Who Needs the Jews?
Last week, I attended a number of sessions of the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem. The conference attracted leaders of major Jewish organizations around the world, and was addressed by such heavyweights as President Shimon Peres and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
On a positive note, I met many intelligent, articulate people who have committed their lives to ensuring the future of the Jewish people. Of their good intentions I have no doubt.
Yet I was still left with a sense of sadness and even pity for the participants. For the future of the Jewish people, at least by the measures tossed around at the conference, is not a bright one, especially for secular Jews living outside of Israel.
First the demographics. Despite the influx of 500,000 Jewish immigrants, the American Jewish population has not grown over the past fifty years. Of the 5.5 million people listed as "Jews" by the demographers, at least one million do not meet the halachic criteria.
And that number is set to plummet rapidly over the coming decades. The American Jewish population is increasingly elderly – i.e., the average age of American Jews is seven years greater than for the general population. American Jewry is producing few children. The majority of American Jewish women 30-35 are not married. The present American Jewish birthrate is 1.89 per woman, well below replacement level. And that is not even taking into account that two out of three marriages involving one Jewish partner are intermarriages.
Among synagogue-affiliated families, there are more Orthodox children than Conservative and Reform combined. According to the recent UJA New York Jewish population study, Orthodox households (20%) are raising 60% of the children, and Chassidic households (7%) were home to nearly as many children as the 81% of non-Orthodox households.
OF MORE DIRECT RELEVANCE to the JPPI Conference is the failure of the secular and heterodox Jewish community to provide young Jews with any sense of why they should care whether the Jewish people continue to exist. That is reflected in a wide variety of markers of social solidarity. Only 47% of Jewish adults under 35 respond affirmatively to the question whether Jews worldwide have some special responsibility for one another. American Jewish membership organizations experienced a 20% drop in membership in the '90s alone, and the number of households contributing to Federation dropped by one-third. A 2003 study of $5.3 billion dollars of mega-gifts by Jewish donors or foundations found that only 6% went to Jewish causes, no matter how broadly defined.
Professor Jack Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), has hammered home in a series of jeremiads in Commentary over more than a decade, the message that without taking Judaism seriously, there will be no non-Orthodox America Jewry. At minimum that would require the so-called leadership to speak out on how Judaism departs from the contemporary ethos and "on behalf of the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jewish over the millennia . . . have willingly, and gratefully, set themselves apart." If there was such a discussion at JPPI, I missed it.
THE UPCOMING AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL election will provide a good measure of how much concern for their fellow Jews remains among American Jews. Will the mortal threat to six million Jews in Israel from a nuclear Iran cause American Jews to overcome their fetishes and phobias about voting Republican? So far the lowest poll percentage for support of President Obama I have seen is 65%.
I do not view a nuclear attack by Iran on Israel as inevitable. But the chances are not negligible. Bret Stephens, in the current Commentary, outlines a scenario in which the mullahs on the brink of losing power to a popular uprising decide that they should at least achieve their purpose of eliminating Israel.
Numerous Iranian leaders have described Israel as a "one bomb" country, and noted that even if Israel responded with its own nuclear weapons many Iranians would survive. The same logic that allowed the mullahs to employ thousands of children, armed only with "keys to heaven" around their necks, as human minesweepers during the Iraq-Iran war, would allow them to sacrifice twenty million Iranians to destroy Israel. Mass martyrdom, says Bernard Lewis, the greatest living authority on Islam, might well be an incentive, not a deterrent, in the mullahs' thinking.
Against the non-neglible threat to the entire Jewish population of Israel American Jews most frequently cite the alleged threat to "women's reproductive rights" -- a matter of almost entirely state concern and which has played no role in the Romney/Ryan campaign – as the reason to support President Obama.
