A new major report from the Pew Research Center sheds renewed light on a virulent disease that has been plaguing American Jewry for generations: Assimilation. This report represents nothing new to those who have been uneasily monitoring this worrying trend, it only reaffirms a recurring dread and clutches the heart to an arrest.
Judaism in America is dying, along with all of its children.
I speak not of the ‘whatever-it-means-to-you’ movement, where Judaism means yoga-Kabbalah classes, cheese blintzes and Adam Sandler. I speak of true Judaism, grounded firmly in belief in God and the soundness of Torah truth; the only Judaism that will ever survive.
Demographically, United States Jewry has been experiencing a spiritual exodus for decades. The Pew survey shows that the percentage of ‘Jews by religion’ (as opposed to ‘Jews of no religion’) has been steadily declining from 93% in 1914 to 68% today.
Why? Why is it that the Jewish minority is one of the only dwindling minorities in the US today (only the Native Americans could possibly envy us)?
On the face of it, the culprit is explicit and in plain sight; intermarriage. You’ve heard of it before, the lore of dusty old zadies and religiously fanatical clergymen. Only thing is, they were right. Intermarriage is the spiritual Zyklon B of today’s American Jewry and the casualties are mounting.
According to the research findings, 58% of American Jews, a majority, intermarry. More damningly, 79% of non-religious Jews (‘Jews of no religion’) are intermarried. Finally, consider that only 20% of intermarried couples raise their children Jewish and the implications are chilling: almost half of the next generation of American Jewry will not be raised Jewish.
So the verdict’s out, intermarriage is a plague upon our flimsy house. Yet, although many are now ready to identify intermarriage as the problem, most still fail to understand that intermarriage is merely a symptom of a much more systemic failure.
Why Be Jewish?
When I was a kid in Boston, my father and I would walk to the neighborhood Chabad house on Saturday mornings for Shabbat services. An exemplary environment for Jewish learning and identity (authentic identity), Chabad was a bubbling melting pot of Judaism. There were Sephardim, Ashkenazim, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, and even non-religious attendees. Among the non-religious congregation members was a sweet guy named Teddy. Teddy was a blatantly non-religious, borderline-agnostic, wealthy man in his late 50’s who really just seemed to enjoy the company (and just so happened to live down the street).
On one particularly blistering cold Saturday afternoon, I was walking home with my father, the rabbi of the congregation and Teddy. When we reached Teddy’s home, we were confronted by a monstrously enormous menorah in the front yard. The rabbi gave a bit of a chuckle, turned to Teddy and said:
“Teddy, I’ve known you for quite some time now. Let’s be honest, you’re not the biggest believer. What’s with the menorah?”
Teddy pointed across the street to his neighbors’ homes, each adorned and glittering with nauseatingly bright Christmas decorations. He replied:
“Look at those houses. Every year they put up all these lights and reindeer. This year, I’ve decided that there’s no way I’m going to let a goy have more fun than me on the holidays.”
Assimilation is bad, intermarriage is bad, but they are only symptoms. The true source of this spiritual genocide (more like mass-suicide) is a fundamental corruption of Jewish Identity.The Pew report shows unequivocally that today’s American Jewry, including Teddy, derives its Jewish identity from factors completely devoid of any semblance of the source of Jewishness: Judaism.
For Teddy, it was a deep seeded insecurity that the non-Jewishness of his neighbors would drown out his own Jewishness. But what of the rest of American Jewry today? What does being Jewish mean to them, if anything?
Well, for starters, observing Jewish law is the last thing being Jewish means to most American Jews (every other option was more heavily weighted). Only 19% surveyed considered ‘observing Jewish law’ an essential part of being Jewish. In other words Torah, commandments, the very foundations of Judaism, are ‘non-essential’. So what does it mean to be Jewish? For 42% of those surveyed, ‘having a good sense of humor’ is an essential part of Judaism. Just to clarify, more Jews identify Woody Allen with Judaism than they do the Torah.
Furthermore, to what most did American Jews attribute their Jewishness? The holocaust. In other words, the determination for non-Jews to exterminate the Jewish race is what makes American Jews feel most Jewish.
How can self-respecting Jews be confronted with these tidings and not weep?
At the end of the day, it all boils down to a difficult, excruciating question that American Jews refuse to ask themselves:
Why be Jewish?
Why must one be Jewish to appreciate the gravity of the holocaust? Why can’t one marry a non-Jew and still appreciate the gravity of the holocaust?
Why must one be Jewish to appreciate good humor? Does Louis CK not entertain as much as Larry David? Why can’t one marry a non-Jew and still be funny? (Try to think of one Jewish comedian who is married to a Jew…)
‘I’m Jewish Because It’s Ethical’
What both the Pew survey, as well as common sense, confirms is that the only honest and sustainable justification to be Jewish is belief in the holiness of the Torah and the sanctity of the commandments therein. You either truly believe in divinity or you ascribe the holy texts to the lunatic ramblings of dessert wanderers, driven mad by infinite sand and desolate horizons. You simply can’t have it both ways.
The orthodox Jewish community is the only community not bleeding Jewish souls, with almost negligible rates of intermarriage and denominational switching (moving from orthodox to conservative or reform). In fact, the orthodox community represents the only growing Jewish demographic in America.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a harsh truth to face; Reform and (for the most part) Conservative Judaism are failures, their synagogues nothing more than crumbling mausoleums where Judaism goes to die, their children spiritually doomed.
Road to Recovery
Unfortunately, there is no road to recovery for American Jewry, only a one-way plane ticket.
Leave the comfort of the suburbs, shed the cultural and spiritual straitjacket that you’ve entangled yourself in, and come home to Israel. I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s decidedly not. In all likelihood you will not find the same standard of living or opulence. Israelis are tough as nails and the crassness will all but drive you mad. Yet eventually you will have to ask yourself the following honest, albeit exaggerated, question:
Will your children be comfortable non-Jews or uncomfortable Jews?