July 4, 1997…
Late night television talk show host Charlie Rose assembles a four-person panel to discuss a hot question that is forcing its way to the top of the American Jewish agenda: Will the current rate of assimilation ultimately lead to the disappearance of the Jewish people?
The atmosphere is tense and charged with disagreements. The participants: Craig Horowitz, New York magazine journalist; Elliott Abrams, author and former Reagan Administration official; Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary and Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law School professor—all offer different solutions to the problem.
According to Schorsch, who is there to represent Conservative Judaism, the Jewish people must survive “because [we’ve] been here for 3,500 years and are the practitioners of an incredible religious tradition. We have no right to terminate that history.…”
Horowitz agrees and adds, “It’s very important that Jews survive…precisely because of the contribution that they have made to Western civilization.”
Dershowitz cites how Jews have brought compassion and justice to the world and, in a grave voice, suggests that “It is to engage in an unchartered course in human history to conceive of a world without Jews and an America without Jews. It’ll be a far poorer place in every way and I hope it never comes to be.”
Elliott Abrams is the last to speak. “In the end,” he says, “there’s only one real justification for Jews to insist on survival and that’s a religious one, the covenant that began with Abraham.”
Dershowitz can’t allow it to end without a rejoinder. “Then why do we have to work on it? If God promised us we’ll survive, why don’t we just leave it to Him?” he taunts.
The diversity of opinion reflected by Abrams and Dershowitz is a microcosm of Jewish thinking today. Jewish survival and assimilation are hard issues, but they are not new. They have been with us since biblical times.
Most of the “do’s and don’ts” of how we Jews are to behave were included with our survival kit, the Holy Scriptures. They were designed to keep us separate from the nations for a purpose. Yet time after time, our people took an unholy interest in the customs and idolatrous practices of other nations.
Amazingly, Jews have managed to survive long after those neighbors and their customs ceased to exist. But can we continue to survive at our present rate of assimilation?
What is Assimilation?
Assimilation has been described as both “the absorption of the Jewish people, a minority group, into the masses of the peoples in whose midst they live” and “the adoption by the Jewish people of the language, manners and customs of the environment of which they form a part.”1
There is no doubt that adopting language, customs, etc., has occurred throughout Jewish history. But is adoption merely absorption one step removed? When we borrow forms of literature and cultural practices, are we on a slippery slope toward extinction?
A sermon by the second century Jewish sage, Bar Kappara, warned Jews against any form of assimilation by reminding them that the sons of Jacob did not change their names “…as Reuben and Simeon they went down to Egypt, and as Reuben and Simeon they went up from it.” He claimed Abraham kept to the Hebrew language as well.2 Others would argue that Judaism exists today precisely because we adapted to meet the challenges of surviving in a non-Jewish world. While the Babylonian and Egyptian religions could only be expressed in their native tongues, the Jewish religion had a far greater impact because Jews were able to bring their faith with them into different lands and languages. “Even in Egypt they [the Israelites] soon acquired fashionable names like Moses, Aaron, Hofni and Phinehas.”3 These names, originally Egyptian, were Hebraisized.
Yet even Aaron and the Israelites did some adapting that was unacceptable. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites reverted to Egyptian culture and religion when they sacrificed to the golden calf. Moses condemned this and God brought judgment on the people which resulted in captivity.4 When the Jewish people returned from exile in Babylon, Ezra condemned those who intermarried with those in the surrounding nations.5
During the time when the Greeks ruled over Israel, Jews faced the problem of the “Hellenizers,” Jews who adapted Greek culture, religion, language and dress. A hellenized Jew even assumed the office of High Priest in Jerusalem and took on a Greek way of life. Those who wouldn’t worship Greek gods were killed, and an altar to Zeus was set up in the Temple. Eventually this problem was solved by the Maccabees as recorded in the story of Hanukkah.
