A shared sorrow may have provided the briefest taste of unity after Pittsburgh, but anti-Semitism is not what defines the experience of Jews in America today; assimilation is. To hear the professional worriers in the Jewish community, it’s love, not hate, that poses the bigger existential challenge. A vast majority of Jews — 72 percent among the non-Orthodox — now marry outside the tribe. The infrastructure of Judaism, from the synagogue to the long-established liberal denominations, is being steadily abandoned. Almost a third of millennial Jews are so unidentified with Judaism they say they have no religion at all. And Israel, which once inspired, now alienates many, especially the young. Even the massacre in Pittsburgh, for those who knew where to look, offered hints of this demise. The average age of the victims, those mainstays who turned on the lights and made sure the grape juice and cookies were set up for the kiddush, was 74. Three congregations gathered in one synagogue that morning because of dwindling numbers.
Once the candlelight vigils are over, where is the solid ground for the future of American Jewish identity? It won’t come from being victims — it shouldn’t — and cultural and ethnic identity, the bagels and lox version, is disappearing fast. From where then? As a handful of new books make abundantly clear, there really is only one source left: the religion — Judaism itself, and its unique capacity for adaptation.
Beckerman talks about Reform Judaism, and how it emerged in the 19th century to redefine Judaism along the model of Social Gospel Protestantism. Being Jewish became about doing good works in the world, setting a good example, taking up liberal causes, and so forth. More:
The sociologist Jack Wertheimer dismisses this as “Golden Rule” Judaism in THE NEW AMERICAN JUDAISM: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today (Princeton University, $29.95), lamenting that as a form of religious practice — even with a faith that stresses deeds over beliefs — it represents a slide toward the empty and platitudinous: “A rich, complex and at times contradictory religious system has been reduced to a set of vague slogans — ‘Justice, justice, shall you pursue,’ ‘Made in God’s image,’ ‘Love the stranger’ and ‘Repair the world.’”
Wertheimer is harsh on this form of Judaism, seeing it as an easy, self-congratulatory way to slap a seal of tradition onto pre-existing liberalism. He’s wrong to discount it as meaningless. Some of the most vibrant activity around synagogues every weekend has to do with food banking or raising funds for Syrian refugees. But I do share his assessment that as religious practice, this is pretty thin. It’s not hard to imagine a day when American Jews stop thinking about their commitment to social justice as Jewishly inflected and see it instead as just that, a commitment to social justice. What then of the more thickly religious practices, the world of ritual and spirituality?
Most American Jews (the 90 percent who are not Orthodox but belong to one of the liberal branches of Reform or Conservative Judaism or are simply unaffiliated) are in a process of mixing and matching, practicing what Wertheimer calls a “cafeteria religion.” “Picking and choosing only those morsels of Judaism that seem personally appealing is the new — and perhaps only — norm among Jews,” he writes. It’s what explains why the premier Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., sponsors a Jewish Mindfulness Center, which includes meditation practices, healing services, yoga, Jewish mysticism classes and immersion in the mikvah (the ritual bath, previously an exclusively Orthodox practice). American Jews have not quite abandoned Judaism — according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2013, a majority still attend a Seder for Passover and fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; at weddings and funerals, people still want something Jewish — but they are being extremely idiosyncratic about it all, sucking out whatever spiritual and personal sustenance the tradition has to offer and spitting out the pits.
That’s not going to work. It’s a designer spirituality that doesn’t pull you out of yourself, but rather amounts to you expressing yourself. It sounds sort of like the gyrovagues, identified by St. Benedict in his Rule as the worst kind of monks. The gyrovagues wander from monastery to monastery, stay for a while, suck whatever it has to offer, then move on. Benedict taught that you can only make real spiritual progress by anchoring yourself in a community, and following an established tradition’s disciplines.
There’s much more to the essay, which is a discussion of several other books trying to address the existential crisis within American Judaism. I won’t try to sum them up here;
read the whole thing. It’s worthwhile. At the risk of overstepping my bounds as a sympathetic outsider, I don’t see how any form of Judaism other than one of the demanding, deeply rooted Orthodox versions (i.e., Modern Orthodox or Hasidic) will be able to withstand liquid modernity. The opening of Beckerman’s review essay touches softly on the painful irony that it’s not the little Hitlers who pop up in American life from time to time that are threatening the future existence of the Jewish people here; it’s the wide embrace of a nation where Jews are free to do and to be whatever they like.
The assimilation problem has long been with American Jews, but it has now come to American Christians too. That’s why I wrote The Benedict Option. I regard Orthodox Jews as living out a Jewish Ben Op, and say in the book that we Christians have a lot to learn from them.
I wonder if Jews have the same problems we Christians do. I was texting with a Christian friend about a perennial problem in Christian life: parents who outsource their kids’ spiritual and moral foundation to “sound” institutions, and then just do whatever they want — and wonder why it doesn’t work out. My friend said that he sees lots of families who go to churches where they slavishly ape the norms and aesthetics of secular culture — and parents wonder why their kids don’t agree that religion is a necessary add-on to the rest of life.
Point is, you have to work at it to make your religion live. It can’t simply be part of your life; it has to be your life. Anything less than that will not give you the anchor you need to resist the strong currents of liquid modernity.
The essay ends with a question that the Israeli novelist Amos Oz says defines the Jewish dilemma today: “Does our past belong to us, or we to it?” I like to think of that question along with this statement by one of the authors Beckerman quotes: “Create meaning in Judaism or accept extinction.”
Can Jews “create meaning” within their religion, or do they simply discover what is already there? Seems to me that the answer to that question is the answer to Amos Oz’s question, which might be put another way: “Are we free to pick and choose from our past to fashion a religion that suits us, or does the past bind us and limit us?”
This is, I think, the central challenge to religious believers today, not just Jews. Many, many Christians want their kids to be Christian, but they don’t want to do the hard work necessary to create the conditions under which their children are likely to keep the faith into adulthood. There are never any guarantees — children are not machines — but there are things parents do that make it more or less likely that their children will be faithful adults. It’s not easy! It seems to me that, with reference to Amos Oz’s point, the one thing that no person, and no parent, can do is to be passive about religion. If you are not affirmatively religious, and affirmatively religious in one’s practices (not just affirming creedal beliefs), then your kids are going to have a very hard time not drifting into unbelief, or merely nominal belief.
But again: do we “create” meaning within religious traditions, or do we “discover” meaning that is already there. I think the idea of “creating” meaning is self-deception. What do you think?