What Is So Great about “Post-Ethnic Judaism”?

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March 1, 2011
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Steven M. Cohen & Jack Wertheimer

Shaul Magid is right to draw attention to post-ethnic trends in America. But whereas he applauds the shift to a porous, self-constructed, and voluntary ethnicity, we doubt it is “good for the Jews.” We take wary cognizance of post-ethnicity and urge American Jews to contend with it, rather than surrender.

Moreover, where Magid sees Jewish exemplars of post-ethnicity as the vanguard, we regard the many Jews who continue to identify with the Jewish religion and people as the nucleus for renewal. Among our neighbors in the Greater New York area, where one-third of America’s Jews reside, are large numbers of Orthodox Jews and quite a few committed Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and post-denominational Jews who care about the Jewish people; to their ranks, we may add the hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Former Soviet Union and their now-adult children, and thousands more from Israel, Iran, and South Africa who share the same commitments.

By contrast, we do not anticipate that the children of intermarriage will lead a Jewish revival, particularly since the large majority are not receiving a Jewish education. Much to our dismay, only a small proportion identify as Jews or with Jews — not with Judaism, not with the Jewish people, and not with Jewcy.com or J-Street. It is a sad fact that within two or three generations, intermarriage, in the large majority of cases, will be a way out of Jewish life.

Our main objection to Magid’s argument, though, is its ideological defeatism. Why should we, as he suggests, “celebrate” religious syncretism — the observance of Christian and other religious practices by Jews in mixed marriage (and other) homes? Why should we accept the ignorant judgment of those who regard long-established norms of endogamy as racist, when we know that in-marriage (including the marriage of born-Jews to Jews-by-choice) still serves as a powerful predictor of Jewish engagement and demographic continuity, no less than it did in the past?

As for the sources of renewal, Jewish creativity is (still) predicated on a grounding in the religion and culture of the Jewish people, a civilization that is genuinely distinctive and profoundly different from cultural trends of the moment. Overwhelmingly, as a recent study of ours demonstrates, today’s innovative leaders have emerged from deep experiences of Jewish peoplehood. They disproportionately are children of in-married parents. They have been formed by intensive formal and informal educational programs, and especially by study in Israel. Those of us who wish to build a strong and authentic Jewish life dare not communicate to our children that everything is up for grabs, that their Jewish descent is non-binding, and that Jewish living is merely one option among a broad array of lifestyle choices.

Magid’s analysis has the propensity to dismiss everything that was held sacred in the past as “socially constructed.” But is “Jewish peoplehood” in our times a mere “social construction,” lacking any moral, political, cultural, or religious force? Sixty-five years after the Holocaust demonstrated the interconnected fate of all Jews, 62 years after the State of Israel was established as a heroic achievement of the Jewish people, and but a few decades after the epic struggle to free Soviet Jewry, a magnificent expression of Jewish solidarity, is Jewish peoplehood suddenly finished, all because America has gone post-ethnic of late?

No. As Magid himself conceded, Jewish identity was predicated for much of our history on the biblical command to behave as a “kingdom of priests and a holy people,” a neat formulation of the inseparability of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. Our dual identity as a people-nationality-ethnicity with its own religion has enabled Jews to create a remarkable civilization. It has left room for nonbelievers to connect as Jews, even if they are not moved by religious practices. It has enabled Jews in the past and present to travel anywhere in the world and find landsleit, fellow Jews who share similar preoccupations, liturgies, and memories. And it has given Jewish life an international dimension that has vastly enriched our discourse, our cuisine, our music and art, let alone our self-understanding.

Sometimes, others see us more clearly than we see ourselves. Listen to how a prominent Christian seminary president responded when asked by one of us why liberal Protestantism has fallen on such hard times: “Imagine a Judaism without Israel, without the Jewish people, without the memory of the Holocaust. What would be left? Now you can see what we [liberal Protestants] are dealing with.”1

Shaul Magid’s perception of rising post-ethnic Judaism may be accurate, though not as prevalent as he claims. The post-ethnic Judaism he envisions puts us at risk of abandoning a critical aspect of our “thick” Jewish culture, our obligation and familial ties to the Jewish people in Israel and around the world — in effect, trading our Jewish birthright for a thin gruel. That bargain, let us recall, was taken by Esau, not by his brother Jacob.

1 Comment made during a private conversation with Jack Wertheimer and several other academics, March 2009.

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Steven M. Cohen is a research professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 2010, he headed up a team of researchers that published a report funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation, “Generation of Change: How Leaders in Their Twenties and Thirties Are Reshaping American Jewish Life,” which is the basis for his book, The New Leaders: Reshaping American Jewish Life, forthcoming from Brandeis University Press.