Under first-century Roman rule, thousands of Jews died defending Jerusalem and their heritage, but many also joined the Romans in order to survive—the most infamous of which was Tiberius Alexander. A native of Egypt, he renounced his Jewish background in order to climb through the ranks of the Roman empire. He even ordered his soldiers to quell a rebellion, resulting in 50,000 Jewish deaths. Tiberius eventually became chief advisor to Titus, the Roman commander, during the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.6
Islam dominated the scene for Sephardic Jewry in the Middle Ages. Max Dimont captures the flavor of Jewish assimilation during that period:
“Instead of keeping themselves apart, they integrated. Instead of becoming parochialized fossils…Arabic became their mother tongue; wine, women and secular songs their part-time avocations; philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, diplomacy, medicine and literature their full-time vocations.”7
European Jewry had much less of a problem with assimilation due to the forced isolation of the shtetl. However, with the rise of nationalism during the Romantic period, many Jews in Europe gave their allegiance to the countries in which they resided. They began calling themselves French or German “citizens of Mosaic faith.” The Haskalah or Enlightenment brought changes in Europe that opened doors for Jews; they became more integrated into their respective societies and even pioneered capitalism.
Intellectuals such as Moses Mendelssohn and David Friedlander encouraged Jews to make full use of the languages and education systems of their countries. Mendelssohn’s translation of the Bible into German was a major development.
As the Haskalah moved eastward it eventually developed into a type of ‘messianic hope’ for Russian Jews, as described by Emanuel Soloweitschik in 1869:
“The Jews recognize that their salvation lies in absorption into the Russian people. Complete assimilation and fusion with the Russian population is the Messiah whose coming is longed for with such trembling expectation by the better part of our enlightened Jews.”8
Events such as the Dreyfus Affair in the west and pogroms in the east gave pause to Jewish enthusiasm for assimilation, and spurred the rise of the Zionist movement. Yet most Jews still sought a comfortable accommodation to their environs.
All of this came to a crashing halt when, after nearly a century and a half of successful Jewish assimilation into European culture, anti-Semitism once again reared its ugly head. The Holocaust did not discriminate between assimilated and non-assimilated Jews. One third of all living Jews perished under Nazism. No longer was it possible to securely “blend in” to the larger culture. No longer would a European Jew describe himself as a “German of Mosaic faith.” Still, the problems of assimilation are with us today and some, like Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, would say more than ever:
“There are no barking dogs and no Zyklon-B gas, but make no mistake: This is a spiritual holocaust. For all practical purposes, the American Jewish community is committing suicide, and no one is saying anything about it.”9
What About Today?
It’s been said that assimilation is fueled by two sisters, intermarriage and apathy. Intermarriage is certainly on the increase. Of 100,000 marriage licenses issued in New York City between 1908-1912, less than 1 percent of the Jews who married at that time married non-Jews.10 Between 1985-1990, 52 percent of American Jews who married chose non-Jewish spouses. Three fourths of the children of intermarriages today are being raised outside of the Jewish religion, 31 percent with no religion at all.11
Without Orthodox Jews in the mix, the intermarriage rate goes up to 70 percent.12 Writer Craig Horowitz points out that “all across the country, worried Jewish parents wonder, with good demographic reason, whether their grandchildren will be Jewish. And it requires only a small stretch of the imagination to see an America 75 to 100 years from now in which the only readily identifiable Jews will be the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox.”13
Others don’t see intermarriage as the inevitable forerunner to assimilation. Rabbi Harold Schulweis advocates encouraging non-Jewish members of mixed marriage to become Jews by choice. He points to Bithia, the daughter of Pharaoh, and Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, as two examples of Jews by choice.14 But even Schulweis recognizes that embracing inter-marrieds is not going to solve the problem of a disintegrating Jewish identity.
Jewish apathy has reached crisis proportions. One Jewish leader commented,
“Here [U.S.] we have freedom. We don’t have to do anything. But that very freedom also allows Jews to be indifferent to their religious roots.”15
An American pluralistic society has been both a blessing and a curse. During the earlier part of this century, when Jews were an immigrant population, religious bigotry and prejudice were common. Medical schools and banking institutions were particularly guilty of selective admissions and hiring. Jews looking to become part of the political arena had to settle for behind-the-scenes positions.
Today, two Jews sit on the highest court of the land. We have a Jewish former Secretary of State and Congressional representatives and Senators well beyond our percentage of the population. Today, a Jerry Seinfeld can capitalize on his “Jewish” identity whereas not too long ago, a Hungarian Jew named Bernie Schwartz had to become Tony Curtis to play the dramatic lead.
