(Originally published by Tradition in the Summer 2001 issue and reprinted by Jewish Law Commentary)
This essay is a brief and tentative exploration of a dilemma that will remain a powerful force in our communal affairs for years to come. While our intellect and powers of observation allow us to understand the situation we are in - including the harm that is being done to our community - it is beyond our reach to bring about significant improvement. All of our organizations and institutions, as well as our money and other resources, including our planning skill, intellectual capabilities, and even our determination cannot be employed, at least not now, to alter patterns in Jewish life that we surely would like to change, if only because they cut off too much of American Jewry from the great legacy and story of our people.
For ten years, organized American Jewry has been in the grip of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and its shocking statistics of Judaic abandonment and intermarriage. Thousands of articles and an unknowable number of meetings and speeches have considered the implications of NJPS and what can or should be done to counteract a trend that threatens to destroy much of American Jewry.
American Jews have developed a penchant for opinion surveys. Each revisits the desolate 1990 terrain, providing new echoes of the earlier study.1 We abound in continuity activities that claim to have the capacity to reverse the dreadful statistics and ensure Jewish survival on these shores. Birthright Israel and other Israel experiences are being supported handsomely, while the non-Orthodox have discovered the presumed curative powers of a day school education. Continuity and identity have become our marching orders.
It isn't asked too often whether most of American Jews can be saved or, for that matter, want to be saved. We do not ask whether salvation means distancing American Jews from the allures of intermarriage and a life-style that nearly totally rejects tradition and bringing them closer to the glorious Judaic heritage or whether it means simply identifying themselves as a Jew, without any meaningful religious content in their lives. We do not ask these questions in some measure because we believe that we are in the midst of a battle to save American Jewry and during battles it ordinarily is not the right thing to do to ask whether the effort is worthwhile.
More likely, we do not ask these uncomfortable questions because we do not want to be made uncomfortable. We have convinced ourselves that we can succeed and that we are succeeding to at least some extent. The necessity to save Jews at risk is mother to the invention that Jews at risk want to be saved - that is, in our sense, not theirs.
We reason, quite understandably, that if the abandonment of Judaic practice and commitment was the catalyst for Jewish loss, surely the enhancement of practice and commitment will reverse the process of loss. This reckoning is buttressed by reports from the field, by tales of outreach success and by evidence that in non-Orthodox and even secular circles, there is a turn or return to Judaism. We optimistically extrapolate from the limited, yet surely wonderful, success of the kiruv movement, concluding that if we somehow could reach all of American Jewry, the statistics of success would be greatly multiplied.
Unfortunately, the calculus of contemporary Jewish life does not easily accommodate this optimism. Intermarriage, as I shall underscore, is substantially an incremental and irreversible process. Increasingly and inevitably, persons identified by our demographers as American Jews are at best Jews in a social and not halachic sense. A great proportion of American Jews, including those identified by demographers as core Jews, pay no attention to the Jewish messages directed at them. Of the Jews who are still emotionally or experientially engaged in Jewish life - they being the Jews at risk who might be reached - there is a decided moving away from core Jewish practices and beliefs. Judaism is, in short, being defined downward. We are pleased - and rightly so - when assimilated Jews participate in a seder or have a Chanukah menorah, but we fail to see that more than 90% of the glass is empty and that there is scarcely any replenishment in sight.
This is crucial to an understanding of the situation that confronts us. It matters, for sure, that there are Jews at risk who say that in some fashion they want to live a religious life and also that there are parts of our heritage that they eagerly want to transmit to the next generations. But it matters, as well, that what is increasingly meant by religion and heritage is something that bears a shrinking resemblance to what these terms meant a generation ago. The seder and menorah observance should not be made to seem trivial, but Sabbath observance is now the province of a frighteningly small proportion of American Jewry. Even among Jews who say that they want to be more Jewishly committed, the Shabbos that most readers of this Journal celebrate is a distant or unknown experience.
Even the sincere commitment to more meaningful Jewish education is not without complexities. While it is too early to draw conclusions about how the day school experience will impact on the future lives of children in families that are at risk, the early evidence is not promising. The 1990 NJPS already pointed to a substantial intermarriage rate among those who had attended day school and most of these had attended an Orthodox institution. It is hard to be optimistic that results will be stronger among those who are non-Orthodox. Too many of the new day schools are minimalistic in their Judaic program and expectations. They function more as private schools under Jewish sponsorship than as religious educational institutions. As I have underscored elsewhere, there is a strong prospect that certain day schools will be the Talmud Torahs of the twenty-first century.2
This emphatically does not mean that we should not encourage the expansion of day school education in non-Orthodox sectors or even that we should downplay their capacity to yield positive Judaic fruit. In fact, day schools are a good illustration of the dilemma that faces us. We must not be blind to our current situation or caught up in the euphoric attitude that is so readily promoted by the outreach community. Our accomplishments are nearly all now entwined in a dialectic: We reach out, as we must, and there will be some successes, but it is now also inevitable that outreach encompasses persons who are not halachic Jews. As we succeed in some instances, the effort and resources required to produce this progress come at the expense of the expanding acceptance of approaches to Jewish life that are, at best, problematic from the standpoint of religious Judaism.
