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Back to the Future

From: Jack Wertheimer To: Joey Kurtzman Subject: Different Pasts, Different Futures

Well, Joey, I never saw it coming. All your talk about the new age in which we live, the easy movement of people and ideas, the collapse of boundaries between people and the joys of intermarriage. And now when all is said and done, where do we end up? We’re back to the stale arguments between socialists and Zionists about universalism versus particularism that took the Jewish world by storm 100 years ago!

After the horrors of the Gulag, Castro’s hell in Cuba, countless “Great Leaps Forward,” and the defeat of Communism in most parts of the world by triumphant liberation movements, you want to take us back to the glory days of socialism. After all the oppression and slaughter that Jews—and hundreds of millions of others—have suffered in the socialist paradises, you want to return to the delusions of your grandparents, if not great-grand-parents. They, at least, could claim ignorance about the outcome of the wonderful socialist experiments. You have no such excuse, but harbor the wish that somehow the current century will differ from the last one.

Leaving aside your willful historical amnesia, your retreat into the past is sinful because you are blind to the opportunities presented to you and your generation of Jews today. Instead of working to further the greatest Jewish experiment of the past two millennia, the extraordinary, maddening, exhilarating, confusing, and ultimately heroic Jewish State, you want to experiment with the biggest non-starter of all—“universalized Judaism.” Instead of building a vibrant Jewish community in this country to demonstrate that Jewish life is so vital it can renew itself after the horrors of the Shoah, you want to expend all your energy to return to the nightmare from which people behind the iron curtain awoke barely 15 years ago. The socialism that “once swept Jewish Europe” was a catastrophe for Jews and non-Jews alike, but you want to give it another crack because you imagine the 21st century is ripe, even if the 20th was not.

As I see it, you’ve been suckered, repeatedly. First, you’ve taken to heart the socialist pretensions of your own forebears. Immigrant Jews and their children talked the socialist talk, but did not walk the walk. They did everything in their power to make it in capitalist America. And they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Aside from engaging in sometimes bizarre political behavior, so that as Milton Himmelfarb famously put it, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” the heirs of the socialist Jews are very nicely ensconced in upper middle class America and more than happy to enjoy their comforts.

You were also ripped off by your Jewish school. Instead of offering far more complicated messages about how Jewish observance repairs us and makes us better human beings, your schooling apparently succumbed to the Judaism lite of “Tikkun Olam.” All we have to do is invest in saving the whales or any other cause du jour and presto—we have a sufficient expression of our Judaism. I applaud Jews who want to save whales and do good in the world, but only if they also want to do good for Jewish life too and to live as Jews. Helping others is no substitute for helping one’s own.

And now you are taken in once again by a “prominent philosopher” who wants the middle class to give away a quarter of its income. This proposal is worthy of a debate?! And if most middle class Americans find this unrealistic scheme as absurd as I do, what do you want to do, Joey? Redistribute their income against their will? I sure hope this is not one of those shiny new ideas that, in your view, are “humiliating” Judaism “in the marketplace of ideas.”

Rather than dwell on the past, let me suggest where we differ regarding a way forward. You trace the collapse of Jewish engagement to the allure of new ideas. Unfortunately, you don’t let on what those ideas are. As I see it, Jews are drifting away because they are seduced by rampant individualism, which persuades them to do their own thing. Consumerism, bowling alone, finding your bliss are not exactly powerful ideas, even if they are attractive candy. You and I at least share a common belief that Jews ought to care about something beyond themselves. You favor universal concerns; I favor Jewish needs first, followed by some engagement with larger causes. From where I sit, growing numbers of American Jews invest themselves in no causes, neither Jewish nor universal. The marketplace of ideas offers a mighty thin gruel in our time

We also differ on strategy. You are intent on pursuing the disaffected who may or may not want to be Jewish, and while you’re at it, you counsel the abandonment of Orthodox Jews and others who care about Jewish peoplehood. It’s a remarkable approach to building a market, Joey: Sever your ties to your most faithful customers in favor of those who show the least commitment to anything Jewish. I favor the reverse: build from the core outward—and the core is committed to Jewish peoplehood.

As you consider what is novel about our times, I wonder whether you recognize that for the first time since Emancipation, Orthodoxy is ascendant, rather than on the defensive. While the heirs of the socialists and other universalists are disappearing as Jews and while liberal versions of Judaism are finding it ever harder to retain the allegiance of their youth, Orthodox Jews are building strong communities, reproducing at high rates, and are so self-assured that they are engaged in outreach efforts to win back Jewish souls. I’ve met a fair number of Jews who have been touched by these efforts. Their existence ought to teach us something about the hunger many Jews feel for real Jewish meaning.

You and I also differ on how Jews can best survive and thrive as a small minority in America. You seem to favor ever more accommodation to current mores and values. I contend that Judaism can only thrive if it is countercultural, and the culture it must reject is precisely what you find most appealing. Of course, as Jacob Neusner observes, Judaism must make sense of the world in which we live. But that explanation must be rooted in Judaic thinking and categories. Its explanations must transcend the ephemeral to address deeper human needs. Any Judaism offering such meaning must be rooted in authentic Jewish teachings.

And what you propose, Joey, is inauthentic: How can you claim that a Jew is “anyone who makes an effort to enrich his life with the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and Jewish scripture”—a definition, by the way, that would include millions of Bible reading Christians—even as you reject the assumptions about Jewishness embedded in every book of the Torah and subsequent Jewish texts? Already in the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel are commanded to serve as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Countless Jewish texts explicitly stress the special obligations Jews have toward one another. Jewish literature is replete with distinctions between Jews and gentiles. Your jettisoning of Jewish peoplehood is a repudiation of the very wisdom that suffuses the texts you claim are at the core of your Jewishness.

I’m not going to engage in the charade you apparently encountered while growing up, Joey. I’m not going to argue that the sum total of Jewishness is to repair the world. Rather, I believe engagement with Jewish texts and Jewish living will deepen you as a person, ground you in the life of a vibrant people undergoing one of the most exciting revivals in human history, and compel you to struggle with concepts both foreign to this age and timelessly profound. I hope your “impulse to Jewishness” will triumph sufficiently to give authentic Judaism a serious chance to heal your fractured, Frankenjewish identity. The Jewish people need you.

I’ll be happy to continue our conversation—online or off.


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