Assimilation: Fight it? Accept it?
We asked five contributors to answer the question above in response to this article. Below is Rabbi Goldstein’s response.
See Jessi Pollock’s piece here.
See Adam Moscoe’s response here.
See Joannie Tansky’s response here.
See Jackie Luffman’s response here.
Gabriel Roth recently became the darling of Rabbis across North America with the publication of his commentary in Slate regarding the Pew Research survey of American Jews. In his piece, Roth celebrated the assimilation of Jews into American culture and, in the process, he gave Rabbis the early Chanukah gift we were waiting for: an easy target for a fiery sermon.
At the core of Roth’s argument was his declaration that “I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition—even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all.”
The problem is – he’s right. And while I’m deeply saddened by his conclusions, his logic is bang-on and, far from disregarding his piece, we should be highlighting it for all to see. Here’s why.
The core of Roth’s argument is that:
apart from the very small Orthodox community, Jewishness will eventually die out as a distinct element in American life. For my grandchildren, the fact that some of their ancestors were Jewish will have no more significance than the fact that others were Welsh. That will be a real loss. But we should be realistic about what’s being lost and what isn’t. Here are some of the things I cherish about Jewishness: unsnobbish intellectualism, sympathy for the disadvantaged, psychoanalytic insight, rueful comedy, smoked fish. Those things have been thoroughly incorporated into American upper-middlebrow culture. Philip Roth and Bob Dylan and Woody Allen no longer read as “Jewish” artists but as emblematic Americans; their influence is as palpable in the work of young gentiles as young Jews.
In short, the very things that most American Jews value about their Judaism are no longer unique to the Jewish community, and Jews don’t need to fend off assimilation as a means of protecting those values. And there’s truth to this. If the Jewish values and traditions that we cherish are limited to the list cited by Roth, then his logic is correct, and there is no need to guard one’s Judaism to protect those values and traditions – one can be fully assimilated into American culture and still enjoy smoked fish and psychoanalytic thought (though maybe not at the same time – which stage of psychosexual development is that piece of lox stuck at?) along with the rest of one’s North American neighbours.
The question is: does Judaism have anything more to offer that isn’t on Roth’s list, something that might offer a more compelling reason to remain distinctly Jewish? Certainly it does. That is what Roth is referring to when he notes that “apart from the very small Orthodox community, Jewishness will eventually die out as a distinct element in American life.” He is recognizing that there is at least one group of Jews who have found a compelling reason to stay Jewish, an observation that is made repeatedly in the Pew study in its description of the Orthodox community. So what is that reason?
In a word, it’s lifestyle. If one’s lifestyle is rooted in Judaism, then that Judaism will last. If one engages in Judaism as an interest or an activity, it won’t.
I see this phenomenon staring at me every morning when I wake up and every evening when I go to sleep. You see, I love books. Big books, small books, serious books, silly books. I love them all. Take one look at my night-table (or maybe just take my word for it) and you’ll see a whole stack of books on my reading hit-list. The problem is: that pile keeps getting taller, and all I seem to be reading these days is Curious George about five times a night (“Daddy, again!”). Sure, I love reading. And sure, I identify as a bibliophile. But, in the daily routine of my life with a family and two jobs, I’m not going to be making a dent in that pile of books for a long time. Right now I can barely finish reading the grocery list without falling asleep. Reading is an activity that I enjoy, but it doesn’t fit in my daily life. And very quickly I’m seeing my days without reading turning into weeks and months and years. That’s how I’m prioritizing my life right now, and I’m ok with that. My daily lifestyle consists of being a husband, a father, and a Jew. There just isn’t any room left in my day for reading.
What I think we are seeing through the Pew survey is modern Judaism transitioning from being a religion into a culture. As a religion, Judaism is a lifestyle that offers opportunities to build a relationship with God, and that relationship has intrinsic value that enriches all aspects of one’s life. As a culture, Judaism is a beautiful addition to the tapestry of world art, history, and philosophy, and that culture can be enjoyed and appreciated.
The problem is: who has the time for culture in the midst of their hectic life? And why should one enjoy the Jewish culture exclusively? There are other cultures that are as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than Judaism. That’s all Roth is saying and, if his experience of Judaism is as a culture and not as a religion, then his logic is spot-on.
So let’s go easy on Mr. Roth, whose observations are disturbing, but true nonetheless. If Judaism is going to continue to have meaning, if it’s going to continue to enrich the lives of the members of this tribe, then we need to pay attention to those observations. We need to do what we can to bring back a Jewish religion that enriches the lives of its practitioners, connects them to God, and impacts their lifestyles in a unique, Jewish way.
As we celebrate Chanukah, let’s remember that the Syrian-Greeks wanted one thing: for Judaism to cease as a religion. Jews were not at risk of physical harm, so long as they disavowed the observance of kashrut and Shabbat (among others), the hallmark practices of a Jewish lifestyle. The Maccabees couldn’t stand for that, and they risked their lives to keep Judaism as a religion in their lives. This Chanukah, let’s celebrate by doing our part to bring Judaism and Jewish practice into our lives and into our lifestyles. Happy Chanukah.