Identity politics, an American-Jewish response

Having resisted bloodthirsty terrorists of the past and of today, the secret of Jewish identity strength is to embrace the holy, towering heritage that has enabled to survive.

January 14, 2019 22:41
2 minute read.
American Hassidic Jews at a funeral [illustrative]

American Hassidic Jews 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)


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Jews have fared poorly both in societies committed to the leveling uniformity of the Left, or the anchored elitism of the Right. By contrast, they have thrived in the meritocracy of America’s open society. But these achievements and the accompanying social acceptance have come at a high cost to Jewish identity survival. The threat to Jewish continuity does not stem from outside violent antisemitism, such as occurred recently in the Pittsburgh terrorist attack, but from a spiraling assimilation from within.

Responding to America’s tolerant comfort zone, the American Jewish population is in a state of serious decline. Some 70% of Jews intermarry, many synagogues of the non-Orthodox variety are closing down or merging, as happened in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation, the scene of the mass shooting. Having outlasted nations and civilizations such as Egypt, Babylon, Rome and Nazi Germany, which enslaved, oppressed and annihilated Jews, the lulling of 21st century American Jewry by secularism and relativism into a steady spiritual oblivion marks a staggering betrayal of those Jews who through the centuries knowingly perished in the name of the faith.

How to assure American Jewish identity? In a culture based on choice rather than coercion, for a demographically minority religion to survive, its adherents must see membership as requiring something more than half-hearted affiliation, or eating an occasional ethnic dish.

The first imperative is education – meaning, for the young, an arrangement for religious schooling. The more time spent in religious study, the more likely that this student’s exposure to texts and the Jewish story in history will lead to identity commitment as an adult. For the Jewish adult seeking more education, the Internet features hundreds of thousands of classes, lectures, interactive tutorials. Though the Torah can be taught in any language, Hebrew lends authenticity and historic depth.

In order not to be overwhelmed, new adult students might follow a structured day-by-day format – beginners studying a daily chapter from the Bible and more advanced learners, a daily page of Talmud, until the work’s seven-and-a-half-year cycle is completed.

The second step of this identity journey requires more religious observance, meaning a commitment to following God’s word as spelled out in the Torah and interpreted through the generations by rabbinic leaders. Observance does not mean platitudinous prayers. Rather, observance stands for two qualities: 1) Rituals, such as reciting one hundred blessings a day, or refraining from work on the Sabbath, designed to acknowledge God as both Creator and Ruler of the world; 2) Jewish observance tries to develop a moral personality, a spiritual force at variance with inherent human selfishness, materialism and physicality. Core values stressed by Judaism include such things as modesty, hopefulness, charity, forgiveness, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, pursuing peace. When God sees His creations striving to grow in this spiritual realm, He glories in having created man.

Having resisted bloodthirsty terrorists of the past and of today, the secret of Jewish identity strength is to embrace the holy, towering heritage that has enabled them not only to survive, but to enrich mankind.

The writer is a professor emeritus of Political Science at CUNY.

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