The Bell Tolls for American Jewry: Thoughts on the Pew report
OCTOBER 2, 2013,
Jeffrey Woolf is a Senior Lecturer in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is a Medieval Historian, a … [More]
If the media and social media are any indication, the Pew report on the state of American Jewry and Judaism has sent the Jewish Community into a tailspin. The response is more than appropriate. The Jewish Community, in both the United States and abroad, will long be pondering the implications of the report’s findings. [The full report is available here. Fairly full summaries are posted here and here.]
The major conclusion, masked by some of the headlines (and perhaps not), is that American Jewry (with the exception of Orthodoxy, and the more traditional wing of the Conservative and post-denominational world) is gently committing mass suicide through assimilation. Intermarriage among the non-Orthodox has topped 71% (and is close to 90+% in many places), and the proportion of children that are raised with any sense of Jewish identity is inversely related to the intermarriage rate.
However, as borne out in a fascinating discussion in last month’s Mosaic Magazine, intermarriage is as much a symptom as a cause. It is a symptom of the dissolution of basic Jewish ethnic and religious allegiances, in favor of absolute loyalty to oneself as a sovereign individual. It is a symptom of the stunning trivialization of what being Jewish means. For how else can one explain the fact that 41% of American Jews think that having a sense of humor is more important to Jewish identity than Jewish observance (a mere 19%)?
On the other hand, there is something profoundly authentic in this statistic. Humor is a universal gift, and homogenized universalism (together with the beatification of the individual) is the hallmark of contemporary Western Culture. Jewish Law and Lore, History and Collective Memory appear to be the polar opposite. Judaism protects and values the individual, yet it also makes demands upon him. It demands that the individual contribute and sacrifice for his or her people, beliefs and, yes, for God. Its vision is simultaneously particularistic, narrow and parochial (on the one hand) and universalist, broad and encompassing, on the other. The two are so enmeshed as to be inseparable, much as Jewish national and religious identity have always been. American Jews have attempted to effect that separation by totally recasting and denuding Jewish Tradition, in order to align it with contemporary mores. [The process is brilliantly described by Professor Barry Rubin in his classic book: Assimilation and Its Discontents (available free for download here).]
In the end, that is precisely what assimilation is; the substitution of one set of values (usually, that of a minority), in favor of another set (usually, that of the majority). It’s a perfectly natural process. It has affected every minority group throughout history; every group, that is, except the Jews (at least since the massive assimilation of the Jews of the Western Roman Empire during the first Christian centuries). Jews have refused to go that way. Our continued existence has been, as my friend and colleague, Dr. Simcha Goldin of Tel Aviv University put it, an elusive enigma. That enigma, though, has been predicated upon precisely those values that American Jews have decided (consciously or unconsciously) to abjure: belief in God, immersion in Jewish Law and Lore, dedication to the Jewish People before others, a deep and abiding sense of Jewish collective memory (that far transcends the kind of ostensible Holocaust awareness that the Pew study identifies), and a readiness to sacrifice of oneself for the whole. The Pew study shows, beyond any reasonable doubt, that no more that 15% +/- of American Jews subscribe to any of these values. The result is a foregone conclusion.
I am, at the same time, thunderstruck by the stark contrast between the Pew Study, and the most recent Guttman/IDI Study of Israeli Jewry. The findings are almost symmetrical opposites. Israeli Jews believe in God (over 80%). There is a Jewish Renaissance (in Study, Culture, and Observance) in Israel that literally boggles the imagination (even as it confounds the usual definitions of Religious and Secular). And, while individualism and individual expression are certainly not absent, the sense of national cohesion, what we call bayachad, is movingly strong. Anyone, who lived here through the Second Intifada, or the various wars and campaigns since then will readily attest to this fact. All that my American brothers and sisters have so readily jettisoned, is held sacred by the Jews of Israel. No wonder that we speak so often at cross purposes. The two communities organize themselves around different value systems.
I write this column with a significant measure of pain. I am a fourth generation Bostonian. America has been incredibly generous to my family, and to me. The education and upbringing that I received was uniquely Jewish and uniquely American. I am very much part of both countries, as are my peers here. I cannot, will not, express any type of cheap triumphalism. At the same time, every year when I visit the graves of my forbears on the Mount of Olives, Hovevei Tziyyon who trekked from Volkovisk Lithuania to Jerusalem in 1882, I am painfully reminded that of their hundreds of descendants, no more than fifteen in my children’s generation can be identified as Jews.
So, I was really not surprised at the report’s findings. As an historian, as a Zionist, as a committed Jew of faith I knew this was coming. As with the tolling of every bell, it came much too soon. Hopefully, the tolling will galvanize the American Jewish remnant to sacrifice (but really sacrifice) in order to save what it can.