What Connects Us To One Another?

For Jews, Not Who We Are But What We Do

By Leonard Fein

Published November 13, 2012.
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I have been thinking about the Jews — not as voters, mind you, but as a people. And the obvious question that arises is what makes of this mixed multitude a whole, a people. What is it that connects us to one another?

The traditional answers of organized American Jewry are barely adequate today, and they are likely to diminish in their appeal tomorrow. Those answers focus on our activity on behalf of Israel and our concern with antisemitism. But as being “pro-Israel” is generally defined, it reduces to check-writing and petition-signing; however worthy, even urgent, such activities may be, a Judaism of consent wants to be something more than a political action committee or a lobby. And as to antisemitism, it is simply not enough to shout “Never again!” and let Judaism go at that; “never again” tells us what to avoid, but says nothing about what we are to embrace.

Religion? A Gallup poll shows that 53 percent of America’s Jews regard religion as “not very important,” while only 30 percent hold that it is “very important.” (The comparable figures for the general American public are 14 percent and 55 percent.) The only religious principle that unites American Jews is that if there is One, there is only one, not three. But the emphasis is on the “if.” Beyond that, those Jews who claim to believe tend to believe in a God who bears only a vague resemblance to the God of Jewish history and tradition. (It is a measure of our religious confusion and distress that so many religiously indifferent Jews are prepared to accept the claim of the Orthodox to superior religious authenticity. We continue to behave as if in matters religious, more is better, hence most is best; accordingly, the Hasidism are the bearers of the true tradition. Regarding them as most authentic rather than as merely most photogenic, we feel ourselves inauthentic – and, for the most part, instead of struggling towards our own authenticity, we abandon the quest.

The pursuit of justice? Back in the 1950s, when Marshall Sklare and Joseph Greenblum did their study of “Lakeville” (a pseudonym for Highland Park), they found that most Jews placed a far higher value on devotion to “all humanitarian causes” than to either Jewish ritual or Jewish belief. A “good Jew,” 93 percent of them said, was one who leads “an ethical and moral life.” But if that’s the gist of it, then what do you say to the kids when they observe that you don’t have to be Jewish to be ethical? (I call this “the Ethical Culture Question,” and it is almost invariably the very first question I am asked when I conclude a speech in which I urge Jews to get on with the pursuit of justice.)

And then there’s the disconcerting fact that this isn’t the 1950’s; in 2012, even if we define ourselves as a fellowship in justice, or ethics, our actions appear to have only a casual relationship to our definition of ourselves, to our singular understanding of our identity.

Community? Some people contend that a voluntary group doesn’t need an ideology; it’s enough that it offers its members consolation, a dependable oasis of support in a world amok. And there’s surely some truth to the argument: A Judaism of manifestos and marches alone can’t make it; alongside belief, there’s simple kinship, the special warmth of those who share a language, a past, some holidays and some responsibilities, perhaps also a destiny.

But if the past is unknown, the language unspoken, the destiny optional, the responsibilities avoidable, then the community of kinship is attenuated. More important, it is a community, if at all, selected rather than inherited; in that sense, it is an artificial construct rather than an organic product of human (subspecies: Jewish) nature. It may — it must, if it is to survive — offer its adherents nurture, but that is only a necessary condition. It is not yet sufficient because those who choose to be Jews are, indeed, “adherents,” Jews by choice.

That is the sea-change in the American Jewish condition. Two hundred years after the Emancipation, Judaism has finally become, in fact as well as in theory, an option. We now and truly enter the age of Judaism-by-consent. And the question therefore becomes: To what is it we have consented when we have said, “I do”?

At the synagogue where I most enjoy the Friday evening service, B’nai Jeshurun in New York, the traditional Kadish prayer has one small but uplifting amendment: Instead of chanting only “He will bestow peace on us,” it adds “and on all the inhabitants of the world.” That, in all its manifestations, is a place to start defining what “I do” can mean.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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