American Judaism’s ‘golden age’ isn’t over yet, says Yehuda Kurtzer at UC Berkeley

April 8, 2024

Yehuda Kurtzer thinks constantly and creatively about American Judaism.

It’s part of his job as president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank that promotes pluralism and democracy in Israel and North America. And on April 3, the prolific speaker and former Brandeis University professor appeared at UC Berkeley to deliver “Our Golden Age: American Judaism, in Transition,” a lecture sponsored by the Helen Diller Institute of Jewish Law and Israel Studies.

His message, unlike that of some, is optimistic — not in the sense that all is well, but in an eyes-wide-open approach that recognizes the “magnificence” of the community that American Jews have created, while pledging to keep working toward the promise of this country.

Like others who have written about the perilous state of American Judaism recently — most notably Franklin Foer last month in the Atlantic — Kurtzer told a packed room of some 250 people that Jews could only have flourished in a post-World War II America that was committed to the liberal values of self-actualization, human equality and constant striving for the betterment of society — values that, symbiotically, Judaism helped inject into the American mainstream.

“American Jews have built a magnificent Jewish community that has enjoyed greater affluence, influence, power and privilege than any other Jewish community in history, with the possible exception of the Jewish community in contemporary Israel,” Kurtzer said. “We have been involved, not always consciously, in the creation of a remarkable Judaism, one that will remain a major contribution to the history of our people.”

American Jews did this, he said, by “redefining Judaism so it could thrive in this environment, and redefining this place in a particular way that could create hospitable conditions for that Judaism to flourish.”

Kurtzer presented a schemata of American Judaism as being based on four principles.

First, after the establishment of Israel in 1948, American Jews took the traditional delineation between diaspora and homeland — you are either in Israel or are in exile — and reframed it with the radical decision to treat America as home.

“We said, ‘I can have home and homeland,’” Kurtzer said. “We built a one-of-a-kind modern Jewish identity that could inhabit both belonging here in diaspora and supporting Zionism and Israel.”

The second principle derives from the Jewish idea that humans are created in the image of God and thus have intrinsic worth. That dovetails with the American liberal ideal of radical human autonomy and self-actualization, he said, an ideal Jews benefited from and contributed to.

The third principle states that because America is big in every sense of the word, “we built a Judaism that argues America should be big and build big.” Jewish tradition demands that we care for the needy and vulnerable, he said, but in a country as big and powerful as the United States, American Jews said that’s not enough — we need to end poverty itself.

Repairing the world, tikkun olam, thus became a central tenet of American Judaism, again in sync with an America “that has the hubris to believe its responsibility is to heal the world.”

“That’s an audacious way of thinking about Judaism that could only be imagined if you lived in an empire in which we saw ourselves as … insiders instead of outsiders,” Kurtzer said.

Finally, the fourth principle of this Judaism sees America as a “kingdom of kindness,” or malchut hesed, he said, quoting two great 20th-century Orthodox rabbis, Moshe Feinstein and Menachem Mendel Schneerson. They saw America as a place that is good to the Jews and thus deserving of gratitude. American Judaism, therefore, sees civic duty as a religious obligation.

This American Judaism, he said, will become a legacy in Jewish history.

Today, however, we are at a point of transition that could be dangerous.

What he calls “common Judaism” is fracturing under the pressure of increasing polarization and hyper-partisanship. Because Jews are so American, they have fallen prey to the same polarization that has gripped the rest of the country. That is what needs to be resisted, Kurtzer said. American Jews must move against the dominant culture and be “counter-cultural” for the sake of preserving the conditions under which they flourished.

Instead of the left and the right blaming each other for everything from the destruction of democracy to the rise of antisemitism, he said, American Jews must hold to the covenantal relationship they have with this country.

“If you hold yourself accountable to what we have built here, you can’t run away,” he said, just because America hasn’t lived up to its promise. (The same is true of American Jews and Israel, he later told J., saying that it would be an “absolute catastrophe for American Jewry to take away one of the key pillars that’s been essential to our Judaism, which is a commitment to Jewish peoplehood and a commitment to Zionism.”)

Strengthening the Jewish future will mean a collective effort to rebuild trust in the best of American institutions and values, from the Supreme Court to the media to universities. That won’t be easy, he said.

But if American Jews cannot rise to the challenge, he said, it will be at their peril.

The Jewish News of Northern California