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A Positive Look at American Judaism Which Is Thriving, Despite the Repeated Declarations That It Is in Decline and Threatened with Disappearance

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2008

The New American Judaism  
by Arthur Blecher,  
Palgrave Macmillan,  
244 Pages,  
Repeated declarations that American Judaism is in decline and is threatened with disappearance, overheated campaigns concerning Jewish “continuity” and “survival,” fear of and opposition to religious intermarriage, and intolerance of dissenting views, all represent negative — and false — assessments of the genuine state of the American Jewish community.  
In the view of Rabbi Arthur Blecher, who served as rabbi of Congregation Beth Chai in Washington, D.C. for more than twenty years, is a recognized authority on interfaith couples, and is a psychotherapist, American Judaism is alive and well — but may not be in the future unless it abandons its negativity and opens itself to the opportunities provided by the free and open American society.  
Myths About Judaism  
Institutional — denominational — American Judaism is, Blecher argues, based on a number of myths which were established more than a century ago at the time of the emigration of millions of Eastern European Jews to the U.S. These myths include the following:  
• Judaism is a four-thousand-year-old religion whose beliefs and practices originated in the Bible.  
• Judaism in America is disappearing through assimilation and the Jewish population is at risk of dying out.  
• An ideal Jewish life existed years ago in the small towns of Eastern Europe, and the popular image of the shtetl reflects a real world.  
• The Jewish religion was founded on reason, and Jews have been a people of law and logic throughout their history.  
• The denominations are Judaism’s historical governing bodies, and they represent normative Judaism in America.  
• Rabbis are Judaism’s official practitioners.  
• The Jewish population will be sustained if Jews marry other Jews exclusively, and intermarriage is a threat to the survival of Judaism.  
“Even though none of these claims is true,” Blecher writes, “they dictate the day-to-day policies and practices of American Judaism.”  
Repeated Transformations  
The Judaism which is practiced in modern America, Blecher shows, is not four thousand years old, since Judaism has undergone repeated transformations through its history, and its current manifestation bears little relationship to previous religious belief and practice.  
“Two thousand years ago,” he writes, “the Jewish religion involved a centralized system of priests and animal sacrifices. The fundamental institutions of American Judaism — the denomination and the modern rabbi — developed within the past 150 years, and many of their concepts and practices are entirely 20th century American products. ... American Judaism has always been uneasy about acknowledging. Even the founders of the Reform movement in the 1800s, who had introduced radical departures from tradition, wanted American Jews to see all changes as ‘organic, growing out of the historic fabric of Judaism.’”  
In reality, Blecher shows, Judaism has changed dramatically over the centuries, and its religious practices have taken on different forms. In fact, Judaism “has had several distinct incarnations; the practices of the patriarchal period of the Bible, priestly Judaism and Diaspora Judaism. The Judaism of 20th century America, denominational Judaism, is the fifth version of the Jewish religion ... The differences between biblical practices and modern Judaism are so great that they cannot be considered the same religion.”  
Centralized System  
Extensive passages in the later four books of the Torah — Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — prescribe the centralized system of highly formalized sacrifices that replaced the patriarchal mode. The Temple period resembles the nationalized and highly formalized ritual system of the great Babylonian, Greek and Roman empires that dominated the region in ancient times. The religious system of the First Temple period is gone as well. The Jews who were transplanted to Babylonia after the fall of Jerusalem found ways to maintain their religion without the Temple.  
“Jewish life survived long after the end of the exile and the building of the Second Temple,” notes the author. “According to the Bible, when the exiles returned and established a second Jewish commonwealth in Judea, they introduced a major change in the Temple service: the reading of the Torah. This new practice paved the way for the forms of the Jewish religion that would follow, and today the formal reading of the Torah is a central ritual of Judaism. The new institution of the local house of study and worship — the synagogue — existed in tandem with the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and both the Jewish state and priestly Judaism ended, the synagogues in Judea and Babylonia were already fully functional. From that point on, the Jewish religion consisted of Torah study, prayer and non-sacrificial rituals conducted by private individuals in homes and local synagogues. Rabbinic Judaism replaced Second Temple priestly Judaism ... Rabbinic Judaism would be the religion of the Jewish people for the next 500 years.”  
