American Jews: Doomed to a Thin Culture with No Future?

To avoid that fate, rabbis and synagogues might begin by acknowledging where and how Judaism differs, and proceed from there.

Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Last Word
Oct. 3 2018
About the author

Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the author of The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice their Religion Today, newly published by Princeton University Press.


My thanks to Lawrence A. Hoffman, Elliot Cosgrove, and Christine Rosen for their thoughtful responses to my essay, “The New High Holy Days.” My comments here proceed in reverse order of the responses’ sequential appearance in Mosaic.

Writing as an outsider, albeit one who has attended Jewish High Holy Day services and has written extensively on religious life in America, Christine Rosen offers a valuable comparative framework. As she notes at the outset, the phenomenon of once-a-year Jews has its counterparts among so-called “C&E Christians” or “Chreasters.”

The similarities don’t end there. Churches of various types have introduced many of the same approaches to worship as have synagogues. Music, including instrumental music, has become a staple; the choreography of services is carefully thought out in advance; and much attention is paid to hospitality and to welcoming diverse populations. And, writes Rosen, there are also strong parallels in the language and “messaging” offered in these different houses of worship. A general American style of service has emerged—a style incidentally to be encountered in Western Europe as well.

In addition, Rosen has pithily captured the “two discrepant conversations” at the heart of my essay. Rabbis understandably are asking, “How do we remain relevant and keep congregations coming to worship” both on the High Holy Days and on other days of the year? Indeed, the bulk of my essay is devoted to an overview of the creative ways that synagogues are addressing precisely that issue. But, as she goes on to observe, there is a second question to be asked: “Should the quest for relevance (and numbers) take priority over tradition, and how might that affect the very purpose of synagogues?” The latter part of my essay identifies the costs of that quest. At stake, I conclude, is not only tradition but the particularity of Judaism and the very purpose of the Days of Awe.

Rosen resonates with my concern about the tendency of synagogues to cater to congregants’ self-absorption, “short attention spans, and snap judgments”: hallmarks of our age, as she says, and hardly confined to Jews. She questions, as do I, whether the transformation of houses of worship into therapeutic environments is good for attendees, or for religion. To be sure, one of the purposes of prayer and community is to offer respite from the day-to-day stresses of life and thereby enable worshippers to attend to higher matters. But the unique power of religion is diluted when a therapeutic mindset pervades houses of worship.

After all, cheerful exhortations about the power of self-esteem are one thing; lessons about Shabbat m’nuḥah (restorative rest) are another. Playing up to Do-It-Yourself Judaism is not the same as communicating an appreciation for the liberating effects of religious structure and obligation. Preaching social awareness to the choir is one thing; building a religious community where congregants practice social awareness by celebrating Shabbat and holidays together and supporting each other at times of joy and sorrow is something very different.

Ultimately, as Rosen wisely urges, “the way forward . . . is not by expecting less of [congregants] but by expecting more, setting a higher standard and helping them achieve it.” So much of what is done on the High Holy Days and other occasions is instead aimed at the lowest common denominator. The logic employed is to get people through the portals, with little emphasis placed on where they will be led once inside. Non-judgmentalism, it seems, militates against any form of challenge. But isn’t religion meant to prod us out of our so-called comfort zones? Expectations, tactfully expressed and implemented, are indeed the only way forward.

 

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove notes a number of items in my essay with which he concurs. The issue of Jewish cultural illiteracy, for example, hits home with him. In this respect, however, he invokes a misleading rabbinic catchphrase that I deliberately eschewed, namely, the likening of most American congregants today to “captive children” who have been deprived of a deep Jewish education by having been raised in a non-Jewish environment. In the Orthodox world, this image, itself a classical rabbinic trope, is often invoked by rabbis to justify practices not normally acceptable under Jewish law—for instance, inviting Jews to a Sabbath meal when knowing they will desecrate the holy day by driving home afterward, teaching Torah to a non-Jew who happens to be married to a Jew, or counting a non-observant Jew in the prayer quorum.

