Friday, October 25, 2013

Are America's Jews still Jewish?

OK, I admit, that title was a wee bit provocative. Not nice of me.

On the other hand, given the story of my family, which isn't new, and the PEW survey of American Jews, which was published earlier this month, along with a slowly-broadening fissure opening between the world's largest Jewish community and the second largest, I think it needs to be asked.

My family's story isn't important, were it not for the fact that I've been watching it happen all my life, and I've always assumed that it was typical. My great-grandparents moved to the Goldene Medina in the first years of the 20th century, as is true about most of America's Jews. I no longer have contact with quite a number of my cousins, especially the 2nd and 3rd ones, but so far as a I know, a clear majority of them are no longer Jews. Some are quite open about this (the Pew survey found more than a million descendants of Jews who define themselves as not Jewish); others are too lazy about the issue to make any declarations.

The Pew survey has been dissected, discussed, and dismissed with much fanfare since its publication; it has also caused much dismay. It's also more than 200 pages long, so many of the people who've been discussing it avidly may not have read it all. (I skipped the almost 100 pages that focused on methodology). You don't need me to analyze what's in it; indeed, all I'm going to offer is a very small nutshell. In one brief sentence: America's Jews are disappearing, but until they do, they mostly feel good about being Jews.

Not all of them, and not equally, of course. The 10% who are Haredi, and the 5% who are Modern Orthodox, are mostly flourishing. This wasn't always so, of course, and traditional Jews who moved to America usually lost some or all of their commitment to a halachic lifestyle, but those who held onto it now live in a strong community with little attrition.

All the rest, however, are losing numbers and losing commitment. Households with two committed Jews are losing less than households who aren't like that - but a large and growing number aren't like that. Back in the early 1970s there was a spate of articles in Israeli newspapers, I remember, about how intermarriage in America was going to result in the disappearance of America's Jews. This then didn't transpire, and the Israeli smugness abated - except that it has happened, and is happening, and while it's taking longer than the Israelis expected, it looks inexorable.

Yet the survey also shows that large numbers, and clear majorities, of America's Jews are proud to be Jews. How then to resolve those two characteristics?

The answer, I fear, is in that well-worn issue of what being Jewish means. Is what America's Jews are proud of, really Judaism?

Jewish identity was not complicated since before the Common Era all the way up until the beginning of the 19th century. For the past 200 years however, it has become very complicated indeed. I'm not going to offer a magic bullet to make that complexity go away. Are Jews the people who believe in a certain set of beliefs? Well, sort of, but not really, so no. Are they the people who live according to halachic precepts? Of course not, except when they do. Are they an ethnic group? Walk down the streets of Jerusalem and you'll be hard-put to say what a Jew is supposed to look like. (I remember the exciting moment some 20 years ago when I saw, for the first time, a Jew who really looked exactly what the anti-semitic caricatures said we're all supposed to resemble. I haven't seen him since, however).

Having said all that, there are things that can be said about what being Jewish is, and to ask if most of America's Jews share those characteristics to a significant extent.

The first, sadly, is that often being a Jew was something you were willing to die for. Not eager to die for, or course, but committed to the Jewish way of life to the extent that you'd not abandon it no matter what, come hell or high water or rampaging pogromists or devious designers of laws against Jews. Or suicide bombers on buses or in supermarkets. Like it or not, today's Jews are essentially all descended from forebears who responded to the willing-to-die question in the affirmative. Most of them weren't called upon to make the personal choice, but it was often there, in the near or distant background, and they, their grandchildren and their 10th and 20th generation descendants all answered in the affirmative. Those of their descendant who didn't may still carry the odd gene inherited from them but they're long since not Jewish.

The PEW researchers didn't ask their respondents if they're willing to die for being Jewish, but the answer is clear; they're not willing to make some considerably lesser requirements of themselves and their children.

The second, of course, is the matter of religious lifestyle. I'm carefully staying away from the question of religious belief, because dogma and theology have usually played only a minor role in Judaism. The Protestant concept of belief as an indicator of belonging is rare in Judaism, which means that even if some American Jews believe in a set of Jewish beliefs, if they're not committed to a recognizable way of Jewish life, it's not clear what help the belief is. What has always been important is a Jewish way of life. Since we're way beyond the days when this had to mean a halachic lifestyle it's harder to define, but it still has to be there.