After Biblical Times  
What many view as essential Jewish customs and ceremonies are, the author shows, practices which began well after the time of the Bible. He notes that, “Many of the most familiar elements of the religion, such as the Sabbath eve home rituals of candle lighting, sanctification of wine (kiddush), and sharing of loaves of challah, receive no mention in the Bible at all ... Some historians believe that the entire Jewish liturgical calendar was established during the Babylonian exile and that it was the exile community that endowed the agricultural festivals of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot with their historical and theological meanings ... No wedding ceremonies of any kind are described in the Hebrew Bible ... the huppah (wedding canopy), the ketubah (marriage contract) — all of these were instituted by the rabbis around 2,000 years ago, well after the time of the Bible. And monogamy — which is what most people think of when they think of Jewish marriage — did not become the standard practice until much later. Polygamy was not officially outlawed among the Ashkenazi Jews until 1000, in a famous Takkanah (amendment) of Rabbi Gershom ben Judah. The Jews of Spain practiced polygamy until the 1400s, and some Sephardic groups practiced it into the 20th century.”  
Prior to the medieval period, there is no evidence for the custom of wearing yarmulkes. The elaborate laws of kashruth — regulating how animal products may or may not be used for food, were not fixed until the 1500s. In fact, Blecher declares, “What we recognize as Orthodox Judaism today is no more than several centuries old. The word orthodox means ‘uniform law,’ ... Although many people believe Orthodoxy represents the oldest form of Judaism, in fact it is not very much older than the modernist movements.”  
Influenced by Outside Forces  
Most of these changes have been either compelled by or influenced by outside forces. Thus, writes Blecher, “If Nebuchadnezzar had not conquered Judea in the 6th century BCE and forced its middle class into exile in Babylonia, the Books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel would never have been written and many Jewish institutions would not have been created. Suppose Cyrus the Great of Persia had not taken over Babylonia in 537 BCE, Ezra would not have established the Torah as the central law of a new Jewish commonwealth, and the Second Temple would never have been built. If the Greek empire had not overtaken Assyria and Assyria then overtaken Judea in the third century BCE, the Hellenistic values of scholarship and the veneration of classical texts might not have influenced the Jews as much as they did. The Greek concept of interpreting classical texts by principles of logic would not have become the force behind the development of rabbinic law. If the Roman general Titus had not besieged Jerusalem and sacked the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, animal sacrifice might have continued to be the dominant Jewish mode of worship.”  
The fact is, the author shows, that since the earliest times the customs and practice of Judaism have been determined as much by the destinies of other peoples as by the vision of the Torah. “There is no way to know exactly what present-day Judaism would look like,” he writes, “if the Jews of Western Europe had never enjoyed the benefits of the Enlightenment that followed the French Revolution. Alternatively, if the French military had not falsely convicted their only Jewish officer of treason in 1895, inspiring Theodor Herzl to write Der Judenstaat and give birth to Zionism, Jewish intellectuals might not have established settlements in Palestine in the early 1900s. If Russia had not annexed parts of Poland in the late 1700s, there would not have been so many Jews under Russian rule; if Czar Alexander II had not been assassinated in 1881, the oppression of the Jews might not have been so severe, and millions of Eastern European Jews might not have migrated to America. If the Great Depression had not afflicted Germany in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler might not have become chancellor, millions of Jews would not have been murdered, the State of Israel might not have been established in 1948, and Judaism would be a very different religion than it is today.”  
Different Forms of Judaism  
The Judaism of the communities that settled in Babylonia was very different from the religion of Judea and the same is true of the Jewish communities that developed within Muslim, Catholic and Protestant lands. The same is true of the Judaism that was born in America in the 20th century.  
But while rabbis were swept up in the New World spirit of invention and modernity and became fond of using the terms “evolve, grow and adapt,” they felt a need, says Blecher, “to reassure the immigrants — and themselves as well — that American Judaism had not discarded anything. ... Prior to the early 1900s, Judaism in America was Reform Judaism, and the Reform movement in the 19th century had no need to reconcile with tradition. It took full credit for breaking from the past. In fact, when the movement published a formal statement of its principles in 1885, it made strong statements of discontinuity: ‘We ... reject all such (ceremonies) as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization ... Such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state ... Their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.’ The statement simply asserted that newer forms of Judaism replace older forms. This was Reform ideology before the migration of the Eastern European Jews and the advent of denominational Judaism. Prior to the 20th century, Reform movement writings in America contained none of the themes of denominational Judaism — continuity, authenticity and survival. The arrival of millions of Eastern European Jews changed all that.”  