We are trapped. We cannot walk away and say that our responsibility ends at the boundaries of our own community. Yet, as we make an effort to salvage what we can among Jews at risk, we cannot avoid contributing to outcomes that undermine our sense of Jewishness. It has long been evident that the compromises made throughout the 20th century powerfully compromise the ability to reverse the destructive assimilatory trend away from Jewish commitment and practice. It now turns out that much of what is being done with devotion and sacrifice to upgrade the quality of Jewish life requires further compromises on the part of those engaged in the effort. As we seek to strengthen Jewish life, there is the paradox that in some ways and in other quarters we may be weakening it.
The notion that we are not able to reverse powerful social forces runs counter to basic communal instincts. This is part of the larger and already familiar story of how for about two centuries western societies have been imbued with an optimism derived substantially from technological and economic progress that leads people to believe that no social problem is insurmountable. We have learned from experience, much of it unhappy, that social engineering is quite different from technological engineering and the capacity to accomplish the latter says nothing about our ability to accomplish the former. It is child's play to conceive and bring into being Easy Pass, Palm computers, fiber optics and other technological wonders as compared with the task of, for example, eliminating poverty and other social pathologies.
My concern is the Jewish dimension, not the world around us, although we know that the world around us is relevant to what happens within our tiny community. We Jews are an aggressive, talented, intrepid people who are blessed with a certain chutzpah which induces the belief that we can master social forces that operate within our communal life.
We religious Jews seem to believe that there isn't a Jewish problem that cannot be solved if our hearts and minds are in the right place and we commit sufficient resources. Our reach is, in fact, limited, probably severely. In trying or hoping to influence the larger Jewish community, we are the prisoner of what has already transpired, of events that continue to be far outside of our sphere of influence.
If I am pessimistic, it is because I am also realistic. For all of my belief that there is little that we can do to substantially affect the dialectical situation we are in, it remains that yiush - the abandonment of hope - runs entirely counter to the commitments that have been the central theme of my life for fifty years or since I met the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler of saintly memory. I believe that people can make a difference and the great Rosh Yeshiva made an enormous difference in the twenty years of his feverish activity on this soil.
But it is one thing to acknowledge that people can bring about improvements, even major improvements, and something quite different to suggest that they can counteract embedded social forces that are impervious to their efforts. We can accomplish much in the linked areas of chinuch and kiruv - Jewish education and outreach - but we engage in self-deception if we believe that we can influence in a Jewish way the vast number of Jews who have abandoned entirely any involvement in Jewish life.3 Thus, the great Rosh Yeshiva was able to stir and motivate a lethargic Orthodoxy. Yet, he had no direct impact to speak of on the legions of secularized American Jews who were rushing headlong away from their heritage.
Our efforts will ultimately bear fruit, but they will affect only a small proportion of Jews who are on the margins of Jewish life and in ways that cannot be fully planned for or predicted. And it is certain that a very great number of American Jews will pay no heed to anything that our community attempts to do to increase their sense of identity and commitment.
American Jewish demography or population study is at the heart of the dilemma that limits our capacity to act. One way to illustrate the importance of Jewish demography is to point out that it's been a long while since we paid any attention to what used to be called Jewish thinkers. When was the last time we heard of a book on Jewish life or thought that was regarded as a must read? Nearly every day we read of the statistics, survey predictions and other wisdom generated by Jewish demographers. These are the people we pay attention to, although in truth they really are nothing more than statisticians who usually happen to have degrees in sociology. Their knowledge of Jewish history is scant and, besides, they consider history irrelevant to what transpires in American Jewish life.
The demographers now set our agenda, as they conjure up new sets of numbers and define what it is to be a Jew. In the way of the statisticians fraternity generally, there is much intramural quarreling. The pettiness of their intellectual property induces a like pettiness as they vouch for the completeness and accuracy of their data. Alas, while we do not respect them, they cannot be ignored. Attention is paid.
We soon will have the results of the Year 2000 survey and we will be told - hopefully accurately - whether all that was mobilized by our multi-billion dollar organizational and institutional infrastructure has resulted in an improved or more optimistic set of statistics.4 We will be told whether the intermarriage rate has been lowered or, alternatively, whether the barn door of Judaic abandonment has been open far too long and far too wide to allow our belated efforts to reverse the trend to have widespread impact.
Even if NJPS 2000 hands out an "improved" report card, as I expect will happen, it may not matter much - except in the inevitable public relations barrage - in some measure because statistics of this kind, like most other statistics, should not be regarded as infallible. More importantly, it matters far less than it used to what the intermarriage rate is. The damage has already been done. We are in what may be regarded as a post-assimilationist, post-intermarriage phase of American Jewish development. The prevailing attitude is that intermarriage is a widespread fact and American Jewry can just the same go on with its business of preserving American Jewry.
It needs to be underscored that, contrary to the new attitude that is taking hold in American Jewish life, the incidence of intermarriage cannot be measured as other departures from our religious norms are measured. Intermarriage is cumulative in its consequences and largely irreversible in its impact on subsequent generations. From an halachic standpoint, it hardly matters whether the offspring of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers marry non-Jews. If they do, they have not intermarried. This is a circumstance that our demographers ignore or avoid, so that the data they present masks our contemporary situation at least as much as it reveals it.
To this we must add the consequences of dubious conversions, patrilineality and the willingness of our survey-makers to include non-Jews who live in what are called Jewish households in the Jewish population statistics. When I speak of non-Jews living in Jewish households, I am referring to persons who have not been converted in any fashion and who do not regard themselves as Jewish.
