Stop Jack Wertheimer – I


Stop him before he writes again.

At least that’s what they must be saying up in Morningside Heights in the inner sanctum of the Conservative movement, in the wake of his latest Commentary salvo, The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism. As in his whole series of articles in Commentary over the last several years, describing and diagnosing the progressive disintegration of secular American Jewry, Wertheimer pulls no punches.

Here are a few of the money quotes:

Of the theological brochure the movement got around to publishing in 1988, he writes: “Significantly, it was not until the late 20th century that the movement even tried to produce a statement of principles. Attempting to harmonize irreconcilable beliefs, the resulting document, Emet ve’Emunah, was virtually incomprehensible.”

He also bears out a point made not long ago on this site by Kobre (but which appeared towards the end of a characteristically long piece, which is why some may have missed it) regarding Conservatism’s selective abandonment of pluralism, at least the intra-movement kind, with this damning indictment:

When religious traditionalists dominated the movement’s key institutions, the tactic adopted by proponents of innovation was to argue for pluralism. Rather than accept a single understanding of Jewish law, they pleaded, let multiple voices be heard. Let there be majority and minority rulings, with both treated as equally valid, and let each rabbi decide what is best for his or her congregation. During the past quarter-century, the pluralists triumphed, winning the battle over women’s religious status and most recently over homosexuality.

Now, suddenly, pluralism doesn’t look so attractive. How can it be, the innovators ask, that the Conservative movement, which trains women to become rabbis and cantors, still permits its congregations to refuse to hire women for those positions? How can a movement undertaking to ordain gay and lesbian Jews tolerate legal opinions that would bar homosexuals from positions of religious leadership?

He also dares to raise the question that has been debated by movement insiders for years, but almost always in the private sphere of the RA journal and the like: “Has the Conservative movement fulfilled its historical role, and should it call it quits?”

One must understand that this is no simple, innocuous question about a tired, has-been abstraction known as “the Conservative movement.” This concerns, and threatens, the livelihood, prestige and very self-image of thousands of movement functionaries and lay leaders. In other words, THIS IS MY PENSION YOU”RE TALKING ABOUT! And we don’t discuss these matters in public, particularly in front of those to our right and left who’d relish our demise.

But Wertheimer takes up the issue nonetheless, rejecting every current idea out there for reviving his movement and proposing his own, which we’ll discuss in Part II.

In the meantime, I conclude with the following. Writing about the significant defections from Conservatism in recent decades, Wertheimer notes the

smaller but noteworthy minority of Conservative Jews . . . gravitating to Orthodox synagogues. . . . These particular switchers tend to be among the best-educated products of day schools, summer camps, and youth programs . . . . Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them are drawn to Orthodoxy less for its ideology than for its strong communal life. They are seeking a religious support system for themselves and their children . . . .

(emphasis mine)

Curiously, in this paragraph, Dr. Wertheimer, the eminent scholar, much-published historian and collaborator of the eminent sociologist Steven M. Cohen, turns into a teller of anecdotes. Suddenly, in an otherwise well-substantiated article, he is at a loss for hard scientific data and falls back on “anecdotal evidence” — gathered where and by whom? in the local mikve? — to support a claim that backhandedly seeks to convey that many –how many? — of the ba’alei t’shuva who fill our synagogues couldn’t possibly have been drawn there by our fundamentalist ideology — what well-adjusted person would fall for that? — but for the “religious support system” that enables them to go on living their Conservative ideology as Marranos in Flatbush and Monsey.

If he has the data to support the assertion, let him produce it. Until then, this seems like nothing but a retread of the deeply paternalistic canard that non-Orthodox leaders have voiced in the past about young secular Jews becoming Orthodox because they sought a refuge from their unstable, unemployed, drug-and-promiscuity- filled lives on the outside.

An open invitation (and a sincere one; if you know him, let him know about it): I’ll be happy to host Dr. Wertheimer in my black-hat, fundamentalist rabbi-led shul any Shabbos, and introduce him to our president, a charming young professional, well-adjusted fellow who not so many years ago was a leader (perhaps even president) of his Conservative synagogue and who certainly does subscribe to Orthodox ideology and loves the rabbi (and who, by the way, doesn’t wear a black hat, neither in shul nor while on his motorcycle).

Or to the numerous other well-adjusted, successful Reform and Conservative Jews I know who dragged themselves, “kicking and screaming” internally, out of their secular lifestyles to Orthodoxy because, well, you don’t ignore the truth when you find it (and find out how others have been keeping it from you, willfully or otherwise, for decades).

So much for anecdotes.

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Steve Brizel
7 years 11 months ago

Jack Werthheimer is IMO a very intelligent and sagacious student of American Jewish life. In many ways, he is a great fan for Torah Judaism. IMO, his columns on the CJ that he once knew are an obituary of sorts. The question remains where he will go if CJ continues its leftward drift.

7 years 11 months ago

Larry Lenhoff responding to my earlier post:
“Just off the top of my head, …. died stillborn without my ever hearing of them.”
You hopefully realize that you claimed “calls for censorship” but you have sited 2 book bans. A p’sak about cell phones or internet is not censorship. Those two book bans occurred a few years back. I don’t recommend impugning a large community that “you hears calls far more often” as if it happened every other week and then answer “just off the top of my head” with a bunch of examples that mostly do not substaniate your claim.

Me: And it is quite clear that the heterdox movements have a long, long history of de facto censorship, althought they are far too fashionable to call it that.
Larry: I’d be interested in examples of this.
For starters, a complete neglect to teach traditional sources or even acknowledge their existence in my many years of Reform Hebrew school. Even God was not mentioned.

Dovid Eliezrie
7 years 11 months ago

As a Chabad Schliach in a subruban area with a Shul full of refugees from the Conservative movement I can say that there is a model that is working. Whle many of these are not fully Shomer Mitzvahs they are being encouraged to greater commitment in Yiddiskiet. And as the movment slips further away from tradition I expect the numbers will continue to grow.

As for the reactions to Dr. Wertheimers article, I think he should be commended for the intellectual courage, (something some of us in the frum world could use) to clearly lay out from his point fo view the failings in the movement he has invested his life in.

Finally a note to Lawrence M Reisman, (and I don’t want to start a Chabad conversation-you can email me privately if you wish there is no borienu crowd (we do have meshcistim but that’s it). your statement is a simply not true.

Dovid Eliezrie

Lawrence M. Reisman
7 years 11 months ago

“The classic Sefardi model does not work in America
Is that because we are Ashkenazic controlled-I am Ashkenazic. In Israel Sefardi model exists for the Sefardim” It’s because in America, a large part of the secular Jewish population chooses to express its Jewish identity via synagogue affiliation. In Israel, the secular population, whether sefardi or Ashkenazi, has no use for synagogues. It has nothing to do with Sefardi vs. Ashkenazi. It’s the difference between American and Israeli society with regard to the place of the synagogue in Jewish life.

7 years 11 months ago

The classic Sefardi model does not work in America

Is that because we are Ashkenazic controlled-I am Ashkenazic. In Israel Sefardi model exists for the Sefardim.