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Don’t Judge Judaism by the Numbers

Douglas Rushkoff
Winter 2003

Today, at their annual conference, the United Jewish Communities had planned to release a new $6 million population study. In the past, these studies, issued every 10 years, have warned American Jews that they are ever more imperiled by an aging population, rampant inter­marriage, low birth rates and declin­ing synagogue membership.  

But last week, citing “missing data,” the organization, an umbrella group of Jewish federations and com­munities, announced that it would hold off releasing its findings indefinitely.  

This is very good news.  

Defined by Numbers  

For too long, the health of Judaism has been defined largely by numbers. Certainly, this is understandable - a concern rooted in some very real and recent efforts at eliminating the Jew­ish population. But must we forever judge the future of American Juda­ism as if we were evaluating the health of an endangered species?  

The problem for Jews today, if there is one, is not waning demo­graphics or cultural assimilation. It is the focus on these factors as the core priorities of the Jewish faith. In fact, it is only by liberating ourselves from these metrics that we become able to understand how Judaism is not on the brink of extinction at all, but poised for renaissance. Such a rebirth would not merely invigorate Jewish culture but serve Americans too, as we try to come to terms with religions and the people who see fit to defend them.  

Notion of Race  

The very notion of a Jewish race was conceived in persecution and gal­vanized in extermination. The first biblical reference to the Israelite peo­ple is made by a slave-driving phar­aoh, and the first historical reference to a Jewish race was articulated dur­ing the Inquisition as a way of con­demning even those Jews who had converted to Catholicism. The Nazis built their horror on scientific proof of Jews’ genetic propensity for cer­tain beliefs and behaviors.  

As a Jew who cares deeply about his religion, I have come to the con­clusion that our great mistake has been to forget that we are the de­scendants of a loose amalgamation of peoples united around a new idea and to replace this history with the view, advanced by our enemies, that we are a race. Zionism, perhaps unin­tentionally, gave this race a nation to defend; Israel’s hostile neighbors kept alive real and pressing ques­tions of survival.  

Obligation Not Privilege  

It’s not surprising, then, that many American Jews have come to under­stand their Jewishness as an obliga­tion rather than a privilege. By the 1970’s, Reform Jewish schools and synagogues, like the ones I attended, had begun to emphasize Zionism and the benefits of marrying within the Faith over religious education. Every Jewish institution that I encountered as a young man seemed more dedi­cated to safeguarding the Jewish race than to teaching Judaism. This has led to a Jewish culture based not on faith or spiritual inquiry but on the mechanics of preservation.  

Perhaps that is why the worse things get, or the more dire the cir­cumstances are depicted, the more committed and generous Jews be­come. With each new crisis in the West Bank, tourism to Israel goes down, but donations to Jewish philan­thropies go up. In such an environ­ment, the hard data proving the increase in intermarriage and the re­luctance of those couples to raise their children in the Jewish tradition is gold. It is in the short-term finan­cial interest of Jewish philanthropies to paint the darkest demographic pic­ture possible. And they do.  

Retention Strategy  

But dark pictures with retrograde notions of race do not help keep young American Jews in the fold. How effective a retention strategy is it, really, to treat Judaism as a tribe to be measured in numbers of surviv­ing members, rather than as an ethi­cal proposition born 3,000 years ago whose success should be gauged by its level of actual acceptance?  

As I have come to understand it, Judaism was built around the contention that human beings can make the world a better, more just place. It was a novel idea in its time, and one that most of those who promote Juda­ism-by-census would do well to re­member.  

For it seems as if the most impor­tant aspect of being a Jew today is merely how Jewish one is. And Jew­ishness itself is seen as a willingness to support and defend the “Jewish people,” whatever that may mean. Who would want to sign up for this?  

Living Connection  

As Judaism focuses on its immi­nent demise, it grows less attractive to those looking for a living connec­tion to something greater than the self. Many people turn to religion as a way of shifting their inward focus, not amplifying it. It is for this reason, perhaps, that so many people born Jewish have ended up gravitating toward the outward-reaching cause of civil rights, the quest for social justice or even the ego­-shattering practice of Buddhism. To me it seems a cruel joke that many of the Jews who follow these pursuits are then, because they lack any synagogue affiliation, counted in studies as “lapsed” and mourned as the reli­gion’s failures.  

Judaism will dwindle unless its leaders begin to acknowledge that every generation will reinvent Juda­ism for itself. Instead of lamenting the withering flower that is institu­tional Judaism, they must learn to rejoice in the dissemination of its seeds. In short, they must reverse their orientation and acknowledge that the ongoing conversation that is Judaism can happen anywhere, be­tween anyone.  

Universal Tenets  

Judaism is a set of ideas to be shared. Its universal tenets should not be surrendered to the seemingly more pressing threat of tribal disso­lution - particularly not right now. Judaism is founded in iconoclasm, a principle especially relevant to a world so hypnotized by its many false idols. Judaism finds its expression in radical pluralism, an assertion that there is no name for God - at least none that any human being could conceive. And because it puts human needs above anyone’s notion of deity, Judaism is ultimately enacted through the very real work of social justice.  

As our nation and the world strug­gle to balance the conflicting priori­ties of religion, freedom and human rights, Judaism’s core strengths are greatly needed. It would be a terrible shame if the religion’s biggest concern continued to be itself.  

(This article originally appeared in The New York Times of November 20, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.)  

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