4 Comments

  1. Cohen and Wetheimer once again play the Jeremiah in the healthy discussion of Jewish identity that has accompanied the breaking-down of barriers to Jewish life.

    1. They write of the “grounding in the religion and culture of the Jewish people,” which creates a “civilization that is genuinely distinctive and profoundly different from cultural trends of the moment,” yet they provide no definitions or support for this contention. Notably, what do they mean by “culture”? Jewish culture is actually profoundly multi-cultural. Language is the foundation of all culture, and Yiddish is the language of one Jewish culture while Ladino is the language of distinctly different Jewish culture. And neither of those languages is spoken by the Jews of China, Africa, or of Middle Eastern descent.

    2. Similarly, bagels and lox and gefilte fish and matzah ball soup have never been a part of Yemenite Jewish culture.

    3. As the child of Holocaust survivors, and a student of the Holocaust, no one agrees more about the centrality of the Shoah to modern Jewish life. However, Judaism existed, flourished even, for millenia before the Holocaust, just as it did before the founding of the State of Israel. So too the Jewish people, despite all previous attempts to destroy us.

    4. In some respects, Judaism and the Jewish people have always been post-ethnic: we continually borrow from whatever “alien” civilization we were living in, and make those borrowings part of our own Jewish “culture.” The Passover seder, the most beloved and most practiced Jewish ritual, uses the literary forms of Greek Symposia. On the less holy side, the Shtreimels worn by some Orthodox men originated with the Tatar nobility.

    5. Finally, the authors repeat their favorite cri de coeur about children of intermarriage not receiving a Jewish education. What they fail to answer is whether those children, and their families, would be receiving such an education if they were made to feel welcome by the mainstream Jewish community – and not treated with disapproval, as embarrassments to be shunned, while being made to feel that they are single-handedly destroying the Jewish people.

    Segregation, exclusivity and discrimination have caused our people much pain. Shame on us for practicing it against our own.

    Posted by
    Jonathan
  2. I agree with the writer: most of the young jews in USA don`t care now about the future of the jewish people. The intermarriages will stop the continuity of the jewish people and I am sure that in 2050 we shall see outside Israel a diminishing jewish population. Only the religious-orthodox jews in America will stay “jews”, except of the people of Israel.
    It`s very sad but it`s the truth!

    Mourning,

    Abraham (a secular jew)
    Israel

    Posted by
    Abraham MOses
  3. Dear Friends at Sh’ma:

    As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I have pointed out to Professors Cohen and Wertheimer in personal correspondence that the reason children and grandchildren of intermarriage often don’t affiliate as Jews is because we are shut out of the Jewish community.

    Many Jewish communities have made up their minds that they will — very grudgingly — accept the half-Jewish people raised as Jews — about one-third — but when any of us from the two-thirds raised outside of Judaism try to enter Judaism we are often ignored or rebuffed.

    Many times our emails and phone calls asking about affiliation with Jewish institutions are ignored or rebuffed.

    So it is not entirely fair to state that half-Jewish people don’t want to live as Jews. Many would like to and are turned away.

    For proof of this, please visit the Half-Jewish Network website at:

    http://www.half-jewish.net

    and read our message board. We’ve got complaints from half-Jewish people from all over the world about their exclusion from Jewish communities.

    Sincerely,
    Robin Margolis

    Posted by
  4. Many half Jews feel compelled to explore their Jewish side, but suspect it will hurt. My birth father was Jewish and I was raised mostly by my secular birth mother. A Chabad Rabbi in Tacoma WA laughed at and discounted my perceptions of antisemitism in my childhood in front of my 23 year old son and another Jew. I cried. It was hostile and cruel on his part, going beyond just following the Halakah to turn away converts three times. What could possibly evoke such mean urges? Perhaps it’s revulsion seeing an ugly dirty Jew bastard resulting from a Jewish man’s fleshy urge? (Are there any Jewish laws about the offspring of Jewish liaisons with goy women?) It would make sense that if Chabad men cherish their right to casual sex with goy women, facing a resultant abandoned bastard would give rise to such disgust. It could also possibly be a defense for the historical Jew who earned his Jewish blood through thousands of years of of Jewish existence. Perhaps I’m seen as little waif of a girl who wants to waltz in and expect equality or acceptance that wasn’t earned or deserved. Any other ideas out there? I also had a horrible experience at a conservative temple. I myself am a highly discriminating person regarding friends, although I’m typically kind to most people. I now go to reform communities, although I have more conser4vative tastes. I’ve admired Jews and Judaism for many years, it’s another big trauma in my life to be despised by people I admire. Bastards are despised anyway because their father withheld his name, denied ownership. Maybe Chabad Rabbi’s aren’t as hostile towards half Jews from intact families. I expect real Jews to not shy away from exploring this issue with intellectual integrity.

    Posted by
    Jana Erb
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