Thursday, May 31, 2001

Judaism in a Time of Confusion

Every Jew who has lived during the past century has lived in history, has lived during transforming events that have profoundly affected Jewish life. There have been world wars and other conflicts, the Holocaust, the rise and fall of communism and the Soviet Union, the establishment of the State of Israel, major population movements, great social and cultural changes and extraordinary economic growth and technological development. All in one-hundred years or less.

The recent period appears to be stable, even placid. While we are often gripped by news reports, our lives are mainly as they have been, without the benefits or the burdens of epic happenings. If there isn’t quite an equilibrium in Jewish life, we seem to be as close to one as can be imagined under contemporary conditions of rapid change.

Still, Jews continue to live in history, experiencing shattering changes – essentially attitudinal and behavioral, rather than political – that are permanently affecting the Jewish landscape. While none of this is actually hidden, what is occurring is not sufficiently understood because we are not geared to readily grasp changes that come with a veneer of stability.

After many years of massive Judaic abandonment, we are comfortably in – or so it seems – a post-assimilationist, post-intermarriage phase in which in order to staunch demographic losses we have accepted the loss of our traditions, much of our history, much of our religion, and our sense of peoplehood as somehow compatible with what we choose to call Jewish continuity. This is an epic development.

There have been, of course, massive losses that do not fit into this transformative mold. They consist of the millions who were born Jewish and who do not regard themselves as Jewish. Many of these people were never told of their religious background, while many others do not care. These lost Jews do not join our organizations or congregations, do not contribute to our causes, do not read our publications, do not pay heed to any of our messages and Israel does not resonate in their lives. Though a tiny number may return under serendipitous circumstances, these Jews are no longer part of the story of our people. They have become our Ten Lost Tribes. Though this is a tragedy, there is nothing especially remarkable about this part of the statistical equation of Jewish loss.

What is remarkable is the effort to retain those who have jettisoned Jewish tradition but who continue to identify as Jews, not by embracing our heritage but through a re-definition of Judaism. Nowadays, we can define our identity in our own idiosyncratic terms. A Jew is not so much everyman as anyman.

In the upheavals and transformations that occurred during the past century, Jewish history and traditions remained key reference points. We have now become counter-traditional, as well as counter-logical. To retain Jews as members of our community we agree that they can set the terms and establish the rules, even have no rules. Jews can believe or not believe, observe or not observe, marry in or marry out and they can accept as Jews persons who certainly are not Jewish. Under this arrangement, being Jewish in conformity with the understanding that prevailed for generations is no more legitimate than rejecting this understanding. All that is needed is a kind of membership card.

This reconstructionist view of Judaism may seem absurd, even bogus, and it is. We who are the tiniest of nations did not endure by going with the tide as we abandoned our moorings. It is incredible to believe that we can provide for Jewish continuity by embracing massive discontinuity.

But what is absurd can also be real and the acceptance and legitimization of Jewish discontinuity is real. What is bound to fail tomorrow or the day after is alive today, powerfully affecting intra-Jewish relationships and attitudes. As I describe in an essay in the next issue of Tradition, for all of our rhetoric rejecting advanced assimilation and intermarriage, these behaviors have been incorporated into our communal life and social experiences. This is a stunning development and it also begets much confusion. We hardly know anymore who is a Jew or what it means to be a Jew. And for all of the certainty that the redefinition of Judaism will fail, it is not a transient development. For what is happening is being reinforced through thousands of communal activities, the growing number of Jews who adhere to this approach to Judaism and the legitimacy accorded to it. In the United States alone, there are many more such persons who fit into this mold of Judaism than who are Orthodox.

We are in the midst of the transformation of the Jewish people into a membership association, with individuals free to opt in or out, free to determine the extent of their commitment. A person can be a Jew today and not a Jew tomorrow and once more a Jew the day after, much in the way that people can change their political affiliation.

And so we are confused and there is nothing we can do about it.