The Orthodox Assimilation Myth

In retrospect, I wish the Pew Research Study on American Jews ( were released like a pharmaceutical product, lots of warnings about side effects. One year later and in the way only Jews can do, we have interpreted and reexamined the results of the study in truly biblical proportions. To former yeshiva students like myself this study has pshat, drash, Rashi, Tosafot and volumes of additional commentary to go with it. To put it in more modern terms, after perusing the study if you get an erection that lasts more than four hours or you have suicidal thoughts, stop reading and see a doctor.

Numbers are a very basic and logical thing. Two plus two equals four. The logic of numbers changes when you count tangible things, two apples and two oranges equal four fruit but you still only have two apples and two oranges. If you add an apple to the group you have five fruit but still only have two oranges. To take the point one step further, let’s assume that the oranges are premium naval oranges that retail for $1.50 each but the apples sell for only a quarter each or that each orange is the size of two apples or after removing the peel the orange is actually smaller than one apple. Now you have a completely mixed group of numbers because we are no longer talking theoretical numbers we are talking details. The key to understanding Pew is not in the numbers; it’s in the details behind the numbers.

Ironically, the study does not use the word assimilation that is a word touted primarily by the Orthodox to delegitimize other denominations while using the study as cover to mythologize Orthodox superiority. To Orthodoxy, the proof is in the numbers, theirs have increased while the other denominations have decreased. Orthodoxy has less intermarriage; other denominations have more. The numbers create a compelling argument for the success of Orthodoxy, the question remains if the numbers mean the rest of the Jews are somehow failing or are less successful.

Assimilation is defined as “the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation, or the state of being so adapted.” Yet in the internal Jewish culture wars, assimilation has become the catchphrase to describe one movement’s success versus another one’s failure. That’s just plain wrong. The success or failure of Jewish continuity has been argued forever and somehow we still keep trudging along with our numbers and influence gaining not waning. The numbers of apples and oranges do change but the bottom line is that we have more fruit than we did twenty-five years ago.

I was heartened by a column written by Gary Rosenblatt in last week’s Jewish Week ( about a new coalition of American Jews from all denominations that seek to create alternatives to Orthodox hegemony over religious life in Israel. In the diaspora this is not a problem, it only becomes a problem when the diaspora Jew moves to Israel, then his Jewish authenticity is challenged. The irony is painful considering that the Law of Return was written to grant citizenship to anyone qualified as Jewish under the Nazi racist Nuremberg Laws. However, if Israel is to be a Jewish State, it has to be a state for all Jews just like the Law of Return intended. Under the current status quo, it’s not, no matter how many racist pieces of legislation Bibi Netanyahu forces down the throat of the Knesset to out Jew the radical right.

It can well be argued that the greatest achievement in stemming the loss of Jews is not Orthodoxy but Israel. Israel and by Israel I mean Zionism, in all its forms has changed the equation for world Jewry. When anti Semitism rears its ugly head Jews are armed with a state that will defend them and absorb them in, no questions asked. America, the great beacon of hope for much of the world is welcoming but is not always available. Zionism, a mostly secular creation, articulated a vision of Jews no longer having to be at the mercy of other authorities. Students of Zionism know well that it was born out of other previous movements of Jews trying to either be accepted and recognized by the governments they lived under or to be given ethnic autonomy within those countries. Those movements failed because Jew hatred was rampant, that failure brought us Israel. It’s a straight line.

In pre-war Europe, Zionism erupted because Jews, both secular and religious were outcasts. In America it took longer to catch on despite early enthusiasts like Justice Louis Brandeis. But Jewish Americans have come around and because of them Israel is strengthened. So despite what Orthodoxy claims is their singular stronghold on Jewish continuity and the greatest stopgap against assimilation, it’s just a myth. Those who continue to identify as Jews; both religious and secular get to define Jewish continuity. Including more people who identify as Jews not excluding them stems assimilation.

Read the Pew numbers carefully. All is not lost. No one group has all the answers and not all numeric trends spell doom. The glass is definitely half full unless you are an Orthodox doomsayer. In that case the only road to salvation is through whichever stream of Orthodox hypocrisy you choose to follow.

About the Author
Joel Moskowitz is a businessman and writer who finally made it to Jerusalem. He is currently chronicling this move in an Aliyah Journal posted on this site.