What I am getting to is this: When we study other forms of religious Jewish behavior, such as Sabbath observance or kashrut, we can easily tally how many observe the religious norm and how many do not and we can then compare the results with data from earlier surveys. Admittedly, social realities limit what is likely to happen down the road, so that people who did not keep kosher in 1990 are not likely to be observant ten years later. But their earlier behavior is not a religious barrier that prevents them from becoming observant. This is not true of most intermarriages, for reasons that should be obvious.
Although NJPS 1990 was scary, its profile of wholesale Judaic abandonment via intermarriage or the more familiar expedient of walking away entirely from Jewish life was not unprecedented. While we understandably look at Jewish history as the story of our survival despite persecution, slaughter and other misfortunes, it is also true that every page in our history has wide margins that tell the story of Jewish abandonment. There is no way to know for sure, but it's likely that we have lost far more people via this route than the harsher route of persecution and extermination.
In some places or periods, the two routes have intersected, for Judaic abandonment has both an active and passive form. The active form is the purposeful renouncing of Judaism through apostasy while the more passive form occurs when people stop regarding themselves as Jews and surrender all Jewish practice, belief and identity. In harsh times, apostasy has been the more likely generator of Jewish loss. But even in societies where tolerance was fairly strong - as, for example, in 19th century England - apostasy occurred because there were adverse social, economic or political consequences to remaining Jewish.
We can appreciate the toll taken by Judaic abandonment via the passive route of surrendering any sense of Jewish identity by examining Jewish life in the two centuries prior to the Holocaust. The world Jewish population at the eve of the destruction of European Jewry is said to have been between 16-18 million, hardly an impressive figure. Let us consider this: From roughly the mid-18th century until the Holocaust, Jews experienced relatively little persecution. There was anti-Semitism in abundance and some pogroms, but the contribution of the pogroms to Jewish population loss was negligible. In the same period, there were great improvements in public health, so that the infant mortality rate declined significantly and there were comparable increases in life expectancy.
In view of these factors and what I am certain was the high Jewish fertility rate, the world Jewish population in 1933 should have been considerably above what it was.5 The reason why it wasn't is that we had experienced so much loss through one form or another of voluntary Judaic abandonment. Accordingly, it would seem that the contemporary American Jewish experience is an echo of what happened previously - and really not very long ago.
Yet, while there is perhaps nothing unique about a 50% intermarriage rate, there is something about American Jewish intermarriage that represents a departure from nearly all previous Jewish intermarriage patterns and complicates our population profile. The only large-scale analogy I am aware of is the Jewish situation in Babylonia in the inter-Temple period, when a large proportion of adult Jewish men, including communal leaders, had intermarried.
Our image of intermarriage has been shaped by popular culture and probably also by personal experience. This image may have once been accurate, but it no longer is and it certainly is not compatible with the new and increasingly accepted notion that the practice is compatible with the maintenance of Jewish identity and the promotion of Jewish continuity. Intermarriage was regarded as a rupture with Judaism that eradicated any sense of Jewish identity. In the familiar, though perhaps stereotypical profile, parents and family members would rent their garments, say kaddish and perhaps observe shiva. There was a shared understanding between the Jews who intermarried and the Jews who they left behind which amounted to an agreement that the intermarried would no longer be regarded as Jews.
In the 1980's, this image of intermarriage changed, although the seeds were planted earlier. As the practice became more widespread, it also became more familiar in the sense that it started to become more acceptable. If not in the community as a whole, then in a great number of homes, intermarriage lost its shock value and it gained acceptance and even legitimacy in a way that contrasted sharply with the historic pattern. As much as the new attitude of tolerance toward intermarriage seemed to be a reversal of deeply embedded social, psychological and religious imperatives, its emergence should not have been surprising. Yet, even today there is scant appreciation of the mutation in Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage, perhaps because the community rhetoric and programming continue to be so unaccepting of intermarriage. As much as I wish that it were otherwise, the community's announced opposition to intermarriage runs directly counter to the attitude of most American Jews.
The spread of intermarriage meant that more outsiders, mainly family members, were affected, so that we have now reached the point where few families - including among the Orthodox - are entirely outside of the pale of this experience. Relatives of the intermarried continue to say - by decreasing margins - that if they had the ability to choose, they would clearly prefer marriage within the faith. But by 1990, fully 80% of American Jews said that if it occurred, they would accept intermarriage in their family. What had long been anathema is now at least tolerated. The trend is strongly in this direction and it is not going to be reversed, either by rhetoric or hair pulling or programming that is designed to counteract the prospect of intermarriage. Several years ago, two-thirds of Conservative teenagers from that movement's more traditional wing indicated that they see nothing wrong with intermarriage.
The process of change was obviously abetted by practical considerations. Secular Jews who had already traveled far along the road of assimilation could not accept the cultural or communal norm that had been fully accepted in previous generations mandating that the intermarried be disowned. Their children were, after all, their children, whether they married a Jew or Gentile or did not marry at all. There was no tension any longer in the acceptance of a practice that had been taboo because there now was a growing critical mass of American Jews who refused to regard intermarriage as deviant behavior.6
Intermarriage was transformed from a most serious violation of Jewish law and norms - something just short of idolatry - into one of many departures from traditional religious practice. This can be see as a natural extension of the process whereby American in ever-increasing numbers distanced themselves from their religious obligations. Sabbath observance is now nearly the exclusive province of the Orthodox, while kashruth is observed by not many more Jews. Other mitzvahs are regarded as anachronisms, as old-world relics that are ill-suited to modern sensibilities and environments. Why should intermarriage be viewed differently from other freely taken decisions not to be a practicing Jew?
