Monday, December 27, 2010

The Expanding World of Anything Goes Judaism

Lindsay Lohan, the troubled starlet who has had numerous run-ins with the law, is no poster girl for virtue and certainly not for Judaism, yet as the Times has reported, she is a poster girl for American Jewish World Service, along with several other celebrities, making a pitch for contributions, saying that although she isn’t Jewish the cause deserves support. The campaign, a compound of camp and celebrityship, is apparently doing well. What this says about contemporary Jewish life is another matter. We are again in the ever-expanding world of anything goes Judaism, a world that bears little – at times, no – resemblance to the world of our fathers, including the world of Jewish fathers who weren’t religious but who strongly identified as Jews.

In this brave new world, Judiasm is to a great many, including non-Jews, what anyone says it is. This attitude is dynamic, so that the inventions that we have been witness to are prelude to additional formulations that shall have not even a residual connection to the beliefs and practices that have sustained us.

A useful definition of anything goes Judaism was provided earlier this week by Steven M. Cohen, the noted demographer, when he accepted an award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry. Steve spoke of his relationship with Calvin Goldscheider, a sociologist at Brown University, who according to Steve believes that “whatever Jews do in a manner or frequency different from others, whether they agree to call it exclusively Jewish or not, is by definition Jewish culture and Judaism. Intra-group ties and social boundaries are at the core of Jewish vitality and continuity. If so, then Jews can (and do) change the putative essence of being Jewish. They engage in continuing invention and reinvention of the meaning of Jew, Jewish, Jewishness and Judaism, creating the possibility for ongoing transformation.”

Change and a measure of transformation are part of modern living. It is a stretch to say, for example, as some have said that fervently religious Jews in the U.S. have forged living patterns that strongly resemble how religious Jews lived in pre-Holocaust Europe. Time, economic conditions and social forces have brought about significant mutations in religious life-style, including certain values, with core religious beliefs and practices remaining largely intact. However, the notion that we can do and believe whatever we want and still call it Judaism is alien to our history and heritage and dangerous to our future.

The notion that we can constantly reinvent Judaism scarcely affects the Orthodox. The principal impact is on non-Orthodox life, in the undermining of institutions and arrangements that still are vital to a great many Jews. If a few tweaks and a Jewish label are sufficient to impart Jewish legitimacy to any activity, it’s a good bet that younger Jews will go in that direction, associating with activities that are only Jewish in name and embracing what is fashionable in the general culture. There is little hope that synagogues and old line institutions will be able to compete, as a Gresham’s Law will mandate that weak activities and associations will prevail over more substantial Jewish experiences. We see this in the rapid deterioration of the Conservative movement.

I first wrote about this development in the late 1980s and then developed the theme in a book-length monograph in which I suggested that what we were already witness to would not run its course during my lifetime because minimalistic Judaism – which I now refer to as anything goes Judaism – is being sustained and reinforced by substantial communal support, effective promotion and a critical mass of advanced assimilation Jews, including many who have intermarried, who desire to retain Jewish identity even as they chuck off nearly everything that being Jewish meant.

In previous generations, such Jews would have walked away entirely from Jewish life and, in fact, many have in the recent period. What is extraordinary is the number who haven’t. For them, the reinvention of Judaism is tailor-made. Also propping up a residual connection with Jewishness among assimilated Jews who have not vanished into the great American melting pot is the remarkable phenomenon of Jews being at the top of the American ethnic hit parade. We may dwell endlessly on our own warts, yet to other Americans we are hardworking, intelligent, successful, charitable and laden with good values. This helps to explain the stratospheric intermarriage rate.

This sociological brew provides a frame-of-reference for anything goes Judaism. Far out measures are being undertaken to keep the patient called American Jewry alive and they are having some success. A generation ago, I thought that this attitude had staying power. I still do. Anything goes Judaism may be bogus Judaism, yet it is an important sociological reality.

Change will come because the full impact of intermarriage cannot be put off permanently. The evidence is already here in the diminished identity of the offspring of the intermarried. Other changes will result when the dynamic nature of anything goes Judaism as legitimate will induce behaviors that are even more distant from our traditions, including much that is outlandish and even repugnant to our beliefs. This means that the prospect is not rosy for Federations, synagogues and the Hadassahs of our organizational world. This does not mean that our large army of organizations will disappear, although some will. We must never underestimate the capacity of an organization that is functionally dead to remain alive.

For all of its defects, anything goes Judaism is an extraordinary phenomenon and it will be fascinating to see what awaits us.