Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Being Vulgar Is Not Being Jewish

Throughout our history, we have lost a great number of Jews who severed their ties to our heritage and community through apostasy or just walking away. These losses were painful and tragic, yet for all of the terrible consequences, those who abandoned us had a certain integrity about their actions. They did not claim that their rejection of practice and faith constituted another kind of Judaism or that they were entitled to redefine what it means to be a Jew. There were exceptions – after all, there were Jewish Bundists - but they scarcely changed the powerful pattern of Judaic abandonment meaning a severance of Jewish identity. There was an understanding between those who assimilated entirely and those who remained that the former were no longer part of the Jewish nation.

The American Jewish experience has been different, although not entirely. Millions of Americans who were born Jewish have been lost through intermarriage, apostasy or rejection of Jewish identity. This is why our population has declined steadily, despite waves of immigration beginning with Holocaust survivors and then from Israel and the Soviet Union.

A great number of Jews who are in a stage of advanced assimilation are now included in our numbers, notwithstanding their nearly total Judaic abandonment and escalating doubts about the status of many of them as Jews. Our demographers include them in our statistics.

There is more at work than counting as Jews people who say that they are not and, in any case, may not be Jewish if conventional measures of identity were used. As we have come to realize the severity of our demographic crisis, there have been frenzied efforts to retain all whom we somehow can claim as Jewish. Put otherwise, we are in the de facto situation of what can be termed anything goes Judaism, the attitude being that whatever attracts Jews is acceptable for that reason alone. At one level, this seems like a legitimate stratagem. If old fashioned religion doesn’t work, let us experiment, let us focus more on activities that may bear scant resemblance to what Jewish life is about so long as they serve as magnets for some who say that they are Jewish.

The problem is that desperate people – and that’s what we are – do desperate and foolish things and accept that which is tarnished because they can think of no other options. We have entered a world where anything goes, a world where the tallis is one form of Jewish expression and a t-shirt emblazoned with a vulgarity along with “Jew” is another form.

Added to the inherent repulsiveness of the notion, anything goes Judaism is a dynamic force. What is accepted today will change, although for sure not in the direction of greater spirituality and fidelity to tradition. Mirroring trends in the larger society, especially among the young who are most open to new trends, there is a growing appetite to embrace what is outrageous and vulgar and to label it as Jewish. If popular culture is trashy and exhibitionist, Jewish activity should be trashy and exhibitionist.

Time Out New York recently detailed the scene, including details that cannot be printed here. In addition to the t-shirts, we learned about the party with “half-naked go-go boys in Hasidic style side curls” and the performer who “is talking about doing crack with a whore and yet he’s also talking about his grandmother’s matzo-ball soup.” There is also the Jewish girl who belts out “born-again tunes in full Nashville drag and trying to convince the Jews in the audience to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” We are told that this is her way of combating anti-Semitism.

The Forward which hones in on outrageous, even freakish, Jewish behavior, reported a few weeks ago on the “Rabbi” who engaged in kiruv or outreach to drag queens during his brief stint at a Key West synagogue. In more conventional circles, Shmuly Boteach and Ruth Westheimer, two talented people, have shown that exhibitionism sells, that it draws crowds and not merely at the most far out extreme of Jewish life. Modern Orthodox synagogues have engaged Dr. Westheimer to perform and not because her view of sex is compatible with religious Jewish law but because she is an attraction.

Conventional kiruv and Jewish programming cannot hold a candle to sensationalism that comes with a Jewish label. A class on traditional texts aimed at those with limited Judaic knowledge is likely to draw a relatively small crowd that is apt to get smaller as the weeks go by. Bring in a comedian who tells dirty jokes with a Jewish accent or motif and the place will be swinging.

What is at work is a sort of Gresham’s Law, as what is bogus or vulgar drives out what is legitimate. Crowds cannot elevate that which is counterfeit, even if there are those who accept it as legal tender. Vulgarity remains just that.

Anything goes Judaism debases us and it does not work. It’s superficial and tawdry and what is superficial and tawdry today will fade, as will the Jewish identity of those who embraced it. Moving away from tradition and not toward it can never strengthen Judaism. The fact that the media eat up what is sensationalist and this creates a buzz cannot impart strength to that which is destined for a short life-span. I write in this vein although I acknowledge that a small number will somehow draw closer to our heritage through activities that are vulgar and inappropriate. (cf. Maimonides, Yesodei Hatorah, V,9)

There isn’t a chance that what we are witnessing will change for the better any time soon. Our world revels in vulgarity and exhibitionism and, as in so much else, we Jews are influenced by what is happening around us. But if we cannot impede the debilitating progress of anything goes Judaism, we at least ought to have the sense and courage to say that vulgarity isn’t Judaism, no matter what the label and no matter how popular what is outrageous seems to be. To be vulgar is not to be Jewish. We are enjoined to be a sanctified people. This is our heritage and this is our only means for survival.