Cassandra vs. Nero?


Jewcy is making a quite a name for itself with its readiness to wrestle sacred cows. It helps when the staff is made up of some of the most talented, eloquent, innovative young Jews around.

This week, Senior Editor Joey Kurtzman goes toe to toe with Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school. Wertheimer has written extensively about the unwelcome demise of ethnocentric Judaism, a Judaism that is focused on Israel, internal socialization and helping other Jews, while Kurtzman, the product of intermarriage, is a proud defender of a catholic perspective that sees the suffering of Africans in Darfur as no less a tragedy than the suffering of Jews. And the notion of socializing with, or dating, only Jews? Both impractical and nearly “laughable,” he says.

Kurtzman launches the opening salvo by arguing that “American life has annihilated Jewish peoplehood.”:

Modern American life is the most corrosive acid ever to hit the ghetto walls. Young American Jews are whoring after Moab so fervently that the boundaries between Israel and Moab are being washed away. We‘re not merely influenced by the non-Jewish world—we‘re inseparable from it. Judaism and Jewishness have never had so limited a claim on the identity of young Jews.

Given that plain truth, he says, “It seems to me that if Jewish-American leaders wish for Judaism to survive, they‘ll have to acknowledge that the era of peoplehood has ended, and help reinvent Judaism for modern life.”

But, Wertheimer argues, this notion of “reinvention” is a farce, a code for the obliteration of Judaism through “religious syncretism.” Of course, he can’t argue this without taking a shot at what he calls the “outreach industry”:

The extended outreach industry based in synagogues, JCCs, and federations has downplayed the damage, pretending that everything will turn out all right. Christmas trees are really not religious symbols; Easter dinner is really not about Christ. It’s all just a way to be respectful of the Gentile side of the family. What your letter demonstrates is that “Jewish-American mongrels,” as you call them, took these celebrations seriously and are trying desperately to reconcile the irreconcilable components within their own identity.

It seems to me that Wertheimer is misreading Kurtzman’s message. Kurtzman doesn’t argue that Judaism should be reinvented to incorporate Christianity or Buddhism, but that it should be reinvented to thrive in a pluralistic, secular American culture–and a larger world that is even more energetically pluralistic and secular. To pretend that Judaism hasn’t done this before is absurd; American synagogue architecture has always taken its cues from church architecture, the Jewish revivalist movement in the late 1800s followed a Christian one, Zionism was an outgrowth of a larger international movement towards nationalist identities. The largest Jewish movements in the country, Reform and Conservative, both are the creations of Jews who felt Judaism needed “reinventing.” But somehow, for Wertheimer, today’s demands for reinvention are akin to worshipping a Golden Calf. Kurtzman says Wertheimer has been called a “Cassandra”–one who predicts the future but is not listened to–but he should more appropriately be considered an ostrich.

The dialogue includes many more salient points–on both sides, I may add–and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the way modern American Jewish youth sees itself, and the way the previous generation sees Jewish youth.

2 thoughts on “Cassandra vs. Nero?”

  • I will definitely check out the latest post.

    As for the nicknames, I had to wikipedia Cassandra to get the mythology straight, but if Jack Wertheimer is thought of as Cassandra–the prophet whose warnings are unheeded–then does that make you Nero, who fiddled while Rome (the American Jewish community) burned?

    In retrospect, the analogy is good but unbalanced. I don’t think Wertheimer is Cassandra or that you’re Nero, but I couldn’t find a good image to pair with the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

  • Very flattered that you enjoyed the dialogue! My last post is now up, and Wertheimer’s final response should be up in a few days.

    One question: when I saw the title of the post, I thought, “Cassandra vs. Nero…cool, I think that makes me Nero! I don’t get it, but I like it!” Am I Nero? Or is Wertheimer Nero, because he’s fiddling while Judea burns?


    Joey K.

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