“Are American Jews Disappearing?” is the lead article in a recent issue of the magazine New York. One could readily substitute “French” or “English” Jews in the title, for assimilation and intermarriage are widespread throughout the Diaspora. Prominent Jews were interviewed, but none seems to have explored the basic causes of Jewish assimilation in America.
Inasmuch as assimilation is most rampant among college graduates, the first basic cause should be obvious, namely, the doctrine of cultural relativism that has long dominated American education. Students immersed in the social sciences or in the humanities are taught that religion is not a matter of objective truth but of cultural conditioning or of personal preference. It follows that Judaism is no more valid than any another religion. Hence why be Jewish? Incidentally, those who preach religious “pluralism” are tainted by relativism, to which extent they have no rational grounds for preferring monotheism to polytheism.
The second basic cause of assimilation and intermarriage in the Diaspora is more subtle. Few Jews realize that Judaism in the Diaspora is a “religion” in contradistinction to a “nationality.” This historically conditioned dichotomy, which is rooted in Christianity, profoundly divides and enfeebles the Jewish People. Indeed, this dichotomy affects even religious Jews, though of course not nearly as much as secularists. Hence it will also be found in Israel, especially among Left-wing politicians and intellectuals. Here a brief digression is in order.
Like nineteenth-century Reform Jews, and like Arabs today, Israelis such as Shimon Peres identify Judaism as a religion, not as a nationality. His colleague Dr. Yossi Beilin even denies the existence of a Jewish People. Meanwhile, certain Orthodox Jews in Israel deplore Zionism or Jewish nationalism.
But we were speaking of the disappearing American Jew. So long as American Jews have no sense of Jewish nationality, hence no sense of Jewish national pride and destiny, they are all the more likely to intermarry and “disappear.” Even Orthodox Jews assimilate to the extent that Israel is not at the center of their consciousness.
Consider. The vast majority of those who make aliya from the West to Israel are religious. Many if not most find their religiosity in the Diaspora inadequate: They want to live in or raise their family in a “Jewish State.” Although most come to realize that Israel is not an authentic Jewish State, their sense of Jewish nationality in Israel is certainly more vivid than that of Jews in the Galut.
What did the Jewish Sages mean when they said that to live in the Galut is to worship false gods? Does this apply to young men immersed in some American yeshiva twelve hours a day? How do such students differ from their equally studious Torah counterparts in Jerusalem? I think a major difference is that the commonplace experiences of Jews in America, unlike the commonplace experiences of Jews in Jerusalem, are less likely to be related to the history and future of the Jewish People. Which is almost to say that one is more likely to think of G-d and of G-d’s ways in Jerusalem than in America.
We may arrive at this conclusion another way. There are relatively few Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel. One reason for this is that diluted Judaism has little relevance, and has no future, in the Middle East, where the very existence and meaning of Israel is at stake. That’s why hundreds of thousands of Israelis are becoming Orthodox. They want wholehearted and truth-bearing Torah Judaism, not the anemic Judaism or indifference to truth that poses as “pluralism.” Hence they want to overcome the nineteenth-century dichotomy of religion and nationality which secular Zionists inherited from Christianity. Stated another way: These Jews want particularism as well as universalism—which is what authentic Judaism is all about.
Jewish studies programs at American universities may bring a few Jews back to Torah, but Jewish particularism is more likely to be undermined by the relativism and vacuous internationalism prevailing on American campuses. Nor is this all.
The inevitable absence of Jewish nationalism in the Diaspora is bound to make most American Jews more self-centered, hence more prone to assimilation. Even American yeshiva students cannot be insulated from the larger society, hence from America’s preoccupation with self-indulgence. All of us are social beings. We are more or less influenced by what others around us say and like and do.
Let us be candid: Although Jewish outreach programs are important, the most effective cure for assimilation is aliya. Accordingly, such programs should clarify and seek to overcome the (false) dichotomy of Judaism as a religion and Judaism as a nationality. This requires elucidation of the Torah as the paradigm of knowledge and of how man should live. A step in this direction will be found in my recent book Judaic Man, which reveals Judaism not as a religion so much as an all-comprehensive civilization.
One last word. American Jews are part of a multicultural or pluralistic society which, by definition, lacks a strong sense of national consciousness. Pluralism allows Jews to prosper in America. At the same time, however, pluralism fosters Jewish assimilation on the one hand, and diminishes the sense of Jewish nationality on the other. That’s why so many American Jews are not interested in Israel.
But the desire for nationhood is primordial. This being so, the solution to assimilation in the Diaspora resides in Israel. Jews will cease to disappear from Judaism in proportion to Israel’s becoming an authentic Jewish state. This will require political leaders whose pronouncements and policies are conceptually linked to the Jewish heritage and are recognized as such by the ordinary citizen.