Wednesday, February 22, 2023

A Heterodox Rabbi’s Lament

Founding Dean of Hebrew College Rabbinical school, Arthur Green (Wikipedia)
A few weeks ago, I once again lamented the fact American Jewry is quickly heading for extinction. At least as far as non Orthodox American Jewry goes. What generated that particular lament was an article that reported a 75% rate of intermarriage. Increased from the 70% reported by Pew Research a few short years ago. 

While that figure is astonishing, it isn’t as though the handwriting wasn’t on the wall. Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention would realize that to most American Jews the value of being Jewish hardly exists anymore. That is the sense I have gotten over the years from younger non Orthodox Jews I have met. Most of them feel that what is important is being a good person. Being a good Jew has no meaning whatsoever. It might even have negative connotations to some. Why identify as member of a centuries long persecuted minority if you don’t have to? 

made these observations in the context of a decision by Boston’s Hebrew College to accept intermarried candidates for their rabbinic ordination program. Hebrew college is a pluralistic non denominational school whose stated mission is to prepare Jewish leaders for the 21st century.  If that doesn’t speak volumes about the imminent demise of American Jewry, nothing does.

I suppose that this is a kind of ‘If you can’t lick em – join em’ approach. They are in essence acknowledging the 75% intermarriage rate as a fait accompli. As a consequence they believe that intermarried rabbis can by example attract intermarried couples to their synagogues. 

If this wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny. A couple retaining their Judaism requires being Jewish in the first place. Joining a synagogue does not do that for them. By definition at least one spouse in an intermarriage isn’t Jewish. And if it the woman, then none of the children will be Jewish at all. 

This will only make matters worse. They will be encouraging non Jews to be Jews even without conversion. American Jewry will not only continue to disappear, it will be almost impossible to to  whether an individual identifying as Jewish - actually is! A non Jew that identifies as a Jew without conversion is not Jewish at all, even if they are fully observant..

I suppose the current leadership of Hebrew College would strongly disagree. But its recently retired founding dean, Arthur Green, I think, would not. Here is large part is some of what he said in a Times of Israel article: 

A few weeks ago, Hebrew College in Boston (from which I am recently retired) made it known that it would no longer consider marriage to a non-Jewish spouse an impediment to admission or ordination in its rabbinical program… 

(Meanwhile) Jews of means seem much more interested in seeing their names on endowed chairs in Jewish Studies (and other fields) at secular universities than in caring for institutions vital for the Jewish continuity to which they pay lip service. Academics in the Jewish Studies field teaching in universities, members of the Association for Jewish Studies, have made it very clear that they do not see building the Jewish future or strengthening Jewish identity as part of their professional roles… 

The decreasing pool (of students)… now sixth or seventh generation since their ancestors’ immigration to the United States, are fully American in every way. That includes the liberal American preference for asserting freedoms and rights over obligations and commitments… 

Everybody should have a right to everything; nothing should stand in their way. It thus becomes morally offensive for a rabbinical program to demand that its ordainees marry Jews or live in an exclusively Jewish household… 

Today’s decreasing synagogue membership is associated in the eyes of the community with diminished interest in both Judaism and Jewry – in other words, with the ongoing process of assimilation… 

As any rabbi of a liberal congregation will tell you, Jews by Choice are often among the most serious and committed members of the community. Many of these do convert in the context of choosing a marriage partner, but then go on to very deep and sincere commitments to Jewish practice and learning. What will it mean to the future of conversion if the rabbi offering the class is him/herself intermarried? This very important channel for Jewish intensification is likely to be weakened. Why bother to convert if the rabbi’s spouse didn’t? 

From a historical perspective, each of these decisions will be seen as a further surrendering to the process of assimilation, another reducing of the standards of Jewish difference from the general American population. As an ethno/religious minority living in a melting-pot society, Jews have done remarkably well in maintaining their identity. Other once-distinctive mostly white-skinned communities (race defines everything in the United States) have looked upon us with envy. But bit by bit, the erosion in the non-Orthodox majority increases… 

Unfortunately, I have to fully agree with this analysis. I have made many of these same arguments myself. Only to be disputed by those who are in denial about the future demise of non Orthodox American Jewry.  

His article ends on a somewhat optimistic note by asking whether and how this trajectory can be reversed? 

Sadly, I am not so optimistic. I don’t think there is a ‘whether’. The proverbial ‘horse is out of the barn’ and galloping faster than ever. The flow out - is practically written in stone. A few generations from now, I’m not sure how many people who are not Orthodox will identify as Jewish – if any. And even some will identify that way, it will be almost impossible to know if they actually are Jewish.

As I always say, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and find ‘how’. We should do whatever is possible to reverse that trend. As I’ve said many times there are a lot of excellent outreach organizations doing good work. But as I’ve also said, changing the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Jews that are so removed from their heritage that they are marrying out - is a virtual impossibility. And those that are successfully reached out to - tend to become Orthodox themselves.

Although it is nice to know that I am not alone in thinking these thoughts - and that is by some of heterodoxy’s brighter lights, it gives me no comfort at all.