Ten years ago, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was interviewed about the future of non-Orthodox Judaism. “With a heavy heart, we will soon say Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements.”1 If that interview alerted the world to a patient in critical condition, then Jack Wertheimer’s The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today is a description of its hospice care.
Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and its former provost, has long elicited admiration and confusion in the Orthodox world. Admiration—because of the honesty and respect with which he has treated the accomplishments of contemporary Orthodoxy.2 Confusion—because he frequently brings the same honesty to bear upon the problems within his own Conservative movement among other parts of the non-Orthodox world,3 and people see him amass data and analysis that prove the Orthodox social criticism of non-Orthodoxy.
In ten chapters, an introduction and a conclusion, Wertheimer reports on hour-or-longer interviews with more than 160 rabbis of all stripes, trying to look away from the national denominations and organizations, and instead to capture the “developments affecting the lives of ordinary Jews”—what Judaism means to them; what engages them and what fails; what new ideas show promise for the future.
The spoiler comes right at the beginning. “This book takes it as a given that Jewish religious life in this country has endured a recession” (p. 5). In this context, the term recession is an understatement. “Over two million individuals of Jewish parentage no longer identify as Jews, and many others . . . eschew identification with the Jewish religion, choosing instead to define themselves in cultural or ethnic terms. And outside Orthodox communities, rates of childbearing are depressed relative to the recent past, leaving observers to wonder who will populate Jewish religious institutions in the future” (p. 3).
If religion is on the decline, will a sense of peoplehood keep the Jewish enterprise afloat? “Peoplehood alone will not keep Jews engaged in Jewish life with any measure of intensity . . . Sacred religious practices, holidays, rituals, and commandments keep the Jewish people Jewish . . . Jewish families without religion don’t stay Jewish for very long” (p. 20).
A single commandment may have survived—one that was newly minted in the ‘80s: Thou shalt engage in Tikkun Olam.
Is reading the rest of the book similar to plowing through a murder mystery after learning that the butler did it? Wertheimer continues to fascinate—and to depress—the reader who stays with it. In many cases, it will be best to listen to Wertheimer in his own words.
He deals with a full continuum of Jewish religious practice (devoting three full chapters to Orthodoxy), but draws a line where religion turns into something different. “This book does not examine spiritual practices with no discernible relationship to Judaism. No doubt, many Jews find it meaningful to commune with nature . . . engage in Eastern meditation practices, or in other ways ‘do’ spiritual things . . . There is no good reason to assume they necessarily are acts of Jewish religious activity . . . The same reasoning will be applied . . . to reports of Jews engaged in social justice and political activism” (p. 17).
In a chapter on finding meaning in Judaism, we learn that outside of Orthodoxy, “congregants struggle to believe in a God Who hears and answers prayers, and is actively involved in the fate of individual humans. To be sure, rabbis in non-Orthodox settings say some of their congregants hold fairly traditional theological beliefs, often reporting to their rabbis on material they have read on web sites of various Orthodox outreach organizations” (p. 28). Those who come to services three days a year have a hard time, however, relating to an unfamiliar practice and liturgy—and one, moreover, whose references to sin clash with what they are told by their therapists. One Reform rabbi reports the question of a congregant: is it wrong to feel during prayer that she is speaking to God? (p. 30). While a majority are not atheists or agnostics, the non-Orthodox are confused as to Whom God is. No wonder. One Conservative rabbi titled a High Holiday sermon, “Why Jews Should Not Believe in God,” and told his congregants that the images of God in our Torah that they cannot buy into should be upgraded to a kind of “container to hold our experience of life that is unnamable” (p. 31). A Reform rabbi who polled his congregants the day after Yom Kippur came to the conclusion that, “For them . . . God is a presence or power . . . not so much ‘above’ us in heaven as . . . ‘beside’ us or ‘within’ us . . . [Who] ‘acts’ when we act with God’s attributes, such as love, kindness, and justice” (p. 32). The replacing of the traditional belief in God with something else has led many rabbis “to sanctify the preexisting social and ideological commitments of their congregants by figuratively blessing them as somehow Jewish” (p. 39). Commandments per se are out. Rather, there is “a complete rejection of the notion that to be Jewish involves the acceptance of some externally imposed commandments . . . Internally generated rights and wrongs are all that matters” (p. 40). “The large majority of non-Orthodox Jews have internalized a . . . set of values . . . indistinguishable from those of their non-Jewish peers. A single commandment may have survived—one that was newly minted in the ‘80s: Thou shalt engage in Tikkun Olam”(p. 41).
