Monday, January 01, 2007

Is Liberal Judaism Too Liberal?

Jack Wertheimer, the Provost of JTS has been writing for the last twenty years on the theme of the sky is falling. In the June 2006 issue of Commentary, he slugs away once again at his favorite thesis, the oncoming demise of American Jewry. This time his variation is the lack of ethnic cohesiveness and feeling of Jewish peoplehood in the ranks of American Jews. In ritual fashion, he trots out the by now fairly well known statistics. In 1989, 73% of all Jews agreed that caring about Israel is really important. By 2005, we have fallen to 57%, with younger adults exhibiting even weaker attachments to Israel. Today, 75% of those 65 and over believe that Jews all around the world share a common destiny, whereas only 47% of adults under 35 agree.

There are more than enough culprits to account for these changes. Higher rates of intermarriage alone could account for most of it. When that fails, one can always look to such threats as the children of baby boomers, unlike their parents, having mostly non-Jewish friends. Social interactions of younger American Jews are far more likely today to be mainly with non-Jews. There is nothing in American society to promote ethnic separateness. Unlike other countries, ethnicity is a weak form of identification. All this used to be described positively as the melting pot of America bringing about acculturation and assimilation. Now, Wertheimer says it’s the effect of multiculturalism and the requirement to honor diversity, thus offering a political innuendo and a sociological narrative in less than a sentence. I can understand why Jews are against affirmative action since it works directly against our self interest. It’s a stretch to claim the desire for diversity is responsible for young Jews having non-Jewish friends.

I would agree with Wertheimer that liberal Judaism is too far to the left only in one respect. I agree that the Reform movement has had too great an identification with the left wing of the Democratic Party. No religious group should be totally committed to some secular political party no matter how congenial. The lesson I would draw is that each issue ought to be looked at separately and decided on its own merits. In some areas the Reform should end up on the radical anarchist and socialist left, on some they should be on the right. The Reform movement should stop asking "what would Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson have said?"

What I don’t like about Wertheimer’s views is that he takes the sad facts of assimilation and gives it a right-wing political twist. He concludes American Judaism is too spiritual and private, much too therapeutic and quest-oriented. Rabbis don’t speak enough of the everlasting covenant between God and the Jewish people, and talk much too much about universal moral concerns and the need for personal transcendence. We need more sermons about how the world hates us and Israel is beleaguered by enemies on all sides, and fewer sermons about Darfur and relief for the victims of Katrina. If Jews are to survive, there is no choice but to separate from non-Jewish America, become more tribal and forget about tikun haolam, and spirituality. (See my earlier discussion of austritt.)The entire article is an implicit plug for Conservative and Orthodox right-wing politics. It is an open attack against Reform Judaism and liberal secular Jews and their special ideas about social justice and global charity.

Chicken Little works both ways. There has been no shortage of rabbis for the last fifty years beating the drums on behalf of Zionism. Apparently the endless appeals to the dire situation in Israel are having diminishing marginal returns. If talking up how Jews are a people apart would stop assimilation there has been no shortage of that kind of rhetoric even in Reform temples over the years. It didn’t have the desired effect. Looking at the larger picture, large segments of Jewish life were already substantially secular already in Eastern Europe despite the absence of Reform and Conservatives. Charedim and religious Zionists were in the minority throughout Eastern Europe even before the First World War. The Jewish people were tribal enough in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. Yet it is correct to say that the bulk of the assimilation that is currently driving intermarriage occurred during those decades. It is the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who were perhaps nominally religious but certainly ethnic and tribal that have intermarried. Myron Cohen never stopped anyone from marrying a shiksa.

It’s always tempting to project one’s faults onto the assimilated and the intermarried American Jews. Easy to rally the troops that way, and no one is going to complain. If you want to do something about this problem, you can’t substitute a few statistics and a right-wing political agenda for a detailed understanding of what assimilated Jews are actually feeling. An analysis that goes…if they weren’t liberal, if they were right wing conservative, if they were gush emunim supporters they would feel strongly about Israel, explains nothing. If they wore sheitlach and black hats, if they lived in a walled hermetically sealed ghetto…. but they don’t. What they might have been doesn’t explain why they are the way they are, or how to stop such Jews from continuing on their path.