Israelis have a Jewish lifestyle of a sorts by definition: they live in Hebrew, according to the Hebrew calender, in a society which understands itself as having important Jewish elements. Do America's Jews have a parallel phenomenon?

Not that I could find in the survey. In what was to me probably the single saddest finding of the survey, page 55 tells of what American Jews think is essential to their being Jewish. The totals are as follows:
Remembering the Holocaust - 73%
Leading an ethical and moral life - 69%
Working for Justice/equality - 56%
Being intellectually curious - 49%
Caring for Israel - 43%
Having a good sense of humor - 42%
Being part of a Jewish community - 28%
Observing Jewish law - 19%
Eating traditional Jewish foods - 14%.

Of course, there's not a single one of those qualities which contradicts being Jewish. Indeed, it would be fine if all Jews shared them all, so that the response would have been 100% down the whole line (assuming there are any consensual Jewish foods, which I doubt there are). But are these the essentials to being Jewish? The Holocaust happened 70 years ago, which means that for the first 30-plus centuries of Jewish history that element was absent.  The ethical and justice stuff reminds me of the time a German friend told me how proud he was of his Christian values, and I pointedly asked if there were any of them I couldn't also claim, without being a Christian. Intellectual curiosity and a sense of humor? As defining characteristics of Jewishness? Really? Isn't this a bit parochial and arrogant at the same time?

Which leaves us with belonging to a Jewish community, which the section of the survey which deals with the demographics informs us is weak and weakening, and the matter of Jewish law, which leaves no room for a secular form of Judaism.

I was astonished - or at least, I should have been, were I not such a pessimist - that Jewish learning didn't even appear as an option. In about two weeks I should finish my first cycle of Daf Yomi, which means I will have spent about 45 minutes a day racing over a blatt (double page) of the Talmud, every single day. Now, after 7 1/2 years (from summer of 2006 onwards), I am finally about to be able to say I've looked at every single page of the Talmud. Do I know the Talmud? Of course not. Not remotely. But at least I've acquired an idea about what's in it and have a somewhat better conception of what a Jewish scholar, a Talmid Hacham, spends his life at. The fact that a survey of American Jewry didn't notice that being an educated Jew might be an essential element of Jewish identity, at least for a minority, or at least as an ideal most people don't live up to, is devastating. At least it is to me. There was probably never a generation of Jews with a majority of scholars; but to the best of my knowledge all Jewish generations venerated learning of the Jewish canon.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Jews have been a diverse bunch for a very long time. Yet in their diversity, there has always been among them a core of people who were committed to their Judaism at almost any cost, which gave them a staying power unique in the annals of Man, and thereby an unparalleled cultural longevity; and they have always shared a common ground, be it religious or linguistic or social, which formed a bond of commonality. When the first  Ashkenazi disciples of the Vilna Gaon's reach Jerusalem 200 years ago and found only Sephardi shuls, they deliberated joining the Sephardis or holding out for a minyan of their own. How many secular Israeli Jews would recognize many American Jewish synagogues? This would matter less if America's Jews were creating a viable and recognizably Jewish form of life. But are they? In what way?

So tell me where I'm wrong. So far as I can tell, the 22nd century will see a vibrant and diverse Jewish center in Israel, with small satelite communities in many places in the world, including in America. I appologize for being an arrogant Israeli.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Shalom Chaver: Farewell, Norm.

Norman Geras died yesterday. I never met him personally. We met through the blogosphere, where we linked to each other from time to time, and e-mailled back and forth when we wished to speak directly. His blog, Normblog, was a fount of erudite common sense; he was especially good when he clearly dissected the silliness of public discourse.

His final post, earlier this month, contained a list of books he had read and recommended. As a tribute to him, people might like to choose one of the titles they've never read, and read it. I certainly will try to.

Rest in peace, friend.

Baruch dayan emet.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Aharon Karov, Marathon Man

Back in January 2009, when this blog was still active, I began following the story of Aharon Karov, a young infantry lieutenant who was called to his unit less than 12 hours after his wedding and sent to battle in Gaza, where he was critically wounded. At the time the doctors didn't expect him to live. (My previous post on him, with links to all the previous ones, is here).

