Monday, June 25, 2012

A Threat To Judaism

We Jews worry about Iran and terrorists and anti-Semites and haters, but in my mind, a dire and dangerous threat to the survival of Judaism as a legitimate religion, and also to the survival of Israel as a democratic Jewish state, is the explosive growth of the ultra-orthodox community and the demographic decrease of secular Jews.
This is extremely scary. Judaism is not about the minutiae of whether you are allowed to take an elevator or steep a tea bag on the Sabbath, or to look, God forbid, at a woman. That is superstition, debasement and the distortion of a great religion. Obsessive compulsive religious disorder is what it is. But there is among some Jews an absurd and unspoken view that maintains that the ultra-orthodox are the only ones who know all the rules and therefore are the true keepers of the flame, which is utterly false. Secular Jews are allowing the fundamentalist fringe to distort and take ownership of Judaism through their abandonment of their own culture and history. They will have no one but themselves to blame when most Jews become a herd of retrogrades, like the Taliban.
Rabbis and Jewish Cassandras have always blamed this secular Jewish decline on intermarriage. This may be so, but only to a certain extent. As a Jew, you could marry Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama and still know and celebrate Jewish traditions and teach them to your children, if that was your wish. You don't even have to believe in God to be a good Jew. But you have to know where you come from and what made you this way, and if you have children, you have to let them know as well. The lack of interest on the part of many secular Jews in knowing and furthering these traditions and the Jewish languages is tragic, regardless of whether they are religious or not.
In Israel, secular Jews are to blame for allowing the ultra-orthodox to abuse the citizenry and the state using religious piety as extortion. The abuse is so egregious and has gone on for so long that only recently have Israelis started to demand that their fanatical fellow citizens join the army and obey civil laws like everyone else. I don't understand what took them so long. Actually, I do. Thirty years ago, the ultra-orthodox were still a minority and, since they marginalized themselves from modern society, no one took them seriously. Now that they have exploded demographically, and in the process have become even more intolerant, retrograde and insane, and worse, politically powerful, all of a sudden Israelis can see too well the monster they have created. A monster that demands the humiliation of women on the public sphere, and sucks the teat of the government dry while doing absolutely nothing to ensure the survival of the state, except for breeding like rabbits (a cynical and ultimately self-defeating ploy for those who think this is going to help Israel at all. I'm talking to you, Bibi). A theocratic Israel, drained of intellectual, scientific and artistic talent is as good as dead. 
All Jewish communities in the diaspora have enriched their countries in many ways, but the American Jewish community is unique, given how culturally influential it is and given the singular circumstances of immigration to the US, the fabled melting pot that only happens here. And while the presence of the cultural American Jew is felt more strongly than ever in the public sphere, the actual Judaism of many secular American Jews threatens to become a vestige, since they are quite uninformed about their religious tradition. Soon all that may remain of an intellectually vigorous, vibrant and essential Jewish culture may be the neuroses and the shtick, like an episode of Seinfeld.
I am an atheist, but I went to a secular Jewish school in Mexico, I speak Hebrew and Yiddish and I come from a community that, while thoroughly secular, respects religious tradition mostly in an orthodox way. No one in Mexico, not even the Jews that attend conservative synagogues, would think of shortening a shiva (the Jewish mourning tradition) to Tues and Thurs from 4-7 pm because of convenience, like some American Jews do. This is shocking to me. I have heard American Jews say "my parents are Jewish, but I am not". This is appalling to me. Unless you are consciously willing to renounce your cultural and historical heritage, what the hell does that mean? Nobody speaks Hebrew, let alone Yiddish or Ladino. It's a great loss.
To be honest, (and this is maddeningly paradoxical), as much as I admire the American penchant for inclusion and tolerance, I feel far more at home at an orthodox High Holiday service than at the newfangled smorgasbord of inclusiveness that is offered by some progressive branches of American Judaism. I prefer a male rabbi and a male cantor and all that patriarchal jazz, to a yoga and meditation kabbalistic Shabbat service; so sue me (in the interest of full disclosure, I don't attend either. I've paid my dues as a Jew). Still, the lite, p.c. version looks to me like a new agey jamboree of phony rituals. Maybe that's because I grew up with the orthodox way, and that's what's close to the bone.
This enthusiastic re-purposing of Judaism, by the way, is an American singularity that does not tend to happen in any of the other Jewish communities in the diaspora, except maybe Canada. Jewish American parents, products of a great democracy and brave new children in a land of immigrants striving to become as American as possible, shunned the old world shtetl mentality of their grandparents, then tortured their kids with half-baked Hebrew school and now nobody knows anything.
It's a hard problem to fix, and some American Jews are trying, with magazines like Tablet, a great resurgence of proud Jewish humor (see Larry David and Judd Apatow), hip communal seders in happening nightclubs, prayer shawls with rainbows and other manifestations of modern Judaism. But I suspect that what is needed to ensure the survival of the modern Jew is a revitalization of a more solid Jewish traditional and cultural education.
I'm not saying we should not evolve. Certainly, there are some ideas in our ancient, tribal religion that are incompatible with our modern day ideology (among them the oppression of women, the ostracizing of gays, and practical injunctions that have been rendered moot since the advent of electricity), but I wonder whether we are diluting the great Jewish transition into modernity with such minute tailoring to our lifestyle, that Judaism becomes unrecognizable, inauthentic and therefore, disposable. The greatest irony is that it has been so hard and has taken so long for us to get here: to be able, for the most part, to live freely and safely as Jews in the world, without fear of annihilation, and yet we are losing the battle for Jewish culture, from inside. We cannot allow the ultra-orthodox to dictate the rules of Judaism in the 21st century, unless we want to live in the dark ages again. We must know our stuff and those of us who have children, must pass it on to them.

I have been always deeply anti-religious, complaining as a child that if Passover is supposed to be a celebration of freedom, why then are we forced to eat nothing but Matzoh for eight days. The beautiful Passover seder my grandfather led with gorgeous praying melodies, songs and jokes, I hated during most of my childhood. Now, when I go back to Mexico to Passover seder at my uncle's home, I am deeply moved at the bizarre accident of history that allows us to eat gefilte fish Veracruzana style and a matzoh and mole gratin, while we listen to a beautiful, unique style of prayer that is centuries old. I am deeply concerned that when my uncle is gone, this incredible seder, this authentic connection to centuries of dogged determination to survive, is going to disappear forever. His sons know the melodies, but the investment with us busy, modern Jews is one of diminishing returns. I am already mourning, not the loss of religion, but the loss of a rich and stubborn culture.
I am convinced that living in a self-imposed religious ghetto is not the only way, nor the right way to sustain Judaism. The only Judaism that can thrive in the future is a strong, genuine tradition that accepts its millennial roots while living in harmony with the modern world. But for that, we gotta know our own story.

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