I keep reading the many different people who have been analyzing the information from the Pew Survey on Judaism in America and I just don’t see the crisis that so many of my colleagues seem to find in the numbers. I am a Conservative Jew, a Rabbi and a history buff, and the numbers just don’t send me into panic mode. I can’t say that the information makes me really happy; but I just don’t believe that the end is near.
The Jewish People are eternal. We have had some real threats to our existence over the centuries and somehow we are still standing. Some people call it a miracle. I certainly can it read that way, but I learned a long time ago in my study of History that you have to be very careful about predicting the demise of a movement. When the Second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, it was the end of the Israelite religion and the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism. We came back stronger than ever as soon as we stopped quarreling with each other and after we had rewritten the interpretations of the Torah so we could live without the ceremony and sacrifices of the Temple. Priests were replaced with Rabbis, the central sanctuary was replaced by home ritual, sacrifices were replaced by personal and communal prayers and the Jewish people moved on.
The Rise of Islam, the Crusades and the Inquisition all gave Judaism the choice of convert or die. We did what we needed to do to survive and we moved out to places where we could feel more welcome. When that welcome ended, we moved on to somewhere else. We learned to keep our faith portable and we learned how to hide our rituals (and our bodies) when we needed to.
Over a third of world Jewry was murdered during the just six years of the Shoah. Some of our greatest teachers died. Hasidic dynasties were wiped out. Jewish mysticism and the Musar movement were all but exterminated along with the six million men, women and children. Our people moved to Israel, to South America, to South Africa and to North America and Judaism found the freedom to grow and flourish again.
The Pew survey only speaks about Jews in the United States. It does not speak about Judaism in Israel, Europe and the rest of the world. We have known for a long time that in only a matter of a few decades or so, Israel will be the center of the Jewish world. The low birthrate of Jews in America is causing our population to age and shrink. Even if there was no assimilation at all, Judaism in America would be in decline. Demographics alone are working against us.
We can recoil in horror about the state of Judaism in Israel but the reason I believe that matters of faith are so crazy there is because Israeli society needs to struggle with issues of pluralism, religious freedom and granting power to one group over another. As Jews gather from the “four corners” of the world, there will have to be growing pains, conflicts that will hurt us and embarrass us. I have no doubt that we will find our way.
What about the Jews in North America? I don’t think it will neither assimilate away nor become an Orthodox stronghold. Don’t get me wrong; we have serious problems. We are not doing a very good job of teaching adults and children what Judaism is all about. Jews in North America, especially those who are not Orthodox, don’t have a clear idea of what Judaism is and what the religion stands for. They don’t understand how the holidays of the Jewish calendar fit together, how they bind us to the cycles of nature and help us find God in each season of the year and each season of our lives. They don’t know and they don’t have a clear picture about the differences between Halloween and Purim, Thanksgiving and Sukkot, July Fourth and Pesach. They are not clear that Judaism says that money, sex and hunger are not evil drives; they are just part of human nature and Judaism gives us the rituals of Shabbat, Taharat HaMishpacha and Kashrut to help us control our drives rather than letting our drives control us. Every human being has their religion. But Judaism, with its strong anti-pagan theology, will not let us worship the false gods of the Mall, the sports pages or Xtreme sports. Judaism insists that there is more to life than that. Life is not about what you get, it is about what you give; time or money or talent; when a Jew cares about others, both the giver and the receiver are changed forever.
There will always be Jews who think that our faith is about bagels, making money and sweetened Concord grape wine. There will always be Jews who choose Hanukah or Christmas based on which one will get the most gifts. Given our mass media and “science” of advertising, we are as susceptible to the same enticements as any other Americans, and those who don’t have an understanding of any religion, like Judaism, that teaches us how to find meaning within ourselves rather in the way we purchase “toys”.
Will Moses recognize the Judaism that will be taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary 100 years from now; or will Moses be as lost in that class as he once was in the class of Rabbi Akiva (Talmud Menachot 29b)? Will we even recognize that Judaism? I can’t answer that question. I am only sure that there will be a class for Moses to sit in and Jews will still be learning about how Torah is important in their lives. I am sure because I believe in God, in Moses, in Torah and in the Jewish People. The spark of Judaism still burns within us and while it may falter from time to time, it will not go out.
They have told our people many times that we are dying.
I’m still standing.