This question gains some force when we consider that Jews who eat non-kosher food or work on Shabbos may be sinners in a religious sense but continue to be regarded as Jews by even the most Orthodox. Some of them are even community leaders and people upon whom our community readily bestows honors.
Further abetting the acceptance of what had long been unacceptable is the recognition that in many instances of intermarriage, the non-Jewish spouse is no less observant than the Jewish marriage partner, which isn't saying much given the likely level of observance of the Jewish spouse.
These factors add up in the minds of non-observant Jews to the powerful argument that the intermarried should not be ostracized or relegated to some kind of Jewish leper's colony. If the main religious symbols of contemporary Jewish life are a Chanukah menorah, Passover seder and some form of Yom Kippur observance, intermarriage does not prevent anyone from fulfilling these obligations.
This is a more intricate and multi-nuanced story than I have presented so far. For most American Jews who have intermarried, including in recent years, the old pattern of removal from Jewish life has substantially prevailed. Marrying out for most Jews has not been accompanied by a desire or willingness to maintain meaningful forms of Jewish identity. For these Jews, as a rule, Jewish causes are not contributed to, Israel is not visited or given much attention, Jewish publications are not read and Jewish messages are ignored. The erosion in Jewish consciousness that preceded intermarriage took a heavy toll in eroding any sense of Jewish identity. Intermarriage added very little to the damage that had already been done.
Accordingly, the theme that I am developing of intermarriage being reconciled with Jewish identity concerns a minority of the intermarried. Yet, this minority constitutes a group whose position in contemporary life has important implications. These Jews honestly regard intermarriage as a personal decision and they believe that communal opposition to an individual's personal choice may be understandable, but it is entirely unacceptable. These Jews sincerely value freedom of choice and, as I have said, they are confident that they can integrate a measure of Jewish continuity into the life pattern that they have established. These Jews read some of our publications, give to our causes, visit Israel at least occasionally and strongly identify with the Jewish state, join Jewish organizations and, at times, even congregations. Some have become Jewish leaders and their ranks are certain to grow.
For these Jews, the fact that they engage in these forms of Jewish behavior as they remain intermarried validates the legitimacy and utility of their position. They have pulled off the neat trick of being dualistic, of abandoning most of Judaism as they seek to maintain Jewish identity, of chucking off most of the Jewish past as they sincerely claim to want to ensure a Jewish future. Along the way, they have gained adherents among other intermarried and, more critically, among Jews who still believe that intermarriage is not good for the Jews.
For certain, this phenomenon is transitory. From the standpoint of halacha and Jewish history, it may also be said to be illusory. But it is real from the sociological standpoint and it is an experience that is alive today in the minds and lives of a rather great number of Jews. As much as religious Jews want to believe otherwise, they have to acknowledge and contend with a phenomenon that is confusing - for them unprecedented - but which will not go away simply because intermarriage is proscribed.
In a way that may be paradoxical, the faith of intermarried Jews in the compatibility of their marriage choice with continued Jewish affiliation has been strengthened by communal efforts to counteract intermarriage. In the ways of the law of unintended consequences, there are assimilated Jews who have taken to heart the messages and activities aimed at promoting Jewish involvement - but only up to a point. The particular thrust of the messages was to discourage intermarriage and the secular Jews to whom they were addressed did not pay heed. They would marry whom they wanted to marry, irrespective of what this might mean to Jewish continuity.
But this does not mean that the fervent messages of the past decade or so have fallen on deaf ears. For one thing, even the nature of intermarriage has changed, so that now there is the diminished likelihood that the Jewish spouse will convert to his/her partner's religion. At the wedding itself, a rabbi or cantor might officiate, perhaps together with a clergyman from the non-Jew's religion. The important thing is that marriage out of the faith no longer necessarily meant that the intermarried were no longer of the faith.
Their sense of continued Jewish involvement was furthered by the aspects of the messages that they did listen to. They heard the talk about visiting and supporting Israel, studying Jewish texts, belonging to congregations and organizations and whatever else might sustain their Jewish commitment. In the aggregate, therefore, our continuity efforts have substantially resulted in strengthening the view of many intermarried Jews that they can have their cake and eat it. This isn't a criticism of either these Jews or of the community; it is simply a picture of a social and psychological process that is still in development.
The new attitude toward intermarriage is in harmony with the American ethos of tolerance and individualism, of people choosing how they live their lives, including who they live with. It goes against the American grain to tell a man and a woman, both adults, that because of the circumstances of their birth or parental religious affiliation, they cannot marry the person they want to marry.
At a practical level, inter-ethnic marriage has long been a feature of American life. The Irish and Italians and Germans and so many other groups have intermarried in abundance and while it is true that the practice has brought some of these groups to nearly the vanishing point, it remains that Americans are comfortable with the idea of choice in marriage.
Even among the Orthodox - or many of them - there is evidence of an indirect or grudging acceptance of behavior that we regard as antithetical to Judaism. We do not subscribe, of course, to the notion that for Jews religious beliefs and practices are matters of personal choice, that the Torah and Shulchan Aruch are mitzvah smorgasbords from which we can pick and choose. But at least in our secondary associations - and, frankly, occasionally in some primary associations - there is a surprising comfort level with the reality of intermarriage. Intermarried relatives are invited to Orthodox weddings, Orthodox Jews participate in Jewish organizations with Jews who are intermarried and we do not protest much, if at all, when we are told that the children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother are Jewish. Little thought is given to whether this is right. Isn't it interesting or telling that in a previous period in the American Jewish experience when Orthodoxy was far weaker and far less strict than it now is, strictures against contact with the intermarried were more strongly maintained?
