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Pick One People, One Religion

From: Jack Wertheimer To: Joey Kurtzman Subject: Pick One People, One Religion

Dear Joey,

Thank you for your illuminating and brutally honest opening letter. It ought to be required reading by all Jewish leaders, especially those who have worked so assiduously to silence anyone who dares utter the self-evident truth—vividly dramatized by your letterthat intermarriage is a disaster for the Jewish people.

If you are accurately representing the views of your colleagues at Jewcy, your letter is a heartbreaking reflection of what intermarriage has wrought. Not only do you forthrightly concede that “Judaism and Jewishness have never had so limited a claim on the identity of young Jews”—a reality denied by the advocates of outreachyou also urge the reinvention of Judaism so that it reflects the mixed “patrimony” of children raised in intermarried families. In other words, you seek religious syncretism.

I can sympathize with your predicament. Over the past decades, Jewish institutions have turned a blind eye to the cognitive dissonance developing in a great many intermarried families, which struggle to reconcile incompatible religions. The extended outreach industry based in synagogues, JCCs, and federations has downplayed the damage, pretending that everything will turn out all right. Christmas trees are really not religious symbols; Easter dinner is really not about Christ. It’s all just a way to be respectful of the Gentile side of the family. What your letter demonstrates is that “Jewish-American mongrels,” as you call them, took these celebrations seriously and are trying desperately to reconcile the irreconcilable components within their own identity.

For my part, I have a different message: Pick a single religion and a single people. It will save you much grief. I hope the religion you choose is Judaism and the people with a claim on you is the Jewish people. Your wish to create a Jewish identity mixing multiple religious traditions is a fantasy, and you know it because of the very ways you think about yourselves—“Frankenjews,” “mongrelized” are terms you employ to describe your fractured selves.

No authentic Judaism can be built on the religious syncretism you demand. And no concept of Jewish peoplehood ought to be capacious enough to approve of the premise that Jewishness has merely a vote but not a veto, a phrase, by the way, coined by Mordecai Kaplan and the Reconstructionists in reference to Halakha, but not accepted by the Conservative movement.

So to answer your two questions directly: “Has America annihilated Jewish peoplehood?” It has eroded the willingness of a significant sector of your generation to take responsibility for fellow Jews. But there are tens of thousands of young Jews who advocate for Israel on college campuses, eagerly sign up for Birthright trips (nearly 25,000 are going this summer alone!), join AIPAC, volunteer to address Jewish needs at home and abroad—and yes, take the time to go online to figure out how they want to connect to the Jewish collective. Many more will enlist when the Jewish community does a better job of teaching Jews that repairing the Jewish people (Tikkun Am Yisrael) is at least as important as repairing the world (Tikkun Olam).

As to your second question: How are you wrong? Your analogy of Yochanan Ben Zakkai gives it away. Yochanan Ben Zakkai retreated to Yavneh with a small band of followers in order to develop rabbinic Judaism. His was a minority movement that triumphed because it had a coherent, principled religious message. It was not a message of pluralism, “I’m ok, you’re ok,” or religious syncretism. It was not a “big tent” understanding of Judaism. Rathe
r, it sought to move Jews to act on religious imperatives and obligations. Only over many centuries did rabbinic Judaism gradually win over the masses of Jews.

Jewish life in the United States will be renewed when we build from the core outward, when we support the most committed, then reach out to the moderately engaged, and keep doors open for those of your disengaged peers who want to confront an authentic Judaism, rather than recreate Judaism in their own image.

I hope that the leadership of the American Jewish community will have the wisdom to reject religious syncretism and affirm the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. I pray that Jewish leaders will have the courage to assert what they have danced aroundnamely, that Judaism is different. It is different from Christianity and from secular liberal culture. I’m betting that some of your peers will be so moved by principled Jewish positions that they will cease to be Frankenjews, and become un-conflicted members of the Jewish people.


Next: The Old Ethnocentric Cult is Finished

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