Yehu­da Kurtzer is the author of Shu­va: The Future of the Jew­ish Past. He will blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

In a recent Com­men­tary arti­cle, Jack Wertheimer once again takes on the trends in Amer­i­can Jew­ry – indi­vid­u­al­ism, plu­ral­ism, uni­ver­sal­ism, anti-trib­al­ism, non-judg­men­tal­ism – to attack these mod­ern moves as anath­e­ma to the Jew­ish past and the tra­di­tion that mod­ern Jews have inher­it­ed (and implic­it­ly reject­ed). Wertheimer play­ful­ly posi­tions his cri­tique in the lit­er­ary frame of the Ten Com­mand­ments, which is a use­ful straw-man in mak­ing these trends into invi­o­lable beliefs held by his (most­ly) unnamed oppo­nents. See­ing as the arti­cle came out the week of Shavuot – the hol­i­day that marks the receiv­ing of the Deca­logue (along with the rest of the Torah) at Mount Sinai, per­haps Wertheimer was seduced by the litur­gi­cal calendar.

But in telling the sto­ry of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ry in this way, Wertheimer makes an iron­ic mis­take. To tru­ly tra­di­tion­al Jews, the laws of Bible co-exist with an inter­pre­tive tra­di­tion – an Oral Torah – that sig­nals the con­stant way in which the val­ues of the orig­i­nal rev­e­la­tion co-exist with the chang­ing mores and morals of the soci­eties in which Jews attempt­ed to live out its man­date. In posi­tion­ing the truths of the past (which he likes) as rigid­ly opposed to the truths of the present (which he hates), Wertheimer regret­tably white­wash­es the inter­pre­tive process­es by which Amer­i­can Jews have remade their essen­tial values. 

The inter­pre­tive act of authen­tic change – even when it only comes about because it attempts to keep up with the pace of change of what the Jew­ish peo­ple are actu­al­ly doing – is much more essen­tial to the enter­prise of Jew­ish­ness than is the canon­i­cal code itself which is being inter­pret­ed in the process. Our tra­di­tion fun­da­men­tal­ly doubts the writ­ten tra­di­tion alone, aware that in its fixed state it is fun­da­men­tal­ly lim­it­ed in its abil­i­ty to speak to present real­i­ties. The Deca­logue requires both a par­al­lel inter­pre­tive tra­di­tion, and an eager set of inter­preters who live in the world, to make it applic­a­ble to con­tem­po­rary realities. 

So do con­tem­po­rary Jews live by new rules? Sure – just as the Judaism of the Jews of 1950s Amer­i­ca would have been unrec­og­niz­able to the peo­ple of the 1920s. I would wel­come a healthy pub­lic debate about what Judaism should be in the face of the chang­ing real­i­ties of the present. But the notion that Judaism should not let its core val­ues evolve in response to chang­ing world con­di­tions? Well, that is not Torah-true Judaism at all. 

Yehu­da Kurtzer is the pres­i­dent of the Shalom Hart­man Insti­tute of North Amer­i­ca. His first book, Shu­va: The Future of the Jew­ish Past, is now available.