While the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements were founded with the stated mission of adapting Judaism to modern society, they are, writes Blecher, “reticent to talk about change within Judaism ... It sits better with denominational sentiment to believe that older forms of Judaism evolved or grew than to think that they were simply replaced by newer forms.”  
Learning from Other Cultures  
According to Reform Judaism’s Statement of Principles published in 1999: “Throughout our history, we Jews have remained firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, even as we have learned much from our encounters with other cultures. The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition.” By depending on such oblique references as “learned much from our encounters with other cultures” and “introduce innovation,” these American Jewish leaders, in Blecher’s view, “mask the fact that over the centuries, many civilizations have had major impacts on Judaism — both good and bad — and have forced wrenching transformations on Jewish life. When viewed through the denominational lens of continuity, Jewish history appears much less interesting than it actually is.”  
By any standard, Judaism in America has grown and thrived. The American Jewish population has increased from 1 million to 6 million during the 20th century, supported by one of the most substantial networks of institutions, both secular and religious, in Jewish history. More than two thousand synagogues have been built in the U.S. since the beginning of the 1900s, and nearly half of the Jews living in America today belong to a Jewish congregation of some kind. Yet, writes Blecher, “In spite of these verifiable facts, predictions of doom have been a constant feature of the past hundred years. Secular Jewish leaders have constantly warned of the approaching extinction of the Jewish population in America, while American rabbis have lamented the imminent demise of the Jewish religion. ... The theme of survival in the face of assimilation became so much a part of the identity of American Judaism that few leaders today are willing to give it up. The myth that Judaism and Jewish identity are endangered in America was born from the trauma of cultural dislocation a century ago. The myth lives on because Jewish institutions believe they are essential to the preservation of Judaism in America; the greater the peril, the more important their role.”  
“Vanishing American Jew”  
In 1964, Look Magazine published a cover story titled “The Vanishing American Jew.” In response, the author writes, “Rabbis across the country repeated the prophecy from their pulpits. Even though the American Jewish population had actually quadrupled from the beginning of the 20th century until the publication of the article in 1964, the specter of doom seemed real to American Jews ... Yet, although Look Magazine had ceased publication ... the specter of the vanishing American Jew lived on. In 1973 the American Jewish Committee convened a task force on the future of the Jewish community in America ... In fact, numbers were not declining: the publication reports published by the American Jewish Committee each year since 1899 showed that they were increasing ... The Reform movement issued an official statement in 1976 alerting the community that ‘the survival of the Jewish People is of the highest priority.’ ... Even as the statistics showed a steady increase decade by decade, American Jews still believed their population was falling.”  
Some commentators have gone so far as to argue that an absence of anti-Semitism is, in fact, bad for the Jews. The proposition that anti-Semitism preserves Judaism is a major premise of the book The Vanishing Jew by Harvard Professor Alan E. Dershowitz. Blecher notes that, “Dershowitz warns that the current absence of anti-Jewish sentiment spells doom for American Jews and that ‘these good times may mark the beginning of the end of Jewish life in America as we know it.’ Tolling American Judaism’s death knell, he blames social acceptance for the end of Jewish life, telling the reader that ‘the projected disappearance, or at least significant shrinkage, the Jewish presence in America is largely a function of the improving status of the Jew in the world today.’”  
Perpetuating Judaism  
Through its preaching, its publications and its programs, American Judaism teaches, Blecher argues, that “one of the primary purposes of practicing Judaism is to perpetuate the practice of Judaism ... Prophetic Judaism points to the future: The meaning of life is found in the struggle for the eventual perfection of human society. Prophetic theology derives from the literary prophets of the Hebrew Bible, roughly 2,500 years ago, and is based on their vision of a world of peace and justice. The purpose of Jewish practice is to bring about the messianic age, when all humanity will abide by God’s will ... American Judaism espouses an entirely new and different ideology: The reason to live a Jewish life is to preserve the Jewish people. The 20th century theme of survival is found throughout denominational Judaism today ... For example, one of the major arms of the Reform movement is its teen organization, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). NFTY’s constitution enumerates ten principles of American Judaism. God and Torah are each mentioned once. The phrase ‘survival of the Jewish people,’ however, appears three times.”  