I might add that there are Orthodox day schools that accept children of doubtful halachic status, a practice that has been sanctioned by notable Torah leaders from the yeshiva world.
There is, in short, a good deal of dualism or compartmentalization within the religious Jewish world, amounting to the religious rejection of intermarriage but social acceptance of the practice. I suppose that there really isn't much choice here, for unless the Orthodox are willing to close themselves off from other Jews, there will be this kind of dualism.
To appreciate the openness of American life and how it facilitates intra-communal dialogue and contacts between secular, even anti-religious, Jews and the Orthodox, we can contrast the 19th century German Jewish experience with contemporary American Jewish life. Under the inspired leadership of Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, much of German Orthodoxy separated itself from the nominal communal arrangements and established an Austritt Gemeinde. This separate entity sealed itself off in a communal sense from the rest of organized Jewry.7 It was possible to do this, I think, because there were attitudes and cultural norms alive in German life that permitted separation. Germans were, after all, not quite noted for their spirit of tolerance.
American Jewry has witnessed departures from halachic and traditional norms that dwarf in severity what occurred in Germany. Yet, the American Orthodox reaction has been fairly muted, except for the occasional public attention that is given to differences between the Orthodox and the other denominations. For all of the angry language, the Orthodox participate actively in organized Jewish life and so far as I know, no Orthodox leaders have followed the path of Rabbi Hersch and called for a separate community. Rather, as its contribution to the debate on pluralism in Israel, Agudath Israel has mounted an expensive "We are one people" campaign. While its impact has been nil and this won't change, the campaign demonstrates in a stark way that in America, the cultural norm is to get along, to tolerate, if not to accept.8
This helps us to understand an interesting aspect of the American Jewish push for pluralism in Israel. While the Reform and Conservative movements have their agenda, for many marginally religious American Jews who bear no animus toward the Orthodox, there is a strong feeling that Israel should follow the American pattern and allow freedom of choice on religious matters. What these Jews are emphasizing is not so much the religious dimension as their belief in the rightness of individual choice.
The openness of American life, which encompasses extraordinary patterns of social, geographic and economic mobility, is yet another building block in the process of accepting and legitimating an individual Jew's decision to marry outside of the religion while retaining the personal freedom to continue as an involved Jew.
Individual choice adds yet another layer of complexity to the American Jewish population puzzle. I have pointed out how Jewish abandonment has been shaped by events in the external society. Where and when there was persecution and repression - even just social repression in the form of stifled opportunity - Jews were far more likely to abandon Judaism, either through apostasy or walking away.
The losses we have suffered via these routes are staggering and they include what we have lost in this century. If halachic - but not social - standards were applied and if genetic testing could be employed to identify who is a Jew, in all likelihood we would locate a great number of people who were born Jewish but who do not regard themselves as Jews. As one bit of evidence, there is the curious situation of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Although perhaps as many as two million Jews have left, there is credible evidence that there are now more Jews living in the FSU than the number that had been estimated when the doors to emigration were opened.
Jews hid their Jewishness because they believed that the downside of being identified as Jews was too great a burden to bear. In other instances, nothing was being hidden because there were halachic Jews who were unaware of their status. This phenomenon, which is more widespread than has been appreciated, may be referred to as the Madeleine Albright syndrome. This is the worldwide syndrome of perhaps hundreds of thousands of persons who are Jews fully in an halachic sense and not Jews at all in a societal sense. This situation is at once 180 degrees away from and yet also the mirror image of the vast number of Americans who are now Jews in a societal but not halachic sense.
So far as I know, no one has declared that the former U.S. Secretary of State is a Jew, although both of her parents were born Jewish. What about Cardinal Lustiger, now one of the great princes of the Catholic Church? These and a large number of other people who were Jews at birth are, with perhaps few exceptions, lost entirely. We do not include them in our population statistics, in our communal planning or in our Jewish thinking. They are our Ten Lost Tribes. In two generations at the latest, the halachic status of their offspring will correlate perfectly with their social status.
Jews abandon Judaism when they calculate that it is in their interest to do so. Attention has been given to this social process. Is there a social process operating in the other direction whereby Gentiles calculate that it is in their interest to be regarded as Jewish? We rarely address this question, doubtlessly because for 2,000 years it was a rare day when it was advantageous to be a Jew. But such days did happen. We know from even earlier developments in Jewish history that there were occasions when being a Jew was what today would be called a good career move. There was the Persian experience as recounted in the Megillah. After the downfall of Haman and the triumph of Mordechai and Esther, we are told that many converted to Judaism or claimed to be Jewish - I do not know which - for the fear of the Jews had fallen on them.
Rambam tells us in the laws dealing with conversion, that in the Kingdoms of David and Solomon there were Batei Dinim - courts of Jewish law - consisting of unqualified judges who engaged in wholesale conversions, either because the new converts were fearful of Jews or they wanted to be part of the Jewish success story.