But does this captive-child trope really speak to the condition of American Jews? Are large swaths of the American Jewish population religiously illiterate because they have been denied a Jewish education by non-Jews? Are they passive victims of outside actors?

It does no good to pretend this is the case. No external authority shuts down synagogues and Jewish educational institution as was the case in the USSR and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Rather, most Jewish parents choose to deny their children a strong Jewish education, and most synagogue schools choose to offer a thin Jewish education. American Jewish culture devalues the importance of the Hebrew language, celebrates Jewish heroes who for all their renown are ignorant of Judaism, and willingly defines the educated Jew as one with expert knowledge about every conceivable topic but Jewish civilization.

We suffer from a vicious cycle—parents want only the bare minimum for their children and certainly don’t wish them to become “too Jewish.” Congregational schools, in turn, have cut back their hours to accommodate parents who value soccer over Jewish learning. And during those shortened hours the emphasis is on involving children in happy experiences rather than in acquiring Jewish skills and knowledge.

Rabbi Cosgrove is uncertain whether I fault synagogues or ordinary Jews for this state of affairs. There is no single culprit; the fault lies within our community and its choice of values. As a modest start, why not open a conversation about this dire challenge eroding Jewish life? Wouldn’t a High Holy Day sermon be a good time to spur some much-needed soul-searching about the shallow Jewish lives so many of those who sit in the pews willingly lead? Nor should such a conversation be limited to synagogues.

Rabbi Cosgrove is exercised about my “biting tone.” His own critique of me is hardly presented with a light touch. In his view, I’m a surprisingly ahistorical historian because I allegedly “propose a static set of Jewish beliefs from Moses to Moses Maimonides to Moses Mendelsohn.” Leave aside that the names of these individuals appear nowhere in my essay. More importantly, I nowhere suggest that Jewish tradition or the synagogue liturgy has been or need be unchanging. The issue is neither innovation nor experimentation, but whether all of today’s creativity offers a way into serious Jewish engagement or merely endorses the existing wants and prejudices of attendees.

Most puzzling, Rabbi Cosgrove charges me with “disapprov[ing] of rabbis who not only create space for Jews questioning their belief in God but who openly admit their own struggles.” I do no such thing. I merely report what rabbis are doing to invite congregants to speak honestly about their doubts. Perhaps he has a different recollection, but I am not aware of many 20th-century rabbis who openly and publicly assured non-believers that a synagogue is the place for them. That is a fairly recent development and represents a marked shift in approach, which is the only reason I included it in my survey of what synagogues are now doing to draw people in.

For the rest, let me put Rabbi Cosgrove at ease: I am not the unfeeling scold of his imagining.

 

I’m glad that Lawrence A. Hoffman read my essay as a defense of synagogues against those who castigate them as hopelessly out of touch while declining to offer them financial or other support to improve what they deliver. Hoffman is acutely aware of this neglect. Over the decades, he, in partnership with Ron Wolfson, has worked assiduously, with limited resources, to help synagogues as best he can.

As Hoffman writes, both federations and individual philanthropists tend to eschew support for synagogue programming. True, in recent decades a few federations have come around to seeing synagogues as vital players rather than as competitors or non-entities. The old distinctions between “federation Jews” and “synagogue Jews” have also fallen away as communal leaders have come to understand that synagogue Jews tend to be among the most involved in every kind of Jewish activity. Still, the foolish talk dismissing synagogues as yesterday’s institutions, and the fantasy of replacing them with some other agency, prevent the philanthropic sector from engaging with an institution that still attracts the largest numbers of living Jews.

When it comes to my own, very different critique of synagogue life and practice, Hoffman graciously notes the many areas of agreement between us, but also underscores his dissent on certain points. To my decrying of Jewish cultural illiteracy, for example, he rejoins that, historically, deep Jewish knowledge was the preserve of elites.