Prior to the 20th century, the theme of survival was not a formal ingredient of the Reform movement. In fact, none of the themes of American Judaism can be found in the historical 1885 Declaration of Principles in the Pittsburgh Platform. The concept of survivalism entered the Reform movement’s 1937 Columbus Platform and became a major feature of the movement’s 1976 Centenary Perspective, which lays out six key principles of Reform ideology. The first four are the familiar pillars of classic Judaism: God, Torah, the Jewish people and Jewish observance; the fifth, support for the State of Israel is a product of the late half of the 20th century. The document adds a sixth principle: “Our Obligations: Survival and Service,” and concludes that, “Jewish survival is warrant for human hope.”  
“Survival” and “Continuity”  
The pessimistic posture of threatened disappearance and the primary focus upon “survival” and “continuity” has little appeal to American Jewish young people. “The persistent myth that American Jewry is about to vanish,” Blecher declares, “has produced a stilted form of Judaism that cannot capture the imagination of new generations of Jews who are unlikely to embrace a system based on anxiety and guilt ... The statement that Jewish life is a perpetual struggle for survival is not an appealing message to any child.”  
Despite the reality of a healthy and vibrant American Jewish community, the predictions of doom continue to dominate discourse about the future. In his book Faith or Fear, Elliot Abrams speaks of “a community in decline, facing in fact a demographic disaster.” He predicts “a drop of anywhere from one million to over two million in the American Jewish population in the next two generations.”  
When official pronouncements lament the large number of “unaffiliated” American Jews, Blecher argues that the new reality of 21st century America is being ignored: “Just because a large number of American Jews are ‘unaffiliated’ according to the standards of the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) does not mean that Jewish life in America has become weaker. The truth is that the Jewish life of many Americans simply has moved to other, less measurable venues. ... For example, only one of the three hundred questions in the 2000 survey touched on the Internet as a source of Jewish information, although the authors did acknowledge its growing importance. ... If, as the NJPS suggests, younger Jews are less affiliated with traditional institutions, that is because Jewishness is happening in new places that do not fit the old categories ... The proliferation of Web sites and the burgeoning of blogs devoted to Jewish issues reveal a vibrant and rapidly growing community of students of Judaism ... The number of books on Judaism in bookstores — both online and brick-and-mortar — has grown exponentially, and other works are being reissued as rapidly as modern publishing can manage ... They are members of a new American Judaism.”  
Prescription for Failure  
Telling young people to embrace Judaism so that it will “survive” and that “continuity” will be achieved, rather than for the positive qualities it will bring to their lives, is a prescription for failure, according to the author. He laments that, “Jews are told to keep the Sabbath and study the Torah not because God commands them to, not because it will bring joy to their lives, not because it will redeem the world, but rather because it will prevent the Jewish population from dying out. As long as American Judaism continues to tend the altar of survival, it will have difficulty bringing assimilated Jews back into the fold, and it will push marginal Jews farther away. In spite of the efforts and creativity of Jewish educators and rabbis, the more American Judaism concentrates on ensuring that its children will be Jews, the less appealing Judaism will be to those children; the subtext of survival can offer only guilt and anxiety. New generations of Jews can find greater inspiration and spiritual fulfillment by moving forward from the negativity and defensiveness of a survivalist approach to Jewish life.”  
Of particular concern to Blecher is the manner in which Jewish spokesmen so often blame religious intermarriage for the alleged decline in population. Beyond this, those rabbis and others who teach that intermarriage is a modern aberration, the result of assimilation or of disloyalty to Judaism, are presenting a view which he believes contradicts history.  
“Intermarriage,” he writes, “is as old as the Jewish people. Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, the five books of Scripture that form the core of Jewish law, no commandment categorically forbids a Jew to marry a gentile. In fact, in Exodus 2:21, the Hebrew Bible recounts that Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest. Even though she was of a different religion, their son, Gershon, was without question one of the children of Israel, The Torah completely accepts the legitimacy of Moses’ relationship with this non-Israelite woman and takes for granted the Israelite status of their offspring. A later passage in the Torah (Numbers 12:1) tells that Moses married an Ethiopian woman. Elsewhere (Ruth 4:10-17) the Bible describes the marriage between the Moabite woman Ruth and the Israelite man Boaz as an ordinary fact of daily life. The descendant of that mixed marriage, David, became the king of Israel.”  
