I have a riddle: Why are High-Holiday Services like the long-gone borscht-belt hotels in the Catskills?
Answer is: The hotels served all you could eat of dreadfully unhealthy food, giving rise to the joke, “The food there is awful, but they make it up in volume.” High-Holiday worship, likewise, is judged by many as terrible, but we make it up in endlessness.
So why aren’t rabbis and cantors doing something about this (the High Holidays, that is, not the Catskills)?
Actually, they are, says Professor Jack Wertheimer, who has documented how synagogues are coming to terms with their reputation for being “crashingly dull.” He excoriates those large funders and federations who abandon synagogues to do their necessary work unaided by the very philanthropical agents most able to help them.
But, Wertheimer cautions, this liturgical innovation comes at a cost: the loss of liturgical competency. In their effort to respond to the momentary, synagogues sacrifice the momentous: they “absorb into Jewish life much that is inimical to it” thus “ratifying” the loss as an acceptable given. That, Wertheimer bemoans, is “the actual—and unaddressed—crisis of American Judaism today.”
Is Wertheimer correct? “Yes, yes, and no,” I say, in my response to him (mosaicmagazine.com). Yes, the best of our synagogues have embarked on transformation of historic proportions; yes, only a handful of federations and independent big givers recognize it or seem even to care, one way or the other. But, no, the biggest problem is neither the “loss of cultural literacy,” nor synagogues that hasten the loss along.
I differ most when Wertheimer identifies “hospitality, diversity, spirituality, creativity, non-judgmentalism, tikkun olam, [and] personalized religion” as “faddish nostrums.” The word “tradition” comes from the Latin tradere, “to deliver or hand over” as a matter of actual ownership. No one will care to own anything of Jewish tradition if they do not feel hospitably welcomed by synagogues that offer it, and all the less so if the “it” being offered is a-spiritual, uncreative, judgmental, unconcerned with the shape of the world, and impersonal.”
Wertheimer romanticizes tradition. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and neither is the tradition for which we feel nostalgic. Tradition is the famous river of Heraclitus that changes each time we enter it. But he is not altogether wrong: if tradition is a river flowing through time, we need at least to stand in the river bed, not beat out a path of our own in the jungle growth that leads away from it. Jewish competence (a better word than literacy) does matter.
Jack Wertheimer is a fine scholar and observer of American Judaism. He and I are fellow travelers, passionate about a Judaism that is thick with substance and import. We are committed likewise to synagogues as what I like to call “communities of profundity,” the communal foci for our spiritual and moral Jewish future, the places where we “speak and act in a register that does justice to the human condition.”
For the discussion in its entirety see: