Monday, May 16, 2011

Assimilation - Good or Bad?

This may not be a popular view but I think assimilation is getting a bad rap. While I agree that too much of it can be damaging to one’s Yiddishkeit, I do not give it the blanket condemnation that many religious figures have over the years. As in all things in life, it is about balance. In my view there is such a thing as assimilating too much and not assimilating enough. There is a wide middle ground that should be acceptable to all of us really.

From the beginning of the great migration of Jews from Europe to America at the beginning of the 20th century - all the way up to the mid sixties there was something called the melting pot philosophy. The idea back than was that there was an identity called ‘American’ and that sameness was the goal. All immigrants chased that dream. This meant leaving all the European culture behind in the country of origin and adopting fully American culture in all of its manifestations.

That meant learning the English language to the point of losing any foreign accent - and adopting American all cultural values. The goal was to look the same and to live our lives the same way. Leaving behind one’s culture in those days meant leaving religious observance behind as well. Working on Shabbos was not only common, it was almost mandatory. It was almost impossible to find and keep a job if one was a Shomer Shabbos.

Many Jews succumbed to the times and worked on Shabbos. The parents nevertheless felt guilty about it and tried to maintain as much of their Yiddshkeit as they could, One would see people going to shul early in the morning on Shabbos and then go to their jobs. Children of that era were swept up in the American dream and could not run fast enough from their Yiddishkeit. They wanted to be Americans and live the American dream. For many it meant adopting all that was American and dropping all that was Jewish. They wanted to become completely assimilated into the big melting pot.

Those who had the courage to remain Frum were few and had a huge hurdle to overcome, Not working on Shabbos often meant they could not retain their jobs. And it meant infusing in their children an appreciation for who they were and not abandoning their Judaism in their quest for the American dream. Overcoming the melting pot spirit of the time was pretty hard. It was an uphill battle even for them, But at least they had a chance. They saw their parents fight for Yiddishkeit. But there was no private Jewish education then and an uphill battle which was not always successful.

The pull and danger of assimilation was truly something to fear – and fight if one wanted to remain an observant Jew.

Today, we are beneficiaries of the cultural revolution of the sixties. I have been very critical of the near abandonment of sexual mores that the sixties has wrought upon us. But the sixties also brought something very positive. They brought about ethnic pride.

The melting pot philosophy was turned on its head. Cookie cutter sameness was no longer fashionable. Distinctiveness was. Pride in one’s heritage was. That made it a lot easier to be Orthodox. Just as we can blame much of the decline of American sexual mores on the sixties we can thank that decade for breaking the mold of the melting pot. The civil rights movement gave black people pride in their own culture and heritage and that spilled over into the Jewish world as well. Pride in one’s culture and heritage was not limited to black people. Many secular Jews started exploring their roots and choosing observance in many cases.

And after the 6 day war this phenomenon was accelerated. There was an explosion of interest by children of the very parents who could not run far and fast enough from their Judaism. Thus was born the Kiruv movement. More Jews were ‘coming home’ than at any other time in the history of the Jewish people in America.

As an aside, I so miss the days where virtually all Jews were filled with pride at what Israel accomplished then. There was no dissent; no such thing as a Palestinian. Just pure unadulterated pride by all Jews (and indeed all Americans including an admiring American military) at defeating so quickly and decisively those who promised to drive us into the sea. But I digress.

The point here is that Jews no longer need to be ashamed of being a Jew. The cultural shift was unprecedented then and continues today. We now live at a time when being a religious Jew is easy! Anti Semitism is virtually non existent. Orthodox Jews can be found in the highest echelons of government.

What does assimilation mean for Jews today? In my view the legitimate fears of the past still exist. We must take care that assimilation does not cause any of us to lose one iota of our Judaism. But that does not mean we must have a phobia against it. There is nothing wrong with assimilating those values that are in concert with our own. There is no need to put up walls to any and everything that is American. We can for example enjoy a baseball or basketball game and be a fan of the hometown team without sacrificing one iota of our religion. Go Bulls.

We can enjoy the culture and become a part of it without violating Halacha. Indeed it can even enhance our Judaism in some cases. There is no need to be a L’Hachisnik in order to fight the negative aspects of assimilation. We just need to be discriminating in what is appropriate and what is not. And vigilant in determining and rejecting that part of the culture that is harmful to us. We can be proud Americans and remain even prouder Jews.

There are segments among our people that go to great lengths to reject any and all things American and go to great lengths to be different. They fear assimilation at any level is a dangerous game to play and that whatever is outside our own culture is to be eschewed. They want to be as different as they can be from the rest of society in their striving to live a holy life. I have no issue with those who choose that path.

But it need not be the path for all of us. We can strive to be holy and be a part of this great country assimilating to the extent that Halacha allows. And achieve great heights in both the Jewish world and the secular one.

I am not a Hirschean. But as I understand Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s philosophy, his vision too was to embrace that part of the culture that is permissible to us. He felt as comfortable quoting Goethe as he did Chazal. He actually saw some of secular culture as enhancing our Judaism. I think we can learn a lot from him.