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The Future of Jewish Identity

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"How can Jews remain Jews in a world of radical choice?" asked Charles Selengut, editor of Jewish Identity in the Postmodern Age (1999, Paragon House, St. Paul, MN, $16.95). Selengut is Professor of Sociology at the County College of Morris and Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at Drew University, both in New Jersey. In a recent interview, he explained the main theme of his new book: "Historically, to be Jewish was a destiny that a person had to follow, whether they wanted to or not. In the modern period, Judaism is an option... Increasingly, large numbers of Jews are choosing not to be Jewish. The task of the Jewish community is to make Judaism a viable option."

Jewish Identity in the Postmodern Age is the product of a conference on Jewish Identity held in the West Bank town of Ariel in the summer of 1997. That meeting brought together Jewish scholars and writers from across the Jewish denominational spectrum. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated Jewish men and women participated in those discussions, and critical issues regarding assimilation and the future of the Jewish people are addressed in this compilation of thought-provoking essays.

The meaning of Judaism, the relationship of each Jew to the Jewish community and the continuing assault of assimilation are themes which are articulated from diverse points of view throughout the text. The book is immensely readable and provocative, pulling no punches in enumerating what scholars perceive to be the most serious threats to the future of the American Jewish community.

Defeating Jewish Self Hatred

"Don't lower your standards, but don't throw up your hands in disgust or read us out of the Jewish people either," writes Walter Ruby, a self proclaimed non-affiliated and assimilated Jew. Ruby, a journalist who has published extensively in Jewish magazines and newspapers, discusses his search for "Jewish wholeness".

"By the time I was in fourth grade I was ashamed of being Jewish," Ruby recalls. He further explains that self-hatred is common among young Jews. "I have encountered plenty of manifestations of Jewish self-hatred...Most self-hate among young Jews more of a sense that being Jewish is something uncomfortable, something to play down or not to mention."

In past generations, anti-semitism and discrimination, led to feelings of 'otherness', leaving indelible scars on many young Jews, and causing them to reject their religion. Ironically, in today's American society, the almost universal acceptance of Jews into American society can drive Jews away from Judaism. Jews easily blend in, absorb American culture to the exclusion of Jewish culture and theology, intermarry, and lose their ties to the Jewish community.

Materialism in the Jewish Community

According to Talmud scholar Joseph Rapaport's essay "Worshiping Mammon" , even Orthodox Judaism is not immune to negative American societal pressures. He states that materialism in the Jewish community poses a real danger within Modern Orthodoxy. Rapaport quotes Matti Golan, former Editor-in-Chief of Globes, a leading Israeli business newspaper: "...the name of the leadership game...continues to be money....Jewish leadership in America isn't earned and it certainly isn't elected; it's bought."

In addition, Rapaport states, money is not only a prerequisite for communal leadership; it is also required for full-fledged membership in the Orthodox community. "To pay for the cumulative costs of [day school] tuition, membership in a synagogue and ...the higher costs of a kosher food diet and lifestyle,...the drive to amass wealth...takes on a special urgency." reports Rapaport. "Thus Modern Orthodox parents understand first hand the need for a robust income. They incessantly counsel their children to excel in their school studies...[to enter] a high earning profession..."

As a result of financial pressures to succeed, the Orthodox community becomes vulnerable to the dangers of assimilation and risks alienation of their members. "Modern Orthodox...attend college, are found throughout corporate America, and work as doctors, lawyers and scientists." writes Rapaport. "Since Modern Orthodoxy actively embraces modernity, its adherents are inhabitants of the secular world...[and they] are continually faced with secular cultural attack."

The college experience can be fraught with the hazards of American culture, maintains Rapaport. "...all parents will acknowledge that their children are at risk of becoming non-observant or of falling in love with a non-Jewish mate while attending a secular college."

In the workplace those who consider themselves Modern Orthodox may justify changes in their own religious observance, since becoming "'one of the boys'... requires interaction both on and off the job, dining together...attending the office Christmas party," Rapaport cautions. "Small compromises or violations are followed perhaps by larger ones."

The Impact of the Holocaust

The Holocaust has been touted as a Jewish issue which could attract the interest of unaffiliated Jews and bring them back into the fold. "The emphasis on the Holocaust may work for a generation..." reflected Selengut during our interview. However, he explained, "There's research being done that shows for lots of younger Jews... all this emphasis on the Holocaust may have the opposite response than is hoped for. In other words, younger Jews say, 'If that is Judaism, we don't want to have anything to do it.'"

