By now, I’m sure, you’ll all read the Pew Report on Jewish life in America. (If you haven’t, click here. Have a cup of arsenic ready so you can complete the experience without getting up from your chair.) I spoke about it from the bimah last week. I wrote an essay about one specific aspect of it that will come out in our synagogue bulletin in December. I’ve read a hundred on-line responses, each one penned by an author trying to out-grim the others. And that was on top of reading Jack Wertheimer’s essay, “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?” in the on-line journal, Mosaic, and the various responses it provoked, notably the ones by Sylvia Barack Fishman, Eric Yoffie, Harold Berman, and Steven M. Cohen. They’re an august group, that’s for sure: Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at JTS, Fishman is a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis, Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, Berman is a former Federation executive, and Steven Cohen is a professor at the Hebrew Union College and one of the foremost American sociologists who study Jewish issues. (You can find Wertheimer’s essay by clicking here and the rest by clicking on the author’s name in the following series: Fishman, Yoffie, Berman, Cohen. All are extremely worthy pieces to read and consider thoughtfully.)
What all these authors seem to learn from the statistics Wertheimer adduces and the Pew Report more or less confirms is that things haven’t ever been worse. The expectation of Jewish endogamy is ancient history. The level of Jewish observance is in severe decline. (The Pew Report reports that this does not apply, or does not apply much, to Orthodox Jews. But, of course, the people raised in Orthodox homes who have abandoned observance are hardly going to self-identify as Orthodox. So how could the observance rate among people who do self-define as Orthodox Jews ever decline? It’s like asking what percentage of people who play for the New York Yankees make their living playing baseball.) The fundamental principles of Jewish theology have been abandoned by huge segments of the population. It’s true that some of the Pew conclusions sound fishy to the point of being almost unbelievable. 15% of modern Orthodox Jews attend services in non-Jewish houses of worship “a few times a year”? I don’t think so! Of course, the people who responded got to say on their own where they fit into the larger picture of American Jewry. There was no actual test to determine, say, if someone who self-defined as a Reform Jew actually belonged to a Reform temple or personally accepted any of the actual tenets of Reform Judaism. So the bottom line is that the survey, appalling as its conclusions are, is only as reliable as the people who responded to the pollsters’ questions. And that, of course, is not something that anyone reading from afar, like myself and yourselves, can really test with any reasonable accuracy.
On the other hand, dismissing the survey because of perceived flaws in its conclusions would also be a huge error of judgment. Perhaps some people gave false answers or identified themselves based on wished-for or perceived realities rather than how anyone other than themselves would describe them. But even if those people were legion, the results are still extremely unsettling.
The responses to Pew that I’ve read fall into three general categories.
First, we have the ’twas-ever-thus school. These are the analyzers who accept the data but dismiss its importance because, they insist, this is how things always were. The fall-off rate has always been immense: we don’t feel that because the fallen-off generally go away and aren’t heard from again. The rate of Jewish conversion to Christianity in, say, eighteenth and nineteenth century Germany was astronomical, just as it was in Spain and Portugal before the expulsions of 1492 and 1496, and just as it was in antiquity when Rome became Christian. Let me quote from an essay that was published in the 1904 Jewish Encyclopedia that speaks directly to this point:
The number of conversions reached their height at the close of the nineteenth century, when under the watchword of anti-Semitism all the medieval fury of Jew-hatred was revived, and the Jews of continental Europe were made to feel that, in spite of their full and hearty participation in the political life and intellectual progress of their country, they were yet regarded and treated as aliens. Having in their worldly pursuits allowed their religious sentiment to fall to the freezing-point, and finding themselves disappointed in all their aims and aspirations, many wealthy Jewish families took that step which opened to them the door of admission into the highest circles. It must be left to the moralist to decide whether conversions caused by mere worldly motives benefit or demoralize society. It must be left to the statesman to decide whether in thus forcing Jewish elements to amalgamate with non-Jewish under the thin cover of a formal profession of creed, anti-Semitism does not rather defeat its own ends. From the Jewish point of view the law of natural selection, which is ever at work weeding out the weaker elements and allowing only those to survive that have the power of resistance, has been fitting the Jew for his highest task even in this crisis, just as Isaiah saw it in the vision of the tree reduced to a "tenth" by storm and fire (Isaiah 10:13).
