The Ten Commandments – The Sequel

Orthodox triumphalists love Dr. Jack Wertheimer, because he is the ultimate insider critic. A professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he is so often devastating in no-holds-barred depiction of what is wrong with his own community. His latest, “The Ten Commandments of America’s Jews,” (Commentary, June) will not disappoint those for whom pointing out the problems of others is a more satisfying pastime than proposing solutions for our own.

If the original Decalogue was designed to contain the entire Torah within, these ten commandments can be said to embrace the entire anti-Torah of contemporary American Jewish life. The full article is “must” reading even for non-triumphalists, at least for those who need a sobering reminder of what we must get past in dealing with our non-Orthodox (but engaged) brothers and sisters. I will therefore only offer the short form of the ten, as an inducement to read the full version:

I. I am the Lord your God, Who took you
out of Egypt to ‘repair the world.’
II. You shall not be judgmental.
III. You shall be pluralistic.
IV. You shall personalize your Judaism.
V. Meaning, meaning shall you pursue.
VI. You shall create caring communities.
VII. You shall encourage the airing
of all views.
VIII. You shall not be tribal.
IX. You shall celebrate your Jewishness.
X. You shall hold the Jewish
conversation in public.

One sample section of prose might also be in order. My choice would be the articles’s close:

So much of Jewish life in this country continues to oscillate between high-minded invocations of the need to repair the world and endless rounds of catering to subjective tastes and whims disguised as self-validating beliefs: “This works for me, so it must be right.” If rabbis indulge in such solipsistic legerdemain, is it any wonder that those who know no better conceive of Jewish identity as entirely subjective, devoid of collective obligation, and subject to no authority but the passing dictates of one’s conscience?

Perhaps the time has come to take a fresh look at the original Ten Commandments, which open with a different I: the voice of a commanding God reminding a specific people of its particular historical experience and proceeding to issue judgmental commands and injunctions. That Decalogue, after all, has had a long shelf life, and is likely to outlast the self-defeating ten commandments of today’s American Jews.

In their glee for savoring the dim view Wertheimer holds of the religious depth of American Jews, the triumphalists may not realize how much he is really mocking them. Wertheimer is so much more effective than they are because he doesn’t descend into the biting cynicism we see so much of in our own press. While the most important commandment of some of our gifted writers is “Thou shalt loudly proclaim ‘Gotcha’ at every opportunity,” Wertheimer doesn’t do so at all. He doesn’t have to. He makes his points by illustration and quiet understatement. Sometimes, reading our internal press gives the impression that we suffer from a surfeit of passive-aggressive personalities. Dr. Wertheimer just doesn’t come across that way.
More importantly, what we ought to take away from this article is the ability of a person who deeply loves his community to be so unapologetic and honest about its shortcomings. He readily shows where the non-Orthodox made their crucial mistakes.

Who among us is ready to do the same – to show us, without equivocation, where we are going wrong?

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13 Responses

  1. Aaron says:

    Surprised that there is no reference to putting egalitarianism above all values.

    In the rush to eradicate differences, why shouldn’t I be called up as a Kohen to perform the Priestly Blessing since I’m a ben ben bat Kohen?

    Scratch anyone who espouses egelitarianism (sic) and you’ll find someone with a personal EGEL which is placed above Leviticus.

    And Wertheimer neglects the trend to declare all meat treif, as if there is no tikkun olam until everyone is a vegan and only eats what they grow locally. Scratch a vegan who would reject the eating of one kezayis a year of korbon Pesach and you’ve found another person who puts their “ism” above Torah, dangerously veering toward equating the rights of animals with the rights of humans. So much of halacha seeks to break us of habit. The Orthodox chain-smoker stops for 25 hours a week. The Orthodox glutton fasts for at least 2 full days a year, if not additional partial fast days. If we learn that we are not to say that we hate bacon but that we refrain because G-d tells us not to eat it, then an Orthodox vegan should say that he’ll eat his one kezayis a year (with the minimum shita) and may those days come soon.

    Lastly, when should we anticipate Conservative and Reform Tanachs bowdlerized to remove at the printer (as they’re now doing with Mark Twain*) what they find politically offensive?

    *NewSouth Books is publishing a bowdlerized edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The n-word is being replaced with the word “slave.”

  2. Menachem Lipkin says:

    “Who among us is ready to do the same – to show us, without equivocation, where we are going wrong?”


