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October 28, 2013 9:42 am

Pew Jews: The Future of American Judaism

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Orthodox Jews. Photo: WikiCommons.

Oh, dear. American Jewish poobahs are all upset by a Pew Foundation survey that “discovered” that the intermarriage rate in the USA is at 58 percent, up from 46 percent in 1990, and 17 percent before 1970. Overall, 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion, meaning they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.

Amusingly, 42 percent of respondents said having a good sense of humor was essential to their Jewish identity, whereas observing Jewish law mattered only to 19 percent. On the flipside, more than 90 percent of those who identified as Jews by religion and are raising children said they are raising them Jewish or partially Jewish. By comparison, approximately one-third of those who identified themselves as Jews of no religious affiliation are raising their kids as Jewish in any way – and the figure is much less if the mother is non-Jewish.

Would you take seriously a survey based on 3,475 random telephone calls? It’s enough to give the science of polling a very bad name. Still, several commentators have torn the method and the findings apart. But so what?

Everyone knows American Jewry is reaping the whirlwind of declining religious affiliation. We may well lose a generation of donors, machers, and politicos. But “ease and salvation will come from somewhere else,” as Mordechai once said.

Isn’t it blindingly obvious that most nominal Jews, most nominal anything, are on the way out? Only commitment and education stand in the way of oblivion, whether for Judaism or even a modern state. It’s quality, my dear, not quantity.

My late father gave a speech on a visit to Johannesburg in 1952 in support of Jewish education, in which he said that although the Jewish people can never disappear, millions of individual Jews had done so and continue to do so. The biggest threat is ignorance. The Am Haaretz (the ignoramus) simply do not have the resources to stand against the weight of secular society. Only Torah gives Jews the tools to survive.

The fact is that cultural changes play out over a century, if not more. From the time of The Enlightenment, European Jews have been assailed on all sides and have been either willingly or by compulsion abandoning Judaism in the hundreds of thousands. The Orthodox synagogue I was rabbi of in Central London – The Western, founded in the eighteenth century, discovered that by the end of the nineteenth century, not one of the descendants of the original two hundred founding families was still Jewish.

Just consider how many Jews in the past century were lost to Communism, let alone materialism, assimilation, and Nazism.

The Jewish community in the USA today is predominantly descended from the millions who left Europe in the face of poverty and persecution. Many had already rejected religion and intended to cast off all vestiges of their Jewish past. The Jews who came to America were notorious for the way religion disappeared in their desperate struggle to rebuild a life in America. (Just re-watch Woody Allen’s Annie Hall to get a sense of how far being “American Jewish” was, a generation ago, from being “committed Jewish”.)

This was, tragically, precisely why so many Orthodox leaders in Eastern Europe were opposed to emigration. Generations were given no Jewish education of any substance. Jews who still wanted to hold on to a vestige of tradition often turned to a variation of Judaism, which tried to stem the tide of assimilation by accommodation and compromise. But in the latitude of its overindulgence, a generation grew up with insufficient knowledge of Jewish texts or passion for religious life.

For most, Judaism was a social club. So why should not their children join a bigger and a better social club? The die was cast.
True, those generations produced Jewish writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers, and comedians of note and significance. But their great achievements were to create a vibrant culture of Jews without Judaism. Judaism was an anthropological phenomenon with which they had an accidental connection.

We know the cycle of assimilation has been running its course. What has surprised us is the countertrend: the return towards ritual practice and the explosion of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which was once written off as a relic. Its academies are now full to the gills. Its prayer houses packed. Its centers of intensive study are overflowing. Its birthrate is staggering, and its political power frightening.

In New York, both candidates for mayor are scared to impose minimal safeguards on circumcision for fear of overwhelmingly Chasidic opposition. Who’d have thought 50 years ago that New York Chasidim would have the New York Democrats in their pockets!

As old communal institutions are withering, other very different forms are mushrooming. Look how a handful of survivors of Eastern Europe have completely rebuilt a lost world.

Equally impressive is the return from the dead, so to speak, of a Modern Orthodoxy that contains elements of the academic, the critical, dynamic Zionism, and successful Jewish day school education. Yes, numbers of disenchanted are leaving Orthodoxy. But just as many are traveling the other way.

As one cycle of decline is running its course, another cycle is starting again. Judaism has always been a difficult option, an elite, intense way of life that most Jews simply could not cope with.

Besides, the USA is not the only story. Zionism in all its varieties posits that Jewish survival depends on the Jewish state. I doubt that, because we have survived in exile for longer than we have in a land of our own.

But Rav Kook was right about Israel being the inspiration of Judaism. Never, ever in Jewish history have there been so many Jews studying Torah full time, so many academics studying and writing about Judaica, so many Jewish religious and cultural institutions thriving as there are in Israel today. Never have Jews produced as much wealth in their own state as in Israel today. Yes, thousands of Israelis assimilate, too, when they exit their land. But others enrich the communities they join. Diaspora Jewry (to borrow a phrase) runs on Israel.

Anyone worried about the future is merely showing a lack of faith and an ignorance of Jewish affairs. Of course, one must not write off our non-observant brothers and sisters. Throughout our history many of the alienated or disaffected have stepped up to the plate at a time of crisis. I am delighted that so many Jews of whatever persuasion or identity contribute so much to Jewish life in all its varieties. But those Jews who are unable or unwilling to live an even nominally Jewish way of life are the last people I would look to to help Judaism survive. Pew surveys are the last indicators I would rely on for predicting the Jewish future.

I am sad that we are losing so many. By all means, let people donate money wherever they wish and wring their hands about the state of Jewish affairs. I never thought I’d agree with Satmar, but they have a point. Someone needs to stay at home to take care of the store. It’s the individual Jew that lives a Jewish life, often under the radar and not answering phone surveys, who has always determined the future of the Jewish people. The rest are a bonus.

