Deciding whether to respond to Bernard Wasserstein is always a tricky question. The man so clearly writes for the pleasure of irritating that to react plays into his hands. While most of us outgrow the desire to be an enfant terrible sometime in early adolescence, the taste apparently lingers longer in certain British academic circles.
Unfortunately, Wasserstein's recent celebration of interfaith marriage - 'It's a mitzva' – on this page is only an extreme example of an increasingly prevalent attitude rooted in classic German Reform. For many German Reform Jews, the rising intermarriage rate was both proof of growing Christian acceptance of Jews and of Jewish progress towards universalistic and humanistic values.
Leo Baeck, one of the leaders of prewar German Reform once said that if there had been a Jew in every German family, the Holocaust would never have occurred. (The high rate of intermarriage in prewar Germany and the Nazis ability to ferret out anyone with the slightest trace of 'Jewish blood' would seem a clear rebuttal to that theory.)
If American Jews do not yet as community openly celebrate interfaith marriage, they have, in the words of Steven Cohen, director of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, made their peace with it. Mainstream communal organizations take an increasingly tolerant stand towards intermarriage, as secular leaders and their children intermarry like everybody else. One-quarter of Reform leaders under 40, for instance, are married to non- Jews.
A 1972 Reform study placed the percentage of Reform rabbis performing interfaith arriages at over 40% (with 100% willing to refer the couple to rabbis who do perform intermarriages). That percentage has surely grown as the intermarriage rate skyrockets.
Today, the Forward reports, a Reform rabbi who does not officiate at interfaith marriages may have great difficulty finding a job. Hundreds of Reform rabbis openly advertise their willingness to perform interfaith marriages, making intermarriage not only a 'mitzva' but a lucrative one at that.
Some within the American Jewish community have gone so far as to portray interfaith marriages as a boon, an opportunity to inject new blood. That claim, however, is not only counter-intuitive but counter-factual. Today in America, there are more children under nine being raised in homes where only one of the parents is Jewish than those being raised in homes in which both parents are Jewish (479,000 versus 410,000).
In the former homes, 41% of the children are raised as non-Jews and 31% without any religion. Two-thirds of such mixed homes have Christmas trees while only 20% celebrate Jewish holidays. Not surprisingly, 90% of the children of these mixed marriages themselves marry non-Jews. (The chilling statistics can all be found in Elliot Abrams, Faith or Fear: How Can Jews Survive in Christian America.)
Non-Jews are such a large presence in American Reform congregations that Reform historian Michael Meyer warns of a religion so syncretized with Christian elements that conversion for non-Jewish spouses will be besides the point.
OBVIOUSLY such a community cannot long exist. And Bernard Wasserstein would not deny that. His cheery response is: So what? Ethnic groups are disappearing all over the world without such whining. Why not the Jews? (An odd view indeed for one whose salary is paid by contributors to the Oxford Jewish Centre, many of whom presumably have some interest in Jewish continuity.)
Nations and religions are nothing but human constructs, in Wasserstein's view, and as such deserve to disappear if they are not perceived as meeting those needs. His ideal world is one comprised exclusively of autonomous individuals unbound by ties of history. Any form of group loyalty is, in his view, primitive, retrograde, even racist.
Though he does not explicitly say so, the very idea of a Jewish state is repugnant to Wasserstein, and certainly laws such as the Law of Return that confer certain rights on Jews. For him, Zionism is racism.
To be sure, Jewish nationalism unconnected to Judaism can easily degenerate into the unattractive worship of gene pools and romanticization of the past.
If there is no meaning in being a Jew, it is hard to see why the survival of a distinct Jewish people should matter. As David Klinghoffer, literary editor of National Review puts it: If nothing happened at Sinai, we might as well all become Episcopalians and call it a day.
For the religious Jew, by contrast, Jews are bound by the giving of Torah at Sinai. Sinai is not a past event but an ongoing mission. That shared mission, not past events or common ancestry, binds us to one another.
In that view, the importance of Jewish continuity is self-evident. The entire fate of the world depends on fulfillment of our national mission.
Though we believe that our forefathers imbued every Jew with certain unique spiritual capacities, there is nothing racist in that view, contrary to what Wasserstein charges. Any human being who seeks to join us in our spiritual mission by committing himself to the Torah, just as our ancestors did, may do so and become a full Jew in every sense.
Nor is there anything racist about our insistence on marrying other Jews.
There is more to marriage than physical attraction - 'man embraces woman,' as Wasserstein begins – or intellectual stimulation or emotional compatibility, as important as all these may be. There are also shared values, a common sense of purpose in life.
The decision to marry another Jew is one to make shared spiritual goals paramount. Only together with someone who shares our sense of mission can we build a home that will be another link in the chain that goes back to Sinai.