Jack Wertheimer has been called “American Jewry’s Cassandra.” The Chief Academic Officer of the Jewish Theological Seminary rails against the decline in ethnic identity among American Jews and warns of the disastrous consequences of our predilection for universalist ideas and mixed marriages. This week, he debates the future of Jewish peoplehood with Jewcy‘s Joey Kurtzman.
From: Joey Kurtzman To: Jack Wertheimer Subject: The End of The Jewish People
In a recent Ha’aretz interview, Jewcy editor in chief Tahl Raz was asked about the meaning of Jewish peoplehood. Tahl caused a bit of a kerfuffle with his answer. Was he right? Is it true that “American life has annihilated Jewish peoplehood”? It seems plain to me that the answer is yes. Modern American life is the most corrosive acid ever to hit the ghetto walls. Young American Jews are whoring after Moab so fervently that the boundaries between Israel and Moab are being washed away. We‘re not merely influenced by the non-Jewish world—we‘re inseparable from it. Judaism and Jewishness have never had so limited a claim on the identity of young Jews. At Jewcy we‘ve half-jokingly referred to ourselves as part of the first generation of Jewish-American mongrels, or Frankenjews. The majority of Jewcy‘s staff is the product of intermarriage. To a one, we regard the traditional Jewish revulsion toward exogamy as an anachronistic holdover from premodern life. Needless to say, we are of dubious halakhic Jewishness. This will be truer of our children than it is of us. Our cultural influences are more polluted than our bloodlines, and that is the important part of our mongrelization. We‘re evolving new ideas and new forms of religious expression informed by non-Jewish traditions. This is not because we have poached from alien traditions, but because those traditions, too, are our patrimony. I believe that Conservative Jews say that tradition has a vote, not a veto. For most young Jewish-Americans, it would be truer to say that Jewishness has a vote, not a veto. For most of Jewish history, peoplehood was straightforward. In most places and most times, Jews retained their separateness in every respect: Economically, linguistically, and socially, they were a distinct people in lands not their own. And this separateness was reinforced by a religion that instructed them that they possessed an exclusive covenant with a deity who favored them above all others. Their nationhood was both sacred and real. Today, all of this is go
ne. What capacious definition of peoplehood could possibly include a population such as the generation of Frankenjews I‘ve described? It seems to me that if Jewish-American leaders wish for Judaism to survive, they‘ll have to acknowledge that the era of peoplehood has ended, and help reinvent Judaism for modern life.
Yochanan ben Zakkai prepared Judaism for a new world rather than let it be destroyed in hopeless defense against a siege that couldn’t be denied. America’s siege is as undeniable as Rome’s. Yet when I read your writings about the dangers of universalism, the threat to Jewish peoplehood, the details of Jewish demography, I see a Zealot who‘s choosing to stay behind and continue fighting when the city walls have already been irreparably breached. How am I wrong about any of this? Joey