Letters, Fall 2018

The Melting Pot and the Cheshire Cat

For the last 25 years I have been applying Lewis Carroll’s famous description of the Cheshire Cat, who “vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone,” to American Jewry. Even as the Reform and Conservative movements now seek to boost their declining membership rolls and pay their bills by drawing non-Jews into their ranks, smiling apologists continue to reassure us that all is well . . . just different. But in fact we are witnessing yet another Jewish historic tragedy, albeit this time self-inflicted.

In his article “In the Melting Pot” (Summer 2018), Allan Arkush states that he “can’t believe in the long-term survivability of any form of Judaism in our modern liberal democracy that isn’t rooted in solid convictions and consolidated by a disciplined and more or less segregated communal life.” Granted Arkush is writing about the challenges confronting American Jewish life. But why does his article ignore the state of Israel? Only in Israel is Jewish long-term survivability not dependent upon the religious convictions and segregated communal life to which he refers. The Jews of Israel face numerous threats, but demographic dissolution is not among them. Intermarriage in Israel is virtually nonexistent. The Jewish families comprising some 80 percent of the country’s population have on the average 3.16 children. Contrast this with 1.9 children among non-Orthodox Jewish families in America. 

And, of course, there is the Hebrew language and the Hebrew calendar: The former inflects the most prosaic conversation with nuances of Jewish tradition; the latter arranges the daily lives of even the most secular Israelis. These are but two of the factors that work to unite the immigrant Jews of modern Israel who brought with them the varied cultures in which they were raised. Like America, Israel is a melting pot but one in which the Jews cannot dissolve.

Ardie Geldman

Efrat, Israel


Allan Arkush Responds:

Ardie Geldman is more pessimistic than I am about the prospects for non-Orthodox Jewry in the United States, but he doesn’t insist that I abandon all hope for it, as he apparently has. He just wants to know why I didn’t pay any attention to Israel in my essay. Instead of answering that question, I’ll say what I would have said if I had veered into that subject. I very much doubt U.S. Jewry would be anything like what it is today if the state of Israel had not been established. But I don’t think that a connection with Israel can do much to fend off the kind of disintegration that threatens us—unless it is bound up with religion, Orthodox or liberal.

Geldman describes Israel as a melting pot, too, but one in which the Jews can survive. True enough. In the Jewish state, you don’t need strong convictions; it’s enough to be segregated from others. But what happens to those not inconsiderable numbers of (overwhelmingly secular) Israeli Jews who leave their country for ours? On the basis of what I have seen and read, they, or rather their children and grandchildren, tend to disappear into the American melting pot at least as fast as any previous wave of Jewish immigrants.

(Editor’s Note: For further discussion of Allan Arkush’s essay, see our recent online symposium with Jack Wertheimer, David Biale, Edieal Pinker, and Erica Brown at www.jewishreviewofbooks.com.)


Yom Kippur Dance

Ronald and Allis Radosh describe rebellious young Jewish atheists “mocking the holiest day on the Jewish calendar” by holding a dance on Yom Kippur in their discussion of early 20th-century Jewish anarchists (“Free Radicals,” Summer 2018). No doubt they were rebelling against tradition, but perhaps they also remembered a famous mishnah that quotes Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel as saying that on Yom Kippur “the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white . . . and danced in the vineyards, saying ‘Young men, look and see who you will choose.’” Or maybe it is just a historical irony, of which we Jews have more than a few.

Talia Kagan

Tel Aviv, Israel


The Courts and the People

I was surprised and disappointed with Tom Ginsburg’s conclusion that there is no realistic alternative to the judicial imperialism that Daniel Friedmann describes in The Purse and the Sword (see “You Shall Appoint for Yourself Judges,” Summer 2018). Ginsburg tells us, in essence, that the best Israelis can hope for is to watch as judicial power wanes and then waxes again. Sometimes the people control their destiny, Professor Ginsburg tells us, and sometimes the judges control it.