During the biblical period, women and children automatically assumed the identity of the male head of household. Later, the rabbis replaced the biblical policy of patrilineal descent, whereby Jewish identity was transmitted through the father, with matrilineal descent because of a purely practical necessity arising from legal situations in which the paternity of a child might be in doubt.  
“This major change in Jewish law,” writes Blecher, “set up a tension that would make intermarriage a problem in ways it had not been before ... The requirement of formal conversion introduced a new dependency on the rabbinic courts. Religious rights that had been automatic for all Jewish offspring under biblical law would now be mediated by rabbinic authority ... Intermarriage was a feature of Jewish life in the Roman Empire, medieval Europe and colonial America and was common among American Jews in the 19th century. ... Even the venerated Jewish community of Eastern Europe was not immune from intermarriage. Statistics available for several European cities at the end of the 19th century show rates of Jewish intermarriage ranging from 2 percent to as high as 46 percent, with an overall rate of 15 percent. Thus, intermarriage is not an anomaly of modern America, but rather a normal part of the life of the Jewish people ... over time.”  
Doubts Negative Impact  
Rabbi Blecher also doubts that intermarriage has a negative demographic impact upon Jewish population numbers. According to the in-marriage model, he argues, a Jewish woman marries a Jewish man. If they have two children, all things being equal, they replace themselves. If instead the Jewish woman marries a gentile man, while the Jewish man marries a gentile woman, and each couple produces two children, then two Jews will have produced four children. He writes that, “Even if one couple raises their children as Jews and the other does not, the results are the same for both the in-marriage model and intermarriage model: two Jews produce two Jewish children. Whatever the average size of families in America, intermarriage produces twice as many offspring for Jews as does in-marriage. The overall Jewish population level, therefore, depends on what percentage of the children of intermarriage are counted as Jews. Here the picture is actually encouraging. Using the NJPS criteria when it counted the Jewish parents (any individual with one Jewish parent who is not exclusively a member of another monotheistic religion), the majority of the children of intermarriage have to be counted Jewish ... It is likely that some of the non-Jewish or partially Jewish offspring of intermarriage will grow up to marry Jews and subsequently raise their children exclusively as Jews. During periods of intermarriage, Jewish identity weaves in as well as out.”  
Those Jewish institutions which are hostile to intermarriage, which deny admission to religious schools to children who are not “exclusively” Jewish, are, Blecher believes, acting in a counter-productive and intolerant manner.  
He notes that, “When interfaith couples who adopt the dual-identity path for raising their children are interviewed ... many reveal that they simply find this approach preferable to choosing one parent’s religion over the other’s. These couples are seeking to avoid a win-lose situation where one parent’s religious identity is, in effect, deselected ... Ironically, few congregations would refuse membership to a Jew who denies the existence of God, even though belief in God is central to Judaism. But they would reject a Jew, even a child, who believes that Jesus was more than an ordinary human being ... It is self-defeating for a people worried about being an endangered species to deny education to children of Jewish parentage, even those who are receiving Christian education. Whether the concern is demographic survival of the Jewish people or the authenticity of Jewish identity, it makes better sense to provide impressionable children with a Jewish educational experience than to abandon them to Christianity.”  
When it suits the purposes of the Jewish establishment to embrace those who are less than exclusively Jewish, they do not hesitate to do so, according to Blecher. He declares that, “The ‘Six Million’ has become sacrosanct shorthand for a particular group exterminated by the Nazis — a group that includes both Jews and partial Jews. The Jewish community has made it a point of honor to memorialize all the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism, meticulously gathering and recording every name. Even partial Jews, even Jews who had assimilated, even Jews who had become Christians are included among the Six Million. It is ironic that American Judaism accepts the children and grandchildren of intermarriage among those it honors as Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but sets aside the precedent of inclusion when it comes to the offspring of interfaith couples living in America today. A rabbi who will chant the kaddish for a victim of the Holocaust might not conduct a Jewish funeral if that same individual died in America today.”  
Same-Gender Couples  
It is especially ironic, Blecher believes, that many Reform, Recon-structionist and even Conservative rabbis will bless same-gender couples if both partners are Jewish, but not interfaith couples. “This,” he writes, “is a significant distinction, because homosexuality is condemned in the Torah, whereas intermarriage is not. If by modifying a few words rabbis can conduct the equivalent of a Jewish wedding ceremony for a same-gender couple, why would they deny the same service to an interfaith couple.”  
