Monday, October 19, 2009

History’s Lesson

It’s true what they say about us Jews. We’re neurotic. We revel in victimhood. We enjoy regaling in our history of suffering at the hands of the anti-Semites. Oftentimes we refer to it as martyrology s so well documented in our prayer books, services and holiday observances. Whether one believes it is providential really isn’t relevant. What is important is that we are here and we ought to be thrilled that in such a short time since the last great Jewish debacle we are alive and well. In spite of the economic downturn the state of the Jewish people is vibrant, throbbing with life. The only serious concern that we have today is Israel’s security and the latest threat that nuclear Iran poses to a secure Israel. But because we are a neurotic people we have to manufacture new existential threats to the Jewish people; we have to have something to worry about.

We’re worried about the future of the Jewish people in light of the high rate of assimilation in the United States. Indeed the rate of assimilation in America has grown to staggering proportions. Every few years those “entrusted” with our welfare and future get nervous about the latest statistics about the high rate of intermarriage and assimilation. But for some reason I’m not worried or all that concerned. If history has ever taught me a lesson its don’t prognosticate. Based upon the shear numbers of apostasy (forced and otherwise), assimilation and intermarriage throughout our history we should have long ago disappeared. After World War II no one would have bet that the orthodox and ultraorthodox would have enjoyed such a renaissance in America and Israel. In the 1960’s there were prognostications that based upon low birth rates, assimilation and intermarriage American Jewry would cease to be relevant by the end of the twentieth century. We are already a decade into the twenty first century and we are still here.

The skeptics will argue that the ones that are really alive and well are the orthodox; and the only ones that will really survive this great plague of assimilation will be the ultra-orthodox. The model for this latest prognostication is based on the traditional garnering of statistical information. Steven Cohen, one of the leading demographers/sociologists has been documenting trends in the Jewish community for decades, none of them sanguine. According to Cohen and other prophets of doom, the only ones who will be standing within three or four generations will be the haredi community who seem to multiply prodigiously (according to a recent Steven Cohen statistic among Jews in their 50’s, for every 100 orthodox adults there are 192 orthodox children; but for the non orthodox for every 100 adults there are 55 children).

I don’t agree with these conclusions for a number of reasons. No one can predict the future. There are simply too many variables. As I mentioned earlier, sighting the statistics of the 1960’s we were supposed to have been extinct by now. Certainly that was the consensus of many when Look Magazine came out with a cover story “The Vanishing American Jew”. We’re stronger now than ever before. What Look Magazine and forecasters couldn’t take into consideration were a number of unknown factors: The lightening six-day war in 1967 that gave Jews worldwide a new lease on life. Jews became prouder, bolder, and more assertive. We gained entry into the halls of power like never before and we moved into positions of influence in practically every sphere. With that came stronger assimilation trends and higher rates of intermarriage, but to counter balance that came the mushrooming of Jewish day schools representing the different denominations.

The Judaism of the 21st century is different than that of the mid 20thcentury, in nuance as well as content. When I look back over he past half century the Judaism of my father is hardly understood by this generation. The gay and lesbian community has been mainstreamed in the liberal movements and will be in the orthodox community in the not too distant future. While women rabbis are ordained in the liberal moments exclusively they too will become part of the orthodox landscape in the near future. They already have partial recognition regarding scholarship, serve as mashgichot and are in leadership positions. They are rabbis in everything but title; this too will come. The point is that Judaism is organic, constantly morphing, meeting the challenges and those seeking it out. The contemporary religioscape is nothing like our forefathers would have imagined whether you are orthodox or unaffiliated. It never was intended to be because of the very nature of our unique culture that is based on the oral tradition.

What isn’t dynamic is the haredi community who seem to be stuck in the 18th-19th centuries. Because of their conservative value system they only appear to be more genuine than the Jewish expressions of the 21st century. Their rigid adherence to custom, tradition and halacha doesn’t however give them a monopoly on the Jewish future. That orthodox halacha doesn’t recognize the conversion practices of the liberal community, and thus dismiss thousands of conversions is inconsequential to those liberal communities.

The demographers apply orthodox standards when prognosticating. True, assimilation is up and so is intermarriage. On an orthodox scale, the orthodox numbers are up and they seem to be the ones to carry the torch. On the other hand the liberal community, applying their own standards of who and what is a Jew appears to be, for the foreseeable future members of the tribe who are not only not disappearing but are proactive. There may have once been a unilateral normative standard by which the issue of personal status was determined. That has given way as the liberal communities have developed independently from the orthodox and have established their own guidelines, becoming a parallel set of normative standards.

Another part of the equation that hasn’t been considered by these demographers and prophets of doom is the unknown. At any given moment the playing field can change. In 1964 when Look magazine came out with “The Vanishing Jew”, they obviously didn’t conceive of the Jewish community in 2009. So while today it may appear to some that the future of those who believe non-orthodox community is questionable I would prefer to sit back and let history unfold. Studying history is tricky. But a serious student of Jewish history is always humbled by it; rarely using it for extrapolation and prognostication.