There is no better way of understanding than asking the Jews who are walking away what they feel and believe. Wertheimer doesn’t care for this internal approach because he would then have to list all the complaints against Israel’s right wing politics and all the contempt for meaningless religious services. Some American Jews have tired of the hundred year tragic war that is being played out in Israel. I don’t think Wertheimer is keen on explaining to secular Peace Now types how Israel has had absolutely no choice but to build settlements for forty tears. Wertheimer knows better than most the quality of rabbis that have been produced by the liberal rabbinical establishment. I doubt if he wants to engage in debates on whether any of the blame is to be attributed to the seminaries and rabbinical organizations including JTS. Better to beat up on the assimilated and re-describe effects as causes than to internalize any responsibility inside the religious core. And what better way to do this than to do an Ann Coulter and make liberal sound Jewishly sinful. It makes no difference that making marginal Jews feel guilty is counterproductive. These ‘scientific’ sociological researches are really a way of reassuring the believers….you see, you sent your kids to Solomon Schecter, and they all married Jews.

I’ll end with an analogy. Make believe Jewland is like Portugal. Assuming no restrictions on immigation, why would people live in Portugal and not in America? There can be only two reasons. The first is life in Portugal is better. The second is that even if life in the United States is more promising, the transportation costs are too high, so that net-net you are no better off moving than staying at home. You cannot do anything at the margins of Jewland to increase the transportation costs. Increasing such costs only works in the space between Orthodoxy and the rest of Jewry. At the margin, people are assimilated already and fit easily into American society. Secession from America or from the world is not a real policy option. The only thing that can be done is to make the Jewish world a more attractive place to live. When it comes to the little puzzle how to make the Jewish space attractive to liberal and secular Jews all the Chicken Little apparatchiks don’t have a clue.

Postscript: Rabbi Maryles has written an essay (12/31/06) criticizing ideas I put out the other day on how to make Jewish life more vibrant in my post ‘Five Ideas for a More Jewish America’ (12/28). This new essay is in addition to and an elaboration of his comments to my original post. Readers interested in the topic will find his new essay stimulating. I have written and posted on his site a longish comment to his new article, and, of course, Rabbi Maryles has responded.


At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to cut up your regressive back to the ghetto assumptions about liberal Judaism but I will stick with the part about politics. Please! The reason for the assimilation is that the conservative and regressive factions of Judaism offer nothing to people except boring and old world ideas. Intermarriage is an effect of this and must be addressed not pushed to the side as the fault of someone else. Intermarriage is an issue for the Jewish community.

To address the Reform movement’s affiliation with the “radical left wing of the Democratic party.” You know that isn’t true. The Reform movement actually stands for something and will let our leaders know what we think. In the past the Reform movement stood up against Clinton’s cuts to welfare and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and Protection of Marriage Act. It is just easier to find millions of things wrong with the “radical right wing of the Republican party” to point out. The politics of the Reform movement are based deeply in the ideas and principles of prophetic Judaism, in the idea that we can make our world better and not just the Jewish community.

But still this is very intersting and well put together.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said... whizzed past me? Are Orthodox regressive?lol.I am one of those immersed in those boring and old world ideas, and I find them inspiring.But I am not a kiruv ideologist,nor do I think Reform ideals are knocking them dead at their end of the spectrum.We need something else, cooler, more self interested though not necessarily tribal.

I have defended the possibility of prophetic Judaism, today, and in effect in my exchange with Rabbi Maryles and in my posts on Reform charity. I have philosophical and theological issues with how it is formulated,(too close to utilitarianism)but I have not posted on that issue.

On the core pt....the immediate cause for intermarriage cannot be Orthodoxy;most are 2-3 generations away at least.Progressive Jews have a 50-100 year window to work their magic.Something is missing in this prophetic message, admirable as it is.

BTW I didn't say radical left, I sald left...Adlai and Hubert, not Jesse and George.