So you see, this school insists…the fall-off now is no different than the fall-off then. It’s true, it’s a different kind of falling away, but the center always holds even if the edges fritter more and less as the years pass. Therefore, although we should surely do what we can to prevent edge-fritter, we should also find comfort in the fact that this is how things have always been. If the Jews of Eastern Europe had survived, a significant portion of them would have long since assimilated into the general population too, this theory works, and they would be leaving, just as here in these United States, the self-identified Jews to mourn their disappearance.
The second school is the one associated with Orthodox triumphalism. Since Pew reports that 98% of respondents who self-identified as ultra-Orthodox reported having kosher homes, but only 7% of those who identified themselves as Reform said they have kosher homes…the clear implication, having a kosher home being one of the true foundation stones upon which Jewish life rests, is that to survive the Jewish people should embrace ultra-Orthodoxy. It’s true the numbers seem strange here too. (2% of traditional Orthodox households aren’t kosher? I don’t think so!) But that’s just quibbling about numbers…and the clear implication, in statistical row after row, is that the highest levels of allegiance to ritual and dogma are maintained in Orthodox circles. As noted, part of that has to do with the likely disinclination of those who lack that level of allegiance to self-define as Orthodox. But even taking that into account, the implication is still that it’s not the center that’s holding, it’s the right-hand quadrant.
The third is the silver-lining school. According to the people who belong to his school of thought, it’s all good. The soaring rate of Jews marrying non-Jews is just a side-effect of how comfortable Jews feel in America, and how little prejudice we face when we try to break out of our own neighborhoods and comfort zones. The decline in observance is part of the general disinclination of all Americans to find solace in religion. (That this is not true is generally ignored—the Pew report notes, for example, that whereas only 20% of the general American public says that religion is either not too important or not important at all to them, an astounding 44% of Jews responded that way, as did fully half the Jewish men who responded, and almost half the respondents between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.) The rejection of Jewish belief by such huge segments of our population has to do not with those people embracing other religions but with them embracing science and secular culture—so they’re not committing collective suicide, those fall-aways…just allowing themselves to morph into a new version of Jewishness, possibly even a finer or better one. Isn’t growth a good thing?
I actually know exactly where we’ve gone wrong…because I know exactly which questions are the most painful for me personally to confront as a rabbi when I think of my own work over all these decades of effort. What we have failed at is not creating enough comfy spaces for people to settle into in our synagogue lobbies (I actually saw that on-line the other day) nor is our problem that we haven’t opened our doors wide enough to people who would come into the tent if only they felt welcome enough. Having nice sofas in the lobby and being welcoming, friendly people are not bad plans. But the problem, I believe, has to do with a general loss of nerve that has plagued our people now for well over half a century. There was a time, I think, when the point of preserving Jewishness was not that Jewishness be preserved, but that the great mission of the Jewish people—to redeem the world through endless acts of fealty to a God acclaimed as the moral ground of the universe—be, at the very least, moved toward…and possibly even accomplished in our day. There was a time, and not that long ago, when observance was not defined as obsessive-compulsive in-group behavior but as part of a great program to move the world forward towards its own salvation by beginning at home with simple steps designed to make of Jewish homes places of purposeful holiness and deep and ongoing dedication to the finest moral virtues. There was a time when illiteracy was considered shameful, when not being at least reasonably conversant with the classics of Jewish thought was something people would hide or even lie about. There was a time when even lapsed Jews could define the mission of Israel clearly and concisely…even if they themselves had gotten off the bus.
Among the books I mention from time to time on my bimah is Gilbert Murray’s 1925 book, Five Stages of Greek Religion, a re-do of an earlier book of his. In the book, which worth reading even today for many different reasons, he considers in a long essay the reasons that the Greeks simply walked away from their ancestral faith and embraced Christianity. That chapter is entitled, “The Failure of Nerve,” and describes the move away from the religion of the past not as being due to the attractiveness of the religion of the future but as the result of that religion becoming a huge temple with no real foundation as the beliefs that had once given the rituals of that faith structure and meaning slowly eroded away until what was left could simply not support the weight of the structure that sat atop its crumbling stones. I recommend the book to people who have finished the Pew report and are looking around for something new to read. You won’t enjoy what you find there. But when life-saving medicine is bitter…one generally is better off swallowing it than spitting it out.