As of this late date in November, 2013, I may be officially the last rabbi in America to blog about the Pew Research Center report on American Jews. Not that I’ve had nothing to say. I’ve just been listening for a while, trying to put it together. I will post a few items on the topic in the next week or so.
My professional Jewish life began when I entered rabbinical school in 1992, in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. Its grim findings ushered in the era of “Jewish continuity,” when we tried to counter apathy and assimilation by making Jewish life rich and meaningful. The theory was that people’s Jewish commitments would grow when they discovered how poetic, how wise, how thoughtful, how ethically aspirational real Judaism is. Maimonides and midrash, beyond bagels and lox. Gemara, not the Portnoy’s-complaint-Jewish-mother-guilt thing. Communities of moral purpose, not nostalgia for the Lower East Side. Day schools, Hebrew, mitzvot.
That is the Jewish communal service I have been trained on. I still believe in it totally. This approach vastly deepened our communal Jewish life. But it simply failed to exert the gravity necessary to hold the American Jewish community together. There is no other way to say it. Yes, there are outstanding local communities, innovative experiments in Jewish meaning, rich cultural output and religiously profound teachings.
But whatever we’re offering, it has prompted too few Americans to say: I am a Jew. I must – just, simply must – find lovers, friends and neighbors who will share these commitments so that together we will help the Jewish people thrive in its last great diaspora.
Only fools foretell the future. If you reviewed the views of experts 33, 67 or 100 years ago, most predictions would be wrong. But fools rush in … Unless the vectors change, it looks like American Judaism will be divided into two large camps, and one small one.
- Coming in at around 15 or 20 percent of the whole, there will be those of us who practice liberal Judaism, some a little more traditional, some a little less, but still really and regularly engaged with Shabbat, holidays, kashrut, study, prayer and ethics. This band will stretch from what today looks like “Open Orthodoxy” and left-ward. This is my home field.
- Around 35 or 40 percent of the whole will be “Amish”: Orthodox enclaves, walling themselves off from the rest of society, but passionately attached to their traditions and notably successful at passing them on. Why will this group be so large? Every year, the non-Orthodox population loses 50,000 people, while the Orthodox population adds another 100,000.
- Largest of all will be people of Jewish ancestry with merely vestigial Jewish connection. Perhaps the most chilling fact in all the Pew study concerns these folks: 2.4 million Americans are “non-Jews of Jewish background,” people who had at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, but who now practice another religion or do not consider themselves Jewish. This sector is raising 700,000 of its kids as non-Jews.
Predictably, the first thing every notices in American Jewish population studies is the intermarriage numbers. They are huge. In this new century, 60 percent of Jews have married non-Jews. Removing the Orthodox from the mix, the numbers rise to well more than 70 percent of Jews marrying non-Jews who do not convert.
Myself, I see no point in hand-wringing and moaning over this. I read somewhere (the Torah) that it’s not good for people to be alone. Love is good. As long as we live in America and work and study alongside gentiles, there will be love and intermarriage, like a horse-and-carriage.
But there is no disputing that intermarried families are statistically unlikely to raise intensely Jewish kids. Yes, some will. More won’t. Two Jewish parents will raise their kids as exclusively Jewish by religion at a rate of 96 percent. One Jewish parent married to a non-Jew will raise his or her kids as non-Jews at a rate of 37 percent, and only 20 percent will raise them as exclusively Jewish. More than half of young adult children of intermarriages (i.e. the “millenials”) do identify as Jews, which is good and surprising news. But realistically, these 59 percent are also likely to marry non-Jews, and while it is absolutely wonderful that they express Jewish identification, most also received substantially less Jewish education and remain less involved in Jewish life, says Theodore Sasson, a researcher at Brandeis University and Middlebury College and a relative optimist on this question.
This brings me to mention a recent, widely-read New York Times op-ed, “Being Partly Jewish,” by Susan Katz Miller, herself raised both Jewish and Episcopalian, now raising her kids both Jewish and Episcopalian. Her family celebrates Passover and Easter, Rosh HaShana, Advent, Sukkot, Lent, Christmas and Yom Kippur. She and her interfaith community are brave, she says, daring to give their kids “full knowledge” of their diverse religious traditions and comfort in multiple faiths, so that they will be able to choose to practice one exclusively, or multiple ones synthetically. Either way, she says, it will be “good for the Jews.”
I read Miller’s article with my high school students at the Prozdor enrichment program at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The majority – though not unanimous – view they expressed was perfectly in keeping with their 21st century Americanness. They thought Miller made lots of sense. This world is broad, they said, not narrow. So it is great to experience the breadth of cultural variety rather than locking one’s self into only one culture. Choice is better than coercion. Education should not be indoctrination.
In a superficial sense, they have a point. Speaking as a contemporary of their parents (and the community rabbi for several of them), it is obviously true that we’ve chosen to raise our kids outside of the enclaves, in hopes that they will be enriched by other ways of thinking.
At the same time, it seems to me that Miller is asking all the wrong questions. Cultures are not tapas menus. You don’t gain “full knowledge” of a tradition by sampling it occasionally, alongside other dishes, with which it may be entirely incompatible. If you don’t know its language from within, you cannot feel comfortable either at Sukkot or at Advent. Such sampling can only make you feel like a dilettante and a deracinated fake. (Arguably, that’s post-modern life. If what I call “dilettantism” and “fakery” strikes you as “creative bricolage,” we’ll just have to agree to disagree.) In the end, promiscuous sampling will drive some seeking souls into the enclaves that repelled their parents, so that they can find something “real.”
A true culture is a world to live in. It structures experiences and enables us to find life’s meaning – for religious cultures, its sacred meaning – in stories bigger than our own lives. For that to work, culture demands commitment, not the consumption of various delightful options of brief duration. American Jews, like our non-Jewish neighbors, have been trained to be excellent consumers. But our community is spinning out of control, centrifugally, because we barely know how to commit to anything beyond ourselves. If a culture is worth preserving, we have to trust it, be loyal to it, wrap ourselves within it.
All this reminds me of a passage in Hillel Halkin’s tremendous book on the medieval Spanish-Jewish poet Judah HaLevi, who left wealthy Spain for Palestine in 1140, to fulfill his dream of living in the Holy Land. Halkin notes that modern interpreters have waxed poetic about medieval Spain as an experiment in convivencia, the “living together” in shared culture of Muslims, Christians and Jews. (Let’s ignore for the moment the significant anti-Jewish bloodshed of the era, often just below the surface.) Modern writers have sometimes condemned HaLevi, he notes, considering his emigration as a parochial betrayal of pluralism.
Halkin’s comments [p.291] are most relevant for the American Jewish community:
“One can have multiple identities, multicultural affinities. One can be an American living in Paris with a Czech father and a Mexican mother and a Japanese wife and a second home in Tuscany and a command of six languages and friends from every country and passions for salsa and Chinese food and Russian literature. All this and much more can fit comfortably into a single person. Yet if this person is not to be a hodgepodge, there must be an organizing principle. Some things must matter more than others; most must be dispensable. And at least one, he must be willing to die for. It can be a friend, a love, a child, a value, a people, a country, a cause, a conception of honor or of dignity, but without it, he is trivial.”
This seems to me right on target. Choosing to be something deeply entails choosing not to be something else. America is probably the Jewish people’s last great diaspora. Some features of American Judaism are surpassingly wonderful. But outside the Amish enclaves, are we suited to live deeply within any Jewish culture? Or is it an amusing hobby we occasionally bring out of the closet? This may be our greatest social challenge: are we trivial?