Oh, dear. American Jewish poobahs are all upset by a Pew Foundation survey that “discovered” that the intermarriage rate in the USA is at 58 percent, up from 46 percent in 1990, and 17 percent before 1970. Overall, 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion, meaning they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. Amusingly, 42 percent respondents said having a good sense of humor was essential to their Jewish identity. Whereas observing Jewish law mattered only to 19 percent. On the flipside, over 90 percent of those who identified as Jews by religion and are raising children said they are raising them Jewish or partially Jewish. By comparison, about one-third of those who identified themselves as Jews of no religion are raising their kids as Jewish in any way and the figure is much less if the mother is non-Jewish.
Would you take seriously a survey based on 3,475 random telephone calls? It’s enough to give the science of polling a very bad name. Still, several commentators have torn the method and the findings apart. But so what? Everyone knows American Jewry is reaping the whirlwind of minimal positive religious affiliation over the years. We may well lose a generation of donors, machers, and politicos. But “ease and salvation will come from somewhere else”, as Mordechai once said.
Isn’t it blindingly obvious that most nominal Jews, most nominal anything, are on the way out? Only commitment and education stand in the way of oblivion, whether for Judaism or even a modern state. It’s quality, my dear, not quantity. My late father gave a speech on a visit to Johannesburg in 1952 in support of Jewish education in which he said that although the Jewish people can never disappear, millions of individual Jews had done and continue to. The biggest threat is ignorance. The Am Haaretz (the ignoramus) simply does not have the resources to stand against the weight of secular society. Only Torah gives the Jew the tools to survive.
The fact is that cultural changes play out over a century if not more. From the time of The Enlightenment, European Jews have been assailed on all sides and have been either willingly or by compulsion abandoning Judaism in the hundreds of thousands. The Orthodox synagogue I was rabbi of in Central London, The Western, founded in the eighteenth century, discovered that by the end of the nineteenth century not one of the descendants of the original two hundred founding families was still Jewish. Just consider how many Jews in the past century were lost to Communism, let alone materialism, assimilation, and Nazism.
The Jewish community in the USA today is predominantly descended from of the millions who left Europe in the face of poverty and persecution. Many had already rejected religion and intended to cast off all vestiges of their Jewish past. The Jews who came to America were notorious for the way religion disappeared in their desperate struggle to rebuild a life in the US. (Just re-watch Woody Allen’s Annie Hall to get a sense of how far being “American Jewish” was, a generation ago, from being “committed Jewish”.) This was, tragically, precisely why so many Orthodox leaders in Eastern Europe were opposed to emigration. Generations were given no Jewish education of any substance. Jews who still wanted to hold on to a vestige of tradition often turned to a variation of Judaism which tried to stem the tide of assimilation by accommodation and compromise. But in the latitude of its overindulgence, a generation grew up with insufficient knowledge of Jewish texts or passion for religious life.
For most, Judaism was a social club. So why should not their children join a bigger and a better social club? The die was cast. True, those generations produced Jewish writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers, and comedians of note and significance. But their great achievements were to create a vibrant culture of Jews without Judaism. Judaism was an anthropological phenomenon with which they had an accidental connection.
We know the cycle of assimilation has been running its course. What has surprised us is the countertrend: the return towards ritual practice and the explosion of ultra- Orthodox Judaism once written off as a relic. Its academies are now full to the gills. Its prayer houses packed. Its centers of intensive study are overflowing. Its birthrate is staggering, and its political power frightening. In New York both candidates for mayor are scared to impose minimal safeguards on circumcision for fear of overwhelmingly Chasidic opposition. Who’d have thought fifty years ago that New York Chasidim would have the New York Democrats in their pockets! As old communal institutions are withering, other very different forms are mushrooming. Look how really a handful of survivors of Eastern Europe have completely rebuilt a lost world.
Equally impressive is the return from the dead, so to speak, of a Modern Orthodoxy that contains elements of the academic, the critical, dynamic Zionism, and successful Jewish day school education. Yes, numbers of disenchanted are leaving Orthodoxy. But just as many are traveling the other way. As one cycle of decline is running its course, another cycle is starting again. Judaism has always been a difficult option, an elite, intense way of life that most Jews simply could not cope with.
Besides the USA is not the only story. Zionism in all its varieties posits that Jewish survival depends on the Jewish state. I doubt that, because we have survived in exile for longer than we have in a land of our own. But Rav Kook was right about Israel being the inspiration of Judaism. Never, ever in Jewish history have there been so many Jews studying Torah full time, so many academics studying and writing about Judaica, so many Jewish religious and cultural institutions thriving as there are in Israel today. Never have Jews produced as much wealth in their own state as in Israel today. Yes, thousands of Israelis assimilate, too, when they exit their land. But others enrich the communities they join. Diaspora Jewry (to borrow a phrase) runs on Israel.
Anyone worried about the future is merely showing a lack of faith and an ignorance of Jewish affairs. Of course one must not write off our non-observant brothers and sisters. Throughout our history many of the alienated or disaffected have stepped up to the plate at a time of crisis. I am delighted that so many Jews of whatever persuasion or identity contribute so much to Jewish life in all it varieties. But those Jews who are unable or unwilling to live and even nominally Jewish way of life are the last people I would look to to help Judaism survive. Pew surveys are the last indicators I would rely on for predicting the Jewish future.
I am sad that we are losing so many. By all means let people donate money wherever they wish and wring their hands about the state of Jewish affairs. I never thought I’d agree with Satmar, but they have a point. Someone needs to stay at home to take care of the store. It’s the individual Jew that lives a Jewish life, often under the radar and not answering phone surveys, who has always determined the future of the Jewish people. The rest is bonus.