"When the Holocaust is shown to be part of a living life... both joy and sadness, both holidays and glee as well as the memory of evil, then people could maintain the identification." argued Selengut. "But if the Judaism just ends up being Holocaust memorials, and they don't have a living society to relate to, then after a generation or two, this doesn't work." He explained, "Sooner rather than later most people don't want to have anything to do with that kind of religious lifestyle, when it just consists of sorrow."

Dr. Tzvee Zahavy, a prominent Judaic scholar, reinforces this notion in his chapter, "The Predicament of the Post-modern American Jew" by citing the so-called "Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption" described by author and scholar, Jacob Neusner. According to Neusner the destruction of European Jewry is "the paradigm of evil" and the creation of the State of Israel represents the redemption "after the ultimate catastrophe".

"No one has figured out how to make the macabre and gruesome fact of European Jewish history into part of a mythic structure and ritual expression that can be tolerated by a general audience." writes Zahavy. "Ordinary people do not want to reenact a chapter of deep horror every season of the year. So Jews evolved a separate and superficial way of noting the events of the Holocaust...[which involves gathering] on Yom Hashoah... to light candles, sing a few songs, recite poetry and hear a speech."

Solving the Jewish Future

"There are no quick fixes," Selengut admitted. "There are a lot of variations of Judaism available that leave out the uniquely spiritual Jewish element in their communities. What Judaism has working for it is that it is a rendezvous with Jewish history, with Jewish destiny, and it's a lifestyle in which all of life is sanctified by religious ritual and tradition."

"Jewish institutions need to be made user friendly," he further suggested. "Many young Jews who leave Judaism say that the personal reception they have in other faiths and in other settings are much warmer, much more personally responsive than they have in Jewish settings."

Selengut explained that Jews who convert to cults or Eastern religions report finding "a greater acceptance, a greater responsive love than they find in the Jewish community. The Jewish community needs to face up to that they may not be providing the kind of friendship and intimacy people can find in other religious communities."

"The primary responsibility for the viability and growth of a people rests with the leadership, not with the masses," maintains Zahavy. "If people are running away from it, it may not be that they are being seduced by some sinister modern lure. It may be that they are merely rejecting ...the system."

"Surely, if aggravation, pettiness and suffering come along with being part of the 'organized Jewish community' - then membership suffers," Zahavy continues. "The wonderful elements of Judaism...may be overshadowed and diluted ... by negative forces of the present system, driving people away, rather than attracting new adherents."

"What I think we need the most," Zahavy's essay emphasizes, " - better leaders for our community..."

"By working together we can make Judaism exciting and relevant again; something that young people will want to connect with because it is electric and alive." suggests Ruby. "Why, after all, should they choose to assimilate into the insipid and terribly shallow Middle American culture when they have as their own a culture and heritage of such depth and richness. All we have to do is make them aware of what they've been missing."

Despite labeling himself 'tribune of non-affiliated and assimilated Jews', Walter Ruby proclaims, "My own message for the Jewish youth of the 1990s and the early 21st century is: 'Be a Jew -It's fun.' In fact, it's a trip. It's real." Ruby concludes, "It's about Jewish communities spanning the globe...It is about searching for and connecting to God...fighting for justice for all humankind...a lifelong search [for a] 4000 year-old is Eretz Israel; it is Hashem [God]; it is tikkun olam [repairing the world] and it is beauty and truth..."

The eclectic group of thinkers represented in this book touch many nerves and expose important and sensitive issues. This well written and researched volume which poses many provocative questions, suggests few concrete answers, but offers hope for the future of Judaism in the next millennium. In addition, this collection of writings indicates that diverse voices can articulate common concerns and that the future of each and every Jew is linked to the success of the community as a whole.

Zahavy, reflecting on the data which suggest that the Jewish community will be severely diminished in the years ahead, concludes optimistically, "As a purely postmodern Jew, I know that they are wrong... I know that [the Jewish community] will survive... It is now our task to make our lives as Jews meaningful to our present needs..."

Other essays include "Women and Feminism", by Livia Bitton-Jackson, Professor of Judaic Studies, Lehman College of City University of New York. American political identity is examined by Edward Shapiro, Professor of History, Seton Hall University and the role of Zionism is explored by Gilbert Kahn, Professor of Political Science, Kean University.


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