Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Only as a Religious Community Is Jewish Survival Possible

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 1998

Recently, many elements of the organized Jewish community have been in a state of near panic about what they perceive to be the growing threat to Jewish continuity. Rising rates of religious inter-marriage, large numbers of people born to Jewish families joining other religions, and low rates of synagogue membership and attendance have joined together to form what appears to be a crisis mentality on the part of many.  

Others argue that in the free and open American society it is only natural that individuals would make their own religious choices and that while some would leave Judaism, others would join. In a society in which prejudice and discrimination are not important factors, the fact that men and women would marry those of other religious traditions can hardly be unexpected. The American melting pot, after all, has been at work and it is not only Jews who have been transformed by the process.  

Beyond this, as Dennis Prager, an Orthodox Jew and radio talk show host points out, "Since antiquity people have been predicting the demise of the Jews, some with dread, others with glee. But despite all the travails and tests faced by Jews over the centuries, it is only of late that such predictions seemed plausible, at least in the U.S. where Jewry is on its way to becoming half its present number.... This is not altogether a cause for lament ... the freedom of American Jews to assimilate is also a blessing — it means acceptance instead of bigotry.... Intermarriage is indeed a mixed curse. As a religious Jew myself, I want Jews to marry Jews for religious, not ethnic reasons. But intermarriage also represents great advantages — personal freedom and physical security. As Rabbi Leo Baeck, the German Jewish leader, said after World War II: ‘If every German family had a Jewish relative, there would not have been a Holocaust.’"  

Assimilation Not New  

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg of New York University points out that, "The loss of large numbers to assimilation is not a new phenomenon among Jews. Those who seek to make of it an unparalleled and unprecedented disaster are simply wrong.... Always and everywhere a saving remnant has chosen to be loyal. So it will be in the next century."  

Entering the discussion of these issues with the book Faith Or Fear: How Jews Can Survive In A Christian America, is Elliot Abrams, who served as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan Administration and now heads the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.  

Abrams points out that in the midst of the greatest religious expansion in American history, Jews are a shrinking minority. The statistics he provides bolster his case: Jews, who once comprised 3.7 percent of the U.S. population, have fallen to about 2 percent; one-third of all Americans of Jewish ancestry no longer report Judaism as their religion; of all Jews who have married since 1985, the majority have married non-Jews, while the rate of conversion of the non-Jewish spouse is declining; demographers predict anywhere from one million to over two million in the American Jewish population in the next two generations (as opposed to the current population of approximately 6 million).  

There are, Abrams argues, a number of reasons for the declining identification with Judaism on the part of increasing numbers of Americans born to Jewish families. One of the most important is that mainstream Jewish organizations have promoted a variety of substitutes for Judaism as their major source of identity.  

Religion Is Low Priority  

In their 1989 book, The People’s Religion: American Faith In The 90s, George Gallup, Jr. and Joseph Castelli declare that, "Religion is a low priority for American Jews, who lag behind the general population in membership in a congregation, worship attendance, and the importance they place upon religion in their lives." In the answer to Gallup and company’s question about whether religion was "very important" in their lives, Americans on average said yes 55 percent of the time, and no only 14 percent. American Jews, however, said yes only 30 percent of the time, and no 35 percent of the time. A Gallup Poll taken in December 1991 asked New Yorkers "How important is religion in your life?" The results: 74 percent of blacks, 57 percent of white Catholics, 47 percent of white Protestants and only 34 percent of Jews said religion was "very important. Even here, Abrams points out, "many of those Jews may have meant ‘Jewishness’ rather than Judaism."  

For many years, American Jewish life has been about "Jewishness" and not Judaism. In his book American Judaism, Nathan Glazer declared that the community decided that its "focus would not be religion but something we call ‘Jewishness,’ which would be the common element in a variety of activities — religious, political, cultural, intellectual, philanthropic, all of them legitimately Jewish."  

In Sacred Survival, Jonathan Woocher describes the set of beliefs that came to replace traditional Judaism as the new "civil religion" of American Jews. The life of this new religion is carried on not in synagogues but in the "vast array" of community organizations, originally the B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee and now including the Federations of Jewish Philanthropies and the Jewish Community Relations Councils. These activities became not additions to American Judaism, but the very substance of it.  

