Monday, June 27, 2005

The Post-Jewish Phase of American Jewry

A recent item in "The Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker tells of an inter-faith event in Brooklyn that included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer who informed the audience, "We have a mixed religious group in my family. I am Jewish, Chloe is Episcopal and Joanna is Anglican." Joanna is Justice Breyer's wife and Chloe who is his daughter is an Episcopal priest. What is interesting about the ecumenical family arrangement is how effortlessly Justice Breyer regards himself as Jewish and how comfortable we are in affirming this identity. He has been honored as an outstanding Jewish jurist.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey put American Jewry into a tizzy over intermarriage. There were - and still are - tons of continuity projects, yet we quickly regained our communal composure and came to believe that marrying out was not the end of the Jewish world. I wrote a decade ago that we had entered a post-intermarriage phase, that because more than a critical mass of Jews had married non-Jews, we were coming to terms with intermarriage. While our communal messages did not and could not deter intermarriage they had the consequence - at times intended - of sending the message that one could remain a Jew in good standing irrespective of family circumstances, including the children being raised in another religion.

The Breyer story is repeated in hundreds of thousands of American homes, with the details varying. In many, there is a touch of Chanukah and a Seder, perhaps also of Yom Kippur. In the aggregate, we have an enormously changed American Jewish landscape. The path of Judaic abandonment of traditional practices and belief and in marital choice is often accompanied by a sincere sense of Jewish identity and a determination to remain Jewishly involved. This feeling usually operates smoothly because in practical Jewish terms there is little difference between household members who are Jewish and those who are not.

We are also comfortable with what is happening because of the American imperative of personal choice and tolerance. We have thus moved away from being a religious or even ethnic group to being a voluntary membership arrangement. Self-identity is the defining criterion, not Jewish law or tradition and certainly not the impact that personal choices will have on the Jewish future. Even among many Orthodox Jews and especially within Chabad which is filling nearly every nook and cranny of American Jewish life, there is a comfort level with post-intermarriage Judaism.

We are now in the second generation of mass intermarriage. Because the impact of marrying out is both cumulative and expanding, we are inevitably moving from a post-intermarriage phase to what I would call the post-Jewish phase of American Jewry. We now have to live with and therefore rationalize the aftershocks of intermarriage, the statistics showing that in households somehow designated as Jewish, there are fewer people who assert that they are Jewish than there are persons who say that they are of another religion or no religion. Simply put, in the same way that a large critical mass of intermarried Jews in the 1990's altered our thinking about intermarriage and resulted in our coming to terms with marrying out, the even larger critical mass of non-Jews in what are designated as Jewish homes is impelling us toward post-Jewish American Jewry. We are establishing a comfort level with the millions of non-Jewish Americans who are linked to a Jewish household.

If not already, before long there will be millions who are one-quarter or one-eighth Jewish and additional millions who are Jewish only because they are related to someone who is Jewish. It is fascinating to see how scholars are giving their stamp of approval to a picture of American Jewry that includes millions who say they are not Jewish.

This is, of course, bogus in terms of our past and our future. It also will eventually be shown to be bogus sociology. A religious group must be moored in more than six degrees of separation. Ultimately, the numbers game - which is what it is, - although many of its advocates are sincere - will collapse because all ponzi schemes collapse. But not for quite a while, if only because our community has too much at stake and we are doing what we can to keep the numbers game going. The trumpeting of continuity and identity, respect for Jews, the American ethos of personal choice and the American Jewish organizational behemoth that provides an infinite number of connection points with activities that can be labeled as Jewish all serve to reinforce a post-Jewish articulation of the American Jewish experience. "Jew" is just a word or a tag, something like Gertrude Stein's rose or as a far greater writer once had Juliet express the thought, "What's in a name?". She implored, "Romeo, doff they name ... which is no part of thee." Being Jewish is no part of many who are so called.

We are comfortable with post-Jewish Judaism because except for the Orthodox, there is little choice. Our families, friends and associates have made the decision for us. We have a big tent approach to Jewish identity and the tent keeps on getting bigger because there are more people to fit in. As alien as the big tent is to our theology and experience, there is a logic to it because the newcomers who are scarcely Jewish or not at all Jewish scarcely differ in their Jewish practice from those who are definitely Jewish.

The big tent concept can also be defended as necessary for outreach, whether through Israel experiences, campus activities or other reaching out to Jews of minimal or no religiosity. The outreach message is directed at the masses, at Jews and non-Jews alike. Even Orthodox outreach is predicated on the big tent, certainly to a greater extent than its practitioners recognize.

In the blink of an historical eye we moved into a post-intermarriage phase and now we are in a post-Jewish phase. I wonder what the next stopping point will be?