The Tragedy of American Jewry

Seldom do one op-ed article and three letters to the editor unintentionally reveal the malady that is threatening to destroy American Jewry.

In the Wall Street Journal (December 30, 2016), the writer Andrew Klavan criticized physicist Stephen Hawking for the latter’s now common assertion that the universe can be explained without G-d, the Creator. Hawking: “The laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.” If science explains everything then G-d becomes unnecessary; of course, science does not explain everything. But they are both wrong in their assumptions. Klavan is wrong because Jews believe the creation did emerge “spontaneously from nothing,” that G-d created the universe “yesh me-ayin,” creation ex nihilo, and doesn’t seem to realize that “the laws of gravity and quantum theory” are merely tools that the Creator, in His will, created, and could have used in creating what He wishes to create. Hawking is wrong because, as Klavan rightly points out, the laws of nature had to originate from something, and to believe the converse (the eternity of the universe and matter) is, well, a belief.

No matter. Klavan’s objective was to re-introduce religion into this discussion by positing the impossibility of explaining creation without a Creator. It was a reaffirmation of his religious faith and a defense of all believers.

On January 5, 2017, Klavan was lambasted in the WSJ by three letter writers for his naïveté, “patent nonsense,” “obvious flaws,” and “obnoxious and erroneous assertions.” All three were diehard seculars, presumed atheists who ridicule the very notion of God’s existence. More on their contentions in a moment.

Here’s the irony: Klavan described himself as being raised a “secular Jew who converted to Christianity,” and is married to a Christian and raising a Christian family. The three letter writers were named Gelb, Fried and Siegal, all obviously Jewish names and all, at least the descendants of Jewish fathers if not mothers as well. Nevertheless, let us assume the three are Jews.

What emerges is that the only person of faith in this whole mix is the Jew who purported to convert to Christianity. The three Jews were the ones who publicly professed their rejection of God and mocked the believer.  That is, sadly, quite typical of American Jewish life today, and why the Jewish world, outside the Orthodox community, is suffering sustained and consistent losses of people, prestige, influence and a real connection to the truths of Torah. As every Jewish life is precious – because every Jew is an integral part of the Jewish nation – such losses are devastating to us all and are a cause for mourning, not celebration. But neither mourning – nor celebration – will save one soul for Torah and the Jewish people.

Beyond the tragic irony is the realization that the heretical arguments of the three Jewish letter writers are hackneyed and unsophisticated, such that they could be answered by an educated Yeshiva high school student. The old question “Who created G-d?” is asked, as if it is a credible challenge to the notion of God as First Cause or a refutation of the concept of cause and effect.

It is a shame that intelligent Jews are unfamiliar with Jewish sources and discussions of these very matters among the greatest Jewish minds in history (like Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Ramban et al), and the lack of Jewish education among Jews who are otherwise educated is the real crisis that has eviscerated American Jewry.

Briefly, for this most engaging topic, G-d is an incorporeal Being who transcends time and space and, indeed, created time and space. Nothing preceded Him or follows Him. That is the definition of “eternal.” He always existed and thus was never created.

Moreover, God created cause and effect, as well as the laws of nature that were fixed and finalized when the process of creation stopped with the onset of the very first Shabbat. So to ask “who created the First Cause” is to indulge a non sequitur. The First Cause needs no creation; that is what makes it “First.”

Only physical entities need to be created. Only physical entities can be “proven”  in a laboratory because a laboratory is equipped to evaluate physical substances based on the laws of nature. Matters that are purely ideational are not subject to “laboratory” proof. This is both obvious – and has a profound practical and moral dimension to it. If G-d’s existence was physically verifiable – as it was, for example, at Sinai – it would impair and undermine the free will of every human being – as it did in the aftermath of Sinai. Free will is the essence of the human personality. Thus, to the person of faith, God’s existence demands study and can be found in creation and His governance of human affairs. To the person of no faith, the fact that a non-physical G-d cannot be demonstrated in a laboratory is supposedly a slam dunk refutation of G-d’s existence. Hardly, and “faith” here does not mean “blind faith” or “irrational faith,” but a faith that is grounded in reason, tradition, and knowledge.

One writer (Siegal) insisted that all he seeks is mutual respect –  that Klavan should respect his right of disbelief as he respects Klavan’s right to believe. But this too is misleading, as nothing that Klavan wrote indicates even remotely a lack of respect for the secular viewpoint. What he wrote is that “secularism” is failing Western civilization because it is inherently incapable of dealing with radical Islam and other moral challenges. It is secularism that cannot recognize the tenacity of true faith (of any kind) and how the material world holds less and sometimes no attraction to some believers. For sure, that secular view has engendered the curious disposition that every problem can be resolved, every war can be negotiated to a peaceful conclusion satisfactory to all sides, and that bitter enemies can reconcile without compromising their cherished beliefs. But none of that is true save for extraordinary circumstances. This secular viewpoint is alive and well among one shrinking segment of Israeli society that refuses to characterize attacks on Jews or Israel as elements of a religious war simply because it is inconvenient to characterize it as such or because they refuse to accept that faith (of any kind) can have that power over human beings. But it does.

To ask secular people to reconsider the value of faith is not to disrespect them but to show concern for them. It is merely to point out to them that they are “accidentalists,” and there are perhaps no greater believers today that those who believe that the universe and everything in it, man and his development, are just cosmic accidents.

