Friday, July 02, 2004

What Do We Believe

We know a great deal about the attitudes and behavior of American Jews. Thanks to an endless parade of surveys that has descended on us like a plague of locust, we know – or think we know – about our religious practices, how we vote and our political affiliations, income and work patterns, where we live, marital status and family size, educational background and ideological inclinations. Scarcely anything is left out, except perhaps which sports teams we root for and it could be that this has been studied as well. Even as a majority of us are abandoning Jewish identity, we are the most examined people in the history of mankind. The closest competition comes from dinosaurs and other extinct species.

As the National Jewish Population Survey, the big daddy of them all, conclusively showed, survey research can be quite inconclusive. Some of this is the result of human error or bias. For Jews, there is the difficult and nowadays probably irresolvable problem of figuring out who is Jewish. As Gertrude Stein did not say, although her life could illustrate the point, a Jew is not a Jew is not a Jew.

There is one large gap in what we presume to know about Jewish attitudes and actions. So far as I know, our reaction to contemporary trends has not been studied. We do not know what American Jews think about the excesses of modernity, such things as cable, movies and television and popular music or, to go further, the sexual activity of teenagers. There are no statistics regarding what we think of contemporary dress or the decline of public modesty and the coarsening of language.

Put otherwise, as most of us have abandoned nearly all else that defined Judaism over the generations, is there a residual attachment to what might be called religious values? Do we reject the notion that there are limits, that hedonism is antithetical to Judaism, as is the absence of restraint in personal behavior?

We obviously believe that in financial dealings, ethical standards are required. We also believe in being truthful and caring. In the aggregate, Jews are charitable people. All of these are elements of what can properly be called values. We also accept the notion that there are restrictions in sexual activity, primarily those that are implicit in the idea of a civilized society, such things as barriers against incest or the use of force in sexual relations. I wonder whether the limits that we accept encompass sexual activity that is coercive when it involves teens and even preteens, children who are being encouraged to do that which is harmful to them because the popular media provide an inducement toward wrongful behavior.

Put simply, is there anything about being Jewish today that accepts previous Jewish attitudes toward personal conduct and modesty?

If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that our embrace of modernity is total. There is no evidence that secular American Jews believe that standards have been lowered too much, that liberty has been transformed into licentiousness. Except for the Orthodox, there is nothing in our publications or on the agendas of our many conferences indicating concern about what children are being introduced to at a young age. We avoid criticism of modernity, perhaps because it is associated with ideological conservatism and everything about conservatism is treife. In our understandable desire for freedom, we have become slaves to appetites and passions and we have abandoned nearly all that defined the Jewish belief system.

These are real life issues, not abstractions. Our endorsement of civil rights, important as it is, does not, except quite occasionally, affect our daily activity or the way we live. Dress and language do and this is also true of popular entertainment and contemporary mores. They are daily presences, particularly in the lives of young people. Yet, the issue of standards appears to be a non-issue. We get excited if teenagers are exploited by the tobacco industry and yet there is silence when they are exploited by popular culture.

Weeks ago, I wrote about the destruction of Black youth, about how their educational prospects are being eroded by a debased, yet exciting, world outside of schools and classrooms. While Blacks are especially vulnerable because of other pathologies including family breakdown, we need to recognize that white youth are also being destroyed by popular culture.

In advocating that American Jews cling to traditional Jewish values affecting life-style, I am not advocating that we support governmental action that enforces Jewish or any other values. Apart from powerful constitutional and legal considerations that appropriately limit the reach of government, as a practical matter the enforcement of values won’t work. Values are ephemeral; they exist in the mind and heart and, in our case, in the history of our people and in our soul. They cannot be imposed in the way that taxes are levied and collected. Unless people believe in certain values, there is little prospect that their actions will be consistent with such values. In a word, coercion doesn’t work.

All I advocate here is that we who have cared about the young and who disapprove of all that smacks of violence, should take stock and recognize that the damage being done to the young is enormous and we haven’t seen the worst yet. Popular culture is a dynamic force and like all dynamic forces, it will continue to expand unless there are people who stand in its path, not with the force of government but with the force of their beliefs.
The calendar tells me that it’s time for a break, hopefully to do other writing and also rest a bit. There may be an article during the summer; in the main, this is the last piece until about September. I hope that readers have enjoyed this weekly exercise and that you will all have an enjoyable summer.