Among the false religions eagerly embraced by the Jewish establishment is what Abrams refers to as "the religion of Israel." He writes: "If philanthropy and good works replaced Judaism as the faith of many American Jews, support for the state of Israel came to be the faith of even more. Indeed, it is not too much to say that support for Israel became the key element of Jewish faith for most American Jews. Support for Israel became central to Jewish identity — ‘the core of the religion of American Jews.’ To many American Jews, it became the essence of their lives as Jews and of their understanding of their own Jewishness. They lived Israel, and they supported Israel. A good Jew could do no less, and one who did no less — and no more — was a good Jew."  

Never Genuine Zionism  

The Zionist idea in America, however, was never the genuine Zionism of its European creators but a much different notion. "In America the terms of the argument were different," Abrams writes. "The problem was illustrated when an American delegate to the first Zionist Congress told Herzl that Zionism only meant providing a home for Jews who were homeless. Herzl replied, ‘All Jews have’ homes, and yet they are all homeless.’ American Jews did not view themselves this way, and indeed many agreed with what an American rabbi said in the early part of the 19th century, ‘America is our Zion and Washington is our Jerusalem.’ Of what, then, did American ‘Zionism’ consist? How could Zionism appeal to American Jews, who had already found safety and religious freedom in the New World and who worried lest their loyalty and patriotism be challenged?... Chaim Weizmann, after Herzl the premier Zionist leader in the West, saw Zionism as a movement aimed at awakening the entire Jewish people. Brandeis saw it as a pragmatic program to rebuild a Jewish presence in Palestine. And Brandeis’ view, not that of the cultural or religious Zionists, came to dominate American Jewish thinking. Zionism became little more than a philanthropic endeavor. With the demise of the concept of ‘exile,’ American Zionists tore the spiritual heart out of Zionism...."  

Another substitute for religion which has been widespread in the Jewish community has been the commemoration of the Holocaust. In Abrams’ view, this preoccupation with the Holocaust may "be perverse." He notes that, "Attention to the Holocaust has reached a high point only now, a half-century after its end. In the 1950s and 1960s, when there were numerous signs of institutional vigor in the American Jewish community, it was synagogues that were being built — not museums commemorating the Holocaust. Survivors were rarely heard from in public.... In fact, 85 percent of American Jews now say the Holocaust is very important to their sense of being Jewish. Fewer Jews say that about God, the Torah, or any other factor."  

The Orthodox scholar Michael Wyschograd, in his article on "Faith and the Holocaust," declared: "There is no salvation to be extracted from the Holocaust, no faltering Judaism can be revived by it, no new reason for the continuation of the Jewish people can be found in it."  

Victimization and Suffering  

Elliot Abrams argues that, "A Jewish community organized around Jewish victimization, suffering, tragedy and death is unlikely to attract the passion of new generations. Focus on the Holocaust instead of on Judaism is more likely to inculcate hatred, fear and resentment of Christians, and of Germans in particular (or to justify such feelings when they already exist) than to reinforce any positive Jewish identity. Any profound Jewish faith, or any strict pattern of Jewish ritual observance. Putting the memory of the Holocaust at the center of Jewish identity, moreover, is a distortion of the true faith of Israel... faith in the election and redemption, not in the abandonment of the Jewish people by their God. The Holocaust is an immense tragedy that all Jews must study and come to terms with, as they must come to terms with the long history of Jewish suffering. But it is not the cement that will hold American Jews together."  

Beyond Israel and the Holocaust, fear of anti-Semitism has been another substitute for religion in keeping the American Jewish community intact. The fact that anti-Semitism in the U.S. is no longer a serious problem has, Abrams notes, not been properly appreciated by the organized Jewish community. He writes: "All the data show that anti-Semitism is declining.... But many American Jews are reluctant to acknowledge the good news, as this example shows: ‘according to a 1985 survey by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, almost a third of the Jews in one northern California region said they did not think non-Jews would vote for a Jew for Congress. At the same time they said this, all three of their elected representatives in that area were Jewish’. While anti-Semitism can unquestionably play a perverse but powerful role in promoting Jewish solidarity, in America that role is bound to decline, for anti-Semitism has become the mark of extremism rather than a facet of polite society."  

"Ethnicity" Rather Than Judaism  

Those who have promoted Jewish "ethnicity" rather than Judaism have also led the American Jewish community down a path which cannot promote any form of continuity in the future, Abrams believes. He notes that, "For the newest generations of American Jews, the immigrant experiences and Yiddish culture they describe are nearly as distant and unfamiliar as the French Revolution. Ethnicity, which acted as the single most powerful agent of Jewish communal solidarity for a century in America, is now being dissolved in the heat of the melting pot.... A sense of Jewish ethnicity remains powerful for many Jews ... but alone ... absent a commitment as well to Judaism — it cannot sustain them. This will be true for nearly all Jews in 21st century America, but it is especially true for the increasing percentage of Jews whose ethnic background is mixed because they are the children of intermarriage."  