At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I am one of those immersed in those boring and old world ideas"

Is sticking with blogger commenting one of those boring and old world ideas you are attached to, or is there any way we can convince you to switch over to haloscan?

At 6:10 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said... blog is coming to a close and at this point it really doesn't pay.

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"my blog is coming to a close"

You're just starting!

At 6:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any lack of cohesion among jews is due to the fact that too many of them bought into the radical leftist notion which is that all cultures are of the same value. I think they bought into this because their parents bought into and I think their parents bought into because they mistakenly believed that idea would help to protect them from antisemitism. The notion that all cultures are of the same value is absurd. All cultures are not the same. People at one time or another have to make value judgments about culture. I think all people should be treated fairly regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation but that does not mean that I have to recognize all cultures as being the same. Some cultures I dislike. In fact it is probably a good idea for jews not to inter-marry. From what I have observed of the way jews raise their kids they do a better job than certain ethnic groups which I will not name in order to be polite(I know that there are some jews who obviously do a horrible job of raising their kids, I am just adding all the families I have observed up and making a rough average and comparing it with the rough average of other ethnic groups I have observed). So I mean wouldn't it be horrible if some jewish lady decides to marry a non-jew to prove she's not racist and then finds out she married a misogynist? As far as Israel is concerned that's an issue I am not interested in.

At 7:26 PM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

Werthheimer is an excellent critic of Reform and Conservative Judiasm. The question now presents itself-where is his future-JTS or elsewhere?

At 12:25 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

jeb...I agree. I believe every time a Jew intermarries they are condemning their offspring, children, grandchildren, to a life where the probabilistic expectation of utility/happiness is lower than in Jewish life. And yet they are walking away as fast as their little feet will carry them. Why? It is either sexual, as I have discussed at various posts or it is they are not aware of how their expected happiness over time is less. A third possibility is they are only looking very short term for their own pleasure.It would be a good thing if we had some we know the enemy so to speak.

Same pt.said differently...when the host culture is inferior to Jewish culture and there are adequate # of Jews the intermarriage rate is lower. Why do intermarrying Jews believe American culture is superior or at least not inferior? Why can't anyone convey the magical walking on water sense that so many Jews feel? Don't know.

At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People don't usually make decisions based on abstractions. They judge whether the person before them is likely to make as good a spouse as another.
additionally, while it may be true that many pathologies are less common among jews and their families happier, it is also true that some specific umm syndromes, enmeshed families, etc are quite common among jews and people sometimes are fleeing that sort of dynamic.

"And yet they are walking away as fast as their little feet will carry them. Why? It is either sexual"

If you mean that it's oedipal, isn't that a stira to "I believe every time a Jew intermarries they are condemning their offspring, children, grandchildren, to a life where the probabilistic expectation of utility/happiness is lower than in Jewish life," as I'd think such hangups would be less common among healthier families.

At 6:45 AM, Anonymous PleaseDon'tClose said...


Please don't close. You are a refreshing and important voice on the jblogsphere. Your sociological insights are welcome in the dreary darkness of other's shallowness.

At 10:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I know most of what you are saying but I still dissagree with your statements about Intermarriage.

And whoever said The notion that all cultures are of the same value is absurd. All cultures are not the same. People at one time or another have to make value judgments about culture. I think all people should be treated fairly regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation but that does not mean that I have to recognize all cultures as being the same. really doesn't get it.

Light Upon the Nations is about taking responsiblity, not saying everyone is equal. Humans should be considered equal but a culture that stones people for working on a particular day of the week should cannot be considered on the same level as one that is accepting of differences.

Sorry to put words in your mouth EJ, I was just a little pissed about your statement and the Dems. While I am a dem (and a radically lefty one at that) many Reform Jews are not. Just goes to show you all those big assumptions (like all old world ideas) get you in to trouble no matter what.

Thanks and don't stop writing your blog. it is fun. and makes me mad. all good things.

At 11:59 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 2:50...Mah zeh umm? Somehow United Methodist Men or Unholy Men of Mars doesn't work.

There can be a reason to do X, without it's being my reason to do X. I might not know about X or I might repress it, and so on.