That’s certainly true; still, most Jewish men (though not women) knew their way around the prayer book. Those days are now long gone. Hoffman accepts the situation, but I can conceive of no revival of Jewish religious life that does not include Hebrew skills and sufficient knowledge to run a Jewish home and understand prayer services in synagogues. Without those, American Jews are doomed to a thin culture with no future. The folk culture of yesteryear worked because Jews inhabited their own enclaves; a Jewish population like ours, integrated within the larger society, can flourish only if it works intentionally to educate all of its members.

Where he differs most from me, Hoffman states, is in my criticism of the embrace by synagogues of the “‘vague and faddish nostrums’” of ‘“hospitality, diversity, spirituality, creativity, non-judgmentalism, tikkun olam, [and] personalized religion.’” Acknowledging that some of these are indeed “meaningless nods to fad and fashion,” he nevertheless insists they can also help “direct proper attention to the frayed edges and rotten core of our private and social selves: exactly what the High Holy Days demand.”

There is much to unpack here. I have no doubt that rabbis love to speak about the rotten core of our social selves, if by that Hoffman is referring to the many High Holy Day sermons about what rabbis regard as wrong-headed policies of a particular American or Israeli administration. By contrast, actually challenging congregants to look inside themselves for misdeeds and errors may be a bridge too far. Speaking “truth to power” is a favorite mantra of many a modern rabbi, but how many challenge their own congregants, let alone their boards, to deepen their Jewish involvements and priorities?

I return here to a proposition voiced by Christine Rosen—namely, that current practices are bad for faith. When will we have a serious conversation about whether it is good for synagogues to take positions on politics, whether American or Israeli? One would have to live in a cave not to know that during this year’s High Holy Days, rabbis across the spectrum devoted at least one sermon to the doleful state of American politics and/or to bemoaning Israeli government policies. What special expertise do rabbis possess in these subjects?

Several decades ago, a prominent Conservative rabbi in the Washington DC area told me about the time a congregant implored him not to rehash from the pulpit the latest column by William Safire, then a noted conservative who wrote regularly for the op-ed page of the New York Times. The name of the complainant was William Safire. And lest readers think I am opposed only to political discourse aimed critically at the current American and Israeli governments, I register here my grave disappointment with an Orthodox rabbi who in 2014 chose to focus his Yom Kippur sermon on the evils of a treaty with Iran then being pursued by a very different American administration.

In the end, isn’t all the political and tikkun-olam talk an evasion of the actual purpose of synagogues? At best, it is a feel-good exercise that ratifies what congregants already believe. But it also represents an extension of the endless, universalizing distortion of Judaism’s particularistic messages.

In our time, just about every holiday is deliberately stripped of its Jewish origin and message—and then generalized. The High Holy Days are seen by many rabbis as a time to rally support for the social or political cause du jour. Passover is not about the formative experience of the Jewish people but about the liberation of all peoples around the world from white hegemony and/or misogyny. Purim is a holiday celebrating a victory over any form of discrimination. Tu b’Shvat is about sustaining the environment—and so, for some, is Tisha b’Av, no longer a commemoration of the destruction of the ancient Temples but a bewailing of capitalism’s destruction of the environment.

I understand the impulse to help Jews connect with Jewish religious life by transforming the unfamiliar into something recognizable. In essence, the message is: you are interested in issues of public policy, or in spirituality, or in social justice, or in the environment; well, the good news is that Judaism is interested in exactly the same things, and over the millennia has had much to say about whatever may be your preferred cause.

Leave aside the accuracy or inaccuracy of that last claim. What if greater emphasis were placed on acknowledging that much of the Jewish tradition is foreign to us, that Judaism approaches the human condition in a different way from that of our present-day culture or from the latest editorials of the New York Times, and that, precisely in so doing, it casts our individual and communal aspirations in a radically new and enlivening light? What if synagogues tried to help their members become more familiar with the unfamiliar? Wouldn’t that open new vistas for teaching, for serious discussion, for heightened levels of literacy, for widened and brightened horizons?

I submit these are worthy goals on the High Holy Days and other days of the calendar.

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