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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

American Jews: Impaled on the horns of a dilemma?

Yair Sheleg writes that the dilemma of American Jews is a conflict between liberal values and Jewish identity. Jews cannot oppose mixed marriages for example, because this would conflict with liberal values. Jews cannot accept US government support for Jewish education, because it would threaten separation of Church and state.
But the reality is that opposition to mixed marriages would not do any good, because people who have decided on a mixed marriage have often already declared their choice. They have put themselves outside the voluntary coercive framework of "institutional" Judaism and they will not be influenced by the institutional version of the irate old country patriarch, any more than the daughter of Tevye the Milkman was deterred from marrying a Russian. Sometimes, if their mate becomes Jewish, there is no conflict with Jewish identity, but that is a personal decision that is beyond the scope of Jewish instiutions and beyond their control. Sheleg's proposal is like saying that Jewish institutions are conflicted about whether or not to control the weather or stop aging. They can't do much about either, so there is no real dilemma.
The real dilemmas of American Jews are elsewhere. In the first place, they each have to decide if they want to remain Jews or not and balance all the advantages and disadvantages of the decision to accept their cultural, national and religious heritage as they see fit. 
No community can make that decision. In America this is a matter of conscience that is up to the individual. If an individual decides that remaining Jewish is important, then they will find a way to include this in their personal choices. But if being Jewish only consists of eating bagels and lox and making bad jokes in corrupted Yiddish, there is no chance that many will give up the complete American dream or the mate of their dreams in order to be Jewish. Likewise, if being Jewish consists of wearing a fur hat in summer and poring over ancient law books in Aramaic, that isn't going to attract many American Jews. Are any of these attributes essential for Judaism? Did Moses wear a shtraymel? Did King David know the Talmud and the Sulkhan Aruch?  Did Jacob eat bagels and speak Yiddish? The essentials of Judaism are social ethics, monotheism in religion, and attachment to Israel. Bagels, kippot and all the other trappings were added at a later date, or are added to remind Jews of the important issues,  and they are incidental.  
The second dilemma is that of the Jewish community. They have to decide whether they are going to continue traditions and approaches that failed to stop assimilation in 19th century Europe and are totally anachronistic in the twenty-first century, or whether they are going to adapt to a new reality and provide individuals with an attractive vision of Jewish life and ethics, and an attractive path to Judaism. The former policy will ensure that more and more individuals will choose assimilation. "Stay Jewish or else!" is not going to work. The latter policy will help ensure the continuation of Jewish life in the United States and Canada.  It is between control, hypocrisy and obscurantism on the one hand, and positive adaptation on the other, and it is a no - brainer, not a real dilemma.
The Book of Ruth  tells the story of how Ruth the Moabite became part of Israel and the Jewish people. The book of Ezra and Nehemiah on the other hand, declares that Moab and Amalek cannot be part of Israel and enjoin the Jews to divorce their foreign wives. So there are at least two traditions in Judaism about intermarriage - going back over two thousand years, and not one "hallowed" tradition, as some would have you believe.
The real dilemma of American Jewish leadership is between the book of Ruth and the book of Ezra and Nehemiah. There can't be a conflict between liberal values and Jewish identity, because "Jewish identity" is meaningless if it is not a free personal choice, and if it is not liberal, it is not Judaism.
Ami Isseroff

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