Friday, December 24, 1999

Defining Judaism Downward

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

A new form of Christian-Jewish comity has arisen, not as the agenda of any organization but from powerful social realities that are certain to be transient, yet which are alive in contemporary Jewish life.

American Jewry is in a post-assimilation stage in which the massive, ceaseless Judaic abandonment of the past two or three generations has been incorporated into our communal and personal lives. Organized American Jewry continues to send a message imploring Jews to become more committed, even more traditional. Activities aimed at promoting this goal receive significant funding. From the look of things, there is progress, as when the Reform movement embraces greater religiosity. There are homes where Judaism is more vibrant today.

Still, the far larger picture in terms of numbers is one of irreversible loss, along with the acceptance of this loss by defining Judaism downward. In the process, a new reality has been established at the family and personal level in relationships between Christians and Jews.

If the petty warfare abates among the statisticians who are called demographers, we should be told within a year whether the intermarriage rate has changed since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. The news will be interesting, perhaps important, and much will be made of it. It will beget articles and reports, conferences and task forces, and projects galore. In the end, though, it will be mainly a sideshow.

The big news in American Jewish life no longer is intermarriage or Jewish loss. They are yesterday’s story, although they have a great bearing on today’s reality. Today’s new story is how in the face of what seems to be massive Jewish loss, American Jewry is attempting to reinvent itself as a secularized ethnic group — essentially as a membership group — in which our religious practices and beliefs are artifacts and options, but not imperatives.

By the hundreds of thousands or more, American Jews are saying that it is for them to choose how they will act as Jews. Attention may be paid to history and to tradition, but we owe the past nothing. We are not obligated to follow the ways of our grandparents or, for that matter, our parents. Nor should we fret much about posterity, since after all, our offspring deserve to have the same freedom as we claim for ourselves.

In this Reconstructionist vision (not the movement) of Jewish life, the door is wide open for experimentation and change, including the erosion of barriers between Jew and Christian. In the amalgam that is evolving among post-assimilation Jews, what separates one religion from the other is articulated in arrangements that allow for closer personal religious interrelationships than anything that was visualized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

This development is the inevitable consequence of intermarriage and the corollary living patterns that have become standard in many American Jewish households. It has been apparent for a generation that a steadily growing number of those living in what loosely is called a Jewish household are people who are not Jewish, not by birth or choice or any other definition. They number today well above 1 million and they are, in the main, Christians by birth and, to a lesser extent, the children of intermarried couples. If these non-Jews are not practicing Christians, they identify in some fashion as being Christian, whether because they adhere to symbols that identify them as such or because of family ties with practicing Christians.

It will take a decade or two to have a fuller appreciation of the religious and social outcomes of mixed marriages, but what can already be appreciated is the weakening of attitudinal and behavioral features that separate Christian from Jew.

While Jews who intermarry used to withdraw completely from Jewish life, there is now an expanding tendency to straddle the two religions. There are intermarried Jews who have heeded the part of the continuity message that urges American Jews to identify as Jews. Their ability to do this in the face of intermarriage has been made possible by the attenuation of religion in Jewish life and by the growing receptivity of Christians toward Jews.

Among Americans generally, Jews are a greatly admired people, respected for their intelligence, industry and contributions to the arts and sciences and to society. This makes it easier for Christian spouses in intermarriage situations — and their nuclear families as well — to be receptive to some maintenance of Jewish identity by the Jewish spouse. This receptivity is in line with the religious tolerance and pluralism that is critical in the outlook of liberal Christian groups.

At one level, this development is reflected in two-religion families, in the effort to accommodate both religions — their major holidays and some element of observance. It is facilitated, as well, by marital arrangements that allow each spouse to go his or her separate way and for the children to decide as they approach adulthood how they may want to identify religiously. Interestingly, Jewish demographic surveys are beginning to ask respondents about church attendance and other outside religious experiences.

It is likely that we are still early in the process of creating hybrid religious experiences. As American Jewry becomes more secular and also more heedful of the pleas to stay in the fold, the new kinds of arrangement are likely to expand.

This is the Jewish social reality at the end of the century. It is a remarkable story. Under conditions that are now present in Jewish life, this development will carry well into the next century. As a social reality it cannot be ignored, no matter what reservations any of us may have. Indeed, what is at present mainly the personal experience of many Jews is likely to be incorporated into the outlook at activities of organized American Jewry.

From a religious standpoint, it is an arrangement that cannot last more than two generations. Jewish survival cannot be based on intermarriage or advanced assimilation, or on a hybrid religion that eliminates our distinctiveness.