The vigorous opposition to religious intermarriage itself, Abrams states, has pitted much of the organized Jewish community against the American ethic. "Intermarriage, he writes, "reflects the goal of the open society: the melting pot that dissolves our differences into a new common nationality.... American society can fairly be said to foster intermarriage. And intermarriage reflects yet another ideal, one much more contemporary than the mixing of immigrant groups: individual autonomy. The decision to put certain marriage partners off limits requires subordinating personal attraction and autonomy to other loyalties, usually to a racial or religious group and to a family’s preferences. This is not in the spirit of the age. The idea that one should sacrifice one’s personal happiness to such old-fashioned considerations is a hard sell in America today. Religious differences are no longer a socially acceptable barrier to marriage, any more than ethnic, national or racial differences are.... But this creates an exquisite difficulty for Jews, who at the same time understand that intermarriage will lead to demographic disaster."  

In fact, Abrams shows, most American Jews have accepted intermarriage as inevitable. A 1989 poll by the American Jewish Committee revealed that only 36 percent of Jews would now oppose or strongly oppose a child’s marriage with a non-Jew. Four percent would encourage it and 53 percent would accept the decision and remain neutral. Steven Cohen, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the sociologist who conducted the study, summed up its findings: "Most American Jews have made their peace with mixed marriage."  

Religion in Public Life  

The organized Jewish community, Abrams shows, has fought every public manifestation of religion in public life. Instead of asking for "government neutrality among religions," Jewish leaders insisted that "government not support religion." Imposing lessons learned from Europe on the American society, these Jewish leaders believed that, "Any government in a Christian country was certain to propound the ‘true faith,’ if it involved itself in religious matters at all."  

Thus, the Jewish community led the fight to create a secular America by opposing the intrusion of religion in any public aspect of life. The fear of anti-Semitism was the driving force behind this effort, which, in Abrams’ view, has been seriously mistaken. Preoccupation with Christian anti-Semitism has led Jews to radical secularism which, in turn, has created a de-Judaized Jewish community.  

"Originally," Abrams writes, "the Jewish defense organizations fought to remove Christian prayers from the public schools on the ground of discrimination against Jewish children. But when specifically Christian prayers were gone, these organizations carried on the fight, hoping to exclude any prayer (even voluntary and silent prayer), any observance of religious holidays, any benedictions at graduation ceremonies, or any use of school facilities by religious groups. In one celebrated case, Jewish organizations sided with a school administration that permitted all voluntary student clubs to use school facilities after school was out at 3:00 p.m. — except a Bible club. This, the students argued, was discrimination against only one form of voluntary student activity, Bible study. But the school administration resisted, and the major Jewish organizations supported it and sought to bar even this after-hours and unofficial religious activity. The principle they backed was absolutism in the separation of church and state, for fear that any link of religion to a public institution would eventually endanger Jews. Soon, however that principle was extended from church and state to religion and society. Separation of church and state, as the late social critic Christopher Lasch put it, is ‘nowadays interpreted as prohibiting any public recognition of religion at all.’ While the Supreme Court has been rethinking these question recently, the major Jewish organizations continue faithfully to promote the absolutist dogma."  

Jewish Double Standard  

At this point, Abrams would have done well to point to the double standard inherent in American Jewish groups devoting their time, resources and energy to removing every aspect of religion from American public life while, at the same time, supporting a theocracy in Israel, one in which Reform and Conservative Judaism, the dominant groups in America, have no legal rights. In Israel, Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform weddings or funerals and their conversions are not recognized. In Israel, civil marriage does not exist. The support for a complete separation of church and state in the U.S., it seems, is hardly a matter of principle. Abrams unfortunately, ignores this revealing contradiction.  

Most Jewish groups, Abrams points out, seem unwilling to acknowledge that the vast majority of Christians today are not anti-Semitic. Protestant and Catholic groups have rejected anti-Semitism but, he states, preoccupation with alleged Christian anti-Semitism has caused Jews to take a leadership role in pushing religion out of public life.  

