A recurring premise of our people's pundits is that the fall-off in American Jewish population numbers indicates a decline in Jewish life. New York Magazine put the question, "Are American Jews Disappearing?" on its front cover back in July of 1997 (Craig Horowitz, "Are American Jews Disappearing?" July 14, 1997, pp. 32-33.). This provocative challenge underscored that the community is declining in sheer numbers. More recent Jewish population studies confirms that fact.
But this is far from a subtle way to assess the state of American Jewry. What about other statistics of note?
- Are we as a community declining in total net worth?
- Are we decreasing in political and cultural influence?
- Are we less spiritual?
- Do we study less Talmud?
We will soon need a Kaddish for American Jews, if we are to believe Rabbis Ephraim Buchwald and Norman Lamm -- and a small but vocal cadre of their cohorts -- as quoted in the New York Magazine several years ago and as they continue to shout today. The soaring intermarriage rate will lead to the disappearance of our community they say. It is a "spiritual holocaust."
A century ago a Jewish mother might tell her son, "Marry a shiksa and you might as well put a knife in my heart!" At then end of the century a pious rabbi does tell not just his flock, but the large readership of a major magazine, "Marry a shiksa and you are killing the Jewish people." We could call this the transformation of Jewish guilt from family dynamic to communal motivator.
Fiction writer Philip Roth in American Pastoral recently provoked us with yet another view of our social reality. Roth created in that novel a quintessential American Jew -- a Jewish sports hero, Swede Levov, who marries a Gentile beauty queen, and who does not live happily ever after. On the contrary, this breeding produces a mutant offspring, a daughter Merry, who turns into a revolutionary terrorist, blows up a post office and must go underground as a fugitive.
Some of our popular rabbis provoke us even further. "There are no barking dogs and no Zyklon-B gas," Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald proclaimed nearly hysterically to New York Magazine. "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."
Actually, even the most cursory glance at the Judaica bookshelves of any major bookstore will convince the observer that lots of people are talking and writing about "it." Many though are writing in a prophetic mode, not an analytical manner.
Did this Rabbi consider how rude and thoughtless this population numbers comparison is to countless Holocaust survivors and numerous intermarried but sincere Jews?
Facts do matter. But they can be dry and boring. Rhetoric entertains. The louder the better. I insist that the population numbers do not matter.
Our people thrives. We have survived the Holocaust. We have returned and built a miraculous State in Israel.
We do need to insure our peace and security for the here and now. We also do need to improve the quality of Jewish life and leadership for today's Jews.
We should agree that population studies do not matter. Hysterical and insulting rabbis do not matter. God knows the numbers.
We must do our part: continue to have faith.
(repost from 8/06 and 8/07.)