This week on Slate I read a controversial piece: “American Jews Are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated: Great News!” which was written about the recent Pew study on American Jews. The author, Gabriel Roth, tells American Jewry to embrace their secular, intermarried selves and that unless they’re Orthodox and believe, there’s no reason to keep this “race purity” going on. He explains that other than Orthodox Jews, Jews will stop existing soon, and that’s a good thing. (Oy!) Roth writes:
And as an intermarried Jewish nonbeliever, I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition—even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all. I’m not talking, here, to religious Jews, because their position is unarguable: If you believe that Jewish traditions are part of a covenant with God, of course you want your children to continue them.
Roth and I both agree that staying Jewish for “racial purity” is abominable and that staying Jewish due to conviction makes sense. But here’s my question: how does a Jew know if she believes in our traditions if she’s never been exposed to them in a meaningful way? Unfor- tunately, the vast majority of American Jews have no way to fairly gauge if they have any conviction about Jewish practices and beliefs because they never received a quality, relevant Jewish education.
Instead of “embracing our secularism,” isn’t it time that American Jews reclaim our “people of the bookhood” and equip ourselves and our children with enough information to make educated decisions about our Judaism? Every Jew should experience a traditional Shabbos and holidays at least once in his life. Every Jewish person should take the time to learn Jewish texts in-depth from a teacher who is tapped into Jewish tradition.
But won’t that take a lot of commitment, you wonder? Darn straight it will! But you know what – so does getting a graduate degree, yet Jews are three and a half times more likely to get one than our non-Jewish counterparts. (35% compared to 10% of the general public.) We are an extremely educated bunch, except when it comes to our own books and traditions. The average Jew knows who Jesus’s mother was, not Moses. The average Jew doesn’t even know how to say the word “Jew” in Hebrew! For all the generations when it was illegal to study Torah and practice openly, Jews are finally free to do both, yet the vast majority of us couldn’t care less. Roth closes his piece by saying:
The most passionate anti-assimilationists sometimes say that Jews like me are “doing what Hitler couldn’t”—putting an end to Jewish culture once and for all. In fact, the dissolution of Jewishness into the mainstream is Hitler’s worst nightmare. Today’s American Jews have as great a shot at leading fulfilling lives as any people in human history. The fruits of Jewish culture are the gifts of Jews to the world, freely given. Over the next century, American Jewish culture may come to an end—not in tragedy but in triumph.
I’m all for Jews being able to freely engage in secular society – to give it our “fruits” and to have our lives enhanced by the parts of it which are “kosher” according to Jewish law. I would certainly not want to be forced back into a ghetto. But Roth, unfortunately, seems to think that the only options are living with observance or secular engagement. There are so many Orthodox Jews who are able to do both!
Hitler did not want Jews to intermingle with secular society, but he also abhorred our traditions and holy books. Wouldn’t engaging in the larger world AND holding true to our faith be the worst revenge? For our many ancestors throughout the ages who were willing to give up their lives to carry on our heritage, don’t we owe it to them to learn enough to possibly understand why they felt it was worth dying for? If we give it up without even trying to understand – why that would truly be a tragedy.