I spoke on the phone with Rabbi William Berkowitz this past January, just a few weeks before he died (on February 3 at the age of 83).
I’d known Rabbi Berkowitz for about 30 years, first as a result of his inviting me to teach a course on Jewish genealogical research at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City where he served as senior rabbi between 1950 and 1984, and then more recently when I published a book of transcripts from his Dialogue series called Dialogues in Judaism: Jewish Dilemmas Defined, Debated, and Explored.
He was well-known in New York for creating the “Dialogue Forum,” an innovative series of public conversations with such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Isaac Bashevis Singer, Golda Meir, Elie Wiesel and many others.
Rabbi Steinsaltz was a participant in this series.
(Actually I was a guest for this series twice, once to talk about my book on Jewish genealogy, From Generatioon to Generation and just a few years ago to talk about and perform some of the magic tricks I do in my show, “Searching for God in a Magic Shop.”)
His dialogue with Rabbi Steinsaltz included this exchange:
Rabbi Berkowitz: In speaking of the current state of Judaism, you made a very interesting observation when you said: “I think it’s true to say that kosher-centered Judaism is a new phenomenon, but I don’t think that this type of Judaism can really exist for any length of time. It is a sign of something dying that has no chance of survival.” Rabbi Steinsaltz, what is kosher-centered Judaism? Why are you so pessimistic about it?
Rabbi Steinsaltz: Kosher-centered Judaism is a Judaism that tries to fashion two worlds – one of which is a small world in which you can feel Jewish through those things that are somehow obligations.
They have to be of a material nature – easy to see, easy to discuss, easy to solve – things that you can easily work at.
You can work at being kosher.
You can buy another pair of tefillin.
I think this is an unhealthy sign – being kosher is only a part of being Jewish, as anybody who has any interest in Judaism knows. It becomes some kind of routine, and people deal with this aspect because they are not interested in anything really important about Judaism.
Now, I don’t think that it can go on forever because, as you mentioned before, it is boring and after some time it becomes boring even for those who participate in this sport.
Second, it is just a shell, and the shell has no inner core.
Therefore, I don’t believe that it will survive.