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The Coming Jewish Schism

From: Joey Kurtzman To: Jack Wertheimer Subject: A Viable Judaism Requires Breaking from the Orthodox Jack, You are right: I don't regard the Jewish people as my family. I feel a great affection for Jewish culture, I value the Jewish … Read More

By / June 19, 2007

From: Joey Kurtzman To: Jack Wertheimer Subject: A Viable Judaism Requires Breaking from the Orthodox

Jack,

You are right: I don't regard the Jewish people as my family. I feel a great affection for Jewish culture, I value the Jewish tradition, and I feel a connection to other Jews. But there's no point in pretending that this is at all comparable to what I feel for my family.

At Jewcy we've talked about our "impulse to Jewishness," our persistent desire to connect with our Jewish heritage. As frustrated as we sometimes feel, as many times as we have been turned off by the Jewish community, we keep finding ourselves drawn back. But whereas our love for family may be inexhaustible, this impulse to Jewishness is not. And whereas we ask nothing from family in return for a role in our children’s lives, we demand something specific from Judaism in return for such a role.

Jacob Neusner has said that “the reason that Judaism has persisted and flourished as the religion of the Jewish people for nearly the entire span of recorded history…is that Judaism, in all its forms and manifestations, succeeds in explaining to the Jews the world in which they live.” Judaism simply no longer accomplishes this. Our demand is that it resume doing so.

A Jewish life ought to be one in which the wisdom and insights of Jewish scripture and Jewish history help us more effectively engage with, and navigate in, the world in which we actually live. It shouldn’t serve as an alternative to that world, a sort of soft Amish-ism by which we retreat to the narrow, particularist concerns of one traditional community.

For decades, young Jews have voted with their feet, their hearts, their minds, their money, their lives, their children: we’re telling you in as many ways as we can that Judaism is being humiliated in the marketplace of ideas. You wonder how we can make young Jews shoulder the sturdy “yoke of Torah,” but this battle for relevance is the yoke that Torah itself is struggling to bear. I think you are right to fear for the future. I would encourage all Jewish-American leaders to surrender their optimism and begin panicking.

The Jewish-American leadership must eventually confront the reality that Judaism cannot thrive amongst a significant proportion of young American Jews unless we jettison the language and ideology of peoplehood. You say we need to "work towards a consensus on who is a Jew." There can be no positive outcome to that discussion. You would advertize the obsolescence of the tradition even by having that conversation. A Judaism that works will be one in which such antiquated concerns are retired once and for all, and a Jewish person is anyone who makes an effort to enrich his life with the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and Jewish scripture.

I understand that a shift to Judaism-after-peoplehood would be a historic change, as radical as the shift from a Judaism of the temple cult to a portable Judaism based on study and prayer. It will take scholars and others whose desire to make Judaism viable for the next centuries is stronger than their attachment to the old framework of peoplehood-centered Judaism. And it will inevitably mean a schism with the Orthodox and all others who choose to retain that peoplehood-centered Judaism. But we’ve been moving toward this schism for the past two centuries. This is why I talk about the mongrelization and impurity of my generation, our being new Samaritans, a people of polluted culture and ancestry whose Jewishness should not be trusted by the Orthodox. I use this harsh language because I want to shatter any delusions that this schism is preventable. All we can do is defer it.

Judaism-after-peoplehood must also be one in which moral obligations outside the Jewish community are of fundamental importance. You speak dismissively of the Jewish attraction to universalism—it’s a "flight of internationalist fancy," "adolescent emoting," and a "resort to motherhood and apple pie talk." And you ask why I don’t do volunteer work abroad, skeptical that the “yoke of Torah” has anything to do with universal concerns, or that someone can be morally serious unless they spend their time fretting about whether young male Je
ws can daven like their great-grandfathers.

Well, for what it’s worth I’ve done a good bit of volunteer work overseas. But for now I content myself with donating as much as I can to the best causes I can identify. Where is the responsa on how a privileged Jewish-American should go about picking a charity? The mitzvah commands that we donate ten percent of our income, no? But in cases in which further sacrifice on our part may mean the difference between life or death for someone else, do most Conservative rabbis hold that ten percent is still enough? One prominent philosopher says that middle-class Americans should donate at least 25% of their income to the fight against extreme poverty. How is this debate playing out at the Jewish Theological Seminary?

An intense and universalized ethical sensibility is something many of us associate with our Jewish heritage. Both my socialist grandparents and the Conservative Jewish day school I attended as a child communicated to me that moral issues were Jewish issues. "Tikkun olam," "justice, justice shall you pursue," "be kind to the sojourner," "pikuach nefesh": All of these were presented to me as universally applicable, rather than as the limited, ethnocentric injunctions of rabbinic interpretation.

Perhaps this was just happy talk, an attempt to persuade all these children of liberal American parents that their heritage was beautiful and visionary, without expecting we would actually buy it. But many of us did buy it. In the liberal movements of Judaism there is too much of this bullsh*t ambiguity about the content of our religion, too many fundamental disagreements obscured with intentionally vague language. Instead of working toward a consensus on “Who is a Jew,” how about working toward a consensus on whether it's pikuach nefesh or pikuach nefesh b'Yisrael? The lesson you seem to have learned from the fate of Jewish unversalists like Rosa Luxemburg is that universalism is a fool's dream. But belief systems are not invalidated by the murder of their adherents. Jews know this, of course. Nor does the waxing and waning of antisemitism in 20th century Europe tell us very much about how things will play out in 21st century America.

Instead, the lesson I think we should learn from socialism's incredible appeal and longstanding influence in the Jewish world is that Emancipated Jews have been desperate for a belief system that instructs us in how to make moral and conceptual sense of the larger world, and that mediates our desire to play a positive role in moving human history forward. I see that same hunger today, and I believe that a reinvigorated, universalized Judaism, a Judaism-after-peoplehood, could sweep Frankenjewish America with all of the wildfire ferocity with which socialism once swept Jewish Europe.

Whether the necessary willpower and clarity of purpose exist to begin this new stage in the history of Judaism, I don't know. But I don’t think we can afford to wait any longer.

Thanks for doing this dialogue, Jack.

Joey

Next: Another Great Leap Forward. Fantastic.

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