"American Jews," he writes, "are on the whole uncomfortable among Christian activists for two reasons, neither of which does them credit. The first is simple prejudice: suspicion of Christian religiosity that has little or nothing to do, today, with actual manifestations of anti-Semitism by devout Christians. Jews who believe that evangelical Christians are likely to be anti-Semites, and that Christian religiosity is associated with anti-Semitism, are indulging in prejudice in the dictionary definition of the term. They are prejudging their fellow citizens and condemning them for bigotry without evidence and without trial... Anti-Christian bias is apparently the only form of prejudice that remains respectable in the American Jewish community. This should be anathema to American Jews — not only because it may embitter interfaith relations but because it is entirely contrary to the respect for religious differences for which Jews have clamored over the years.... Such a stance is dishonorable for the American Jewish community and does nothing to advance its real interests. The notion that the more fervent a Christian’s belief the more danger he or she represents to Jews should be rejected outright."  

Bias of ADL  

The Anti-Defamation League has, Abrams charges, been particularly guilty of such bias. Its 1994 attack on Christian conservatives, The Religious Right: An Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America, "reasserted the faulty argument that those who do not share the liberal political agenda and the traditional fearful liberal view of religion are a danger to American Jews."  

Among the more egregious examples of errors in the ADL‘s analysis which are cited is the criticism of the Rev. Pat Robertson for failing to denounce the Louisiana neo-Nazi David Duke. The ADL’s Abraham Foxman had to write to Robertson to apologize, admitting that "you did denounce Duke on your 700 Club broadcast ... three days before the election." The ADL report also declared that Robertson had said Jews were "spiritually deaf and spiritually blind." Foxman acknowledged in his letter of apology that. "We have discovered that you did not make these statements."  

Abrams laments that, "Within the American Jewish community there remains considerable suspicion, not to say hostility, toward Christianity, though there is little said about this phenomenon.... The last quarter century has seen profound changes in Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. These changes have not been matched in Jewish attitudes toward Christianity. While many Christian denominations now acknowledge that the covenant of Abraham still endures, American Jews too seldom either know about or appreciate Christianity and its teachings. At the very least, Jews should understand the role of Christianity in spreading knowledge of the Torah. The Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig wrote that ‘Our recognition of Christianity rests, in fact, upon its recognition of us. It is the Torah, ultimately, which is spread abroad by Bible societies to the most distant lands.’ But this is only a reflection of the insight of Maimonides, who wrote 800 years ago in the Mishneh Torah that through the spread of Christianity, ‘the messianic hope’, the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics — topics of conversation among the inhabitants of far isles and many peoples.’ Unfortunately, Jewish-Christian dialogue remains a narrow conversation among experts whose advances are too often simply unknown to American Jews — and Christians."  

Fear of Religion  

American Jews, sadly, "believe they will be at risk if religion becomes a visible factor in American life," Abrams writes, "but they cannot demonstrate why anyone should believe this.... It is founded in fear, and though that fear can easily be explained by Jewish history, it cannot be defended by reference to Jewish interests today. It freezes American Jews into a pattern of thought and behavior that is unfair to their neighbors and damaging to their own future. It is, to say the least, morally offensive to see Jewish groups displaying a combination of class prejudice, political intolerance, and real difficulty coming to grips with Christianity. Religious fervor is being associated with ignorance and lack of education. Christians whose faithfulness to their religion, and ability to keep their children faithful to it, should be a model for Jews, are instead seen as bumpkins and bigots."  

The fact is, Abrams shows, that as religion has been driven to the margins of American life, Jews have become less Jewish. In the end, Abrams believes that Jews cannot survive in the American society as an ethnic group, as a group committed to the false religion of Israel or commemoration of the Holocaust, or as a result of fear of prejudice which rings false to the vast majority of American Jews. Only Judaism, the religion, can hope to survive in the diverse and open American society: "Whether American Jews can commit themselves anew to the goal of survival, to reversing the demographic patterns that threaten their collective future, depends on whether they still believe they are above all else members of a religious community. As an ethnic, cultural or political entity they are doomed. Such identification erodes from one generation to the next; it cannot be sustained against the pressures of a society seeking relentlessly to include them within larger groups of citizens who do not share their religious heritage.... American Jewry will survive as a religious community or not at all."  

There is much that is persuasive in Elliot Abrams’ analysis, and he is surely correct in pointing to the various false gods that have replaced genuine religion in American Jewish life. Those American Jews seeking genuine spirituality have abandoned institutions which devoted their time and energy to Middle East conflicts, Holocaust commemorations and liberal politics. Throughout this book, however, the reader gets the feeling that Abrams believes in promoting an Orthodox, isolationist version of Judaism — which he does not practice himself — largely as a tactic for group survival rather than out of a sincere belief in its religious precepts.  

