Why should American Jews bother to be Jewish? According to a new Pew Research
Center survey of the American Jewish community, more and more American Jews have
reached the conclusion that there is no reason to be Jewish.
the Orthodox Jewish community, intermarriage rates have reached 71 percent.
Thirty-two percent of Jews born since 1980 and 22% of Jews overall do not
describe themselves as Jews by religion. They base their Jewish identity on
ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
Whereas 73% of Jews say that remembering
the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish, only 19% said that observing
Jewish law is a vital aspect of Jewish identity. Fourteen percent say eating
Jewish foods is indispensable for their Jewish identity. Forty-two percent say
that having a sense of humor is a critical part of being a Jew.
Roth, an intermarried Jewish author, welcomes these numbers. In a column in
Slate, Roth claimed that the reason most cultural Jews keep traditions of any
kind is a sense of guilt toward their parents and previous generations of Jews.
He believes that it’s time to get over the guilt. Keeping such traditions has
“no intrinsic meaning.”
“How much value can ‘Jewish heritage’ have if it
signifies nothing beyond its own perpetuation?” he asked
Obviously, the answer is no value. To do something you feel
is intrinsically meaningless just because your forefathers did the same
meaningless thing is a waste of time. If Judaism has nothing to offer beyond lox
and Seinfeld, then there is no reason to remain Jewish.
The findings of
the Pew survey, and indeed, sentiments like those that Roth described are no
surprise to those who have been following the downward trajectory of the
American Jewish community.
Numerous initiatives have been adopted over
the past decade or so to try to reverse the trend toward assimilation and loss
of Jewish identity. These initiatives, including websites like JDate that help
Jewish singles find and marry one another, and Birthright, which has brought
tens of thousands of young, largely unaffiliated Jews to Israel, have had a
positive impact in slowing down the trend. But the move away from Judaism for
non-Orthodox American Jews remains seemingly inexorable.
“We have tried a
lot of different things and created a lot of wonderful programs,” explains
political theorist Yoram Hazony, the founder of the Shalem Center and author of
The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, published last year.
Hazony, who now
heads the Herzl Institute, continues, “We’ve tried everything other than the
central thing. Jews need to understand that there is an attractive and
compelling idea that makes it valuable to be Jews.”
That idea, as Hazony
explained in his recent book, is found first and foremost in the
Roth wrote, “If you believe that Jewish traditions are part of a
covenant with God, of course you want your children to continue
Yes, of course. But if you think that Judaism can be summed up so
glibly, then you have no idea what it is that you are abandoning.
So in a
sense, you are abandoning nothing. Because you cannot abandon what you never had
in the first place.
And what Jews like Roth never had is basic Jewish
Hazony’s excellent book explains in easy, approachable language
that the wisdom and philosophy imparted by the Hebrew Bible was purposely denied
by the anti-Semitic philosophers of the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, Friedrich
Hegel and other leading philosophers of the Enlightenment were vicious Jew
haters. They sought to cleanse modern philosophy of all references to the Bible
in a bid to write Jews and Judaism out of the history of ideas and the
contemporary intellectual world.
This they accomplished by subsuming the
Hebrew scriptures (like the New Testament) under a broader criticism of “work of
revelation.” As a revealed text, (a divine covenant ordered by a deity with
which none of us have direct dealings), the Hebrew scripture was then
misrepresented as something that has no relevance for people trying to determine
for themselves what it means to live a good, moral and just life. Those
concepts, we were told, could only be learned from Greek philosophers, who, in
turn, were falsely characterized as atheists.
Hazony does not simply
expose the philosophical crime against the Jews undertaken by the Enlightenment
philosophers. He demonstrates why the ideas found in the Bible are deeply
relevant and important to our lives, and indeed, how they form the basis for
man’s quest to live a good, moral life.
“The Jewish idea is in the
Tanach, the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries on the Tanach,” he
“To the extent we care and see something worthwhile in these
ideas then everything falls into place. When you take it all out, everything
turns into a bagel – it all tastes good but there’s a big hole in the center
where the idea is supposed to be.
“The Jews were the people who brought
the idea that an individual was responsible for discovering truth and right and
for bringing it into the world.
That is the idea that freed
That is the biblical idea. The Bible is about the expectation
that a human being is going to take responsibility for discovering the truth and
what’s right and devote his or her life to bringing what is right to the
“The fact that most Jews no longer study it, no longer remember
it, means they stopped being part of the historic Jewish drama. It is being part
of that great drama that makes people care whether their children receive a
Jewish education and marry Jews, and that makes them support Israel. Without the
great drama that we learn from the Bible, then Israel becomes meaningless and
intermarriage becomes obvious,” Hazony concludes.
Orthodox Jews feel that
the Holocaust is less essential to their Jewish identity than Conservative and
Reform Jews, (66% of Orthodox, versus 78% and 77% of Conservative and Reform
Jews, respectively). On the other hand, 69% of Orthodox Jews believe that being
part of a Jewish community is essential to their Judaism. Just 40% and 25% of
Conservative and Reform Jews, respectively, feel this way. And this makes
The Holocaust was the most recent attempt of an oppressor to
annihilate the Jews. In the 4,000-year history of the Jewish people, there have
been dozens of attempts to annihilate us. The Jewish story is the story not of
others’ attempts to destroy us, nor even of our capacity to withstand and
survive these attempts. The Jewish story is the story of the lives we lived, the
culture we developed, and the life of the mind that bound us
Jews who have learned the Bible know their history did not
start in 1933. They know that the Jewish story is the story of a people that
believes so strongly in its mission to bring the liberating idea of personal
responsibility to choose good and life over evil and death that it refused to
surrender to its oppressors.
The Jewish drama, as set out in the Bible,
is the story of a nation that from the outset and until the present day chooses
freedom over submission, while maintaining allegiance to a sacred trust, and an
ancient people and a promised land.
When you understand this, remaining
Jewish is a privilege, not a sacrifice.
And, alas, when you fail to
understand this, leaving Judaism not a tragedy but simply a natural