The rapid dwindling away of world Jewry occasions much communal hand wringing. The problem is not only communal, but personal as well, as Jewish grandparents seek to convince themselves that their grandchildren are somehow Jewish.
The communal search for greater numbers and the personal need for salve for guilty consciences overlap at the level of creative accounting tricks, or redefinitions of Jewishness. The Reform movement’s 1983 adoption of patrilineal descent was the first such redefinition. Subsequently, the late Egon Mayer urged counting any gentile living in an interfaith family as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people. Demographer Gary Tobin celebrates the dispersion of Jewish genes in the general population, and concludes, based on that dispersion, that there are 1.5 million more American Jews than generally assumed and another 6 million "Jewishly connected."
For those actually interested in more Jews, not just new ways of counting non-Jews, there is Conservative rabbi Harold Schulweis’ call for widespread proselytization of gentiles. Why a religion that commands so little loyalty from those born into it, judging by the 40% rate of synagogue affiliation and 50% intermarriage rate, should exercise great appeal for non-Jews, is not clear. Indeed rates of conversion are declining, even among intermarried couples, where the incentive to convert is greatest.
Then there is the Jewish outreach movement, which advises reaching out to intermarried couples, who today constitute two out of every three new couples involving a Jew, to encourage them to raise their children Jewish. The movement’s premise that greater acceptance of intermarried couples will bring more of them into the fold is, however, highly questionable.
It is hard to imagine how the official Jewish community could be more accepting of intermarriages than at present. Fully half of American Jews, in an American Jewish Committee study, label opposition to intermarriage racist. Ninety percent of Reform congregations offer membership to non-Jews.
So numerous have intermarried couples become in Reform congregations that they constitute, according to Joseph Glaser, former executive director of the Reform rabbinate, a virtual lobby insisting that Reform rabbis perform intermarriages (the overwhelming majority do) and refrain from pushing conversion of the non-Jewish spouses. As Reform rabbi Marc Gellman, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, wittily puts it, these "frighteningly assertive couples" have no interest in hearing arguments "based on Jewish law from someone who drives on the Sabbath and eats shrimp."
Yet, argues Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in "Surrendering to Intermarriage" (Commentary, March 2001), this attitude of acceptance has only made it easier to intermarry and to remain intermarried without conversion. What it has not done is encourage the raising of more Jewish children. More than a decade after Reform’s embrace of intermarried couples, sociologist Bruce Phillips’ comprehensive study of intermarried couples, Reexamining Intermarriage: Trends, Textures, Strategies, found that only 14% are raising their children "Jewish," however defined. And even in those families, 60% have a Christmas tree.
It is almost inevitable, given Christianity’s majority status, that the primary identification of children in intermarried homes will tend toward the Christian side. Christian spouses cannot be expected to have less sentimental attachment to their religion than the Jewish ones. Many a spousal consent to a brit has been purchased at the price of reciprocal consent to baptism. Predictably there is already a thriving "half-Jewish" industry busy promoting the virtues of a two-religion household.
What the emphasis on numbers too frequently overlooks is the question: Why should anyone care whether the Jewish people continue to exist as a distinct entity. The lowest common denominator approach gives the impression that there is no very great difference between Judaism and Christianity (stripped of the belief in the divinity of Jesus.) And indeed that is what most American Jews seem to believe. Sociologist Sylvia Barak Fishman has coined the term "coalescence" for the process by which American Jews have come to equate Jewish ideas with general American ones.
By failing to emphasize the uniqueness of Judaism, outreach, in the words of Reform rabbi Clifford Librach, too often becomes "a euphemism for surrender, a cover for overt syncretism." Hebrew Union College historian Michael Meyers warns of Reform worship becoming so syncretized with Christian elements as to render conversion of non-Jewish spouses besides the point.
The Carly Simon message that Judaism is "whatever you want it to be," or as Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute puts it, "There is no right and wrong way to be Jewish," ultimately renders Judaism trivial. If Judaism can mean anything or nothing why be Jewish or care about the existence of the Jewish people.
That subliminal message of the irrelevance of the Jewish people, defined by concrete ideas and practices, is one that most American Jews have absorbed all their lives and which makes it so easy for them to intermarry in the first place. Hebrew University sociologist Stephen Cohen found that only 20% of Jews who intermarry feel any special duty to help beleaguered Jews elsewhere in the world.
The pursuit of numbers at the expense of quality, then, guarantees that we shall have neither numbers or quality