You ask if when I say sexual I mean oedipal? I have posted on the oedipal stuff. There are cases that I see where I don't know how to describe it. I'll give you one example. There are a lot of guys who are married to Jewish women who get divorced and live with, or remarry, non-Jewish women considerably simpler and lower maintenance than their first spouse. You might call it sexual, but I wouldn't call it oedipal. Then again, you might just describe it as guys who are tired.

liberal jew... Your old world/new world, progressive/regressive dichotomies sound awfully old world and big assumption absolutist ghetto type thinking to me.(Always watch your Derrida posterior. LOL.)

If you are indeed looking for a more humanistic tolerant Jewish life, you cannot do a Dawkins and say 'a culture that stones people for working on a particular day of the week should cannot be considered on the same level as one that is accepting of differences.' You are ranting against the Bible, not Orthodox practice, but more importantly, if you follow the conversations in the Jewish blogosphere, there are no shortage of people who can respond and ratchet up the level of insults.

I want to turn it around. My blog is as pragmatist and un-dogmatic as Orthocentrist blogs go. The key to progress in Jewish life is to work with what is out there everywhere in the spectrum, and I stress from within the world view of the participants. Even if Orthodox zealots are intolerant and insulting to your outlook, and many are, as a progressive you will get nowhere other than trade insults if you return the fire.

At 11:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Umm == errr, what word shall we use to describe this. No hidden roshei teyvos.

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have not clarified the future status of this blog. That is unfair. Just say what you mean please.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 8:09...I am stopping,I think, next week.I will post a final essay, explaining everything.

At 5:54 PM, Anonymous anonymous 8.09 said...

anonymous 8.09 says:

Since you sound somewhat tentative about stopping, allow me to ask you not to stop. I was put onto your blog by a very old friend of yours and have become a devoted reader. Certainly, many others of us wish for you to continue. Please continue.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Harry Maryles said...

my blog is coming to a close

Why? Don't do it! You are one of the better writers in the blogosphere. I check your blog out every day. It will be a big loss if you shut down.

Besides, we Chicagoans need to give all those blogging Easterners some Midwestern balance and common sense.

At 10:05 PM, Anonymous Ten Jew Very Much said...

I'll add my vote to those who hope you continue blogging. You stimulate good discussions.

At 10:43 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous, Rabbi Maryles, ten jew...thank you so much for your kind thoughts. I must stop at least for now and catch up with my life. I will explain a little more in my final post.

At 6:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you will elaborate more on this topic before you close -

"Finally, I have had a long standing disagreement with friends whether it is best for an emotionally/religiously troubled young person to go to an Orthodox psychotherapist or a secular psychotherapist. I am on the secular side of the debate, but it’s a long topic and not for today."

At 11:54 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 6:33...I really can’t write a new post. I need to lead up to it, which involves a discussion of MO, a big topic, which I have been reluctant to undertake. I will sketch an argument. Everyone agrees u don’t need a Jewish cardiologist, u need the best cardiologist. Everyone is agreed when it comes to music and a person’s neshama the best music is irrelevant. Mozart is no substitute for nigunim. When it comes to painting people differ. I say, pick the best painting irrespective of content .Others think they ought to choose Jewish content irrespective of quality.

Therapy for me is like physical medicine. Pick the best therapist because neurosis and mental conflicts are pretty much identical structurally. Latino depression and Orthodox depression are pretty much the same, even though the cultures are different. The therapist might have to learn a little about yiddishkeit but net- net a skilled practitioner will get the work done faster and in a more decisive way.

There are dangers in both directions. People say that a secular therapist will not help a person stay frum when there is a religious conflict. Conversely, there is a danger that a frum therapist would add to the repression in order to keep someone frum. I think the latter danger is greater than the former, especially if one is willing to trade quality for someone heimish. I believe that despite the prejudices that everyone has, good therapists do a good job of remaining neutral so as to allow a patient to develop transference.

At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. I agree with you on all counts.

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

that is provided the person is broadly sympathetic to religion, or not antithetic to it.


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