Has any of this worked? Hardly. “Alas, it has not brought large numbers of members into synagogues, nor has it translated into other forms of religious participation” (p. 42).
What does religious practice look like outside of Orthodoxy? Not all that much remains of traditional observance. A small fraction of Conservative Jews still don tefillin and pray daily. Not so with Reform Jews. Geography, gender, denomination and generation all play roles. While 33 percent of men in a Reform temple claimed that “there is no God,” only 8 percent of the women concurred. The men lead as well (44 percent vs. 23 percent ) in agreeing with the statement that “science can explain everything” (p. 59). Millennials are more disengaged than their GenX predecessors, who are less involved than Boomers. New rituals occasionally emerge to replace old ones. Some are advocating replacing brit milah with slicing a pomegranate. (It bleeds [p. 4].) For many non-Orthodox, Judaism is not about any particular practice, but about being a decent person—the definition thereof having nothing to do with any Jewish teaching or text (p. 64).
It would be foolish to see ourselves as if watching safely from shore. The forces that have wreaked havoc with the older forms of non-Orthodox religious expression threaten our own community as well.
Does this mean that religion has lost all its significance to the non-Orthodox? No, says Wertheimer. It is still important to many. “For most non-Orthodox Jews, religious participation is episodic and infrequent; but it occurs at particularly meaningful moments . . . In this sense, religion is hardly marginal to what they hold most important” (p. 66).
Where are the other denominations going? They certainly are moving. In the case of Reform, some of that movement is at the prayer services, which have dramatically changed form, as worshippers are literally encouraged to move around the sanctuary. By 2013 Reform had a plurality of those who identify with Judaism. Unconstrained by Jewish law, it can be as innovative as it wants. Siddurim have been replaced by projections on screens; the music is a major production, drawing on different musical styles each week (p. 111-113).
The freedom to be creative has not led to any gains in membership. Only 36 percent of those raised Reform are members. Even fewer (28 percent) report any involvement with Jewish organizational life. Barely half give to Jewish causes. More than half have not attended any synagogue during the past year. For the overwhelming majority, Jewish schooling ends at bar-mitzvah (p. 114). One third are intermarried; among those aged thirty to fifty, half are intermarried. Emphasizing autonomy has lessened commitment to the collective Jewish people (p. 119). For a moment, Wertheimer sounds like a mashgiach ruchani in an Orthodox yeshivah: “When the overwhelming majority of synagogue members cannot be counted on to participate in religious services other than on the High Holidays, what precisely is thriving in Reform temples? (p. 116) . . . How long will significant numbers of people continue to be drawn to, or stick with, a religious movement that cannot or will not define criteria for committed living, and . . . has self-consciously shunned imperatives and obligations?” (p. 120).
Evidence for the decline of Conservative Judaism is even more dramatic. As recently as 1990, a plurality of American Jews identified as Conservative. By 2013, the number was down to 18 percent (p. 121). During the single decade of the ’90s, membership contracted from 915,000 to 660,000. A large number bolted to join Reform. Conventional wisdom attributes much of the walk-off to a less hospitable attitude towards intermarrieds. But a “major factor seems to be that too many individuals raised in Conservative synagogues have received a minimal Jewish education, which has left them unable to participate in religious services” (p. 128-129). Moreover, for younger people, God Himself has receded to an ideological background, where He is no longer a focus of devotion. “The God they are not interested in is a personal God who intervenes in history and commands in discrete language . . . Young people feel they have a soul even if they don’t believe in God” (p. 137). While the introduction to the service of musical instruments produced an uptick in attendance, Wertheimer wonders what will happen when the novelty wears off (p. 141). Some Conservative congregations have adapted to the drop in participation by moving the bimah back to the middle, surrounded by moveable chairs that can be configured according to how many people show up (p. 185). (Instrumentalizing services is not the only innovation that went bust. The decision by the denominations to ordain women doubled the potential pool of applicants to their rabbinic schools. Instead, attendance plummeted relative to previous years. In 2015, the combined total of students entering non-Orthodox rabbinic seminaries was less than 100 (p. 177)—in other words, less than the attendees of a single, small Orthodox yeshivah.)
