Wednesday, February 01, 2023

The Tragic Trajectory of Heterodox Judaism

It appears I may have been wrong about a 70% intermarriage rate among non Orthodox Jews. According a JTA report it is apparently closer to 75%. 

When one factors in the  statistic that - of the under 2% of the American population is Jewish, 90% are not Orthodox, that makes the number of Jews in America’s future almost infinitesimally small. It is tragic when even one Jew is lost to Judaism. That makes the tragedy of what is happening to American Jewry exponentially more tragic by orders of magnitude.

There are some who might say that not all is lost. This is true. The growth of the 10% of American Jewry that are Orthodox projects a ray of sunshine onto a very dismal future landscape for American Jewry. But that is nothing for Orthodox Jews to gloat about. The loss of so many Jews to Judaism is something to deeply mourn. 

I realize that much of pre holocaust European Jewry were also in the throes of assimilating out of Judaism. But I don’t believe the percentages were anywhere near so high as they are here and now. I believe the current numbers are unprecedented.

The reasons for this are not that difficult to figure out. The more Jews are accepted into an enlightened society, the more they will assimilate into its culture. Although there are many parts of western culture that do not contradict Halacha or our values - in some cases even coinciding with them - there are many parts of western culture that do not. 

When one has no commitment to Halacha - mostly for lack of being Jewishly educated - there is little reason not to fully assimilate. A life free of any obligation is a huge draw to modern man. Freedom to do as one wishes as long as it does not hurt others is the hallmark of an enlightened democracy such as ours. And never before has there been one like ours. 

To a certain extent, this was the case in pre Holocaust Germany where if I understand correctly, the assimilation rate was highest among all European nations. German Jews were fully accepted into German society in all respects. But no where – and at no other time – have Jews been as accepted as we are in America. In my view the75% intermarriage rate in this country seems to bear this out. 

Ironically we are less likely to abandon our Judaism when we are persecuted. I don’t think that can be denied. Obviously, I am not recommending a return to being persecuted as a remedy. 

What about the rise in antisemitism? Shouldn’t that be an indication that we are not fully accepted? Not in my view. Antisemitism exists at the fringes of American society. The increase in open and sometime violent hostilities against us is by a very vocal and very active (lately) but minuscule portion of people in comparison to the overall population. And even though there may be some quiet antisemitism expressed by more of the population, it is more in the form of negative stereotyping than hatred. And even that is by a minority of the American people.

Why is this country different? There are a variety of reasons for that. Mostly having to do with America being created as a liberal democracy where the equality of all people is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and embedded into the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. That facilitates the melting pot assimilationist ethos of our country. 

This of course does not God Forbid mean that we should pray for a return the bad old days of government persecution that was the hallmark of nations like Poland in pre Holocaust Eastern Europe. But it something to think about and should give us pause.  

The question is, what can we do about it? I do not have any great answer to that question. That there are many fine outreach groups and organization does help keep some of that assimilation at bay. But it is a drop in the bucket when measured against the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage overall.

The one thing should not do is start accepting intermarried couples as members in good standing of the Jewish people. That would be a tragic and foolish way to try and keep Jews Jewish.  And certainly there should ordaining rabbis that are intermarried. That might sound like a no brainer. But that is exactly the new policy adopted by the non denominational Hebrew college:

Hebrew College will begin admitting and ordaining rabbinical students in interfaith relationships, according to new admissions standards revealed on Tuesday…

Hebrew College’s decision comes as rabbinical schools compete over a shrinking pool of applicants and after decades of rising rates of intermarriage among American Jews. 

The idea of a Jewish leader whose children will not be Jewish in abut half the cases is ridiculous. This new policy does not even speak about conversions - even according to their own standards. What are they thinking?!

Perhaps they have adopted the same policy of the Reform movement. Which is that having a Jewish mother is not  required in order to be considered a Jew. No formal conversion necessary. That is not in accordance with Halacha.

Also, one has to wonder what living like a Jew even means to a denomination where one can be a Jew in good standing without requiring the performance of a single ritual Mitzvah in the Torah.  

If all they need do is perform the non ritual ones that are common to all of mankind - there is nothing at that will distinguish a Reform Jew from a non Jew. Why even bother identifying as a Jew if there is no practical difference between them? Is it any wonder that Jews who are not at all observant assimilate out or get intermarried?  Why shouldn’t they? 

This ‘solution’ to their dilemma of shrinking enrollment in their rabbinic school would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. 

I have no idea if the Conservative movement will follow suit. But  If I recall correctly, there is already pressure by some of their more liberal clergy to do that. 

What makes this so dangerous is that if they are successful in increasing their numbers that way(as has Reform Judaism) then at some point in the not too distant future is that there may very well be more non Jews identifying as Jews than actual Jews. That would be a far bigger tragedy than simply assimilating out. I can’t think of a Jewish identity mess much bigger than that.