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.email print