Ginsburg also minimizes the vast scope of Justice Barak’s power grab. In the U.S., courts decide only “cases and controversies,” and this limitation on their power is effectuated by restrictions on “standing”—who can bring a “case”—and on “justiciability”—the concept that determines the kinds of disagreements a court is empowered to resolve. In Israel these restrictions have been completely eliminated. Barak and his disciples didn’t merely “expand” standing: There is now no limit on standing in Israel. And they didn’t merely loosen the limits on justiciability: In Israel, everything is now justiciable.

Ginsburg’s title quotes Moses’s instruction in chapter 16 of Deuteronomy that the Jewish people should appoint judges for themselves. But in Israel, as Ginsburg does not really deny, for the last several decades the judges have appointed one another. This means that Israel’s Supreme Court has seized substantive control over the most important decisions the state must make and simultaneously taken control of the choice over who makes those decisions.

Judicial assertiveness may not be unique to Israel, but Ginsburg does not tell us that in any other country the courts have taken control over both many substantive political choices and the choice over who does the choosing. And if he were to have told us that, it would hardly be a comfort. Granted that it can be both courageous and valuable for a judge to stand between a real tyrant and the power he or she seeks. But, as anyone who has watched Israel’s Knesset at work for a quarter of an hour knows, there is no danger that that legislature will ever be beaten into submission by any earthly force. Much less does Israel need fear tyranny at the hands of any prime minister or any single party: For many decades, parliamentary control in Israel has not been held by anything other than a razor thin, and eternally unstable, majority.

Jerome Marcus

Narbeth, PA


Tom Ginsburg Responds:

Mr. Marcus obviously sides with Friedmann on the proper role of judges in a democracy and would hardly be comforted were I to list India, Pakistan, and other countries in which judges have both eviscerated standing requirements and dominated the appointments process. There are many more examples of countries, including some with relatively functional legislative branches, in which the judicial role has expanded even without that extreme combination.

The legitimacy of this global expansion of judicial power is hotly debated, and I am in print as being critical of the trend. But to understand the alternative, we cannot fall back on an abstract construct like “the people,” which hardly does justice to the complexities of modern government, and it is the case that in most democracies (including my own), legislatures are currently held in particularly low esteem. It is not for me to tell Israelis how to run their democracy, but if the Knesset wants to, it could adopt more of Friedmann’s proposed reforms to the Judicial Selection Committee. He was unable to get his whole package through while minister of justice, which suggests that perhaps the Israeli “people” don’t agree with Mr. Marcus either.


Humanism in Ma’ale Adumim?

I am astonished and disturbed to read the long essay you have published by Allan Nadler extolling the ideas and personality of Nachum Rabinovitch, whom Nadler presents as a veritable Maimonides redivivus (“Maimonides in Ma’ale Adumim,” Summer 2018). His encomium of Rabinovitch as an advocate of “universalist humanism” sits awkwardly with his candid admission that Rabinovitch uttered vile incitements to violence (some recorded on tape) on several occasions. Your readers deserve better than such whitewashing of a settler-rabbi who represents much that is most despicable in modern Israeli and Jewish life.

Bernard Wasserstein

The Netherlands


Allan Nadler Responds:

May I suggest to Dr. Wasserstein, whose own scholarly work I have long admired, that he spend some time actually studying the works of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch and learning more about his actual career, halakhic views, and personality before condemning him as representing “much that is most despicable in modern Israeli and Jewish life.” The accusation that my article in any way “whitewashed” Rabinovitch suggests the cover-up of some horrible crime, an accusation based on a secretly recorded personal conversation, rather than a vast body of rational and humanistic rabbinic scholarship, which represents to me that which is so admirable and inspirational in modern Israeli and Jewish life. My piece was an analysis of his masterpiece on Maimonides’s Code of Law, a work of unprecedented magnitude and scholarly fortitude. I had no choice but to address the calumnies against Rabbi Rabinovitch, which have unjustly tainted one of today’s greatest rabbinical minds and distracted attention from what is most important and true about his life and work, calumnies now resurrected carelessly by Dr. Wasserstein. 



Suggested Reading

Says Who?

Abraham Socher

Peter Berger listened to me patiently, and then he said, “You can come to see me, but”—and here he spoke with heavy emphasis—“it sounds like you have read my books . . . and I haven’t thought of anything new.”