Everything Old Is New Again—and That's the Problem
By MICAH SACHS
THE NEW JUDAISM
The Way Forward on Challenging Issues from Intermarriage to Jewish Identity
By Rabbi Dr. Arthur Blecher
256 pages. Palgrave Macmillan. $24.95.
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The title of Rabbi Arthur Blecher's new book, The New American Judaism, calls to mind American Judaism, Jonathan Sarna's
comprehensive 2005 chronicle of the American Jewish experience. But where Sarna
celebrated the amazing progression of American Jewry, Blecher deconstructs it.
Blecher surveys the New American Judaism and finds it lacking; what he seeks is
a new New American Judaism.
Blecher comes to his project without the same lofty credentials that Sarna
brought to his: Sarna is a professor of Judaic studies at Brandeis University,
and American Judaism was the culmination of his work as the official chief
historian of the 350th anniversary of Jews' arrival in the colonies.
Blecher, on the other hand, prides himself on his anti-institutional pedigree.
He was ordained as a Conservative rabbi but has worked outside the major
denominations for nearly 30 years, and is now a psychotherapist and independent
To Blecher, the Judaism of 20th century America is quite distinct
from previous expressions of the religion. It is dominated by denominations
that resemble Protestant institutions more than classic Jewish ones. Rabbis
have unprecedented authority over religious life. And Judaism's worldview—colored
as it is by the trauma of the Holocaust, the joy (and anxiety) over the
creation of Israel, and deep worries over the price of successful assimilation—is
profoundly different than the perspectives of previous centers of Jewish life.
The irony is that as different as American Judaism is to previous incarnations
of Judaism, no one will admit it. Poring through books, journals, and sermons,
he finds endless references to continuity, authenticity, and survival. Even the
website of an innovative movement like Reconstructionism stresses that Judaism
is "an evolving religious civilization." But where the movements
claim evolution, Blecher sees revolution.
But what's the harm in that? Don't all institutions manipulate history to
bolster their legitimacy? The harm, as Blecher sees it, is that the fixation on
survival and authenticity creates a distorted perception of what it means to be
Jewish. Worse, it calcifies Judaism in institutions and ideologies that he
finds outmoded and exclusive.
Blecher dissects the myths of Jewish continuity. Consider the patriarchs
Abraham, Joshua, and Isaac. Their religion is barely recognizable to modern
eyes. There were no holidays, no temples, no rabbis, no Torah; worship was
organized around animal sacrifices. Men burned goats to show their piety, while
women, according to Genesis, would cry and wail to get God's attention.
Or take the more centralized form of Judaism that followed. The Hebrews flocked
to The Temple in Jerusalem—the only official place of worship—where a
hereditary priest class would sacrifice animals while another hereditary class
of religious leaders, the Levites, would sing. Only with the Babylonian exile
in 586 B.C.E. did the institutions, rituals, and liturgy we now associate with
Judaism begin to take shape. Rabbis emerged, local houses of worship were founded,
scholars codified such rituals as candle-lighting on Shabbat, the Passover
seder, and the Jewish wedding ceremony (as well as other familiar customs too
numerous to count). But still much of what we associate with traditional,
"authentic" Judaism did not yet exist—the laws of kashrut were not written until the
The myths continue into the modern era. The most intellectually powerful section
of the book flattens the myth of 19th-century shtetl life, which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
glorified as "the golden period in Jewish history." Blecher documents
how the notion of the shtetl as a
haven of communal cohesiveness, family togetherness, and extreme piety was a
creation of Yiddish fiction writers in the early 20th century. With
the massive success of Fiddler on the
Roof, fiction curdled into fact. But as Blecher points out, some of the
communities that Heschel catalogued were neither small nor all-Jewish. Nor was
the Pale of Settlement the social paradise many like to imagine: parents
arranged marriages between children as young as 13, anyone who did not fit
strict social norms was an outcast and women enjoyed few rights. As Brandeis
scholar ChaeRan Freeze showed in her 2001 book
Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial
Russia, Jewish divorce rates in 19th-century Russia were far
higher than general rates of divorce. And if the shtetls were such idyllic places, why did millions leave them for
America in the early 1900s?
