Professor Jack Wertheimer’s “Ten Commandments of America’s Jews,” presumably timed for Shavuot (which begins Saturday at sundown), is sure to make some people unhappy. His commandments are not things he approves of, and they point toward what he sees as American Jewry’s lax attitude toward the rules and codifiers that have made Judaism distinctive for a few millenniums running. “The betrayal of Jewish particularism is the most insidious consequence of that consensus. Jewish collective needs are minimized or kept at arm’s length even by those, including rabbis, who should be most concerned about the welfare of the Jewish people,” he complains. And he concludes: “Perhaps the time has come to take a fresh look at the original Ten Commandments, which open with a different I: the voice of a commanding God reminding a specific people of its particular historical experience and proceeding to issue judgmental commands and injunctions. That Decalogue, after all, has had a long shelf life, and is likely to outlast the self-defeating ten commandments of today’s American Jews.”
It’s a classic culture war salvo, but I’m disinclined to take the bait. While I doubt Wertheimer and I would agree on exactly how strict the lines that make something or someone Jewish need to be, or where exactly they are drawn, I agree with him that, generally, most people need to live their lives within certain boundaries, without the existence of which meaning (which many people need) cannot exist; and that when we give all individuals total autonomy to define for themselves something that ostensibly is larger than themselves and to which others belong, we cheapen everyone’s attachment. Does this mean we should excommunicate people who intermarry? Well, I would say no, not at all. But it does mean we’re allowed to discuss the subject (and I think we are, I don’t think that’s become “taboo,” as Wertheimer says), and the community is allowed to encourage mixed-religion couples raising Jewish children not to have Christmas trees, and so on.
To quote that great Jewish rabbi Noam Chomsky (whoops, there I go baiting people), “If anything could be possible, then nothing would be possible.” Or if you’d prefer the Jesuits’ formulation: “freedom through discipline.”