Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jack Wertheimer: Broken Record Extraordinaire

Ol' Jack, longtime faculty member at Conservative JTS, can always be counted on for a good verbal thrashing of his liberal comrades. That's fine, and probably necessary. What becomes tiring, though, is that Jack can only play one tune: namely, that liberal Judaism (broadly defined) is doomed because it promotes assimilation and intermarriage.

Early this month, while a lot of liberal Jews were yelling about that stupid Masa ad that suggested that assimilated American Jews were "just like" kidnapped children or missing people and therefore needed to have their pictures tacked up on telephone poles and milk cartons (cute), Jack stood up as the lonely defender of... well, that part wasn't quite clear.

While the ad may have been clumsy in its execution, its central point is essentially correct: Large numbers of Jews around the world are disconnected from any Jewish communal activities.

...Is there any reason to doubt that the Jewish people is suffering an erosion of its engaged membership? In the case of American Jews, we now lack an up-to-date national survey with precise numbers (or a national leadership sufficiently interested in basing its policies on hard data to produce one), but there is ample evidence of large declines in the numbers of Jews who participate in organized Jewish life in recent decades.

...So why, then, if there is a large kernel of truth to its claims, did the Masa ad elicit such a sharp reaction? In large part, it is because it was inferred that the 50% assimilation figure the ad cited refers to intermarriage rates, which in the United States reached that level in the late 1990s. Critics contend that the ad — though it does not actually mention the word “intermarriage” — gives offense to the children of Jews who intermarry, by implying that they are somehow “lost.” Many children of intermarriage, these critics note, are raised as Jews and go on to identify strongly with the Jewish people. This is, of course, true — but only up to a point. Unfortunately, this optimistic reading describes only a minority of intermarried families. The majority of intermarried families raise their children in a faith other than Judaism or in two faiths or no faith at all; not surprisingly, when they reach adulthood, most of those offspring do not identify as Jews.

Got all that? Jack admits we don't have any recent data to confirm the supposed dramatic ill-effects of assimilation, but darn it, his gut tells him it can't be good for the Jews. I love when imaginary statistics I just made up totally sync up with my personal opinions. Well, at least 85% of the time I do.

Few would dispute that the Jewish community has a far better chance of retaining the allegiance of individuals raised in homes in which both parents are Jewish than in those where one parent identifies with a different religion.

What is the evidence that this is the case for the majority of intermarried families, as opposed to those who have one Jewish parent and one parent who is agnostic/ambivalent about their own tradition, but for whatever reason don't feel comfortable with conversion to Judaism? I've got news for you, Jack, the really committed Christians aren't the ones marrying Jews.

Indeed, wherever Jews are a minority community, intermarriage is a major factor in the contraction of the Jewish population. How, then, does it serve Jewish group interests to silence all discussion about the relationship between intermarriage and assimilation?

First of all, I don't see anyone arguing that these discussions should be silenced, least of all the people from intermarried families. If anything, I think people in intermarriages or who have intermarried parents would like to be acknowledged within our communities and stop being treated as though having only one Jewish parent either makes them invisible or less worthy of belonging to our illustrious Klal.

Furthermore, the biggest problem with Masa's ad was not that it raised controversial questions, but that it did this is a sensationalist, simplistic and denigrating way, which created far more anger and outrage than it did intelligent dialogue. Masa couldn't have better sabotaged a reasonable discussion about this topic if it tried.

Conveniently, Masa's problem is also Wertheimer's problem. Convinced that intermarriage and assimilation are the biggest dangers to Judaism and the Jewish population-- rather than signs that the real enemies, alienation and apathy, are not being confronted effectively by Jewish leaders-- his position has long been to consign tens of thousands of Jews, halachic or otherwise, to the dustbin and writes them off as statistical losses, rather than, you know, people. After all, people are unpredictable. People can have all sorts of reasons for making their decisions. People can also change their minds or their personal practice. In short, people are messy, which screws up Jack's awesome Powerpoint graph about how intermarriage will lead to the non-Orthodox community being populated solely by Conservative rabbis and their halachically-converted pets by the year 2045.

Intermarriage is not in of itself a problem. It is, potentially, an opportunity. What folks like Wertheimer fail to note is that an intermarriage is still a statement of affiliation, even if only in a minor way. By choosing to intermarry, rather than convert, a Jew may be showing that Judaism is still important to them (or that they aren't interested in converting to something else), regardless of which tribe their spouse was born into. That's a heck of a lot more of an opening than someone who converts to another religion and explicitly agrees to not identify as Jewish or to raise Jewish children.

With the right combination of a welcoming community, access to quality Jewish services and education and encouragement and support from their parents, there are strong motivators for children with one Jewish parent to identify as Jewish, be interested and involved in Jewish organizations and causes, and be Jewishly knowledgeable and literate. What more could a bubbe want?

More Jack here. Apparently he's still anti-intermarriage, one whole month later. I know, I'm shocked too. At least here he gives a stastic: apparently 35% of intermarried Jews raise their kids in another religion. Of course, he doesn't explain the degree or context in which this "raising" occurs-- are we talking Christmas trees or catechisms? In a large way it's irrelevant, though, because that means that a giant number-- almost two-thirds-- aren't raising their kids in another faith, which means that they should be strongly welcomed in the Jewish community, not turned away for daring to date outside the eruv (forgive my horribly mixed metaphors).

It's not so much Jack's bad logic that bugs me, it's the fact he's been beating this dead horse for years. And years. Evanston Jew's two-and-a-half-year-old post hits the nail on the head with its first two sentences:

Jack Wertheimer, the Provost of JTS has been writing for the last twenty years on the theme of the sky is falling. In the June 2006 issue of Commentary, he slugs away once again at his favorite thesis, the oncoming demise of American Jewry.

Seriously, Jack, if assimilation is your pet issue, fine, but can't you find a more interesting way to yelp about it?

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