The New American Judaism

How Jews Practice Their Religion Today

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Jack Wertheimer
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     2018.
     400 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691181295.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Veteran scholar Jack Wertheimer’s The New American Judaism is both grand in its scope and detailed in its attempt to catalog Jewish practice in the US today. Set within the context of a “religious recession” in the US and among Jews, Wertheimer aims to provide an inventory of “the lived Judaism of American Jews” (4). Framed by insights from scholarship on lived religion, Wertheimer’s aspiration is ambitious: a survey of American Jewish religious life that considers happenings in conventional synagogues as well as “unexpected developments at the margins” that Wertheimer argues are “flourishing—and increasingly influencing the core” (7).

Wertheimer admits that the ideal method for a project intending to report upon the everyday practices of ordinary (rather than elite) American Jews is a series of ethnographic studies in various settings. However, he takes a different course, interviewing over 160 rabbis across geographical regions, denominations, and nondenominational settings. He supplements this data with understandings gained from informal discussions with “knowledgeable observers” and hundreds of visits to synagogues as a guest speaker or visitor, as well as the 2013 Pew Research Foundation’s study of Jewish Americans.

In part 1 Wertheimer begins with a chapter on how non-Orthodox Jews find meaning in Judaism, discussing rabbis’ understandings of their congregants’ beliefs in God and prayer, their service attendance, and what Wertheimer describes as a “new commandment” invented in the 1980s, “the injunction to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world” (41). In a second chapter, Wertheimer surveys non-Orthodox Jewish practice, finding that much of it is focused on children’s rites of passage and other life-cycle events; that ritual in synagogues is increasingly replacing home-based practice; that services from religious entrepreneurs are to some extent supplanting community-based ceremonies; and that practice varies based on denomination, geography, gender, intermarriage, and generation. In a final chapter, “Diversity among the Orthodox,” Wertheimer describes the various types of Orthodox Jews in America—Haredi, Modern Orthodox, and Sephardim—including basic historical background about each, some discussion of contemporary practice, and issues arising from conflicts between tradition and modern culture.

Wertheimer devotes part 2 to discussions of the Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox movements, plus a chapter that considers both the utility and failings of Jewish American denominationalism generally. In part 3, Wertheimer considers a variety of efforts to increase and intensify Jewish practice. In “Not Your Grandparent’s Synagogue,” he describes a variety of inventive and sometimes elaborate activities within congregations, including attending to music and choreography, making prayer services more participatory, expanding religious education for adults and families, putting Israel “on display” in religious programming, and welcoming “Jews thought to have been marginalized” (200). Wertheimer suggests that one reason all this effort is necessary is that “a great many Jews have difficulty engaging in public prayer and finding it personally meaningful” (208). He devotes another chapter to Orthodox outreach programming. Given the great scope and the large number of American Jews involved—an “estimated six to seven thousand men and women working across the country” (220)—in Orthodox religious outreach to non-Orthodox Jews, this movement cannot help but affect the American Jewish experience today for both the Orthodox and non. In “Looking for Judaism in Unconventional Places” Wertheimer describes Jewish religious practice in diverse locations such as the Burning Man festival, bars, and performing arts spaces, as well as “indie minyanim.” Sadly, he relegates the small but innovative and long established Reconstructionist movement to only three pages in a section on “niche synagogues,” alongside the passionate Jewish Renewal movement and LGBT synagogues. 

Wertheimer’s concluding chapter speaks of “a new remix” in American Judaism. He decries “utilitarian, therapeutic, and secular liberal assumptions” that he believes have overshadowed Jewish teachings in guiding the lives of contemporary American Jews, worrying that a religion so redefined “cannot set forth obligations” (259). In the new remix, rabbis promote “religion as a means to personal fulfillment” (261), speak of commandments as “good deeds,” and risk losing the richness of Jewish teaching for “a pale imitation of the dominant civic culture.” With such over-accommodation to American society, Wertheimer worries, “what remains distinctive about Jewish teachings?” (263). Wertheimer concludes that emphasis must be placed on increasing both Jewish literacy and the frequency of participation in religious life in all settings, including in the “irreplaceable institution” of the synagogue; that a sense of Jewish peoplehood remains important; and that “Jewish religious expression” must be “guided by intentionality” (271).

Although Wertheimer aims “to find a sweet spot between a posture of Olympian detachment and one of subjective opinion” (15), his evaluations often reflect a conservative leaning. Some examples: Wertheimer critiques the popular focus on tikkun olamthat crosses much of contemporary American Judaism, placing social justice activism and social service provision as central to Jewish practice. Rather than seeing this as long rooted in American Jewish experience (cf. Steven R. Weisman, The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became a Modern Tradition, Simon & Schuster, 2018), Wertheimer views it as part of a relatively recent reduction of rich, complex tradition to “golden-rule religion.” He is critical of many attempts to make traditional holidays and liturgy meaningful for contemporary times, quoting, for example, Tevi Troy’s barb that the Jewish “New Year for Trees” is now an occasion to “indoctrinate children in environmental activism” (45). He is disturbed by lay worries about the ethics and safety of traditional circumcision, likening these concerns to “charges hurled at Jews by anti-Semitic polemicists over two millennia” (47). One wonders about how different Wertheimer’s findings would have been had he drawn upon interviews with “ordinary Jews in their local communities rather than [on] the preoccupations of the elites” (11)—as he describes the goal of research on lived religion. Instead, Wertheimer offers a wide-ranging picture of American Jewish clerical and professional understandings of contemporary American Jewish practice. Nevertheless,The New American Judaism is an extraordinarily well-sourced view of American Judaism today with great reach.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. Lynn Carr is Professor of Sociology at Seton Hall University.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jack Wertheimer is Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape, Family Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.

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