Jewish Continuity: Why Bother?

I read Rabbi Hammerman’s article on the recent Pew poll with interest. I hoped to find some positive news to pull out of that pile of depressing numbers. Instead I was treated to a wonderful example of why Jewish identification and participation among non-Orthodox Jews living in America is plummeting even as it is easier and more comfortable than ever to be a Jew in America.

Rabbi Hammerman’s ‘positive’ take-away from the poll is based on people’s pride in being Jewish. As he writes, and the emphasis is his, not mine, “Even Jews who are bringing their kids up in another religion are proud to be Jewish! That means they are not completely lost to us.” In a personal, one-on-one sense he has a point. A person who has positive associations with Judaism is more likely to engage it than one who does not. Building those positive associations is what a large part of the energy in kiruv (religious Jewish outreach) goes to and rightly so. But the person bringing up their child in a different religion while being ‘proud’ of their Jewish roots is a perfect example of why feeling good about Judaism is simply not enough.

In a statistical sense, which is all this poll can give us, it is plain that this ‘pride’ does not result in Jews committing themselves to Judaism, or even to the Jewish community. Many American Jews are proud of their Jewishness the way many Americans are proud of their German or Irish heritage. St. Patty’s day is fun, but it’s not exactly worth sacrificing other goals and desires for. It’s not worth being uncomfortable for. For instance, if your religion, which you are proud of, says that you need to marry a Jewish person but you fall in love with a gentile, what will you do? It’s pretty obvious that choosing your life partner and finding love is more important than a positive association with your cultural roots. And if your partner feels strongly that, while s/he can deal with you being a non-believer s/he wants your children to grow up in the church? Well, that may very well be a reasonable sacrifice to make. The liberal denominations of Judaism are increasingly recognizing this reality. They increasingly recognize that Judaism is less important to people than their love lives, careers, political commitments, etc., and are adapting accordingly. They are adapting by demanding less and less from their members. Marrying a Jew not important to you? No problem!

Feeling good about yourself and being accepted as you is lovely. I’m happy to agree with Rabbi Hammerman that, “We’ve officially entered the post-guilt era of American Judaism.” Unfortunately the non-Orthodox establishment hasn’t replaced that guilt with anything very meaningful, or at least anything specifically Jewish. The article seems to make the same assumption as much of the verbiage coming out of the American Jewish establishment, that there is some inherent reason Jewish continuity is important, and we should all recognize that. Perhaps because of this the Rabbi points to the importance of Holocaust education, which gives many Jews a ‘don’t let Hitler win’ sort of positive attitude toward the Jewish community. But why is Jewish continuity important? Hitler was bad, but what is so good about Judaism that’s worth holding onto? If ‘Judaism’ consists of doing and saying and believing in essentially the exact same things as the majority culture around you, then why is that something worth working to continue? Because my parents did it? Indeed, without some sort of belief in God, the divinity of the Torah and therefore the special mission of the Jewish people to bring Godliness and holiness into the world in accordance with God’s particular and peculiar commands, why place any value at all on ‘continuing’ an ancient ethnicity?

The positive aspects of Judaism touted in Rabbi Hammerman’s article include nothing specific to Judaism. A lack of guilt, inclusiveness of gays and lesbians (LGBTQ), life affirming and ethical behavior, sensitivity to the plight of others. Most of these values have a place in an authentic, Jewish worldview. However, if they are all Judaism represents then why not be a Unitarian, or an Ethical Humanist, or belong to any other group that will give you a sense of community without making any significant demands of you? One where everything is in English and meets on Sunday like everybody else?

It seems that what Rabbi Hammerman is so happy about is the transformation of ‘Judaism’ in America into something that everybody can feel good about. But much of that good feeling comes from liberal Judaism becoming indistinguishable from other groups of Americans except for a few superficial ritual and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Perhaps it is a gap in what we see as the purpose of Judaism that has Rabbi Hammerman and me drawing opposite conclusions from this survey. He seems pleased to have people who call themselves Jews and have positive feelings about Judaism filling the pews two or three days a year. I, on the other hand, find that lack of substantive commitment, let alone belief and Jewish-specific purpose, in the lives of people who are Jewish depressing.

Rabbi Hammerman writes that we can bring Jews back to shul, ”If the doors are opened wide enough.” I support efforts to encourage Jewish pride and identification, but this has to be as a first step toward something greater, something more demanding, something less comfortable. When these shallow achievements become our final goals, why bother to keep the doors open at all?

About the Author
Rabbi Eitan Levy is a tour guide and organizer in Israel. He grew up in Denver, Colorado, got a BA in philosophy at Sarah Lawrence, and rabbinic ordination at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. He loves to share his love of the Torah, land and people of Israel in writing, lectures, and tours. He lives in Tekoa with his wife and three little gremlins.
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