Today's edition of Makor Rishon (Hebrew, not online), tells that he and his wife Zvia now have two children, a 3-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, that he's studying at university, and that he's flying to New York this week to run in the upcoming New York Marathon.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Rav Ovadia as he meant to be

The Rav Ovadia is likely to prove the single person world-wide who dies in 2013, and whose works will still be read in 2113, 2213, and 2513. That's what happens with important Jewish scholars.

On September 3rd 2010 I posted on the Rav Ovadia. I'm putting it up again, in his honor, and also as food for thought for the multitudes of people who disliked him without ever taking the time to understand his world:

Rav Ovadia Yosef has done it again. During his televised Saturday night talk he called for the death of Mahmoud Abbas and "these Palestinians". Saeb Erekat denounced him for preaching genocide, the State Department chided, media outlets pontificated, and in Israel, where at least some people might have been expected to know better, public figures piled onto each other in their haste to condemn.
It seems, after all, a serious matter. Rav Yosef, who just turned 90, is the greatest living Sephardi rabbi, and arguably the most important halachic scholar of our day. One in eight Jewish Israelis vote for the Shas party he founded in the 1980s, and more hold him in highest esteem. Prime ministers and opposition leaders alike visit him to explain matters of state in the hope of gaining his support. He's important. And complex.
Along with his unfortunate penchant for expressing himself in earthy bluntness, Rav Yosef has been a revolutionary force for modernizing halachic thought and integrating it into modernity. Again and again he has courageously formulated rulings that contradicted those of all his peers. He found a way to permit and encourage organ transplants; he permitted artificial inseminations; in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War he swiftly freed almost a thousand women from Aginut, and the list goes on. Most famously, in the late 1980s he was the first important orthodox rabbi to announce that peace with the Palestinians is preferable to continued control of the West Bank.
How then to explain this week's outburst, let alone excuse it? By listening to him in his natural context.
The Rav Yosef doesn't use the Internet, has never encountered a blog, is unlikely ever to have read Haaretz and certainly doesn't follow the New York Times. He doesn't watch television, though his weekly talk is broadcasted live. Lesser men have invested decades in migrating the compendia of all halachic literature into a digital database, Bar Ilan University's Responsa Project; for a long time Rav Yosef didn't even know this was happening, nor did he care. He has read those tens of thousands of books, and knows what's in them. His world is about Jewish learning, Jewish belief, Jewish thought, imagery, and language. It is extraordinarily rich, but overlaps only partially with the secular world, and hardly at all with the world of international diplomacy or media. Had one asked him for the date of his inflammatory speech he'd have answered that it was the 19th of Elul, not the 29th of August.
Elul is a distinctive month. For orthodox Sephardi men, it can't be overlooked, as they rise daily at 3am to chant slichot, the mediaeval supplications for mercy. Since Rav Ovadia's words and their meaning come straight from the slichot, any attempt to evaluate what he was saying and what his audience heard ought to notice them.
Common wisdom tells that the high holidays are about personal reflection, balance taking, resolutions to improve and divine absolution. Indeed they are – partially. They are also about communal behavior, national survival, and God's obligation to protect his people and avenge them. The theme of the seven weeks between the beginning of Elul and the end of the high holidays is that we're unworthy sinners pleading for God's forgiveness, but also that we're miserable and down-trodden and may he raise us for the glory of his name. That second theme has a clear subtext, that we suffer for our adherence to him and therefore are worthy of his protection.
There are numerous examples; here are two. The Ata rav slichot (Thou art benevolent) supplication says
Terrified by their travails
By their revilers and persecutors
Please don't abandon them oh God of their fathers…
Deliver them in sight of everyone
Let the evil ones no longer rule over them
Or the Ase Lema'an (Do it for their sake) verse, repeated every day: Do it for Your Truth, do it for Your greatness, do it for Your name, do it for Your kingdom… do it for Abraham Isaac and Jacob, do it for David and Solomon, do it for Jerusalem… do it for the martyred for Your Oneness, do it for the massacred for Your name, do it for those burned and drowned sanctifying You, do it for infants suckling at the breast who did not sin…
After a month of daily supplication and shofar blowing, Rosh Hashana amplifies the themes in two full days of devotion, followed by another eight of supplication and finally the blast of Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur service contains the agonizingly long and detailed description of how the Romans tortured ten great scholars to death, followed by Avinu Malkenu (Our Parent, our Sovereign), recited for ten days and repeatedly on Yom Kippur: Avinu Malkenu, abolish our persecution and the conniving of our enemies, thwart the intentions of our enemies, destroy our persecutors, silence them…
Tellingly, the haunting Barbara Streisand recording of Avinu Malkenu drops this part, as do many of the references one can find in Google. It's as if enlightened or secular modern Jews are uncomfortable with the overt violence in many of the texts of this highest of Jewish annual cycles. They misunderstand the meaning.
In the middle of the second century CE the Jews renounced the use of political power. The catastrophe of two defeats by Roman armies, the first destroying the Temple and the second depopulating Jerusalem and Judea, was too much to bear. The Mishna, followed by the Gemara, were so traumatized they succeeded in hiding the true extent of the destruction and horror; it took the archeologists and historians of the 20th century to decipher the true enormity, especially of Hadrian's genocide. Instead, the Talmud concentrated on the loss of great scholars and the stubborn, sometime suicidal determination to pass on the teaching of Torah. Implicitly, and eventually explicitly, the Jews told themselves they had a pact with God. They would suffer in his name, but he would fight their wars; they might die for his law, but he wouldn't allow their enemies to win. Their personal fate might be terrible, the destinies of their community dire, but the nation would always survive, and the enemies – eventually – would be defeated.
The yearning for divine retribution, at times blood-curdling in its intensity, was a substitute for action and for the need, even the permissibility, of counterforce. No matter how harsh the persecution of the Jews, there was never any cycle of violence. Words of violence effectively replaced the violence itself for 18 long centuries.
Admittedly, this has changed. In the 20th century the Jews returned to the use of national power. Most of them are secular, they no longer believe in a God to fight their battles for them, and not all of the violence they engage in is wise. The ancient traditions, however, are still there. When the Rav Yosef lifted the theme for his talk straight out of the prayer book, he wasn't calling for genocide, nor inciting to violence. On the contrary. He was continuing a quiescent tradition, by calling on God to do what the Jews won't do and shouldn't do.
There is no causal line from his words to deeds, nor did he intend there to be. He was speaking as a Jew does in Elul. Perhaps it's too much to expect anyone to respect him, but at least they might refrain from damning him.

