Time for Straight-Talk About Assimilation?

by Maskil on October 2, 2009

A Reform synagogue with mixed seating and equa...

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I posted the comment below in response to an article with this title (without the question mark) which appeared in the electronic pages of (The Jewish Daily) Forward and on the eJewish Philanthropy blog.

This is Part 1 of my response. I am currently working on (a somewhat longer) Part 2, and will publish it during the course of next week.

Before you ask, Joel Katz has already taken me to task for dragging Rabbi Meir Kahane into the fray, but I thought at the time he was important to my argument,

with his way of asking very fundamental, penetrating questions (even although his answers left a lot to be desired for most). The title of one of his books – “Why Be Jewish? – Intermarriage, Assimilation and Alienation” is also very much the question we need to ask and answer in order to address the issue of assimilation.

Straight Talk?

>> “The majority of intermarried families raise their children in a faith other than Judaism or in two faiths or no faith at all; not surprisingly, when they reach adulthood, most of those offspring do not identify as Jews.”

I’m not sure that I agree with the observation, but even if it’s correct, why do we find this surprising or remarkable? The reception that those entering into an inter-faith relationship receive from most of the organised Jewish community can best be described as cold or hostile. The reception that the offspring off such unions can expect to receive is even worse, especially if the “wrong” partner (i.e. the mother) is not Jewish. Is it any wonder that most Jews prefer not to put themselves, their partners or their (potential) offspring through such humiliation?

The welcome that a prospective convert can expect to receive (in this or other scenarios) is no better. Whereas other faiths, cultures and clubs tend to welcome prospective new member with open arms, only Judaism – apparently still locked in medieval suspicion of Gentiles – fails to do so.

(Progressive Judaism in the broader sense does a much better of job of welcoming and inclusion, but even these streams are Not There Yet. Those to the religious right of progressive Judaism are quite simply unspeakable.)

Lastly, most if not all of the programs and initiatives referred to fail to address the basic, fundamental question asked by Rabbi Meir Kahane decades ago: Why Be Jewish? While I largely disagree with the answers he gave, the question remains. Remaining Jewish because we’re a shrinking group is not an answer, nor is the Holocaust or Israel or history or culture or cuisine. In the long run, probably only a religious or spiritual answer will prevail, one that avoids the extreme poles of Haredi Judaism and just being an ethical monotheist, or a good person of no particular persuasion.

To use some metaphors from the marketing world, our well-funded Jewish organisations and their well-groomed officials need to stop blaming the customer – the ex or non-affiliated Jew – for the crisis within Judaism and the Jewish world, and instead look at the product and the way it’s marketed more closely. In commerce and industry, blaming the customer for your loss of market share or mind share is a quick path to unemployment or irrelevance. It’s not very different in the world of continuity and faith.

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