Photograph of face of Lenny Bruce, an American Jewish comedian

…And I Feel Fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it!

Oh, so many things in the Jewish communal world to think about over the past week. Let’s tick them off, one at a time:

All the panic makes my heart just go pitter-pat. I don’t even know where to start. (The section titles here are from REM’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It),” so now you can learn some of the lyrics!)

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Starboard, ho!

In a recent post on his blog, Emes Ve-Emunah, Rabbi Harry Maryles reflected on some of the accelerated rightward shift of haredi streams of Judaism:

Why do I care about what the Charedi world is doing? As I said they are the dominant culture in Orthodoxy now and their increase in numbers outpace any other branch of Orthodoxy. But even more than that, extremes when incorporated wholesale into communities eventually become the norm. Just look at mixed seating at weddings. That used to be the norm. Now it is considered to be a less than Tznius event. Some Charedi leaders will not even attend such a wedding!

I understand that in some communities these extremes of Tznius are the norm… and probably have been the norm for many decades or perhaps longer. Meah Shearim and Bnei Brak come to mind. But what is the norm for them was not the norm for everyone else in Orthodoxy. Until it was… and is!

Now, first, I’m not about to say that Rabbi Maryles and I are anywhere near on the same page on most things; he’s very firmly an Orthodox rabbi, and I’m very firmly not Orthodox. (I’ll avoid going, yet again, into why I think the ability to use the label “Orthodox” is a dumb concession on the part of liberal Judaism. Sometimes we’re just stuck with the words we have.) And whatever the Orthodox world is going to work out for itself, will happen.

I’m more concerned with what the increasing rightward moves in the Orthodox world–both in terms of population and halakhic output–mean for those of us who aren’t part of that world. In the event you think this isn’t actually a thing to worry about, let’s dredge back up our old whipping boy, the Pew study. Continue reading

The sky is falling, or, The Forward looks backward

Prolonging our collective misery, The Forward (kind of late to the game, no?) published an editorial on its website decrying the results of the Pew study.

Among The Forward’s worries?

The survey shows, conclusively, that intermarried families are less connected to Jewish life in myriad ways, have fewer children and are less likely to raise those children as Jews. It may offend liberal sensibilities to say that this is a problem, but this is a problem. It’s a problem for anyone who believes in a distinctive American Judaism that is egalitarian, tolerant and engages with the modern world.

It continues:

The Pew survey shows a remarkable dilution of Jewish identity, where “having a good sense of humor” is more than twice as essential to those surveyed as “observing Jewish law.” Among Jews of no religion — a growing cohort — only 10% said that “being part of a Jewish community” was essential to them.

Where is the good news in these numbers? Jewish identity is being reimagined, and in some select, creative hubs, that is happening in extraordinary and exciting ways. But elsewhere, this identity is being diluted beyond recognition and sustainability.

Okay, look. Intermarriage presents a challenge to Jewish continuity. But decrying the results of intermarriage along with much of the rest of the Jewish establishment, then complaining that the disengagement of intermarried families from Judaism is harmful to Judaism is not exactly a helpful stance to take. To then complain that you don’t recognize where Judaism is going makes you look like a darned fuddy-duddy–especially if you worry that egalitarianism and social action will suffer from the reduction of Jewish engagement and, specifically, population (which is really what The Forward is concerned about–that fewer Jews that practice what The Forward’s editorial board appears willing to call Judaism.)

Over at Failed Messiah, there’s commentary on the existential crisis of the Conservative Movement at its 100th anniversary. The author notes that young Jews are “less tribal.” I think that’s exactly right. And that’s an important insight into what’s wrong with The Forward’s response to the Pew survey, which is among the less rational responses I’ve showcased on this blog. (I’ve been selective. I know there’s a lot of hair-pulling going on out there.)

If you want younger, less tribal Jews to remain Jewishly connected, you’re going to have to be less tribal and less critical of intermarriage and its results. Complaining, as The Forward does, that intermarriage results in the dilution of Judaism–in any sense–blames those you want to retain.

Just. Bloody. Stop. It. Already. IT IS NOT HELPING.

Should (non-Orthodox) rabbis perform intermarriages? YES!–because when you refuse to do the wedding, guess who’s never going to come back? And because you can’t talk about egalitarianism and acceptance and then refuse to engage in the corresponding behavior. Even modern Orthodox rabbis like Joseph Telushkin have come to recognize the problems with the swat-away of couples who seek intermarriage (though I imagine he’s not in the business of performing such ceremonies).

And your pulpit talks, dear rabbis, should not decry intermarriage. There are intermarried families in your pews. Don’t shame those who come to you–they won’t be back. (This is among the reasons that those of us associated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism are expressly NOT against intermarriage–and also because we recognize that the Jewish people have grown over time through marriages between Jews and non-Jews. As a rabbinical student, I was asked about this during the admissions process. Guess what my answer was?)

When you shame those who are intermarried or considering it, you sound like The Forward. And The Forward is now looking backward.

Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow

This article, on MyJewishLearning.com, has an interesting premise: the Pew survey (there it is again!) shows that most American Jews–even those that believe in God–are basically not observant, but nevertheless proudly identify as Jewish. The author, Joshua Ratner, suggests that it’s always kind of been like this, and maybe we should embrace that by focusing more on training a cadre of leaders and less on the kinds of outreach programming that has, so far, not been all that successful in getting the “Jew on the street” seriously attendant to Judaism as a religious life-system.

On the one hand, I sort of agree with this, because it’s true of many other groups–the interests of the group are often best advanced by leaders as opposed to trying to bring the whole group into a leadership role for itself. There are many reasons for this.

On the other hand, I worry that Ratner gives up a bit too easily because his focus is on Jewish religion (which he likely means as belief in and service of the divine). He, as other authors, sort of nod at the “cultural Jew”–Ratner actually says, “whatever that means.” If we’re getting people to engage–whether they engage in a theistic or non-theistic version of Judaism–we’re doing part of the job of being Jewish leaders and helping to perpetuate Jewish identity and Judaism in all its forms.

No, I don’t think you’ll drag people into Judaism as religion (as defined above). But you’ll get people into Judaism writ large–and that’s a good thing.

“Partly Jewish”

Susan Katz Miller has recently published a book entitled Being Both, which looks at the process of raising children in interfaith families where the goal is to raise children within the faiths of both parents, rather than choosing one. Her most recent post is one of many responses to the recent Pew study on Jewish identity. She’s given the post the title, “Partly Jewish.”

This is an interesting title to me. I’m not sure how one could be anything but partly Jewish! I know, of course, what the phrase usually means: one parent is Jewish, the other not. And I understand the need for line drawing: some people have to be in, others out.

But I wish we would realize that any of us who are Jewish are inherently partly Jewish–we are never only Jews, and our families throughout history were never only Jews–and that we would put to bed the term partly–or partially–Jewish.

Only one Jewish parent? OK–do you identify as Jewish? Then I’m probably happy to call you Jewish. Wacky, that humanistic Jewish thing…

You people with the hand-wringing! (cont.)

Just a quick update from the prior post.

Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Bloomington Temple has this post on his blog, the Atheist Rabbi, responding to the Pew survey and responses to it. It’s far more extensive than mine. Tzei u’lmad: go and study.

You people with the hand-wringing!

Excuse me a moment, I have to go grab my soapbox.

(Clattering in the closet, drags out a box and plops it unceremoniously in the public square)

As you likely know by now, the Pew Research Center released the results of a major study of Jewish affiliation and identity. As you also likely know by now, thanks to the New York Times, the sky is falling.

Yeah, guess what I think? The voices in The Times are wrong. Their sky is falling. Our sky is not.

I particularly love this line: “a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish — resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.”

Yet the same Jews who are “assimilating” are also largely proud to be Jewish, according to the poll. And they’re strongly attached to the State of Israel. These aren’t self-hating Jews.

I think the poll shows something important: Jews outside the “Orthodox” world have largely decoupled their Jewish identities from traditional modes of Jewish religion. Those modes don’t always mean that people believe; that definition is what happens when your concept of religion is dictated by being part of a mostly Christian, largely Protestant culture (as is true of the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe).

Rather, “cultural” Jews are becoming more the norm, and those Jews are comfortable having families that are much more diverse than those of their grandparents’ generations. This has happened despite all the hemming and hawing over the last forty years about shrinking Jewish communities.

So what are we to make of the problem of assimilation? The approach of the Humanistic Jewish world is to say that one of the great flaws of Jewish attempts at engagement is that we continue to impose the various halakhic norms–modified or not–upon Jewish identity. So we’ll find Reform rabbis that won’t perform intermarriages, for example, despite the position of the CCAR that intermarriage is permissible and that a child with one Jewish parent–either parent–is Jewish.

Look: if you welcome people in with one hand, and smack them away with the other, they’re going to leave. And when every Jewish institution behaves this way, you’re going to make a whole lot of people leave.

However proud they are of being Jewish, people know not to return to places at which they aren’t wanted.

In some ways, I’m one of those people. But I’m also one of those people who is so attached to a Jewish identity that, ultimately, I’m putting in work to create institutions and environments where the people smacked away can come and be welcomed; it’s why I’m a Humanist Jew working to build places that actively welcome blended families and individuals who are Jewish but don’t necessarily do Jewish the way our heavily Ashkenazic modern institutions think about doing and being Jewish.

I think existing Jewish institutions will continue to shrink–and may ultimately simply fail–if they continue to behave as they have for the last forty years.

The current generation of large donors will die out. Will the next generation be large enough and concerned enough with the older institutions to support them? I’m not sure.

Jane Eisner of The Forward is right: ““This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us as Jews,” she said, “to think about what kind of community we’re going to be able to sustain if we have so much assimilation.””

Let’s see what happens when we don’t push people away.