In the past two decades, the vocabulary of American Jewish life has undergone a profound transformation. The evidence is all around us: in books promoting “empowered Judaism,” blogs singing the praises of “Do It Yourself Judaism,” slogans celebrating a “Jewish renewal” or a “Jewish renaissance” in America, and more. In what has been called the big tent of the new Judaism, the theme of inclusion reigns, with synagogues declaring their intention to create caring communities, family-friendly environments, and, especially, homes for “diversity.” An advertisement for an educational retreat in Atlanta holds out the promise of having it all: “An Open, Remixable, Meaningful, Connected Jewish Life.”
Although much has been written about disunity among today’s American Jews, what these words reflect is, in fact, a consensus on what Jewish life ought to stand for—a consensus held by activists, rabbis, popular writers, organizational leaders, and other figures of influence.1 The locutions themselves are worthy of explication; more important is what they tell us about the meaning of Jewishness in contemporary America. Here, in summary form, are what might be called the ten commandments, the new do’s and don’ts, of contemporary American Jewish life.
I. I am the Lord your God, Who took you
out of Egypt to ‘repair the world.’
No trope is more common today than the injunction to engage in tikkun olam. The Hebrew phrase has an ancient pedigree, with spiritual if not mystical connotations; but of decidedly recent vintage is its current interpretation: namely, that Jews are uniquely responsible for improving the lives of their fellow human beings. For many, indeed, the imperative of social action defines the essence of Judaism. In American Grace, a study of contemporary American religion, Robert Putnam and David Campbell report that Jews (unlike their Christian counterparts) tend to be tongue-tied on matters of belief and religious observances but speak with great certainty about their responsibility to help “repair the world.” So important has this mission become that in some quarters it is held to supersede all other commandments. In the words of a young Reform rabbi in Los Angeles: “Don’t keep kosher, that’s fine; don’t keep Shabbat, that’s fine; marry a non-Jew—whatever. But understand that it will take away your Jewish identity if you don’t fight for justice.”