Why Bother Being Jewish?
The missing link in the American Jewish community's connection to Judaism.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.
Why should American Jews bother to be Jewish? According to a new Pew Research Center survey of the American Jewish community, more and more American Jews have reached the conclusion that there is no reason to be Jewish.
Outside of the Orthodox Jewish community, intermarriage rates have reached 71 percent. Thirty-two percent of Jews born since 1980 and 22% of Jews overall do not describe themselves as Jews by religion. They base their Jewish identity on ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
Whereas 73% of Jews say that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish, only 19% said that observing Jewish law is a vital aspect of Jewish identity. Fourteen percent say eating Jewish foods is indispensable for their Jewish identity. Forty-two percent say that having a sense of humor is a critical part of being a Jew.
Gabriel Roth, an intermarried Jewish author, welcomes these numbers. In a column in Slate, Roth claimed that the reason most cultural Jews keep traditions of any kind is a sense of guilt toward their parents and previous generations of Jews. He believes that it’s time to get over the guilt. Keeping such traditions has “no intrinsic meaning.”
“How much value can ‘Jewish heritage’ have if it signifies nothing beyond its own perpetuation?” he asked sneeringly.
Obviously, the answer is no value. To do something you feel is intrinsically meaningless just because your forefathers did the same meaningless thing is a waste of time. If Judaism has nothing to offer beyond lox and Seinfeld, then there is no reason to remain Jewish.
The findings of the Pew survey, and indeed, sentiments like those that Roth described are no surprise to those who have been following the downward trajectory of the American Jewish community.
Numerous initiatives have been adopted over the past decade or so to try to reverse the trend toward assimilation and loss of Jewish identity. These initiatives, including websites like JDate that help Jewish singles find and marry one another, and Birthright, which has brought tens of thousands of young, largely unaffiliated Jews to Israel, have had a positive impact in slowing down the trend. But the move away from Judaism for non-Orthodox American Jews remains seemingly inexorable.
“We have tried a lot of different things and created a lot of wonderful programs,” explains political theorist Yoram Hazony, the founder of the Shalem Center and author of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, published last year.
Hazony, who now heads the Herzl Institute, continues, “We’ve tried everything other than the central thing. Jews need to understand that there is an attractive and compelling idea that makes it valuable to be Jews.”
That idea, as Hazony explained in his recent book, is found first and foremost in the Bible.
Roth wrote, “If you believe that Jewish traditions are part of a covenant with God, of course you want your children to continue them.”
Yes, of course. But if you think that Judaism can be summed up so glibly, then you have no idea what it is that you are abandoning.
So in a sense, you are abandoning nothing. Because you cannot abandon what you never had in the first place.
And what Jews like Roth never had is basic Jewish literacy.
Hazony’s excellent book explains in easy, approachable language that the wisdom and philosophy imparted by the Hebrew Bible was purposely denied by the anti-Semitic philosophers of the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel and other leading philosophers of the Enlightenment were vicious Jew haters. They sought to cleanse modern philosophy of all references to the Bible in a bid to write Jews and Judaism out of the history of ideas and the contemporary intellectual world.
This they accomplished by subsuming the Hebrew scriptures (like the New Testament) under a broader criticism of “work of revelation.” As a revealed text, (a divine covenant ordered by a deity with which none of us have direct dealings), the Hebrew scripture was then misrepresented as something that has no relevance for people trying to determine for themselves what it means to live a good, moral and just life. Those concepts, we were told, could only be learned from Greek philosophers, who, in turn, were falsely characterized as atheists.
Hazony does not simply expose the philosophical crime against the Jews undertaken by the Enlightenment philosophers. He demonstrates why the ideas found in the Bible are deeply relevant and important to our lives, and indeed, how they form the basis for man’s quest to live a good, moral life.
“The Jewish idea is in the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries on the Tanach,” he explains.
“To the extent we care and see something worthwhile in these ideas then everything falls into place. When you take it all out, everything turns into a bagel - it all tastes good but there’s a big hole in the center where the idea is supposed to be.
“The Jews were the people who brought the idea that an individual was responsible for discovering truth and right and for bringing it into the world. That is the idea that freed mankind.
“That is the biblical idea. The Bible is about the expectation that a human being is going to take responsibility for discovering the truth and what’s right and devote his or her life to bringing what is right to the world.
“The fact that most Jews no longer study it, no longer remember it, means they stopped being part of the historic Jewish drama. It is being part of that great drama that makes people care whether their children receive a Jewish education and marry Jews, and that makes them support Israel. Without the great drama that we learn from the Bible, then Israel becomes meaningless and intermarriage becomes obvious,” Hazony concludes.
Orthodox Jews feel that the Holocaust is less essential to their Jewish identity than Conservative and Reform Jews, (66% of Orthodox, versus 78% and 77% of Conservative and Reform Jews, respectively). On the other hand, 69% of Orthodox Jews believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to their Judaism. Just 40% and 25% of Conservative and Reform Jews, respectively, feel this way. And this makes sense.
The Holocaust was the most recent attempt of an oppressor to annihilate the Jews. In the 4,000-year history of the Jewish people, there have been dozens of attempts to annihilate us. The Jewish story is the story not of others’ attempts to destroy us, nor even of our capacity to withstand and survive these attempts. The Jewish story is the story of the lives we lived, the culture we developed, and the life of the mind that bound us together.
Jews who have learned the Bible know their history did not start in 1933. They know that the Jewish story is the story of a people that believes so strongly in its mission to bring the liberating idea of personal responsibility to choose good and life over evil and death that it refused to surrender to its oppressors.
The Jewish drama, as set out in the Bible, is the story of a nation that from the outset and until the present day chooses freedom over submission, while maintaining allegiance to a sacred trust, and an ancient people and a promised land.
When you understand this, remaining Jewish is a privilege, not a sacrifice.
And, alas, when you fail to understand this, leaving Judaism not a tragedy but simply a natural progression.
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