Lots of controversy afoot over Peter Beinart’s New York Review of Books essay in which he observes that younger American Jews don’t have as much connection to Israel and to Zionism as their forebears — a situation Beinart (who is himself Jewish) calls a “damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community.” Ross Douthat speculates that that has less to do with opposition to the current Israeli government, and more to do with Jewish assimilation, which is to say
…that liberal Jews are (very gradually) following the same trajectory as liberal Episcopalians before them, keeping their politics but surrendering their distinctive cultural and religious identity, and that the demise of liberal Zionism says something, not only about the fate of Israel, but about the fate of secular Judaism in the United States.
Indeed, Douthat cites David Goldman’s First Things reply to Beinart:
Beinart offers a condescending glance at the “warmth” and “learning” of Orthodox Jews, but neglects to mention the most startling factoid in Jewish demographics: a third of Jews aged 18 to 34 self-identify as Orthodox. “Secular Jew” is not quite an oxymoron-the Jews are a nation as well as a religion-but in the United States, at least, secular Jews have a fertility barely above 1 and an intermarriage rate of 50 percent, which means their numbers will decline by 75 percent per generation. It is tragic that the Jewish people stand to lose such a large proportion of their numbers, but they are lost to Judaism in general, not only to Zionism. That puts a different light on the matter.
It is terrifying to think that the disappearance of vast numbers of Jews as Jews stands to be accomplished not through genocide, but through cultural and religious suicide. Harsh words? Yes. But what else would you call it? A religious tradition, Jewish or otherwise, cannot live in books alone. It has to be kept alive from generation to generation. The modern liberal era, so beneficial to Jews in so many ways (it is a great thing that anti-Semitism has in most respects been defeated, at least in much of the West), is proving also to be deeply harmful to them. I watched over the weekend a good documentary called “Hiding and Seeking,” in which Menachem Daum, an Orthodox Jewish father from New York (and descendant of Holocaust survivors) tried to teach his young adult sons, both ultra-Orthodox and living in Israel, that they ought not have such contempt for Gentiles. The elder Daum took them both to Poland, to meet and visit the Polish Catholic farm family that risked its life for two years to hide the boys’ grandfather and two uncles from the Nazis. It was a deeply moving film. Daum pere did not want to teach his sons that all people were good; plainly that’s untrue. What he wanted to do was to make them understand that every person has the capacity for righteousness; indeed, near the end of the film, their elderly grandfather, saved from death by the Mucha family, admits to his grandsons that if he had been in their position, he wouldn’t have had the courage to do what they did.
Menachem Daum was and is undoubtedly correct. He was trying to make his sons realize that by living behind the unbreachable cultural walls they’ve erected between themselves and non-Jews, they’re getting a distorted picture of what the world is really like, and what people are really like. I get that. I applaud Daum’s project. Please don’t misread me here; Daum is on the side of the angels.
On the other hand, I sympathize to a certain extent with Daum’s sons. If they don’t live so illiberally with regard to others, they risk losing the essence of their faith and culture, over time. This is not to say that you have to hate other people in order to hold on to what’s essential about yourself and your tradition. God forbid! It is, however, to recognize that the modern condition is a universal solvent of all tradition, and that if one is going to hold on to one’s tradition, and teach one’s children to keep it alive, at some point one is going to have to start making some illiberal distinctions among peoples, and choosing to live in a way that to modern cultural liberals [not necessarily the same thing as political liberals, please note] seems chauvinistic and oppressive.
Put another way, I’m sure I as a Gentile would get along far better with your average American Reform Jew than I would with either of the Daum sons and their friends. But a hundred years from now, the descendants of my Reform Jewish friend stand a far, far lesser chance of being meaningfully Jewish than the descendants of the Daum sons. It depends on what’s most important to one, I guess. I don’t believe that the choice is between being a nice assimilated American Jew or a bumptious and bigoted ultra-Orthodox Jew, cloistered inside one’s community. Menachem Daum, an Orthodox Jew of the Carlebach community, shows that one can be a big-hearted and open Jew towards others while still holding on to one’s faith in a more-or-less traditional way. As Phillip Longman has pointed out, for reasons that have to do with evolutionary dynamics, the future belongs to those who practice a more rigorous form of religion.