Is There Any Reason to Be Optimistic about American Judaism?

July 19 2018

In his forthcoming book The New American Judaism, based on extensive and in-depth research, Jack Wertheimer presents a portrait of the state of religious life among the various religious denominations. Allan Arkush, in his review, concludes that there is little reason to expect that non-Orthodox Judaism has much of a future in the U.S.:

There is plenty in the book . . . to reinforce the fears of pessimists. . . . But [Wertheimer] also sees many signs of vitality. Within the admittedly ailing Conservative movement, for instance, a considerable number of rabbis are now ambitiously “playing to the themes of the day: inclusiveness, spirituality, musical creativity, shorter services, non-judgmentalism, personalized attention, caring communities, relational Judaism, and Judaism beyond the walls of the synagogue.” In the “more cohesive, participatory, and spirited communities” they are forging, “the elite meet the folk where they are.” . . .

Wertheimer’s account of current experiments with a “new/old Judaism” in liberal synagogues and elsewhere throughout the country is [hard] to dismiss, especially since he retains a keen awareness of their shortcomings even as he takes heart in their existence. Whether these are signs of a true revival of religious but non-Orthodox Judaism remains to be seen. If I’m skeptical about that, it’s not only on the basis of my own experience but because I can’t believe in the long-term survivability of any form of Judaism in our modern liberal democracy that isn’t rooted in solid convictions and consolidated by a disciplined and more or less segregated communal life.

The Modern Orthodox possess both of these things in good measure, and the ultra-Orthodox do so to an even larger degree, and will go on, for the most part, doing what they do. Some Jews who are much less rigorously religious may yet manage to sustain a strong presence on the scene, but it is undeniable that their overall numbers are shrinking. Those Jews who cannot quite say yes to God but cannot say no to Jewish peoplehood will fit, a little uncomfortably, into some of these communities, perhaps coming to shul infrequently and late, but . . . participating enthusiastically in the Jewish conversations at kiddush. And the large majority of the rest of America’s Jews will in all likelihood (although not inevitably, I must remind myself), like millions of their predecessors, disappear in the great American melting pot that continues to bubble away.

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More about: American Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times