In fact, the Jewish “motif” has become more than acceptable in this country; it has become fashionable. But this change has not come without its down side. Leonard Fein puts it this way,
“Many of the key ingredients in the ethnic alchemy that produce the Jewish persona have been soaked up and absorbed by the larger culture. As a result, the secular Jewish world is losing its distinctiveness.”16
Losing that which sets us apart as a people is what frightens many Jews today. The “in vogue” Jewish persona has caused some confusion in answering the always difficult question of what it really means to be Jewish. Does being a real Jew mean getting all the jokes during a Woody Allen movie or an episode of Seinfeld? Or is a real Jew one who can speak and write Hebrew and attend synagogue weekly?
Most American Jews would fail the Jewish litmus test—they stay away from the synagogue in droves. Especially among younger Jews, there is a definite commitment to not be set apart. Most of the 400,000 American Jewish university students stay away from the Jewish institutions on their campuses. One Jewish student at Princeton explained,
“I’m turned off by the students who frequent Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life, a $4.5 million showcase for Jewish activity at Princeton.…To me, everyone being Jewish is just not enough of a common bond.”17
The Jewish population is dwindling. Some demographers have theorized that considering the ancient origins of the Jewish people, under common patterns of population growth, the numbers should have exceeded 700 million Jews world-wide by now. Yet we are faced with a low birth rate and an aging population. Recent studies show that Jews are marrying later in life and having fewer children. Presently Jews comprise slightly more than two percent of the United States population. It is projected that within a generation the percentage will be insignificant.
What Are Our Choices?
One school of thought would advocate massive immigration to Israel as a solution to assimilation. David Ben Gurion used to say, “Come to the State of Israel. Those of you who wish to fulfill yourselves as Jews, those of you to whom Jewishness is significant, come and settle in our ancestral land.” But while the population of Israel has grown from 750,000 people in 194818 to 4.6 million since the founding of the State, two-thirds of the Jewish people still live outside the land.
Naturally, the intermarriage rate is insignificant among Israelis, but when it comes to the challenges of apathy and secularization, Israel stands toe to toe with western societies. The polarization between the ultra-orthodox Jew and the secular Israeli is growing. Recent efforts by the Orthodox to invalidate Reform and Conservative conversions have increased the level of antagonism between the groups. But most Israeli-born Jews want nothing to do with either brand of Judaism.
If moving to Israel is not the solution to assimilation, what about education as the cure? Everyone agrees that Jewish education is a good thing. Most say it is the only answer. But when it comes to its content, there are many opinions. Secular Jews don’t want their children to have the kind of religious education that will indoctrinate them to abhor their parents’ ‘pick and choose’ brand of Judaism or even worse, encourage them to leave their non-kosher homes. Religious Jews find the secular educational options deficient. For example, a recent project to create a secular Jewish high school has met with the following criticism from other Jewish educators: “…[the project’s creators] mistakenly believe you can create a Jewish high school devoid of religious content—and with non-Jewish students—and still mold Jews committed to Jewish peoplehood.”19 Jewish day schools, campus education programs and adult education classes, no matter how eclectic, have not attracted Jews in large numbers.
Perhaps we can get some insight on the answers to Jewish continuity from those who are Jews by choice. Some would say that they may have a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish than most born Jews. Their conversion ceremony includes the words of Ruth the Moabite to her mother-in-law, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”20 This statement acknowledges a connection between the people of Israel and the God of Israel.
Those who prefer to define Judaism by totally cultural standards have forgotten who made the Jews a people in the first place.
“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”21
It was God who made a covenant with Abraham, the first Jew. When he brought the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, he said, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine.…”22 Jewish identity is about being a separate, distinct people, who are called out by God and given a purpose—to be a light to the nations: “You are My witnesses, and my servant whom I have chosen.”23
Is assimilation the real threat to the survival of American Jews? Elliott Abrams touched on it in his response to Charlie Rose. Our relationship to God cannot be taken out of the equation.
Those like Dershowitz who deny the existence of God yet want to keep the distinction of being Jews are missing the point. Dershowitz’s challenge that “If God promised us we’ll survive, why don’t we just leave it to him?” is a fair one. The answer is, yes, we can leave it to God. He will take care of it. He has promised that the Jewish people will survive and he keeps his word. But the Jewish destiny is not merely to survive, but to be a “light to lighten the gentiles.” We can only do that if we know the one who said of himself, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me, shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”24
God left us a blue print in the Holy Scriptures of how we are to survive. He provided a plan, a person and a posterity. The plan is put forth in the covenants he made with our ancestors, Abraham, Moses and David. The person is the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus). And through receiving him, we have a posterity. God promises us a life beyond the grave where separation is from sin and sorrow forever.