Where if not in Jerusalem?

No-one really knows how many people attended the funeral of the Rav Ovadia Yosef last night. If it was 700,000, that's more than 10% of the Jewish population of the country. If it was 850,000, as published by some newspapers today, that's almost 11% of the entire population of Israel. No matter what the number, most of the participants were men, so that a similar number of women were left at home with the same mourning sentiments. The entire media agrees this morning that it was the largest funeral in Israel's history.

I think it was probably the largest in the entire long history of Judaism.  Think about it for a moment. The Talmud tells about millions of people who used to come to Jerusalem for the pilgrimages, but those aren't eye-witness reports, rather wistful recounts from a few generations after the destruction of the Temple. Even to the extent they're true, there's no legend of a mass funeral of anyone. From then until the late 19th century, there were no Jewish communities large enough to create such a crowd of mourners. Even in pre-Holocaust Europe, or New York at any point, there were never anything near six-plus millions Jews in a region the size of Israel. And anyway, that's the recent past, so we simply know: there were no comparable events, not of that size, any time in the 20th century, not even at the funerals of the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Menachem Begin.

So what we saw yesterday was the largest Jewish funeral ever. It was a combination of the death of a Jew of historical stature; his followers' confidence of ownership of the public space such that shutting down half a city was not given a second thought; and the simple fact of having enough of them to generate the numbers. All of which came together in the most important city in the Jewish world. Jerusalem.

Postscript: I may be attuned to this insight as I'm in the middle of reading that PEW report on American Jewry, which I may post about once I'm finished. The contrasts are stark, of course, not to say harsh. One of them is that the Rav Ovadia, whom Israeli Jews just gave the biggest sendoff in 3,000 years, was largely irrelevant to American Jewry. To the limited extent he was relevant, it was when they totally misunderstood what he was all about. I once wrote about this, a few years ago; if you wish, you can re-read that post as my obituary of him.