“Can Judaism survive assimilation?” proclaims the headline on the front page of this week’s The Week magazine (October 18, 2013). And, in the heading to the article itself (on page 17), “American Jews: Is intermarriage extinction?”
Scary questions, at least if you’re Jewish. I remember them being asked fifty years ago, in tones no less ominous. The expected answers, of course, were No to the first and Yes to the second. The implication: you’d better not assimilate. When it comes to love and marriage—stick to your own kind.
The latest flurry of doomsday speculation, to which The Week’s article is devoted, was set off by a recent study of the Pew Research Center. Seems that, “while some 90 percent of American Jews born before World War II identify themselves as Jewish by religion, nearly a third of those born after 1980 say they have no religion at all. Almost 60 percent of Jews who’ve wed since 2000 have a non-Jewish spouse, and one third of intermarried Jews say they are not raising their kids as Jewish” (quoting The Week).
In 1963, at age 15, I hated questions like these. I badly wanted to go out with some of the non-Jewish girls in my high school classes. They seemed to me a lot nicer than their Jewish counterparts. Also, there were a lot more of them. Yet I felt deep loyalty to my religious heritage. How could I do something that was bound to undermine it? Was I going to be part of the solution, or part of the problem?
Now, at age 65, I know the answer. I’m part of the problem.
Not because I intermarried; I didn’t. Nor because I “have no religion at all.” Quite the contrary. As I wrote in one of my earliest blog posts, I spend most Saturday afternoons studying the Talmud, which for me is a religious practice. Sunday mornings I go to church.
I identify religiously as a Unitarian Universalist. Not quite consistent with my UU faith, I normally worship on Sundays with a Unity congregation. (“Unity” and Unitarianism are two different things, despite the similar names.) “Cafeteria religion!” some will sneer. To which I answer: I’ve had some of my best meals in cafeterias. But there’s no question my Jewish ancestors would severely disapprove of what I’m doing. I followed the yellow brick road that was my spiritual path—and it didn’t lead me to the synagogue.
I’m sorry, though, to hear these latest tidings of the Pew Research Center. My heritage remains Jewish, and I’ll never cease to be deeply attached to it. It’s comforting to think my tribe—OK, my religious civilization—will go on long after me.
“The days of the life of a man may be numbered,” wrote an ancient Jewish thinker named Yeshua ben Sira, “but the days of Israel are innumerable.” (Wisdom of Ben Sira, 37:25.) That’s the sort of thought that takes the sting out of one’s mortality.
But let’s face facts. Our tribes—our religious civilizations—may measure their lives in centuries or millennia. But they’re no less mortal than we who belong to them. As a college student in the aggressively secular late 1960s, I was persuaded Judaism’s long life was nearing its end. Regrettable, I thought—but inevitable. I expressed this view in a forum at my home town synagogue. One of my elders reminded me that people had been saying much the same thing when he was my age, a generation earlier.
People have been writing Judaism’s obituary for a long time.
Yet the truth remains: men die, women die, religions die. (Remember the hypochondriac’s epitaph? “See, I told you I was sick!”) Maybe this time the handwriting really is on the wall.
Cause for alarm?
By an odd coincidence, Mia Farrow is quoted on the same page of The Week, alongside the can-Judaism-survive article. “Life,” Farrow says, “is about losing everything, gracefully.” Including life itself.
“It’s the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live,” sings Amanda McBroom (and after her Bette Midler). An ancient Jewish thinker of some repute—his name was Yeshua, like the man I quoted earlier—said something along the same lines:
“Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).
It’s a cryptic utterance. The different versions of it in the Gospels tend to confuse rather than clarify its meaning. But I suspect the paraphrase in the “New Living Translation” has the point: “If you cling to your life you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”
Can Judaism survive? Can any of us? Of course not. To perish, to pass into non-existence, isn’t the worst thing, and it’s bound to happen anyway.
The worst thing is, in fretting about survival, to forget to live.
by David Halperin
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