Yet Jews who have claimed this promise through following Jesus have been accused of being the greatest threat to Jewish survival. The opposite is true.
Dr. Jack Sternberg and his wife are first generation believers in Jesus: “Instead of losing my Jewishness in a sea of Christianity, I’ve met with respect and appreciation for my heritage and my identity as a Jew. Today I feel more Jewish than ever.”25
But what could be said about the children of Jews who have come to believe in Jesus? Ruth Rosen says,
“My parents are both Jewish believers in Jesus. They took great pains to see that I was raised with an understanding of my Jewish culture and heritage. At school I had to fight to maintain my Jewish identity when other kids insisted I wasn’t Jewish. If anything, believing in Jesus has made me more Jewish! I’m very secure in my Jewish identity. I learned at an early age that many of my Jewish classmates could not say what it meant to be Jewish, so they settled for a definition by negation: “Jews don’t believe in Jesus!'”
Rosen and other Jewish believers never had the option of being apathetic about their Jewishness. With so many people insisting they couldn’t be Jews, their commitment to Jewishness had to be greater than most. Perhaps the Messianic Jews of today are the ones who best understand the issue of Jews as a separate people. When you are in a minority, standing up for your own people means a willingness to be rejected by the majority. But sometimes standing up for one’s God means a willingness to be misunderstood—even rejected—by one’s people. If Jesus is the Messiah, he is the fulcrum on which our collective destiny turns. One can be “fashionably Jewish” and believe (or not believe) just about anything.
Messianic Jews call upon other Jews to consider the evidence for the Messiahship of Jesus and to believe on him of whom the prophets spoke. Would you be willing to stand up for Jewish destiny, to follow the Messiah, even if it would mean being in an unfashionable minority?
Care to join the issue? Letters to Issues on the subject are welcome. Ed.
- The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 1948, Vol. 1: 556.
- Bar Kaparra, Song of Songs Rabbah, chapter 4, section 12.
- Francine Klagsburn, Voices of Wisdom, (Pantheon Books:, New York, 1980), p. 368.
- Exodus 32:19ff
- Ezra 9 & 10
- Encyclopedia Judaica, 1972, Vol 15: 1135.
- Dimont, Max, The Indestructible Jews, (Signet Book:New American Library, 1971), p. 190.
- The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 1948, Vol 1: 557.
- Craig Horowitz, “Are American Jews Disappearing?” New York Magazine, 14 July 1997, pp. 32, 33. (hereafter cited as Amer. Jews)
- Ernest Van Den Haag, The Jewish Mystique, (Dell Publishers:New York, 1979), p. 225.
- “Loss of identity concerns Jewish community,” San Antonio Express News, 28 June 1996.
- “The Dangers of Intermarriage,” The Jewish Press, 11 April 1997. (excerpt from The Sacred Trust, published by the Orthodox Union NCSY)
- Craig Horowitz, “Amer. Jews” New York Magazine, 14 July 1997, p. 32.
- Harold M. Schulweis, “Seek Converts,” Moment Magazine, April 1997, p.44.
- J. Michael Parker, “Loss of Identity Concerns Jewish Community,” San Antonio Express News, 28 June 1997
- Craig Horowitz, “Amer. Jews,” New York Magazine, 14 July 1997, p. 33.
- Marcella Kogan, “The Young & the Faithless, College Kids Who Don?t Do Jewish,” Moment Magazine, October 1996, p. 4.
- Encyclopedia Judaica, 1972, Vol 13: 895-96.
- Gary Rosenblatt, “Jewish Continuity Without God?”, Jewish Week-American Examiner, 23 August 1996
- Ruth 1:16
- Genesis 12:2-3
- Isaiah 43:1
- Isaiah 43:10
- John 8:12
- Ruth Rosen, ed., “Jewish Doctors Meet The Great Physician” (Purple Pomegranate Productions: San Francisco, 1997), p. 22.