In the traditional ceremony, only the groom pronounces the vow, and only the bride receives a ring. When social norms changed, American rabbis composed a vow for the bride while presenting a ring to the groom. The only thing they had to do was replace the specific Hebrew words which invoke Jewish law, kidat mosheh viyisrael, with more general language for the woman to receive as she places a ring on the man’s hand. Similarly, rabbis who conduct commitment ceremonies for same-gender couples routinely reword the traditional marriage vow to acknowledge both the gender of the partners and the fact that the ceremony is not in accordance with traditional Jewish law.  
“For the foreseeable future,” Blecher writes, “American Judaism will be a self-contained subculture or it will be an intermarried community. If Jewish congregations are to thrive as wholesome communities, they must move forward from viewing some of their member households as illicit, inferior or impaired. Intermarriage and religiously blended households have become a permanent part of Jewish life. A new American Judaism will serve the community effectively and have broad influence over the lives of Jews in this country by accepting intermarried families as normal Jewish households. It will decriminalize and depathologize both mixed couples and partial Jews. This may seem like a radical suggestion, but it will enhance the viability of American Judaism. It will alter the landscape of Jewish civilization in America, in ways that cannot be predicted, but the other approach — marginalizing intermarried Jews and rejecting their children — is certain to weaken American Judaism in the long run ... Penalizing Jews who intermarry by denying denominational resources and professional services does not preserve Jewish identity; denying their children a Jewish education destroys Jewish identity.”  
New, Positive Approach  
If Judaism is to survive in America in the future, Blecher believes, an entirely news positive approach must be embraced: “Rabbis can move forward from their old role as the agents of Jewish survival and take on a greater role as prophetic voices for social justice and spiritual fulfillment ... The time has come to abandon an outdated Jewish ideology promulgated on the fear of extinction ... Population studies that overlook these expanding segments of the Jewish population will only gather misleading statistics that seem to indicate new generations of Jews are abandoning Judaism when in fact Jewish life is migrating to different kinds of institutions and new kinds of communities. Rather than vanishing, the American Jew is moving forward.”  
What Rabbi Blecher urges is a genuine honesty about Judaism which has, for too long, been absent from the American discourse about its past and future. The notion that Judaism has always been a religion of reason, for example, is one which is clearly refuted by history. The Torah, he points out, describes divination, and trials by ordeal, and routinely discussed Heaven and Hell. The traditional Hebrew prayer book mentions Satan. The Talmud records a claim that Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach hanged 80 women for witchcraft on one day (Sanhedrin 45b), and the 17th century Italian philosopher Moses Hayyim Luzzato was forced to flee to Amsterdam when the rabbis of Padua raided his home and accused him of sorcery. Yet, throughout the 20th century, rabbis and scholars have insisted that these supernatural beliefs were never part of Judaism.  
Belief in Divination  
“The founders of Judaism,” writes Blecher, “believed that divination is a way to induce God to reveal hidden information, Satan is a supernatural power of evil, Heaven is a reward for the righteous and Hell is a place of punishment for sinners. A century of silence has been so effective that the American Jewish community today associates Satan, Heaven, Purgatory and hell with Islam and Christianity ... The familiar Hebrew prayer for the Dead, El Molei Rachamim, is chanted at every traditional Jewish funeral service; it is part of the Yizkor memorial service ... These words mean that when people die, their souls immediately go to another realm called Heaven or Paradise (gan eden in Hebrew) and reside there eternally ... The Conservative movement keeps the Hebrew text of the Prayer for the Dead, including the reference to Paradise. The English translation of the prayer, however, omits the sentence about the deceased’s soul dwelling in Heaven. Thus the denominational authorities who compiled the prayer book are practicing a kind of ideological censorship because the average worshipper has no way to know that the passage has been left out. ... Orthodox rabbi Maurice Lamm in The Jewish Ways in Death and Mourning ... writes, ‘Concepts such as Gehinnom and Gan Eden are too complicated for discussion in this work.’ Lamm does not inform his readers that Gehinnom and Gan Eden mean Hell and Heaven ... American rabbis have restricted rather than expanded the public’s knowledge of Jewish tradition ... Both the Talmud and the Midrash contain specific references to Heaven as a place of reward when a righteous person dies and Hell as a place of punishment when a sinner dies.”  