For more than 2,000 years, Judaism attracted few converts, in part because we placed the barrier very high but also because while we offered spiritual benefits, there were few temporal attractions. This has changed dramatically in the recent period, especially in the U.S., but to an extent also throughout the Western world. To be Jewish is an in thing. Jews who marry out of the faith no longer have to become apostates. The non-Jewish spouse may well consider conversion to Judaism. If not, there still often is a measure of identity with patterns of Jewish life.
Even in an age of celebrityship, it is remarkable to have Hollywood stars studying Kabala - or what they are told is Kabala - and Michael Jackson going to the Carelbach Synagogue on Simchas Torah. There are other illustrations of this trendy attraction to things Jewish. Are there any implications to the growing incorporation of Yiddish words into the American vernacular? I'm sure that we can think of many other examples.
Because much of what is happening is trendy, inevitably it is transparent, which means that it will not be long-lived. But for all of the transient nature of the new embrace of what is believed to be Jewish identity, it remains that we live in the present and we act in the present and while we religious Jews are always mindful of the heritage that we have received and which we will bequeath to the next generations, we too make our choices in the contemporary world. It is important to know that ultimately the attenuated sense of Jewish identity will be gone with the wind, but until this happens it will be a crucial factor in the planning and lives of American Jews.
It is risky and probably foolish to predict what lies ahead. There are always surprises and disappointments. We can be certain of Jewish survival, in whatever numbers. And, I think, we can be certain that the developments that I have outlined will continue to be factors in American Jewish life for quite a while. The attitudes which legitimate intermarriage and which tend to reconcile Jewish abandonment with Jewish identity are being constantly reinforced.
All of this is to say that it is hardly possible to calculate how many Jews there are. From a strict halachic perspective, our numbers are decreasing, probably rapidly. From a secular perspective, our numbers are increasing, especially if we include in our accounting all of dubious religious status and people who are not at all Jewish but who live in Jewish households.
What are we to make of all of this? What are we to call these Jews who at least for the present have redefined what it is to be a Jew? The kind of Judaism which is being marketed is not religious, not in the Conservative or perhaps even the Reform sense. In terms of the behavior and attitudes of a vast majority of American Jews, the dominant denomination is Reconstructionism. To most American Jews who regard themselves as Jewish, our religion is a large menu of beliefs and practices and it is for the consumer - the individual Jew - to decide what to believe in and what to practice.
According to some writers, we are now an ethnic group. I have difficulty accepting the term, in part because the distinction between what is ethnic and what is religious is unclear. Intermarriage is defined by these writers as ethnic behavior. The concept of ethnicity suggests an identification that is more deeply rooted and lasting than what we are witnessing in American Jewish life. While I believe that the arrangements that have evolved will not dissipate quickly, I very much doubt that they can survive as long as ethnic groups are expected to survive.
I think that what we are evolving into outside of our relatively small religious core is something of a voluntary membership association. Americans are a nation of joiners and groups have always been critical in this society. Some of the loyalties developed through group attachments are fairly long lasting, as is apparent in individuals whose families have for generations been strongly identified as Democrats or Republicans. Much the same has been true, at least in the past, of labor union affiliation. One can go to Detroit or the Pennsylvania coal mines and find evidence of three or even four generations of membership in the same union. Judaism has become to many nominal Jews a voluntary association. We can stay in, pay dues, join in group activities and perhaps impart our sense of loyalty to the next generation. Or we can switch out, in much the same way that party affiliation can be switched. The choice is the individual's. Right now, many American Jews who have rejected nearly all of what it previously meant to be a Jew continue to sign up as Jews, but on terms that are acceptable to them. This, too, provides a strong measure of reinforcement.
There are Americans who aren't Jewish by anyone's definition who are signing on as Jews - at least that's what they think - usually because they are in a relationship with someone who is Jewish. The religious demands of joining are minimal and so the dues to be paid are no longer much of an issue. It doesn't hurt that, as noted, we are in a period of unprecedented Jewish popularity. Jews rank very high among Americans for their industry, intelligence, values, reliability and much else.
As I have said, this will ultimately unravel. But for the present it is real and it begets a great deal of confusion. We are likely to be more confused as we continue along the same road. Many of us understandably regard this as tragic. At the least, though, we may want to keep in mind that even the confusion about status and other questionable aspects of our population profile are not all that unique.
There is nothing we can or should do to make Jews unpopular as part of a stratagem of alleviating the dilemma that has enveloped our community. There is also little we can do to prevent the large majority of American Jews from defining Judaism as they see fit. This is a free country and with respect to religion, we are for now fated to have the bad along with the good. At once, we are allowed to practice our religion according to precise halachic requirements, while other Jews are free to redefine our religion downwards. In the context of American life, we do not and cannot have a monopoly on determining who is a Jew and what is a Jew. Even from the perspective of American Jewry, our reach is quite limited. We are, in a sense, limited to the four cubits of Torah and halacha.
It has been a while in America since it was possible to say with a straight face, es is shver tzu zein a Yid. It isn't hard to be a Jew, not in the way that the phrase once meant, although it is hard at times to be true to certain of our traditions in a society awash in materialism and powerful assimilatory phrases. For most American Jews, to be a Jew is as easy as apple pie and nearly as American.
Can we Orthodox counteract the dilemmas that are overtaking us in our interactions with the rest of American Jewry? Can outreach avoid being the two-edged sword that it has become? Must we in our relationships with assimilated Jews compromise religious standards and further becloud status issues that already pulsate throughout American Jewish life? Can we, in short, get out of the trap that we are in, the dialectical trap that dictates that the progress we make among assimilated Jews brings with it the high cost of adding confusion and complexities in our communal life?
