Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Jewish Identity Redux

Ah, the month of Tishri. Rosh Hashanah has come and gone, and we are now in the Ten Days of Contemplation and repentence. Like many of my fellow Jews around the world, I am trying to do my part to come together and refrain from engaging in the crass character assassinations that too often divide us as a people.

Too bad no one passed this memo along to the sanctimonious, sensationalist dips at MASA:

"This is a campaign [intended for] Israeli society, not for Jewish Agency officials or for American Jewry. We had to speak the language that Israeli society understands," he said. Critics were translating terms such as "assimilation" in ways that are not relevant to Israelis. "Even words that have a direct translation don't have the same connotations," he insisted.

Ah, I get it. Like how in America, "intermarriage" and "assimilation" aren't used as guilt-trip code words for "spiritual holocaust?" At least, outside of Orthodox circles.

It was important not to view the campaign as the sum total of Masa's perspective on the Diaspora, he added. "This is a two-week ad campaign for Israelis after five years of activity all over the [Jewish] world. You have to take it in perspective."

No, perspective is precisely the problem. There are too many organizations in Israel that still feel qualified to lecture every other Jew on earth about what it means to be Jewish. You cannot simultaneously look down your nose at the Diaspora as hell on earth and its Jews as spiritually dead while still asking for money and political support. Unity, brotherhood and my personal favorite, not being a giant jackass, are two-way streets.

A few more links. First, a hefty mega-post with links galore.

This one points out the differences between Birthright (for whom Jewish babies doesn't seem to be as high on the priority list) and Masa, something which Shlomo Lifschitz brought to a head when he resigned from Birthright this past July. I suppose now I'll have to be a little more charitable to Birthright, which apparently is not as right-wing as I thought.

Another one is particularly interesting for the comments, which, irritatingly, dredge up the same old assumptions that being religious translates to being a better Jew.

1. Intermarriage and assimilation lead to fewer Jews and the ones who are left are less observant, making increased assimilation and intermarriage more likely. This means even fewer Jews (unless you cheat like the Reform and just wave your hand and say everybody’s Jewish). If you really care about the Jewish people, there is no way you can put a positive spin on this. Any attempt to do so is just whistling past the graveyard.

2. Lack of Torah and mitzvot leads to assimilation and intermarriage even if the parents and children start out all Jewish.

... So, yeah, assimilation, intermarriage, and the loss of Torah are bad. The best way to keep the Jewish people strong is to teach people to stay true to Torah and to marry other Jews, converts or otherwise, who live a Torah life.

It's sad that we're still navel-gazing and only judging one standard, numerical population, as an indicator of whether the Jewish community is succeeding or failing (the number of Jewish parents is a related obsession). The issue isn't intermarriage, it's interest, dedication and affiliation!

What good is it to have however-many Jewish kids have two Jewish parents if they don't CARE about being Jewish? It's like claiming that synagogue attendance or day school affiliation or percentage of circumcisions are, in isolation, the silver bullet indicator of Jewish continuity. They're not. My father went to synagogue for years-- and hasn't been back in decades. I substituted at a Jewish day school where the students counted the days until graduation "so I can go somewhere normal." My brother was circumcised, and considers himself a firm atheist. These are external indicators, and ultimately are not very important. Even the Orthodox aren't immune, because merely observing mitzvot is not the same thing as feeling a personal connection to, or seeing relevance in, Judaism. If it were then you wouldn't be hearing about the "off the derech" phenomenon. It doesn't matter if you're dealing with rote Orthodoxy or rote Reconstructionism-- rote doesn't cut it.

The issue isn't quantity, or even quality-- it's meaning and substance. A Judaism/Jewish identity without those critical elements has already failed and, frankly, is not really worthy of being perpetuated. If the only concrete principle Judaism still has in the 21st century is "thou shalt not marry out", exactly what good is it?

I concede that intermarriage may not be the best thing in the world "for the Jews," if your primary concern is Jewish numbers, but when it comes to Jewish creativity, engagement with others, or issues of substance and depth, I'm not so sure that living in a self-imposed Haredi ghetto is so much better. Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge that we may not be dealing with moral absolutes here?


Anonymous said...

This just reminded me of a couple of posts I saw on Feministe (crossposted from Dear Diaspora) about brainstorming Judaism. The crowd at Feministe tends to be, well, female, feminist, queer-friendly, etc, so the responses were interesting to flip through. The two posts I was thinking of are here and here.

Daganev said...

While you are mostly correct, I would think that the fact someone intermarried is a good indicator of weather or not Judaism is relevant or engaging to the person who "left the fold".

Meaning, the fact that someone marries out is a sign that they didn't find Judaism engaging, and thus is is a bad thing for the Jewish people.
It's really hard to tell if someone is affiliated or engaged in "their Judaism" otherwise.