    [YA – But who shows me – frequently – where I am going wrong? My wife! So why don’t we just cut out the middleman…]

  3. Bob Miller says:

    “Our” media typically shun frank public discussion about issues of communal governance and policy. They often pretend that well-known problems don’t exist and are not obvious to outsiders. They often don’t care at all about outsiders’ perceptions or even those of our rank and file. Other times, our press berates outsiders for daring to highlight things our press hushes up.

    How long can our communal hot-potato issues be sent back to committee, ostensibly for closed-door discussion, without ever being resolved?

  4. DF says:

    Great, great blurb. Agreed with everything wholeheaertedly, except the last line. It implies that as of yet, no one orthodox has attempted to diagnose where we have gone wrong and where we are going wrong But in fact, MANY have done so. The problem is that the solution requires frank admission (tacitly, at least) of enormous failures, in many areas. For too many of us, that is anethema.

  5. Dovid says:

    Great post, Rabbi Adlerstein. Both amusing and poignant.

    By and large, the only ones doing this in the Orthodox world are the bloggers, who are roundly condemned by the powers that be for doing so.

  6. Educator says:

    I can’t disagree more about the need for honest and frank assessments of our communal ills.

    In the 1940s and 50s, students were assimilating by the 1000s. Many individuals worked day and night to found an educational system of day schools to address this wrong. By 1969, Torah U’Mesorah had established 388 schools educating 83,000 students

    In the 1960s, families with children with significant developmental disabilities had no Jewish framework to support them. Many individuals worked day and night to found HASC to provide clinical and educational services to this population. It currently educates approximately 1800 students a year and provides a camp for 300.

    In the 1970s, children who were neglected or abused were forced into non-Jewish foster care. Many individuals worked day and night to found an Organization, Ohel, to address these grevious wrongs while keeping the children within the community. Its work is too extensive to list but includes residential homes for mentally ill adults, homes for abused teens and women, foster care for children, counselling and many other services.

    In the 1980s, families were being crushed emotionally and physically by the tragedy of childhood illness. Many individuals worked day and night to found an organization, Chai Lifeline, to provide them relief and support. They are now a national organization that provides help to thousands of families and also run two summer camps for severely ill children.

    In the 1990s, religious women were abused and had no where safe to turn. Many individuals worked day and night to found an organization, Shalom Task Force, to educate the public about this hidden tragedy and to save the abused women.

    In the 2000s, children are abused by pedophiles. Teenagers are involved in dangerous and self injurious behavior. Many individuals . . . are doing nothing except commenting! The biggest advocates are going from town to town to raise awareness while pocketing $1500 in speaking fees per engagement. They are writing articles in the multiple weekly newspapers while earning 7-10 cents a word for their articles. No effective response to the problems have been developed even though there has been over 10 years of awareness.

    There are problems in our society. However, frank discussions are not doing anything to solve them aside from making us feel better about ourselves. Perhaps, the proliferation of media devoted to our community, both online and in print, is squandering public emotion and time. Perhaps, we would do better encouraging people, when they encounter a problem in their own community, to become leaders and try to solve the problem themselves.

    The Jewish media, instead, promotes the idea that somehow through publicity someone else will solve the problem. More publications are being sold then ever. Mishpacha, Ami, Binah, Yated, Hamodia,,,, The Jewish Press and THe Jewish Week somehow manage to find plenty to write about every week. Most of it is critical of our community. They have financial incentive to publicize problems and none to solve them.

    Maybe that is why less is being accomplished. As a community, we excuse ourselves by blaming the Rabbis for doing nothing. We think reading is the same thing as effort. In truth, if we know about a problem and don’t work to correct it then we have no one else but ourselves to blame. Writing about it is not the same as solving the problem. I think we should start demanding from ourselves and the communal activists that we see results. Otherwise we will continue the cycle of talk and doing nothing while feeling good about ourselves.

  7. BenShaul says:

    Educator: “In the 2000s, children are abused by pedophiles. Teenagers are involved in dangerous and self injurious behavior. Many individuals . . . are doing nothing except commenting!”
    The analogy makes has a nice rhetorical flair but you are attacking a straw man. You are missing some of the wonderful work being done to directly address these problems. From Debbie Fox at Aleinu in LA, to the work being done botei din set up in a number of communities to specifically address pedophilia and abuse -much IS being done.
    There are numerous organizations that are working with teenagers ……and perhaps you can create a list of them for us to support, as YOUR help in solving the problems you mentioned. I can assure you that all of them could and would be doing more if they had more funding.