Wertheimer finds that the denominational structure of non-Orthodox Judaism is clearly in a state of decline. We don’t have accurate figures on how many Jews still affiliate with each denomination’s congregations, because those numbers are not shared with the public. Nor, he says, given the large number of intermarrieds, do we know how many of those who do affiliate are actually Jewish (p. 161). We do know that budgets and programs have been slashed. Wertheimer believes that the huge investment of denominational time and effort in ideological issues like women’s roles and gay rights diverted attention from the changing realities affecting American Jews that were making congregational participation irrelevant to them. What is left is not pretty to behold. Only 22 percent of single Jewish adults belong to a synagogue (p. 202). Parents who do belong have a changed expectation of the synagogue, which some have called the “dry-cleaning model”: Drop off the kids; the Temple makes them Jewish, and pick them up a few hours later (p. 192). What used to work to unite Jews is now in some places not even a topic of discussion. A 2013 poll of 500 rabbis showed that one in five is fearful of voicing any opinion about Israel or her policies (p. 199).
Wertheimer does find evidence of vitality in new innovations outside of the old moribund denominations. He shows plenty of experimentation with new forms of engagement—religious start-ups, if you will. From the Renewal movement: “Picture 20 massage tables, with people lying down and being gently touched, with music playing. On Yom Kippur” (p. 240). From the Humanistic Judaism people: “Let’s rise and say the Shma. We are doing this as a tradition, not as a prayer” (p. 243). The Lab Shul reports that “Instead of using the baggage laden ‘God’, we’ve replaced it with terms like ‘source of life,’ and ‘deepest source.’” While these new ventures hold promise to their promoters, they all require urban environments. As millennials get older and move to the suburbs, Wertheimer wonders whether they can last. One of Wertheimer’s rabbinic interviewees asks:
How does a culture of narcissism[,] over[-]entitlement and personalization manifest itself in terms of Jewish communal engagement? How can an iPod generation find rigorous exploration of Talmud and Jewish literature compelling and life-sustaining? How can those taught to walk away/delete/unfriend on a whim be taught [and] . . . be stimulated to discover a spiritual practice that actually requires practice? Is there a way to cultivate a sense of obligation, enchantment, [and] spiritual hunger in a generation [that] is essentially able to log off or sign out in all other aspects of life? (p. 209).
In a concluding chapter, Wertheimer seems to tire of his objective stance, and is more forthcoming with his frustrations about the New American Judaism. It is entitled “A New Remix,” and takes its name from the combining of new musical media with old musical lines to come up with a new-old form of entertainment. He sees this as an apt way of explaining where just about everyone in Jewish life is going. Having freed themselves from tired denominations, fossilized institutions and ideas they don’t relate to, the significant number of Jews who still care are experimenting with ways to hang on to the old by freshening it up. “Let’s throw things against a wall to see what will stick. And what does stick will become the Judaism of tomorrow” (p. 267).
Making Judaism fit the times, rather than working to make the times fit Judaism, has been a colossal failure.
Some trends emerge. Much of what is happening is Jews picking, choosing and innovating. How much are they really guided by what Judaism meant in the past? “Ever more Jews choose whether they wish to identify as Jewish and then define for themselves what such a decision means.” But making that determination free of any strictures from outside is non-negotiable to those who have embraced the myth of the sovereign self. People can believe that they are independent and autonomous, but they are ignoring the confining power of group expectations and norms. They have become, in their worship of autonomy, a “herd of independent minds” (p. 258). The upshot is that “in practice, utilitarian, therapeutic, and secular liberal assumptions guide the behavior of contemporary American Jews far more than do Jewish teachings” (p. 259).
If what Jews are doing is little more than aping the mores of the surrounding culture, how long can it survive? While Jews are quick to boast of Judaism’s ability to adapt and change, what happens when everything is negotiable? Perhaps, he asks, Judaism “also has survived precisely because of what has not changed” (p. 264).
