Yehuda Kurtzer is the author of “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past.” His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
In a recent Commentary article, Jack Wertheimer once again takes on the trends in American Jewry — individualism, pluralism, universalism, anti-tribalism, non-judgmentalism — to attack these modern moves as anathema to the Jewish past and the tradition that modern Jews have inherited (and implicitly rejected). Wertheimer playfully positions his critique in the literary frame of the Ten Commandments, which is a useful straw-man in making these trends into inviolable beliefs held by his (mostly) unnamed opponents. Seeing as the article came out the week of Shavuot — the holiday that marks the receiving of the Decalogue (along with the rest of the Torah) at Mount Sinai, perhaps Wertheimer was seduced by the liturgical calendar.
But in telling the story of contemporary Jewry in this way, Wertheimer makes an ironic mistake. To truly traditional Jews, the laws of Bible co-exist with an interpretive tradition — an Oral Torah – that signals the constant way in which the values of the original revelation co-exist with the changing mores and morals of the societies in which Jews attempted to live out its mandate. In positioning the truths of the past (which he likes) as rigidly opposed to the truths of the present (which he hates), Wertheimer regrettably whitewashes the interpretive processes by which American Jews have remade their essential values.