Put differently, can we engage in outreach activities without being the inadvertent handmaiden to the acceptance of intermarriage and Judaic abandonment, so long as they come in a Jewish identity wrapping?
If we were to embrace an Austritt philosophy, we might avoid the trap or dialectic, although I am less certain about this than I once was. This might entail the abandonment of formal outreach as it has been conducted over the past two decades, a cost that understandably might be considered as too high because it would mean the spiritual abandonment of most of American Jewry. Furthermore, Austritt is not in the cards, for it is not in accord with the American ethos.
It would seem that we must take the losses as part of the effort to achieve religious gains. That is how it is when a community is entrapped.
Still, it isn't necessary to sail further into a sea of uncertainty. What we attempt to do in outreach - and I mean here the full range of our engagement with the rest of American Jewry - must be informed by an intelligent and realistic assessment of our predicament. There is too much of a disconnect in contemporary Orthodoxy. We at once bemoan the adverse developments of the past decades and then act and think in outreach as if they did not happen, as if we were back in 1980 before the great leap in intermarriage rates and before patrilineality, quickie conversions and wholesale Judaic abandonment.
We somehow seem to have forgotten that 50% is not an inorganic statistical particle. It is a dynamic force affecting everything we want to do as religious Jews relative to other Jews.
It may be that some form of disengagement - stopping short of Austritt - would not foreclose the ability to reach out to other Jews. Instead of formal outreach through distinct organizations established for that purpose, we might more effectively engage in outreach of a more subtle nature, avoiding thereby the confusion and status issues that have undermined what we are doing to reach out to assimilated Jews.
We are told that when Rabbi Hirsch came to Frankfurt, Orthodox life had evaporated to nearly the vanishing point. This is probably an exaggeration, but it remains that there was a steep decline as the Enlightenment and new freedoms accorded to German Jews took a heavy toll in sharply reduced religious commitment. When Rabbi Hirsch passed away decades later, Frankfurt had a vibrant Orthodox community and this was true of other German communities under his influence. It is logical to derive from this that Austritt was not a total barrier to upgrading the religiosity of some Jews who had walked away from a religious life.
There are examples from the American Jewish experience pointing in the same direction, communities that grew religiously without the public relations, fundraising and formal outreach activities that have become familiar fare in Orthodox life.
It could be that the most effective strategy for relations with the Jewish world outside of Orthodoxy is for our communal life to be fully invested with a sense of religious purposefulness and spiritual dignity, qualities that strengthen Orthodoxy from within and serve as magnets that attract outsiders who may come to appreciate the glorious Judaic heritage. If we go about our lives as religious Jews with spiritual dignity, somehow our commonplace religious activities will touch the lives of assimilated Jews and have a religious impact.
The kiruv movement has convinced itself and much of the rest of Orthodoxy that the outreach net must be cast far and wide through activities that proclaim the outreach message in figurative neon lights. This approach is understandable and consistent with the contemporary emphasis on public relations, yet we have reached the point when we should question its wisdom. There is also the understandable but mistaken notion that unaffiliated and secular Jews are ripe candidates for kiruv. Overwhelmingly, American Jews do not want to be reached, cannot be reached and among those who can or want to be reached a growing number are not Jews according to halachic standards.
Instead of looking so far afield, we should look at what occurs within the ordinary boundaries of our communal life. Each year tens of thousands of Jews who aren't Orthodox - not by practice or affiliation - come to our synagogues, perhaps only once for a simcha or out of curiosity, or perhaps more frequently to say Kaddish or because of convenience. If the services are conducted with spiritual dignity and the atmosphere is one of quiet caring for these Jews, a number will respond and perhaps be drawn, to one extent or another, to greater Jewish commitment.
This quiet, ordinary approach relies on the intrinsic capacity of our religious life to be attractive. It may seem to be a variation on the familiar question of whether our communal focus should be on outreach or inreach, the latter meaning attention to Jews at risk who already are in our shuls, schools and other instrumentalities of organized Jewish life. The resemblance is more apparent than real. It is painful and troubling to continue to lose Jews whose families have shown a distinct commitment to an halachic lifestyle, especially when the losses occur among day school and yeshiva attendees. This is an aspect of Orthodox life that deserves attention and fixing, yet it is different from the activities that I have in mind.
What I am getting at here is something else, the inherent capacity of our institutions - especially our religious institutions - to reach out to assimilated Jews without broadcasting a formal outreach message. What needs to be on display is all that is good and fulfilling in religious Jewish life and not an overt outreach message or a pitch for funds.
This may require a substantially different orientation for many of our synagogues, especially the larger ones that seem hidebound in adhering to approaches that guarantee their shrinkage. There is also a need to establish Orthodox synagogues in the great number of under-served communities across the country. This is something that Chabad understands, but few others in Orthodox life seem to recognize the opportunity and responsibility.9
Synagogues are not the only contact points for the more subtle form of outreach that I am advocating, although they have the greatest intrinsic capacity to reach out to assimilated Jews. Day schools have a role to play, as do chesed activities and all else that is impressive in organized Orthodox communal life. Admittedly, relatively few Orthodox day schools continue to have an outreach orientation. There are now other priorities and this is manifested in the decline in enrollment in outreach and immigrant day schools. There is a corollary decline in the number of non-Orthodox enrollees in conventional Orthodox day schools.
