.”

Wertheimer is pained by the over-emphasis on universalism, transforming our holidays so that “Purim is now about discrimination, Passover is about liberation and the particularistic Jewish element is played down or completely ignored. It’s part of a larger quest to avoid the particular elements of Jewish life.”

Wertheimer believes “the problem is when assumptions are made that Judaism and the wider American culture are part of one seamless fabric and that there are no tensions between the two.” He sees Judaism as “countercultural in some ways,” and that if we don’t emphasize the differences, “the essence of Jewish life will be distorted or lost.” PJC

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