Assimilation, Death of the “Modern” Jew

There is a very difficult reality that is becoming more evident in modern times: assimilation is leading to the demise of non-orthodox judaism.  For the sake of this article, I will refer to “non-orthodox” judasim as “reform judaism,” and “orthodox judaism” as “torah judaism.”  This is something that many are well aware of, and if I have any readers yet, I may be preaching to the choir.  What I am going to discuss, however, is that there may be ways to counteract this trend.

There is a perhaps unfortunate truth that, to echo the words of Rambam, the furtherance of jewish involvement must have as a foundation, a belief in G-d.  Without this, a jewish community is little more than a type of country club, whose members meet every week and share common roots.  Without the existence of G-d, there is no logical reason to be jewish in modern society, as fulfillment in association can be found within so many secular or national groups.  I think that this is the dynamic within which reform judaism is losing steam.

It is quite interesting to me, that the continuance of the jewish people has been due in large part to the persecution suffered throughout the generations.  As a people set apart, jews lived in their own communities, created their own economies, and operated according to their own laws–which were derived from the mitzvoth of torah and  expanded according to ensure the keeping of the laws of the people whose lands they lived.  Since the acceptance of jews in learning institutions and society in general–beginning in Germany in the 1800’s–many jews have hung up their tallit (prayer shawl) in exchange for involvement in non-jewish society.  In order to do such a thing, however, mitzvoth of torah necessarily had to be pushed aside–the goyishe world runs on a different clock, and according to different guidelines.  Within a couple of hundred years, it seems as if the sacrifice made by so many ancestors in refusing to convert, and the progress in torah learning made over thousands of years of remaining am yisroel (the people israel) has been nullified: eighty percent (roughly) of the world’s jews are secular or reform.  There is a saying by Ahad Ha’am had to say on the subject: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”  I would add to that and say that, “more than the jews have continued to be persecuted, persecution has kept jews being jews.”  Within the framework of a torah community, the normal course of society is to keep the mitzvoth.  In the outside world, the vast majority of people are concerned with other pursuits.

Am I implying that in order to remain jewish, we must live in insular communities?  Not in the least bit!  There are, in fact, a great many jews in America who are both orthodox and very connected with the goyishe world.  The problem that can be seen in reform synagogues all over America though, is one of diminished involvement by youths.  The Hillel society here at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, boasts two dozen members or so, and yet has no attendance at the local synagogues.  In fact, of all the Jews under the age of 50 in the county, I am one of the only ones who attends regularly.  It is both saddening and maddening.

I recently spoke with a friend who is a grad student at the university.  I asked him why there was no interest in building or being part of the community.  In a nutshell, he said that many of the members of Hillel don’t believe in G-d, and those that do did not have a strong enough jewish upbringing to have any chance against the allure of secular society and friends.  Because their parents weren’t interested, the community will die out.  My guess is that unless there is a change, all of these families will be jewish in peoplehood only by the next generation.

He did say that there were some who expressed interest from time to time, but like he, they have not been able to find or make the time to be involved, and as with many people, didn’t know where or how to start anyway.  My response to all of this was, “take it back then!”  You want to be jewish, your parents weren’t interested when you were growing up, take it back!  Claim it for yourself!  Unless they make the conscious decision to get involved, it is probable that there will be nothing but further drift away from judaism, until it is nothing more significant than bagels and lox, and really bad tasting fish.

Possibly one of the saddest propositions associated with this lack of interest, is that most will intermarry.  This in itself seems innocent enough, but the result of intermarriage is, more often than not, either complete secularity in the next generation, or a christian family.  Why christian?  Many uninvolved jews who marry christians are drawn into the christian world by their spouses.  It is a good fit for many–religious association without impact on the rest of life.  If this is the track that will be taken, while being sad because it means a lot fewer jews in the world, at least they will have a chance at happiness in marriage.  It also means though, that torah judaism will move in to fill the emptiness.

This brings me back to the title of this post.  Reform judaism is seen by many as being “modern judaism,” as it is a way to retain an appearance of jewishness while taking part–in all ways–with the secular world.  This assimilation seems to be taking the jews of tomorrow on a path away from involvement in even reform judaism, however, and returning can only be because of a personal, newfound interest in G-d and spirituality.  For many a spiritual omnivore in the last 50 years, this has indeed been the case, giving rise to more branches within reform judaism, as they realize our tradition is more than just orders and dictates, but that the mitzvoth are actually a conduit through which to channel spirituality in daily life.  They take what they want, and discard what they don’t see as relevant, but at least they are coming to be involved.

So what is the answer?  How do we get today’s jewish youth interested in being more jewish, and ensure the jewishness of their children?  I think the only way to do this is through common halacha (jewish law) and practices.  This is what makes torah communities so successful.  When everyone around you is keeping shabbat, it is easy to do it yourself.  Even if the community decides not to keep everything the orthodox way, there still must be a standard, a benchmark of obligation and expectation.  When everyone else is keeping kosher, what real reason is there not to?  And all of these things are possible to do within the framework of modern society, as long as we remember to be devoted to these tasks.  There are jobs where you don’t have to work on shabbat.  Can’t go out friday night; go out motzei shabbat (saturday night) instead!  Make it important to express integrity with your people, and you will remain a part of your people.  Compromise and justify pushing thousands of years aside, and you will fade into the woodwork.

This is part of what makes us not only the “chosen people,” but the “choosing people” as well.

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