Unfortunately, Blecher is on less sure footing in his dismantling of the
"myth" that intermarriage has led to population decline. He argues
that intermarriage is a boon to Judaism and is responsible for Jewish growth.
It's not that such a phenomenon is not possible—it's already happened in Boston—but it
hasn't occurred on a national level yet, by any measure. He even critiques
inmarriage on the grounds that inbreeding raises the risk of genetic diseases.
He's not wrong, but the Jewish-American population is already so genetically
diverse from intermarriage, conversion, adoption and immigration that we are generations
away from suffering from the health problems that afflict isolated ethnically
But he brings much common sense to the debate on intermarriage. While many see
the rise in intermarriage in the '70s and '80s as solely the byproduct of
assimilation, he points to broader cultural factors: the flowering of feminism,
a greater acceptance of cultural differences (among Jews and non-Jews), and
changing expectations of romantic love. Further, he exposes rabbis' hypocrisy:
"why have [the denominations] singled out intermarriage for public
rejection? No denomination has issued a similar edict regarding Jews who work
on the Sabbath, who eat pork or who commit felonies; they can get married by a
rabbi as long as both partners say they are Jewish."
The modern obsession over survival, authenticity, and continuity may have led
to communal cohesiveness, but it has also led to a sense of Jewish identity
that is spiritually and morally shallow. For too many modern Jews, the purpose
of being Jewish isn't about theology or lifestyle, it's about keeping Judaism
alive. But why? To what end? As more Jews with mixed cultural heritages come of
age and the Holocaust recedes from direct memory, Judaism needs to do better at
selling why Judaism matters. The old pitch of dor v'dor—"from generation to generation"—won't fetch a
very high price in the 21st century marketplace of ideas.
But as skillfully as Blecher deconstructs Judaism's present, he falters in his
proposals for its future. He claims that Judaism is flourishing outside the
denominations. His main proof? The Internet, and its galaxy of sites devoted to
subjects of Jewish interest. Yes, one could study the Talmud solely via the
Internet. But that doesn't mean many do. As the editor of one minor star in
that galaxy, I know from experience that Jewish experiences on the Internet are
a supplement, not a replacement, for real-world involvement in a Jewish
community. And for better or for worse, most real-world Jewish activities
happen in synagogues of the major movements.
Just as the old new American Judaism had its bogeymen (intermarriage,
assimilation and anti-Semitism), Blecher has his: the denominations and the
rabbis. He clearly longs for a post-denominational world. But Blecher seems
conflicted about what role he wants rabbis to take in the new American Judaism.
After explaining how individuals can and should lead their own lifecycle
ceremonies, he says, rabbis "must move forward from our accustomed flexing
of clerical muscle in the name of Jewish law lest we marginalize the American
rabbinate and decrease its influence." But isn't decreasing that influence
exactly what he'd like to see?
In his tarring of all the denominations and their rabbis as tainted, he ignores
much good that is happening. With Arnold Eisen at its helm, the Conservative
movement may be on its way to a sea change in thinking about the place of the
intermarried. The Reform movement continues to proactively engage traditionally
alienated Jews as well as other religions. Even some in the Orthodox community
are becoming a shade more accepting of the intermarried. And with their day
schools, summer camps, youth groups, and trips to Israel, the movements offer
the young opportunities for broader Jewish connections that independent congregations
and havurot can't match.
But while he never outright says it, it's clear that Blecher doesn't consider
his polemic the final word on the shape of the Jewish future. It is a starting
point for conversations—and a provocative one at that. Like all good
manifestos, it illuminates, infuriates, and incites in equal measure.