All these questions have rational answers, and if only Jews would study them before rejecting Judaism or tilling the vineyards of others we would be a different people. How sad that the Jew of faith had to become a Christian to find that faith, while the three Jews with Jewish surnames revel in their pseudo-sophisticated lack of faith. How sad that after almost two millennia of a bitter exile in which so many Jews tenaciously clung to the Torah that, in recent years,  millions of Jews have used the freedom of America to reject their faith and heritage. That is the tragedy of American Jewry and why our numbers and commitment are in such steep decline. It can only be reversed through love, tolerance, intensive Torah education and recognition of the historic times in which Jews are now living – having returned to Israel, established Jewish sovereignty there after a lapse of two millennia, and on the verge of the Messianic era.

For sure, there are large pockets of great strength, optimism and dynamism in American Jewry and American Jewish religious life.  The thinking Jew should run, not walk, to be part of that people, that process and that destiny.

7 responses to “The Tragedy of American Jewry

  1. Sadly, Rabbi, it’s nothing new. America has been both the best and the worst thing to happen to Jewry. Here, we are free do be Jews (or not) and to practice our faith in peace with little if any interference. So why do we reject thousands of years of wisdom in this manner? For that matter, why do we vote for people that hate us?

    I have to expand on the idea, but I think there is some deep memory, perhaps genetic, that keeps our brethren mentally cowered in the back rooms of our huts in the shtetls and ghettos. It seems to be a hostage mentality of sorts. If we don’t make waves, if we don’t draw attention to ourselves as Jews, if we side with our tormentors, we can survive the next pogrom. The more modern version seems to involve a false believe in Socialism and Statism as our redeemer from the angry Christian peasants of that old era, forsaking G-d for what appeared to be an immediate rescue. Of course, we all know how well Jews fare under Socialism and Communism, but of course THAT lesson we refuse to learn. And of course, in the minds of those who are embarrassed by their heritage, or afraid to identify with it publicly, Israel represents a constant irritant; Israelis keeps Jews at the forefront of the daily news by their stubborn refusal to lay down and die. I submit a plurality of American Jews would be relieved, and mourn briefly if at all, if Israel were to be vanquished.

    Ours is a very rich faith and tradition, one with does “have the answers” as you point out. But those answers require study and discipline, humility, self-sacrifice. Those are things today’s spoiled, entitled Jews refuse to do, seeking rather the flesh-pots of “secular” existence. If there is no G-d, there are no rules, and such people can do whatever they wish. Being a good Jew is, to them, a lot harder and much less fun. They will eventually find the error of their ways. I hope. For their sake as well as ours.

  2. Joseph Silber

    The fact that 78% of Jews voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and 69% voted to re-elect him in 2012 despite his absurd 1967 borders comments the year before shows that American Jewry is vanishing. American Jews, with the exception of Orthodox Jews and dual American-Israeli citizens, deeply value secular liberal political beliefs. Most Jews, as seen by the horrifying Obama vote, clearly do not see Israel as a top priority.

    Hopefully, American Jews will wake up to the reality that the Democratic Party has abandoned them, just as British and French Jews stopped voting for the increasingly anti-Semetic Labour and Socialist parties. If Keith Ellison becomes DNC Chair, and Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren become the Democratic nominee in 2020, and we still see that over 60% of Jews vote Democrat, we will know that American Jewry is officially in serious danger.

  3. Rabbi, I certainly agree that it’s a terrible tragedy to lose Jews. But your last paragraph that notes the growth and strength of Traditional Judaism, disqualifies your first paragraph that the destiny of American Jewry is being threatened. It seems that throughout Jewish history this threat to the destiny of Jewry, whether physical or spiritual, has existed. And lo and behold we’re still here and thriving, despite Hitler, the Enlightenment, the Czars and their pogroms and policies, the Bolshevicks, Ferdinand and Isabela’s Inquisition, the Christian movement-early on and later, the Helenists, and I’m sure you can fill in lots more. In fact, if we weren’t subjected to all these physical and spiritual pressures our numbers would probably approximate the Chinese population, a billion or more. Certainly, the Torah predicts the abandonment by the Jews with the tochacha, and the Books of the Prophets note massive practice away from “Traditional Judaism “. So, while it’s sad to lose a Jew, it seems to always have been that way. And while Mr. Klavan’s defense of God seems to be touted by you, let’s realize that his god lived here on earth as a man for several years, so we cannot be talking about the same god as the One he gave up.

    • I assume that more and more Orthodox Jews will make Aliya, further depleting the vitality of American Jewry.

  4. Well said, as always. If there is a silver lining amid these bleak clouds, it is only this: that for Jews, whatever side they may take, matters of faith and God are still matters worth fighting about. To the words of the atheist, Klavan reacts one way, Gelb & Co react another way, and the Rabbi reacts still a third way. We have not reached that point – may we never know it – where discussions of God provoke no response whatsoever. That three Jews were exercised enough to respond is no little matter. It means the flame is still alive.

  5. Excellent point. To paraphrase the Kotzker: hostility is better than apathy.

  6. Giovanni Battista Vico (born year 1668 CE, died year 1744 CE), a Neapolitan “who is usually credited with being the first Christian meta-historian, held that the Jews alone were exempt from the inexorable law of historical decay because they alone were the true possessors of the word of G_d.”

    SOURCE: The Indestructible Jews (chapter Paradox of the Diaspora, page 422) by Max I. Dimont, year 1971 CE, New American Library Inc, ISBN-10: 0451075943 ISBN-13: 978-0451075949, Library of Congress Card Catalog Number: 70-136602