Heed the heart
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 20, 1998
American Jews are obsessed with their own perpetuation. Millions of dollars of federation money are earmarked every year for projects in Jewish continuity, and a group of 11 Jewish millionaires recently committed $18 million to the creation of Jewish day schools across denominational lines.
One finds no comparable level of concern among any other ethnic group.
Irish and Italian Americans do not pull their hair over the declining ethnic identity of their children. They maintain no large apparatus of communal organizations devoted to fostering that ethnic identity and commission no large-scale studies to document their disappearance or chart their rates of intermarriage.
These ethnic groups have not found their Elliot Abrams or Alan Dershowitz to detail their decline and offer their prescriptions. Who ever heard of a group of Irish or Italian millionaires pledging millions to the perpetuation of Hibernian or Italian culture?
Why are the Jews different?
The answer, I believe, lies in a profound intuition that continues to animate many Jewish hearts: a feeling that the entire world depends on the continued existence of our tiny people. (By contrast, even the Irish do not believe that the fate of mankind is linked to the existence of an identifiable group that remembers the 1845 potato famine.)
The source of that intuition is an experience forever implanted in the collective unconscious of our people: the revelation at Sinai 3,400 years ago. There, for the only time in human history, God spoke to an entire people. There we were given the mission of bringing knowledge of Him to the entire world through observance of His law.
To be sure, many of those who wring their hands over Jewish continuity no longer consciously believe in the defining moment at Sinai. To them, the claim of Jewish chosenness smacks of racism. And so it goes. The Jewish head denies what the Jewish heart knows to be true.
By now it is abundantly clear that all the money spent on Jewish continuity has barely made a dent in the grim statistics of Jewish collective suicide.
There were 4.8 million American Jews in 1928. Today the number of those who identify themselves as Jews by religion is 4.4 million. Given normal population growth, the number should be three times that.
And the future is even grimmer - not just stagnation but disappearance.
Already in 1975, Elihu Bergman, assistant director of the Harvard Center for Population Studies, projected an American Jewry shrunken by 85%-98% by 2076.
While that projection failed to take into account the astonishing Orthodox growth rate - which, it is now predicted, will reverse the numerical decline of American Jewry 40 years from now - it is depressingly on target for the remainder of American Jewry.
ALL efforts on behalf of Jewish continuity are doomed to fail as long as Jewish parents convey to their children a message diametrically opposed to the intuition of their hearts. That message is: No matter what you do, Judaism accepts you. Judaism makes no demands; there is no beyond the pale. Judaism is trivial.
Desperate to preserve the illusion that their progeny are not lost to the Jewish people, American Jews demand that their clergy officiate at intermarriages, even when their children sign statements in advance that any offspring will be raised in another religion. To convince themselves that their grandchildren are Jewish, they invent patrilineal descent.
They beg their non-Jewish sons and daughters-in-law to convert on the easiest possible terms, and when even that is rejected, they insist that the temple show an accepting attitude to intermarried couples.
All this is justified in terms of 'keeping the children within the fold.' But they are not being kept within the fold; the fold is being infinitely expanded to encompass them no matter how far they stray.
And it doesn't help. Only 18% of children of intermarried couples are raised Jewish, and 85% marry non- Jews. Every time the fold is expanded, the message of Judaism's triviality is conveyed loud and clear. That same message is sent every time a Jewish child hears that the law proclaimed by God Himself no longer applies because it has been found too difficulty or is no longer spiritually fulfilling.
The rules of chess don't change, but the rules of Judaism are infinitely malleable. Chess played like checkers is not chess, but the name Judaism is said to be capable of bearing any interpretation.
Judaism is being sold in the words of the old Carly Simon song, 'Whatever you want me to be, that's what I'll be.' But the value of a Judaism that makes no demands and entails no sacrifices is, in the eyes of young Jews, precisely zero. (As our sages put it, the value of something is commensurate with the sacrifice required to attain it.)
Not without logic, do young Jews conclude: If Judaism confirms my every opinion, and accepts my every action, why do I need Judaism? Raised to view their religion as insignificant, they cannot comprehend why their parents give so generously to Jewish charities, and even less why they should not marry a gentile with whom they are in love. And they certainly have no clue as to why for three millennia their ancestors gave up their lives for their Judaism.
Until American Jews heed the intuition of their hearts and figure out why their survival is truly so important, their future as Jews is bleak indeed.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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