Should Jews care about the future of American Judaism?

In recent months, debate about the future of American Jewry, and more accurately the future of non-Orthodox American Jewry, has resurfaced. The discussion is not about the future of physical Jewish life, since unlike many times in Jewish history, thank God, there is no danger to their lives. Rather, the disappearance of this danger is replaced by a growing choice for Jews to either abandon their Jewish identity or ignore it.

Pessimists have written about the increasing percentages of assimilation due to the growing acceptance of American Judaism as a natural part of the majority (White) American culture. Others wrote about the decline in the birth rate of non-Orthodox American Jewish society. From the other side, the optimists agreed about the decreasing numbers, but explained that numbers are not a proof of cultural decline. In a fascinating article, Shaul Magid, for example, focuses on new revival movements. Though they are few, they are flourishing and reinventing American Jewish culture.

The debate about the future distracts us from asking what American Jewry (outside of Orthodoxy) is and what it wishes to be. What are its goals, mission, and vision? Only when these questions are answered can one find what kind of future, if any, American Jewry wishes to have and will have.

In my opinion, contemporary Jewish communities identify themselves as part of the dominant American society in which they live and feel they belong to. They conduct themselves according to the values of that society and shape their Jewish identity in such a way so as not to contradict those values. Since our understanding of ethics is influenced by our conception of the world, it is only natural that the ethics and values of Jewish communities are based on and consistent with American value systems. Nonetheless, the Jewish communities still use their Jewish identity to enrich and understand the dominant (American) values.

We are all aware that one cannot speak about only one American culture. America includes many sub-societies and cultures which often disagree and differ from one another. Jewish communities are part of these (usually white) sub-cultures and, for them, this sub-culture is the main society to which they connect and with which they share their identity. Since the values and goals of the majority societies in which they live are not the same, different Jewish communities hold distinct values and goals. In fact, some of their values are in conflict.

Liberal Jews, for example, generally find no tension between their American liberal values and their Jewish values; they use texts and practices from the latter as a language and a way to enrich and understand the former. In this way, they view themselves as more ethical human beings, in accordance with their American understanding of ethics as well as their understanding of Jewish ethics.

In general, when Jewish communities find tension between the values they adopted from the general society and their particular Jewish historical language, they typically either ignore the relevant part of their Jewish heritage, or reinterpret or “translate” it to stay consistent with the mainstream ethos. This process may take some time, since Jewish communities feel responsible for the larger Jewish society, but almost never do they choose to accept this tension and celebrate it (as the Modern Orthodoxy does). American Jewish communities have not created a unique way of life to navigate existential American problems such as dating, loneliness, the intervention of American military in the world, the behavior of the police, or even integration with the non-white communities; therefore, it is not right to consider non-Orthodox American Jews a counter culture. Yes, there are communities and organizations which fight for change, together with other non-Jewish organizations, but this has not become part of a new Jewish Halakha, for example, which would force Jews to change their daily lives.

This leads me to ask you an honest question: Are there any Jewish values or ways of life that the other American cultures (ones that you feel close with) do not have? Mordechai Kaplan already argued that American Jews do not agree with any Jewish theology that implies that Judaism is above or that creates tension with other religions or cultures, since it creates a distinction between them and the general American society. Yes, the new communities, Minyanim/Shuls and social justice organizations revive Jewish life. But what these organizations are doing is pushing people to ask and re-ask ethical (American, and therefore Jewish) questions and encouraging them to act according to these values. Again, Judaism is the language used to speak general American humanistic values.

Unlike some Jewish voices, I do not see any problem with my description of American Jews. If in the past my ancestors said, “It is hard to be a Jew,” today, I declare with perfect faith, “It is hard to be a human being.” Yes, it is hard, painful, and sometimes difficult to justify ethical living. Therefore, any path people have chosen which helps them to live an ethical and fulfilled life, Jewish or not Jewish, is a blessed path.

I grew up ultra-Orthodox and this identity exists in my bones and soul. I walk with the ultra-Orthodox version of the Talmud and the stories about the Hassidic saints that I received in the milk of my Hasidic community in Bnei-Brak (Israel), separate from Western culture. I decided to leave my community and to be a nomad who always looks beyond culture, longing for simple human contact. From my perspective on American culture, I sometimes find people who are walking existential journeys alone or in communities. I am aware of their efforts and wishes to discover the feeling of meaning in their lives and journeys. I fail to see any ontological differences between the Jewish and the mainstream culture’s ways of coping, any non-American tools or understanding of values that serious, American spiritual communities do not also have.

Therefore, when American Jewish (non-Orthodox) students ask me what they should do when their partner is not Jewish, the only concern for me is whether or not their dialogue with the partner fulfills their ethical, mental, spiritual and sexual desires. As long as American Jewishness is a language to express American values, I don’t see any explanation for the insistence that Jews marry only among Jews.

Although the language of the children in an intermarried family may not be (only) Jewish, the Jewish parent and their children will probably still share the same set of values — their American values, in whatever way they manifest. The fact that such children will not express these values in a particularly Jewish language does not mean that they will not have a rich culture which compels them to repair the world; it only means that this language will probably not be the language of a Jewish majority. Maybe one day they will not share any Jewish language. Yes, this will be hard for their parents, since they may not share many expressions, tastes, or melodies, but this is not ultimately an ethical, spiritual or existential problem.

From my experience in many American interfaith dialogues, there is not even one Jewish story, according to the ways American Jews choose to tell the stories, that I could not find an equivalent in mainstream American (white) Christianity. In my personal life, I have never felt any ethical-existential differences while dating American Jewish or non-Jewish people.

To be sure, I do not try to convince Jews to marry non-Jews. If some Jews feel that their love for their particular Jewish language (narrative, Peoplehood, warmth of community, or mystical concepts such as Klal Yisrael) is so deep that they want to walk with another person who shares that same language, they are blessed. But I wish to challenge the critique against Jews who decide to walk this fragile life with a gentile Chavruta.

In my childhood culture, an ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi (white) Jew almost never marries an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic (POC) Jew. The Ashkenazi community has many explanations for this: gaps of tradition, education, or customs. For years, I have read numerous critiques of my home community by American liberal Jews. These authors argued that as long as you share the same set of values, creating obstacles to intermarriage for other reasons is merely a means to hide elements of racism. Does this apply (with a shift from racism to ethnocentrism) also to American (non-Orthodox) Jews? Or did you really create a different set of values that I fail to see? You be the one to judge.

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US at the IAC. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization. All of my blogs were translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse
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