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  • rozanne

    Just got off the bus having bought my daughter in law new oil lamp bulbs in honor of my new grandson, born in Yerushalayim, Ir Hakodesh. Man opposite me, when he heard I was from NY, starts telling me how good it is in America. No need to be dati, just a good person, he states. Bottom line: his son lives in Arizona and his grandson is married to a sefaradi (Hispanic woman). Nuff said.

  • Jill Schaeffer

    Wait, wait, don’t tell me!

    Jews exist? I didn’t know! I thought they were a throwback to a staid and anachronistic metaphor. But Jews do exist. How do I know? I know because every time ark is open and somebody looks at the scrolls, the Torah seems to be directing somebody’s way of life, and it’s usually at least two big somebodies and maybe a few little somebodies. True, you don’t have to be Jewish to read and study Torah. But you do have to be Jewish in order for Torah to be your milk and air. So I guess Jews still exist. Besides, I teach church history – so I know that Jews have been around for awhile. Picky, picky. I’d say that rabbinic Judaism got its moniker when Jews had to get out of Dodge after 70ce and hightailed it to Yavneh. But I think rabbinic Judaism begins as a practice though not in name, during the Babylonian exile.

    Anyway, Jews having survived the holocaust do understand something about getting on with it and longevity. Pew is nice, but it isn’t history and it offers no lessons in choosing life, which Jews persist upon choosing, no matter what.

  • Oh dear Maxi Maxi
    Paul Johnson is a lovely man but he is an Irish Catholic journalist, not a historian.

    As for Abraham Sachar he was just as much a biased historian as was Howard Zinn.

    Would you accept Howard Zinns view of American history as authoritative? Perhaps you do. Perhaps as your namesake you are a Marxist. But that is not the only history.

    Yes I am a religious Jew and we have our narratives and traditions. You are welcome to disregard them but just dont fool yourself that you have the full picture.

    • Jerri, Jerri: Oi vey!
      Paul Johnson never set foot in Ireland. He was born in England and educated there. Yes, he is Catholic, but his History of Christianity pulls no punches. How you can dismiss Johnson as nothing more than a journalist is baffling or simply dishonest.
      Sachar was highly respected as president of Brandies University for many years. I don’t believe you can point out any passage in his book on Jewish history which distorted the historic record. As for myself, I have no hint who is this “namesake” that makes you suggest that I am a Marxist. I am an active anti-communist at age eighty-nine and have been so ALL of my life. After this exchange of posts with you, my impression is that you feel threatened by me and seek to regain rabbincal gravitas by resorting to cheap slanders. Is this a familiar tactic of your own or is it typical in rabbinical circles? Incidentally, you seem to know much more about Howard Zinn than I do. I avoided him and his ilk and confess I never read him.

  • abraham Dattner

    In a way, many of us are very proud of our Jewishnesss, look at all the accomplishments which have come to be because of the Jewish inherent “smarts” Discoveries in medical science and more in the practable world, look at what Little Israel has brought to the world,and still is! Like it or not the “Jewish genes”still will be bringing such great gifts to mankind, bounties to the world!

    • Yes of course and I am delighted that this is so.

      But when we talk about positive continuity and an identifiably unique Jewish tradition, that is altogether a very different issue.

  • derek benZion

    well said Rabbi Rosen

  • Monty Pogoda

    Glad to hear that the Pew report has its problems.

  • Dov Meir

    More Torah less assimilation!!

  • What jeremy Rosen considers “an elite, intense way of life that most Jews simply could not cope with,” is a fittng description of Muslim and Christian orthodoxy as well. Intensity is a symptom of deep delusion which Jewish fundamentalism helped to promulgate three thousand years ago in the hope of attaining the premium of a choice real estate grant from the Lord.

    Now, in the nuclear era, humanity MUST surrender its delusions in the hope of attaining the premium of becoming the single species which science has identified as Homo sapiens. Jews should lead humanity out of delusion by being the first people to declare that we are Homo sapiens before we can have nationality, ethnicity or religion. The Lord created humanity long before Judaism.

    • Your logic is no different to saying that we should abolish Harvrd in the interests of universal education!

      Of course humanity is a Torah value ( Zeh Sefer Toldot HaAdam as Ben Azai says). But different humans still need different paradigms and cultures and we have ours.

      • The original Judiaism which you seek to preserve did not survive the Bronze Age when Solomon’s heirs were driven off or killed by the Assyrians and Israel never recovered. The nation of israel today is a fraction of its former area and may be even less defensible now.

        I am suggesting that at the outset of the nuclear era, human intelligence must strive to establish a universal intellectual basis through the sciences. Whether or not, ancient delusional power enclaves feel threatened is irrelevant to human survival. Yesterday’s paradigms, all of them, resulted in ongoing chaos and bloodshed. Why should not Jews be among the leaders in developing a new paradigm?

        • I dont know what history you think you know but its very different to mine.

          Our rabbinic tradition let alone the Biblical goes back thousands of years and although its true we have over time lost millions of Jews we are certainly stronger politically and culturally and better able to defend ourselves than during the time of the Two Kingdoms.

          So I suggest you get some reliable hitory books.

          • Such arrogance! Rabbi, I have read, and keep on my desk, copies of Abram Leon Sachar’s, HISTORY OF THE JEWS, and Paul Johnson’s book of the samee name.

            The rabbinic tradition to which you refer did not begin until well after the Greeks were driven from the temple. Prior to this Judaism was conducted by a priesthood class which split under Greek influence into the Sadducees and the Pharasees. The rabbinic tradition did not begin until Rome drove the Jews from Judea. May I suggest that you broaden your sources by including works of historians as well as those of religious apparatchiks.