Thursday, January 25, 2007

Clueless Jack Wertheimer on Jewish identity

Ah yes, Professor Doctor Jack Wertheimer, the provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where my rabbi was trained, is at it again. As you may remember, the last time we heard from him, he was opining that the only way for non-Orthodox Judaism to survive was to become more like the Orthodox -- that is mindless sheep who actually listen to what "leaders" like Professor Doctor Wertheimer have to say.

Now, the good Professor-Doctor is ranting about the evil hidden cabal on American college campuses that forbids Jews -- or any other white ethnic, for that matter -- from "identifying" (whatever that means) with their ethnic group. At least that's what Ha'aretz reporter Daphna Berman claims.

Now I'm not sure why Dr. Wetheimer is considered an "expert" on this subject -- after all, his recent academic experience has been at an institution of higher learning that is close to being (if not actually) 100% Jewish. Which means that he's not exactly in a position to know about what's going on at universities that contain both Jews and gentiles.

Of course, I'm not sure what Dr. Jack means by "identifying with Jews as a people." Is he concerned that young Jewish college kids believe that Jews aren't people? Or is he really worried because young Jewish college kids aren't so hot about participating in his favored Jewish political causes?

Speaking at a conference at Hebrew University this week, Wertheimer said Jews "are gravitating toward universalism because of their discomfort with parochialism." And Jewish organizations have become increasingly complicit in the process, he pointed out, citing the change of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) slogan, which has gradually evolved from "We Are One" to "Live Generously" - their new motto that does not specify the target for philanthropists' generosity.

Wertheimer isn't saying anything new. The struggle between "universalism" and "parochialism" has been going on in the US for decades. There are some new twists. We don't need to change our names anymore and pretend we're not Jewish. Careers are open to us, and we can check in as a guest at any hotel we want to. I think what Wertheimer might be lamenting is that the vision of Judaism that people have isn't the one that the good Doctor prefers.

Wertheimer also lamented attempts to universalize Judaism, so that values like tikkun olam [repairing the world] and kol yisrael arevim zeh la'zeh [all of Israel is responsible for one another] no longer focus on the Jewish community. Lobbying for the victims of Darfur or cleaning American rivers, he said, have taken precedence over sustaining Jewish communal institutions because there is a "diminution in concern" for fellow Jews.

No, it's because we view Jewish communal institutions as being irrelevant and they serve no need for us. I can see that Dr. Jack might view this with some alarm because he's worried about who's going to pay his pension. But I, for one, see no reason why our shul should have to pay a six-figure salary to a graduate of Dr Jack's school when the guy doesn't provide anything that we, the members of the shul, can't do for ourselves.

Now, in fairness to Dr. Jack, it's possible that the reporter garbled his message. I certainly don't see any evidence of Jews not being able to express themselves on campus. True, my personal experience is almost 30 years old, but the kids I know who are coming back and reporting to me seem to be quite active attending services, participating in Israeli dance groups, etc. Jewish studies of all sorts are widely available and popular offerings to the point that there's no need to go to a place like JTS in order to be a Jewish scholar. Maybe that's what's bugging Dr. Jack. It's almost too easy to be a Jew on a college campus today.