A few months ago, Alan Dershowitz was publicly chastising President Obama for acting like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich in his appeasement of the Iranian regime. Now he is back in harness summoning up the traditional bugaboos of American Jewry, with charges that Romney and the Republicans will Christianize America. Perhaps if American Jews had given their children a deeper understanding of their own religion, they would be less terrorized by Christians, including Israel's most ardent supporters.
Sanctions have no chance of causing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, which have been at the top of the agenda of the Islamic Revolution since Ayatollah Khomeini. Tougher sanctions that those largely forced up Obama by the Congress did not force North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions or Saddam Hussein to open up his military sites to international inspection.
The only thing that could force Iran to back down is a credible threat of military attack. But the Iranians clearly do not take seriously President Obama's talk of "all options being on the table," while pointedly refusing to set any deadlines of red lines -- especially when the administration expends more energy describing the horrors of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities than it does stressing the danger to the world posed by an expansionist Iranian regime in possession of nuclear weapons. The mullahs appear confident that President Obama will not risk his outreach to the Islamic world by attacking an Islamic state.
In April, I joined my brother for a march in Philadelphia in honor of the victims of the Toulouse Massacre. The march began with an assembly at a local Talmud Torah. The students carried signs with pictures of the victims, but when a few curious ones asked what happened to them, the principal did not answer them. Instead he told the students to thrust their signs in the air while chanting after him, "Never again," without any clue as to what they were chanting about.
We shall see on November 6 just how seriously American Jews take their fifty-year-old slogan, "Never Again." just as it becomes relevant for the first time since tje Holocaust.
Hashem's Humility and Ours
The V'yiten Lecha prayer that many recite on Motzaei Shabbos ends with a long quotation from the Gemara (Megillah 31a) in the name of Rebbi Yochanan: "In every place where you find the greatness of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, there you find His humility." The Gemara proceeds to illustrate with examples from Torah, Nevi'im, and Kesuvim.
What can "humility" possibly mean with respect to HaKadosh Baruch Hu? The examples brought in the Gemara provide the answer. "He ensures justice for orphan and widow; [He] loves the convert to give him food and clothing" (Devarim 10:18); ". . . But [I] am with the contrite and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite" (Yeshaya 57:15); "Father of orphans and Judge of widows, Elokim in the habitation of His holiness" (Tehillim 68:6).
Hashem's "humility" it seems rests in the fact that He shows special solicitude for those least noticed in general. In our terms, one aspect of humility is removing the focus from oneself and those most like oneself and taking note of those furthest from one's normal purview.
In this context, Rebbi Yochanan was not just noting a paradox of multiple instances where the verses mention Hashem awesomeness or greatness in conjunction with his gadlus. Rather he is revealing to us that Hashem's greatness lies precisely in the fact that everything is encompassed within His vision. He is called HaGadol because there is nothing outside of His realm of concern. Not a single blade of grass grows unless one of His angels has hit it and ordered it to do so.
And so too is our greatness measured by the ambit of our concern and our ability to expand beyond the narrow boundaries of self. One place we see this is in the way some of the greatest Torah scholars employ their intellects to help others. I recently heard one such example about Rabbi Avraham Genachowsky, zt"l, who was so movingly eulogized in these pages last week by his cousin Rabbi Menachem Genack.
Rabbi Genachowsky was justly renowned for his remarkable ability, perhaps unique in our generation, to resolve novel questions of halacha from the most seemingly unlikely sources in the vast Torah literature. But no less remarkable was his consideration for others and humility.
One leil Shabbos, his chavrusah came to his home after the Shabbos meal, and inadvertently rang the doorbell. He quickly realized what he had done, and stood there horrified. There was no answer from within. After a few minutes, the chavrusah knocked. Still no answer. Only after about ten minutes did Rabbi Genachowsky come to the door dressed for bed and looking like someone who had been awakened from his sleep. He professed profound embarrassment over having forgotten that they were supposed to learn. Only later, did his chavrusah realize that he had deliberately changed into his dressing gown in order that the chavrusah would think that he had never heard the doorbell ring.