As the flagship seminary of Conservative Judaism searches for a new chancellor, a rumored candidate for the position is pressing ahead with his controversial policy pronouncements.
In recent weeks, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has advanced a traditionalist assessment of how his movement should address intermarriage and the relatively low birthrates among non-Orthodox Jews. In each case, Wertheimer, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to retiring JTS chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, advocates policies and employs rhetoric likely to offend some liberal and centrist elements of the movement.
When contacted by the Forward, several prominent female members of the movement took issue with portions of an essay on low birthrates. The piece was published in the October issue of Commentary. In the essay, “Jews and the Jewish Birthrate,” Wertheimer lamented the relatively low birthrate among non-Orthodox Jews, held up the Orthodox community as a model to be emulated for its advocacy of values, and called on rabbis and communal leaders in the liberal movements to urge their followers to have more children.
Wertheimer’s essay comes just weeks after the Orthodox Union republished an essay on its Web site criticizing working mothers and hailing women who opt to stay at home and raise their children.
In his Commentary essay, Wertheimer argued that “larger
social forces at work, from the sexual revolution… to a predisposition among the best-educated to regard family itself as a suspect category and child-rearing as a chore best left to others” had “affected Jews more than others.” Wertheimer wondered whether it isn’t the case that “Jewish men want to marry someone more like their mother than the typical young Jewish woman of today, and that gentile women happen to fit the bill?”
A few sentences earlier, he asked, “Is it true, as one hears, that Jewish men do not want to marry someone who reminds them of their mother, or that Jewish women do not want to marry someone who reminds them of their father?”
In a separate essay on intermarriage that appeared in the September 9 issue of the Forward, Wertheimer and Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department of the American Jewish Committee, argued that Conservative and Reform leaders must stop focusing their attention on reaching out to interfaith couples at the expense of encouraging in-marriage or conversion to Judaism.
Wertheimer’s articles come as JTS is conducting a search to replace Schorsch, who announced in June that he would step down at the end of this school year. Schorsch has served in the post for two decades, and some insiders believe that his successor will guide not only the direction of JTS but also the overall Conservative movement, which has suffered a membership decline in recent years.
Leaders in the movement continue to debate whether the best strategy is for Conservative institutions to loosen restrictions, such as those relating to gays and interfaith couples, or to maintain existing standards with an eye toward strengthening a committed, albeit smaller, core group of followers.
In response to a list of questions sent by the Forward about the Commentary article, Wertheimer responded in an e-mail: “I hope your readers will take the time to read my article and draw their own conclusions about my views.”
The article drew criticism from several prominent members of the movement.
Baltimore Hebrew University President Rela Geffen, a sociologist who has strong ties to the movement, said that she agreed with Wertheimer’s sociological and demographic assessment. Still, she added, there was “something about the tone that is very anti-women.”
“It’s the birthrate and ‘those women’ who want careers and want an education,” Geffen said. “He keeps talking about fertility and fertility decisions as if women make them alone.”
Geffen called the Jewish birthrate a “red herring” that had been raised previously when the Jewish community was faced with feminist changes and advancements. She added that the issue was a particularly hot topic in the early 1980s, when JTS was debating whether to ordain the movement’s first women rabbis.
Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — an organization representing about 800 congregations — said she agrees with the emphasis that Wertheimer places on the importance of endogamy and on raising Jewish children, but she does not believe that today’s young Jews have given up on those values intentionally. “It’s just farther in the future for their generation,” Yudof said, adding that if men were raising children and balancing careers to the same extent as women, they would “probably have a different perspective.”
Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, a Hebrew University professor who studies the American Jewish community, rejected any suggestion that Wertheimer’s article was biased against women. But in an e-mail to the Forward, Cohen also questioned some of Wertheimer’s assertions. He wrote: “I’m somewhat dubious of the prospect of value articulation affecting demographic behavior.” Cohen argued that the most effective approach was to create social networks for young Jews, in the form of day schools, camps, youth groups and other initiatives.
Some observers agreed that values could have a tremendous impact on individuals’ behavior, but doubted whether the cause of Jewish continuity in and of itself would be enough to lead many Jews to reject intermarriage or to choose to raise larger Jewish families.
“The emptiness of the vessel that we’re trying to fill is the problem,” said Susan Grossman, rabbi of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Md. “Jewish continuity for Jewish continuity’s sake has failed.” Grossman added: “We need to put God back in the center of our movement, our purpose and our mission. That’s where the passion comes from.”
Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple agreed.
“The crux of the issue is not family choice size,” Wolpe wrote in an e-mail. “The crux of the issue is Jewish passion, and that can’t be created by a sociological model; it has to be created by theological vision.”