  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    Yitzchok Adlerstein said:
    “Who among us is ready to do the same – to show us,
    without equivocation, where we are going wrong?”

    I suggest that we listen to people who have been Baalei Teshuvah for many years.
    They see the world of Orthodox Judaism from both the outside and the inside.
    The same could be true of people who have been Gerei Tzedek for many years.

    But I doubt that anyone with real influence will ever listen to them,
    even though Moshe listened to Yitro.

  9. lacosta says:

    dear educator—

    maybe the problem is that many of today’s issues are such that some barrier in haimish society won’t give…

    eg the powers that be wont masser abusers; making a living in the broadest requirements can’t be encouraged; the kabuki dance that is the rigged game in shidduchim [eg double X chromosomes be damned…] can’t change; the rigid anti-zionism and all that entails is de rigour; the bogeymen that are any eidah except ours remain out-of -bounds etc etc

    the constructs of haredi society can’t change so quickly … maybe dor hamidbar= in this case the vestiges of the Old Country need die out– but i fear that visionary voices , such as a r adlerstein , can’t climb high enough up the haredi food chain to matter in the end…..

  10. L. Oberstein says:

    Over the years if an organism cannot adapt, it dies out. Eastman Kodak was a great firm until people stopped usinf film in cameras. Print journalism produced great magazines and newspapers rfeplete with correspondents all over the world ,until the free internet made subscription to print media obsolete for many people. Conservative Judaism answered the percieved needs of the second generation children of Eastern European immigrants who didn’t want to be Reform but felt orthodoxy was not sustainable in the new world.They were right for a time, but that time has passed and they must reconfigure if they are to survive. Wertheimer is astute. What he is describing is the current state of affairs in the hetrodox movements. Whereas once orthodoxy viewed theother “streams” as competition, today orthodoxy is on a high of triumphalism, based on good reasons for such a feeling.
    The other side of the coin, which concerns me greatly is not that orthodoxy lacks self criticism, as you write, but that what is left for the Jewish People if only the right wing version of orthodoxy continues to grow and take over the landscape. If I were not orthodox myself, i would view contemporary ultra orthodoxy as an invasive species that is driving out the less hardy plants in the garden. Only a small minority of thinking ,secularly educated , western Jews will sublimat their intellectual curiousity and their broad involvement in all aspects of life to join those who are taking over our branch of the religion.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Great article about a great article! If one reads Dr Wertheimer’s articles on related issues, and did not know that he was a high ranking JTS official, one would be hard pressed to know that his views are probably more traditional than those voiced by some LW MO spokesmen.

  12. L. Oberstein says:

    I was told the following by a leader of a major yeshiva. In Baltimore, there lives a shochet who travels to shecht for Satmar. He was called into a meeting and told that if he continues to allow his wife to drive a car, they will forbid his shechitah. he told them that he is out of town much of the week, has carpools (a feature of out of town life not found in Brooklyn’s chassidic enclaves).They were adamant and would brook no compromise, a woman cannot be allowed to drive a car, end of story.
    My source told me that the numerical increase in Chassidim has created the reality that Litvishe shochtim are no longer acceptable and shochtim must practic chassidism. For business reasons, this has become the norm. The person who told me this used it to point out that even the normative yeshiva world is being squeezed out by the numerical growth and ideological domnance of the most uncompromising elements. We might be “mevakshei Hashem” in the eyes of Rabbi Solomon, but our practices are being eclipsed.
    We can not longer use women’s pictures in much of mainstream PR in the yeshiva world. A descendent of Rav Elya Lapian told me yesterday that Artscroll airbrushed out the female children of the rabbi when they printed a historic picture of him and his family. I was told that even Rav Xhaim Brisker included his wife’s name on a wedding invitation but I was informed that I had to write the man’s name and his spouse (in Hebrew) and not use the name of the mother of the bride. At least, for the moment, the bride’s name can still be on the invitation.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by L. Oberstein June 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm:

    Jews in general have lived as a minority for a long time. If some sector of Orthodoxy that we belong to becomes a small minority of Orthodoxy as a whole, it’s not the end of the world That minority will find ways to communicate electronically or in print as it wishes, and to get meat and other food that is kosher by its standards. The only obstacle would be its, maybe irrational, desire to have the majority approve.

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