Orthodox Day Schools  

He expresses support for Orthodox Jewish day schools largely, it seems, because the products of such schools are less likely to marry those of other faiths. His argument in behalf of Orthodoxy is utilitarian, not a matter of faith. Thus, he writes that, "...the Orthodox are doing something that should in principle attract the admiration and support of the American Jewish community: staying Jewish. They do not have a 52 percent intermarriage rate.... The good Jew is ritually observant and resists assimilation, in some sense living apart, never fitting comfortably into American or any other society."  

Understanding the problem with the logic of his own argument, Abrams asks: "And what of faith? Is it not a prerequisite for such religious activity? At first glance, it does not appear to be so for Jews can turn to Judaism as a matter of Jewish survival. Judaism can be for them if not a faith then an instrumentality for achieving the social goal of perpetuating the group. Can Jewish nonbelievers troop off to synagogue, or light Sabbath candles, not because they are considered divine commands but because they make it more likely that the next generation will perform the same empty rituals?... From the perspective of the individual Jew, this conduct might seem hypocritical; he or she appears to be feigning a faith no longer held. Yet from the community’s perspective, and indeed from the perspective of Judaism itself, the entire enterprise is very different and far more promising."  

Elliot Abrams’ analysis of the problem of Jewish continuity is persuasive and well argued. His belief that Jews can survive in the end only as a religious group is almost beyond question. Yet what kind of religious group is it that he wants to survive, and for what reason? To argue that those who do not believe in the strictures of Orthodox Judaism embrace its practices as a means for the survival of a system of thought and way of life in which they do not believe, is hardly likely to attract large numbers of adherents.  

Universal God  

What Abrams has not considered is the possibility of a Judaism envisioned by the 19th and early 20th century reformers who believed in a universal God, the creator of all men, and in a religion which had something important to say about man’s meaning and purpose in the world. They sought to promote a prophetic vision of justice and moral values, a vision much in need in the contemporary American society. They did not lament the decline of the ghetto or seek to segregate Jews in schools and communities of their own lest they be corrupted by the larger society of which they were an integral part.  

Judaism is not a hot-house plant which requires special isolation to thrive. It is one of the pillars of Western civilization and is the source of the very values embraced by our larger society. The emphasis on righteousness, for example, remains at the heart and soul of Judaism. This prompted the English critic Matthew Arnold to remark that "the intense and convinced energy with which the Hebrew threw himself upon his ideal of righteousness has belonged to Hebraism alone ... moreover as long as the world lasts, all who want to make progress in righteousness will come to Israel for inspiration."  

Thomas Huxley, the 19th century English biologist declared that, "The Bible has been the Magna Charta of the poor and oppressed.... All that is best in the ethics of the modern world ... is the direct development of the ethics of Israel. There is no code of legislation, ancient or modern, at once so just and merciful, so tender to the weak and poor, as the Jewish law."  

In the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, Reform Jewish leaders in America declared that, "We recognize in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, not the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state."  

Reforming Process  

In his book The Leaven of Judaism, Rabbi David Goldberg writes that, "...this reforming process has been an integral part of Judaism from its beginnings. In fact, it is Judaism’s reforming process which has been the leaven of Judaism throughout history.... Judaism is ... characterized by process and sensitive response to living reality. It progressed from epoch to epoch and journeyed from country to country. It gave birth to two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. It went through several major developments while retaining a basic religious philosophy. And it could do so because the reforming principle, the principle of progress, acting as its spiritual leaven, as silent but potent internal force, perpetually stimulated growth and development."  

Elliot Abrams is right in believing that religion — not the substitutes for it which constitute so much of contemporary Jewish life — is the only thing which is likely to survive in the long run. But his view that the survival of Judaism requires a narrow religion and an isolationist posture in which people hypocritically observe rituals without faith, is a prescription which not only will not work but is indicative of belief in a God who may be too small for the task at hand. Perhaps Abrams would do well to consider the universal God who created all men, the God Judaism bestowed upon the world and who is so much needed in our contemporary society.  

Despite a prescription which will not solve the problems he sets forth, Elliot Abrams has, nevertheless, identified many of the real challenges facing the American Jewish community at the present time. Hopefully, his book will become the basis for much discussion for no problem can be resolved if it is not properly diagnosed. Faith or Fear represents a beginning of such a diagnosis.  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.