The more muted, ordinary form of outreach would reduce the growing prominence in Jewish life of status issues but they cannot eliminate them entirely. This is an open society and there really is no place to hide, but this is not to say that every strategy has equal validity or creates the same level of difficulty. We ought not go deep into a morass that results in the constant expansion of the complexities that now abound in American Jewish life.
Throughout every period in Jewish life, when Jews flourished there were questions of status. Indeed, from the period of Joshua on for generations it could not be determined whether significant groups of people who had accompanied us in the land of Israel were legitimately Jewish. The Talmud discusses the controversy over the status Kuthim. This, too, took a long time to resolve.
So there is anguish about Jewish loss and confusion and anguish about a reinterpretation of Judaism that is hostile to what we believe in and ultimately hostile to Jewish survival. Just the same, it is well to focus on the long story of Jewish history, on glorious attainments, on our tradition, on the heritage that we have received and doubtlessly will impart to new generations.
1. As this essay was being prepared for publication, the American Jewish Committee released the results of the "2000 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion," which was conducted in September 2000. The results essentially confirm the findings of NJPS 1990, except that they may be interpreted as somewhat more pessimistic, especially regarding intermarriage.
2. It is convenient, but also deceptive, to mouth the day school mantra, to proclaim that a day school is a day school and that therefore inherently its mission and program promote what I have called religious purposefulness. There are day schools that do not meet even an attenuated standard of religious purposefulness. I recently visited one of the largest Reform day schools in the U.S., a school that is growing rapidly in an important community. Apart from sporadic tefila and Hebrew language instruction, there is no Judaic curriculum. There, as elsewhere, the hours devoted per week to any form of Jewish studies is well below the minimum standard of six hours that had once been set for Talmud Torahs or Jewish supplementary schools.
3. It should perhaps be underscored that the capacity of chinuch and kiruv to counteract, even in a modest way, embedded social forces that have resulted in massive Judaic abandonment is predicated on the linkage of these two related and yet distinct activities. It is often assumed that at least in the world of Orthodox Jewish education, such a linkage exists. In truth, the story is otherwise. Religious education and outreach are increasingly conducted as discrete activities. As a consequence, the effectiveness of kiruv has been sharply undermined, although one would hardly know this from reading the exaggerated claims that flow regularly from those who are engaged in outreach.
4. NJPS 2000 has been delayed, so that even the preliminary results are not expected to be released until late in 2001. Disputes among demographers and others who are involved in the project are largely responsible for the delay. The way these disputes have been resolved and the analysis flowing from these resolutions have a bearing on whether the statistics and their interpretation can be regarded as authoritative. The delay also arises in some measure because the random telephone dialing method that has been employed to locate the requisite number of American Jewish households to be included in the survey did not in the allotted time result in a sufficient number of Americans identifying themselves as Jews. It may turn out that even with the most attenuated definition imaginable of Jewish identity, fewer Americans than expected now say that they are Jewish, perhaps because they do not want to be identified as such. It may be that, as I suggest further on in the text, there is a growing number of Jews who in fact do not know that they are Jewish. In an interesting way, the NJPS 2000 experience bears out the thesis of this essay.
5. A respected friend who read a draft of this essay has questioned whether demographers would agree "that 18 million is such a small figure." He further notes that "it has been estimated that in 1700 there were only one-million Jews in the world; consequently, 18 million two-hundred years later does not strike me as a terribly small figure." I believe, however, that it is impossible to have an accurate count of world Jewry circa 1700. Furthermore, because of the factors noted in the text - high birthrate, improvements in public health, etc. - the Jewish population should have risen far more substantially than it did.
6. The recent American Jewish Committee survey alluded to in a previous footnote yields some remarkable data regarding the current attitude toward intermarriage. Fifty-six percent of respondents disagree with the statement, "It would pain me if my child married a gentile," while 81% agree that "The Jewish community has an obligation to reach out to intermarried couples." Furthermore, 50% think that "it is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages." Depending on the number of response options offered, either 42% or 57% believe "Rabbis should officiate at a marriage between a Jew and a gentile even if a gentile clergyman is involved in the ceremony." On the subject of marriage, incidentally, when asked whether a Rabbi should officiate at a same-sex marriage if both are Jewish, 46% responded yes, 44% no and 10% were not sure.
7. There was, of course, ongoing contact with other segments of German Jewish life and Rabbi Hirsch and his community were clearly engaged in activities that included the German Orthodox who did not accept the Austritt approach. In a sense, this approach was as much - or more - ideological than a description of how German Orthodoxy functioned on a day to day basis.
8. When not long ago the Reform movement moved somewhat in the direction of greater acceptance of religious tradition and practice, Agudath Israel and its English language publication, The Jewish Observer, warmly welcomed the development. Of course, the Reform were not abandoning their tolerance of intermarriage, promotion of patrineality and their acceptance of quickie conversions or, for that matter, attitudes and behavior that have resulted in a rather considerable number of Reform adherents not being Jewish according to the halachic view of Agudath Israel. The Agudah was responding less to the Reform's religious changes as to the American imperative of indulging in public relations and evoking the image of tolerance.
9. The Chabad phenomenon deserves more attention than it has received, for it is by far the largest Jewish movement worldwide and it has grown considerably since the Rebbe's passing. Chabad's activities have profound implications for the issues discussed in the essay.