Will secular Jewish identity survive outside of Israel?

Will secular Jewish identity survive outside of Israel?

Prof. Steven M. Cohen (pictured above) is the main go-to sociologist/pollster nowadays on American-Jewish issues.  In this Forward article and video (Aug. 8), “How To Stabilize the Declining Jewish Middle — Or Even Reverse It,” he lays out what he knows about the demographics of American Jewry that disturbs him: Younger non-Orthodox generations of American Jews are declining in relative numbers and in self-identification as Jews and in Jewish communal activities — as compared with the modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox (Hasidim and other Haredim) who are vigorously Jewish religiously and have more children than non-Orthodox Jews.  Part of his prescription for a response by the organized American Jewish community is to be more welcoming to converts and to the growing number of families with mixed Jewish and non-Jewish parentage.

I agree, of course, but I also regret that a secular Jewish identity has not emerged in a more influential way in the Jewish community.  Whether via the congregational model associated with the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s small movement (the Society for Humanistic Judaism), or the social justice activism and Yiddishism traditionally associated with the Workmen’s Circle, or in other currents once associated with the Communist Party or (Lehavdil) the Jewish Labor Bund, or via Jewish communal activism in local federations or in the national “defense” groups (e.g., the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Labor Committee) — secularism as an organized expression of the American Jewish experience has been declining.

Part of this is because of a good thing: American Jews have been accepted as equals (even as “cool”) by a majority of non-Jewish Americans; let’s call it “the Seinfeld effect.”  Over the course of about 30-40 years, American Jews are being “loved to death” by other Americans, with intermarriage now the norm for non-Orthodox Jews. This growing social liberalism has even transformed attitudes toward Jews among the traditional right-wing in the United States, with Republicans possibly becoming more “pro-Jewish” than Democrats, even as the latter is still the political home of most American Jews.

I write above of a positive medium to long-term trend.  This is not to contradict concerns expressed on this blog by Ed Goldstein and myself earlier, that Netanyahu’s aggressive confrontations with Obama, and the organized Jewish community’s near-lockstep support for the former on Iran and Israel, may yet undermine the standing of American Jews in this country.  It would be a disaster if fundamental support for Israel — not of specific Israeli government policies, but of the country’s existence as the Jewish homeland — becomes a partisan dispute.

Most Jews have had a sense of themselves as Jewish regardless of their religious convictions. There’s an ethnic and cultural Jewish identity that goes beyond religion.  It’s not by accident that Zionism was founded as mainly a secular movement, with most religious Jews — whether Orthodox or Reform — mainly opposed to it until after the Holocaust.  (Conservatives and Reconstructionists were overwhelmingly Zionist, alongside only a minority of Orthodox and Reform.)

Israel was founded in 1948 as a home for the Jews as a people, not as a kind of Vatican for Judaism as a religion.  Paradoxically, although half or more of American Jews have no religious affiliation, they are usually defined as followers of a faith rather than as a national or ethnic group (as they were regarded in the former Soviet Union).

To my mind, what some people called the “Zionist revolution” was incomplete: despite its success in establishing the State of Israel, Zionism did not remake Jewish identity into an ethnic or national or cultural phenomenon readily divorced from religion.  Whether they meant to or not, early Zionists were moving in this direction when they frequently referred to the “Hebrew” nation rather than the Jewish people.

It’s in Israel where a “Hebrew” identity, apart from religious practice, is most viable.  This is ironically true despite (or maybe because of) the virtual monopoly on Judaism granted to the Orthodox rabbinate by the State of Israel in an unfortunate lack of foresight by such secular founders of the country as David Ben-Gurion.

There is something of a movement, in recent years, for secular Israelis to study traditional Jewish texts, as pioneered by Talmud scholar and former Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon.  But even Israelis who are ignorant of Jewish tradition are advantaged Jewishly in their everyday lives over those of us in the Diaspora who value our Jewish heritage, because they speak Hebrew and live according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar.  Looking at the trends laid out by Prof. Cohen, it’s hard for me to see a secular Jewish identity persevering as meaningfully Jewish outside of Israel.  But we do have to ask ourselves how important it is to remain Jewish, if one doesn’t literally believe that our existence as a people has a divine purpose.

What seems more important to me is that Jews be safe and free to live their lives as they choose.  So “being loved to death” by our fellow Americans seems not so terrible; it’s infinitely better than being hated to death, or being hated into a stronger commitment to our Jewishness, which has motivated Jewish identity for many of my fellow Baby-boomers in the wake of the Holocaust.

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see the Jewish people disappear.  I’m all in favor of retaining Jewish connections and taking pride in our remarkable heritage.  If being Jewish didn’t matter to me, I wouldn’t have dedicated so much of my time and energy over the years to expressly Jewish purposes.

But it is hard for me to see secular (or even non-Orthodox) Jewish identity surviving much longer outside of Israel.  I wish I could conclude on a more confident note, but I also worry about Israeli Jewry surviving in the coming decades — rather than succumbing to a combination of external enemies and internal divisions — if a peaceful accommodation is not soon reached with most of the Arab and Islamic worlds.  This latter point is a different subject, of course.

By | 2018-08-28T14:25:33-04:00 August 19th, 2015|American Jewish community, Blog, Religious Pluralism|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Eric Mendelsohn August 19, 2015 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Since late second Temple times the main and continuing source of secular Jews has been the children of Orthodox Jews. This group has survived for two millennia continuously redefining itself. It will continue.

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