Friday, November 24, 2006

As We Continue to Widen Our Tent

As the aftershocks of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey began to subside in the mid-1990s, American Jewry entered a post-intermarriage stage. We remained unhappy about the dreadful NJPS statistics, yet we came to accept the reality that a great number of Jews had married out and the trend would not be reversed. We accepted the reality but did not welcome it and this acceptance was driven not by theology or ideology, not by such developments as the Reform sanctioning of patrilineality, but by the numbers. There was a critical mass of Jews who had married non-Jews who wanted to continue to identify as Jews and in addition to their large number, they had parents, siblings, other relatives and Jewish friends who refused to regard the intermarried or even their spouses or children as outside the pale of Jewish life. While many who had intermarried walked away entirely, a great number continued to be involved in Jewish life, perhaps in a civic or secular fashion and, at times, even in some religious sense. Inexorably, they and their families were a part of the evolving story of the Jewish people.

At the time, there was a burst of activity encouraging the conversion of non-Jewish spouses and other forms of identity-strengthening. The small flock of newly important demographers chipped away at NJPS, arguing over whether the intermarriage rate was above or below 50% and whether to distinguish between core Jews and other Jews. There was scant acceptance of the alien notion that marrying out somehow adds to our numbers or the richness of Jewish life.

The forces that compelled the acceptance of intermarriage could not escape the impact of changes in American society or Jewish life, changes that impelled most American Jews further away from the moorings of Jewish tradition. An additional pull away from what had been our sense of Jewishness resulted from Jewish identity being determined less by communal norms than by what can be referred to as self-definition. People could define their Judaism according to their own choosing, without regard to their definition having discernible Jewish roots. We had rapidly entered the world of anything goes Judaism, a world in which "Jewish" encompassed much of what was antithetical to practices and beliefs that had been central in Jewish life. What was inauthentic now became labeled as authentic.

Here is a brief description of an anything goes Judaism event, taken from a report that regards such activities as beneficial and authentic. The event called "Golem Gets Married" took place in a room that "was filled with revelers, drinking at the bar and enjoying a spread of cold cuts well before the 'ceremony' began. The mock wedding featured salacious vows, a cross-dressing couple and a sermon delivered in haiku. Following the 'ceremony,' the band led the crowd in a hora or two (complete with the bride and groom hoisted in the air.)" This was a "Jewish" activity because the attendees were mainly Jews. Nothing more was required.

As what is conducted under anything goes Judaism has expanded, some demographers have been hard at work expanding the boundaries of Jewish identity to include persons who do not regard themselves as Jewish, the goal being to increase our numbers and also to promote the legitimacy of ultra-secular experiences that somehow are labeled as Jewish. Rather than there being four or five million Americans who acknowledge that they are Jewish, our ranks somehow swell to twice or more that number. In this and other questionable developments we are witness to the debasement of Jewish scholarship. Too often, those who pay for the research get the results that they want to hear.

There are those in Israel who welcome the inflated population figures because the higher numbers can be employed to show that American Jews are still an important element to be reckoned with as they advocate for Israel.

The anything goes mindset is not the final leg in the journey away from even a minimalistic sense of traditional Jewish identity. The pervasiveness of social change and the maintenance of a critical mass who are comfortable with a definition of Jewishness that conforms to their life-style mandates a further enlargement of the tent. Intermarriage is now welcomed in certain quarters and there is the corollary urging that communal resources be directed at those who are most distant, including at persons who are not Jewish. There are calls for missionary and conversionary activity among peoples who are entirely bereft of a scintilla of Jewish identity.

We are told that efforts to promote Jewish continuity should not favor day school education or conventional religious activity. It apparently matters not that our educational and religious initiatives encompass a great number of at-risk Jews. We are told that the spiritual needs of these Jews should be ignored and we should concentrate on those who are distant and unlikely to pay attention to our messages. This argument was made at a recent conference on the future of North American Jewry.

Advocates of outreach to non-Jews who are married to Jews have just gotten a boost, perhaps inadvertent, from a report out of Boston claiming that such activity by the local Federation has resulted in sixty percent of the children of intermarried couples being raised as Jews, a figure that is about twice as high as that indicated by NJPS and research in other communities. In all likelihood, the Boston statistic is exaggerated because of the inability of researchers to survey the intermarried who are not involved in Jewish life and/or those who do not have recognizable Jewish names. An added factor that points in the same direction is that Jews who no longer regard themselves as Jewish invariably do not respond to our demographers.

We are not now capable of preventing our tent from being enlarged, albeit bogusly, nor can we prevent critical resources from being diverted to meaningless pursuits. We must, however, insist that that which is authentic be supported.