A well-known Midrash describes how the angels complained to G-d at the Sea. Both the Egyptians and the Israelites worshipped idols, said the angels, so why were the former drowned while the latter passed through unscathed. Another equally well-known Midrash relates that the Israelites were saved on the merit of not having changed their names, their dress, and not having intermarried with the Egyptians.
At first glance, the second Midrash fails entirely to answer the angels’ question. Idolatry is one of the cardinal sins. A Jew is required to give up his life rather than transgress the prohibition against idolatry. On the other hand, there is no explicit prohibition against using a non-Jewish name. How, then, can acts of Jewish identity, like the failure to change one’s distinctive dress or names, compensate for idol worship?
The point of the second Midrash, however, is that as long as Jews retain a distinctive identity, there is still a basis for their salvation. From that Jewish identity, the intense relationship with G-d that is the goal of the entire Torah has the potential to be reestablished no matter how far an individual Jew may have strayed. Absent that identification as a Jew, there is nothing left to save.
The irreducible point of Jewish identification, the Midrash makes clear, is the determination that one’s own children be Jewish.
Such a basic Jewish identity can no longer be assumed even among the appointed mainstream leaders of American Jewry. Of the young leadership of the Reform movement, more than 40% are intermarried. Intermarriage does not serve as a bar to either lay or professional positions in Jewish federation life. Indeed Morton Zuckerman, widely touted to be the next head of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, is intermarried.
On September 8, 2000, Charles Bronfman, chairman of United Jewish Communities addressed the young leadership of the Indianapolis Jewish federation. In the course of that meeting, according to a local Jewish journalist Josh Hasten, he was asked for his views about intermarriage.
Bronfman responded by describing a wedding he had attended the week before between a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man, at which a Jewish clergyman had co-officiated with a Catholic priest. It was, Bronfman said, "one of the most beautiful weddings I every attended."
(Bronfman could have been describing the wedding of his own nephew Edgar Bronfman, Jr. The latter’s 1999 marriage to a Catholic woman, with a priest officiating, was reported in detail in The New York Times.)
Bronfman emphasized how it important it was that the non-Jewish bride be accepted by the community. Intermarriage is inevitable, he said, so, "What the hell, we might as well accept them in the community."
Thus spake the leader of American Jewry’s most powerful organization to an audience that included many college students. Surely Bronfman knows the grim statistics. There are more children under ten being raised in homes with one Jewish parent than two. Of those children less than a quarter will be "raised Jewish." And a recent American Jewish Committee study reveals that nearly two-thirds of those couples who define themselves as "raising their children Jewish" do not find that inconsistent with Christmas trees and the celebration of Christian holidays.
Bronfman was present at a tragedy – albeit a commonplace one – and yet could pass nothing more than a favorable aesthetic judgment on the floral bouquets, the orchestra, the bride’s gown. He conveyed to his young listeners the unmistakable message that Judaism is trivial -- "What the hell" if it plays any part in the life of this couple or their children.
American Jewry is literally disappearing through intermarriage and assimilation. Over a little more than half a century, it has declined from 4% to 2% of the American population.
Far from providing solutions, the leadership of American Jewry is too often part of the problem. Curing American Jewry's identity crisis must start from the top.