American Judaism must decide, Blecher believes, whether it is to be a living faith speaking to the spiritual needs of men and women in the 21st century or is to become a kind of ancestor worship, and a form of ancestor worship, which, for a variety of reasons, misunderstands the real tradition Judaism embodies.  
Ancestor Veneration  
“It may seem like a tautology,” he states, “that when a Jew marries another Jew, the couple and their children — at least in theory — share the same ancestors. To the extent that it is a civilization dedicated to the veneration of its own bloodline, American Judaism depends on in-marriage. Once a Jew marries outside the community, however, there are two sets of ancestors. The gentile spouse may convert to Judaism, but his or her forbears remain gentile. The perpetual link from Jewish ancestor to Jewish descendant is disrupted by the introduction of a second ancestry. While intermarriage does not threaten the survival of Judaism as a formal religion any more than it reduces the Jewish population, it is unsettling to the Jewish community because it threatens the informal religion of American Jews: ancestor veneration.”  
By tradition, Blecher points out, all converts to Judaism become the sons and daughters of the first Jewish parents, Abraham and Sarah. In this way, they are adopted and share in preserving the sacredness of the ancestors. On another level, he writes, “Jews who intermarry are paying a price for Judaism’s discomfort with proselytizing. If the denominations devoted as much of their organizational skills and spiritual resources to an aggressive missionary campaign as they now do to combating the threat of intermarriage, their fears about the survival of Judaism in America would vanish as the Jewish population soared. And Jews who marry gentiles would become important allies in the process of Jewish growth.”  
Universal Values  
While Rabbi Blecher does not confront directly the question of the increasing politicization of Judaism and the focus of so much attention upon the State of Israel, which many rabbis and communal leaders frequently declare is “central” to Judaism, he does implicitly set forth the thesis that Judaism is a religion of universal values, at home everyplace in the world.  
In this connection, he retells the story of Rabbi Yochanan who, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, was said to have died. His students carried his coffin past the Zealots, who were resisting Roman rule, ostensibly to the burial ground outside the sacred precinct of Jerusalem. The students, however, did not carry the coffin to the cemetery. Instead, they brought it before the Roman general Vespasian, who was camped outside the city. Rabbi Yochanan, who was not really dead, emerged from the coffin, knelt before the general and begged permission to set up a modest school with his students in a village on the Mediterranean coast.  
According to the story, Vespasian granted his request, for he failed to appreciate the fact that the civilization of Judea was contained within the minds of these scholars — they had committed it to a memory. In the academy at Yavneh, Rabbi Yochanan and his students set about reconstructing Judaism. Rabbi Yochanan elected to survive, and because he survived, Judaism survived. The throne of Judea was crushed, the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, but the law and literature of Judaism passed through the wall that separated the old Jewish state from the larger world.  
“The story of Rabbi Yochanan and his school encapsulates how the rabbis transformed Judaism from a monarchy and a religion of priests, to a religion of the mind and the People of the Book,” writes Blecher.  
Smashing Today’s Idols  
Rabbi Blecher urges us not to treat Judaism as a four-thousand-year-old discipline when, in reality, it has remade itself again and again and is now in the midst of remaking itself for our own generation in America. In the ancient tradition, it was only after Abraham smashes his father’s idols that he set out on his own journey of spiritual seeking.  
Rabbi Blecher has taken upon himself the smashing of today’s idols. He combines rabbinical learning with a broad understanding of history and a psychotherapist’s insight. By debunking the myths of the entrenched American Jewish establishment, Rabbi Blecher points the way to a positive, hopeful future. He does not fear America’s open society and the freedom it provides for men and women of all faiths. Instead, he embraces it, and believes that a new American Judaism can flourish once the survivalism, rejection of intermarriage, and fears over “continuity” are abandoned, and a search for genuine spiritual meaning in our ever-changing and complex world is embraced.  
Clearing Away Myths  
In the Introduction, Rabbi Blecher states that, “I have written this book with the firm conviction that clearing away myths will reveal a new American Jewish religion whose vitality and diversity far exceed the ability of any institution or rabbi to define.” In this enterprise, he has succeeded dramatically and his book deserves widespread attention, discussion and debate. It points the way to a positive and hopeful future. Hopefully, many will join him on this path.

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