Some say they really don’t care. They don’t see themselves as religious; rather, they are spiritual. Wertheimer is not consoled. He cites sociologist Nancy Ammerman. “People who do not have a religious community or some circle of focused spiritual conversation do not do very well at maintaining a spiritual outlook on life. . . . One of the most striking results of our research . . . is the degree to which participation in organized religion matters” (p. 265).
He makes his own suggestions, drawing from a past Judaism that worked. First, frequency of participation is important. He poignantly points to Franz Kafka’s “Letter to My Father”:
As a young man, I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me for not making an effort . . . to cling to a similar, insignificant scrap. It was . . . a joke, not even a joke (p. 269).
Second, it was unhealthy to move Judaism to the synagogue. If Judaism will continue outside of Orthodoxy, it must find its way back to the home as the center of Jewish life. Third, Jewish literacy counts. Focusing entirely on positive experiences and social action will not work.
The New American Judaism is a chronicle of how our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters have grasped at spiritual straws and come up empty-handed. We watch as those aboard a Jewish Titanic, having struck the glacier of autonomy and assimilation, do not just re-arrange the deck chairs. Rather, they spend their last precious time aboard debating how to reupholster them.
There is no room for triumphalism or schadenfreude here. We are witnessing tragedy—pure, unmitigated tragedy. Millions of Jews are disappearing, but not because they ever had an opportunity to understand or experience the beauty of what they are giving up. The vast majority of them are victims of choices made by their forebears in earlier generations—and many of those choices were the consequences of the many manifestations of our long victimization through galut.
The last Rashi in Chumash records the two greatest accomplishments of Moshe’s career. One of them is breaking the luchot in the aftermath of the Golden Calf. Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt”l, explained that Moshe brilliantly understood that this is the only way to bring a Jewish soul back from the precipice. Many will reject parts of the Torah, believing that they have their own way to understand it. Tell them that God is severing His relationship with them, and they can be shocked back to repentance. Moshe’s breaking the tablets did not tell them that Hashem was angry with them. It told them that they were being utterly cut off from the faith of their ancestors. The message got through to them and shocked them into the process of return.
Many Jews are far beyond the point that this threat has any meaning to them. But there is something poignant, even majestic in beholding the obstinacy of the non-Orthodox clergy and educators—as absolutely wrong and misguided as they are—who refuse to give up on Judaism, even where it appears pointless to go on. If only they would understand that something inside won’t let them let go of their rightful patrimony!
At the same time, it would be foolish to see ourselves as if watching safely from shore. The forces that have wreaked havoc with the older forms of non-Orthodox religious expression threaten our own community as well. Too many in our own ranks think that they can make Orthodoxy more popular and acceptable by reinventing it to conform to contemporary mores and expectations. If this book demonstrates one thing, it is that (paraphrasing Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) making Judaism fit the times, rather than working to make the times fit Judaism, has been a colossal failure.
The most important words in the quote from Rabbi Lamm with which we opened this review are “with a heavy heart.” Seeing the end coming, seeing the ship going down, we must redouble our efforts in plucking as many out of the waters of assimilation as possible. We have to rescue them, one precious soul at a time.
1. “YU Chancellor: Non-Orthodox Judaism on the Way Out,” the Jewish News of Northern California, May 15, 2009, https://www.jweekly.com/2009/05/15/yu-chancellor-non-orthodox-judaism-on-the-way-out1/.
2. Jack Wertheimer, “What You Don’t Know About the Ultra-Orthodox,” Commentary (July 2014), https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/what-you-dont-know-about-the-ultra-orthodox/; Jack Wertheimer, “Why the Lubavitch Movement Thrives in the Absence of a Living Rebbe,” Jewish Action 74, no. 4 (spring 2014): 26-28, https://jewishaction.com/jewish-world/lubavitch-movement-thrives-absence-living-rebbe/.
3. Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen, “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope,” Mosaic, November 2, 2014, https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/uncategorized/2014/11/the-pew-survey-reanalyzed/; Jack Wertheimer, “The Ten Commandments of America’s Jews,” Commentary (June 2012), https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-ten-commandments-of-americas-jews/.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is a contributing editor to Jewish Action.