Monday, February 04, 2002

The New Ecumenicism

Even as organized American Jewry reacted with dismay more than a decade ago when the 1990 NJPS intermarriage data was released and all kinds of activity to promote Jewish continuity were launched, most American Jews had already entered a post-intermarriage stage in which marrying out was not regarded as wrongful and not necessarily incompatible with Jewish identity. In the years since, we have had an abundance of surveys showing that Jews accept intermarriage, both conceptually and in their own families.

Around midyear we will have the results of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000. The data may show that the intermarriage rate has gone down, a result that can be obtained only by ignoring the cumulative impact of intermarriage and by disregarding altogether what remains of the traditional understanding of Jewishness. Whatever the numbers, it isn’t likely that intermarriage will get the attention given to it in the 1990’s. American Jewry has entered a new stage, beyond the post-intermarriage phase. The behavioral consequences of Judaic abandonment, including marrying out, are forging a conception of Jewish life that accepts Christianity in ways that would have been unthinkable, much less acceptable, not long ago.

This may come as a shock, but it should not be surprising. Intermarriage and Judaic abandonment are dynamic, not static, elements in contemporary Jewish life. Since intermarriage often, but of course not always, includes the union of a Jew and a Christian, in order to establish a comfort level in many homes it is inevitable that efforts will be made to accommodate, if not also to integrate, the two religions. The most common expressions of this are the menorah and Christmas tree, as well as the families where some attend church, others synagogue and perhaps still others go to both.

The behavior described here involves people who regard themselves as Jewish and not the 1.5 million or one-quarter of Americans who were born Jewish and who now say that they practice another religion or no religion. They are not in two-religion situations.

The new ecumenicism involves Jews (by whatever definition) who say that they are Jewish and want to remain that way, yet who accept a measure of Christianity in their lives and homes. They say that they care about Israel, belong to our organizations, contribute to our causes, pay attention to our messages. Because of their advanced assimilation and acceptance of intermarriage, they are open to two-religion arrangements.

The behavior and attitudes of American Jews anticipate the orientation and activities of our institutions and organizations, especially in those sectors where religious fidelity is most attenuated. Social necessity is the mother of communal invention. While evidence of the acceptance of two religions may not as yet be fully apparent, the phenomenon is spreading nearly everywhere in Jewish life, including in our schools and synagogues.

This has been true for quite a while in Reform congregations which have accepted, even welcomed, non-Jews, a circumstance that casts doubt on the movement’s membership claims. New Jersey’s major Conservative group recently adopted an open-door policy toward non-Jewish spouses and other persons who aren’t Jewish, irrespective of any intention to convert.

A growing number of congregations use church facilities for their services or permit churches to use theirs, a practice that is usually described as an expedient on financial grounds or because other facilities are not available. Interestingly, the practice was far rarer years ago, although presumably there were at least as pressing financial or facility needs.

A recent back page piece in The New Republic by Gregg Easterbrook described how in his suburban Washington community a Protestant church and Reform temple have joined to build a Christian-Jewish house of worship. There will be more of this.

Our theologians have gotten into the act, sanctioning, though not sanctifying, the integration of Judaism and Christianity. Several hundred scholars and rabbis joined in a statement called Dabru Emet which received wide circulation in the New York Times and elsewhere. The statement includes the dubious claim that “a new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.” Of history, sociology and psychology, these scholars apparently know not.

The statement was not fashioned in an historic vacuum. In fact, it could not have been adopted in a previous period and not only because Christian attitudes were different then than they are now. The sea change in Jewish attitudes has made all of the difference.

Even Jewish day schools are being affected. I have said for years that because many day schools are weak Jewishly and bereft of a commitment to religious purposefulness, this form of education is being oversold in its capacity to provide for Jewish continuity. Instead of celebrating the growth in day school enrollment as if nothing else counts, we ought to consider what is happening in these schools. Dozens now admit non-Jewish students and more will follow. Predictably, financial and enrollment needs are offered as justification, though this can hardly account for the bylaw provision of a wealthy and successful Houston Community day school that mandates the admission of non-Jews. Day schools, especially in the Reform and Community sectors, are reacting to the realities of American Jewish life. If Jewish homes are open to non-Jews, why shouldn’t Jewish schools be open to non-Jews?

Where all of this may lead to is an interesting question, for it is hard to describe the next stage of the evolution of American Jewry into what is alien to our history and tradition. Ultimately, much of what is now accepted as Jewish will turn out to be bogus and ephemeral. But we live in the present and we must deal with today’s realities. And the primary reality is that American Jewry is moving rapidly toward the attempted integration of Christianity and Judaism.