Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Counterfeit Judaism

Birthright Israel is a good program. It would be better still if the claims made on its behalf were not saturated in hype. Birthright is the best bet we have on the communal agenda to reach Jewish teens and collegians and to counteract the powerful assimilatory pressures that are active in their lives. These young people are, with few exceptions, unlikely to be attracted to any of the conventional forms of outreach.

It remains that the same forces that make Birthright worthy ensure that when its participants return from their ten-day free trip to Israel, they will once more be enmeshed in activities and associations that impel them away from Judaic commitment. Still, the modest beneficial outcomes produced by Birthright justify the effort and expense.

While the Birthright pattern varies according to who the sponsors are, in the aggregate the trips do not shy away from introducing the participants to tradition and religious life. At the Jerusalem hotel where we were staying several weeks ago, Kiddush was made Friday evening for the Birthrighters and it was evident that they were moved. A jarring note was struck by the sweet-looking young man wearing a tee shirt with a blatant vulgarism. I know that such language has lost much of its shock value, even its meaning, yet Kiddush is an act of sanctification and vulgarity is not compatible with sanctity. While Birthright has merit, it isn't immune from the spreading tendency to give a stamp of approval to whatever is called Jewish, no matter how hostile it may be to our teachings and traditions.

In an effort to reach young Jews who are distant from Jewish life and to maintain their shred of Jewish identity, what is Jewish is being constantly defined downward. We do not have confidence in our practices and beliefs and so we delude ourselves into believing that we can salvage Jewish life by abandoning Judaism. We are embedded in an era of anything goes Judaism. Defining Jewishness downward is a dynamic process; even if we think that rock bottom has been hit, there is a lot further down to go.

This attempted remaking of Judaism is sustained by a large critical mass of persons whom our demographers characterize as Jewish, a number that dwarfs the ranks of religious Jews, including the traditional sector of Conservatism. These people like what they are being told and what they see. They like the idea of being Jewish without having to be Jewish in any distinctive way. Our community is investing great sums in promoting this illusion. This ersatz brand of Jewish identity gains strength as well from the American ethos of tolerance and the companion notion that people can choose how they want to live or be identified.

We are confusing the right to personal choice with the right to redefine a religion that we are essentially rejecting.

There is now also the contemporary fixation with outrageous behavior and exhibitionism. Jewish life cannot be exempt from being attracted to what has shock value or at least the capacity to gain media attention. Nowadays, anything and anybody can be Jewish. American society now has what is being called a bar mitzvah ceremony for kids who aren't Jewish by anybody's definition. There is lots of bar and no mitzvah at these events, which is to say that they bear a close resemblance to what passes for a bar mitzvah in many Jewish families. When what is being imitated is itself false, the product is counterfeit.

There is no telling how far this process has to go, how much further we can depart from what resembles Jewish life and still call it Jewish. If the Madonna story is a guide, we may not have seen anything yet. In her latest incarnation, she is a student of Kabballah or, more accurately, a student of a bogus product called Kabballah by charlatans who know a sucker when they see one. Filthy and filthy rich, Madonna is convenient prey. She is smart; what remains to be seen is how long it takes her to recognize that she is being duped or when she will be off to her next self-reinvention.

In the meantime, red bendels or strings have become a fashion craze, with celebrities showing that they are into Kabballah. What long was the province of a small number of Orthodox Jews is now part of the anything goes mentality. It may be a only a matter of time until practices that are fundamental to our faith will be defiled by the impulse to be outrageous or by the notion that in order to ensure Jewish identity, little is now out of bounds.

There is a tide in the affairs of men and societies. Tides are powerful forces that cannot be resisted by wishing that they change course. Yet, change is inevitable. As Robert Lowell observed in reference to Shakespeare's observation, "but there is no gulf stream setting forever in one direction." My guess is that a reversal of the anything goes mentality is still distant, if only because a great investment is being made in marketing and sustaining that which is fake.

There is nothing to be done to prevent the promotion of counterfeit Judaism. Those of us who respect tradition can reject what is antithetical to our heritage. We need not yield to those who are selling a bill of phony goods, even if they claim they are doing so in order to preserve Judaism. We must not be intimidated into accepting or being silent about conduct that ultimately will destroy Jewish continuity.

Religious Jewry has survived in the United States and elsewhere because of a willingness to be different, even unpopular. Judaism is a religion and not a popularity contest. It is a religion that has preserved those who have been faithful to it.