Is it possible to stem the tide of assimilation that is ravaging Diaspora Jewry?
That is the objective of a new caucus launched in the Knesset last week under the leadership of MK Yitzchak Pindrus that I attended as part of the Am Echad delegation. It is called the “Caucus for the Strengthening of Diaspora Jewry” and is certainly warranted, as we are hemorrhaging Jews at an alarming rate, but its success is by no means guaranteed. There are no simple solutions – but there are approaches that are certain to fail.
Israelis are familiar with cage-like boxes that are ubiquitous in residential areas for the placement of used plastic bottles. Many have a sign (in Hebrew) that reads in translation “it is insane not to recycle,” and that certainly is true. Recycling is a good thing because it saves resources and helps the environment. But what if it didn’t? Then it would be insane to recycle. We are confronted, in the first instance, with the attempt to reverse assimilation by recycling and even strengthening what has failed in the past and, indeed, what has greased the wheels of assimilation.
Part of the problem is the continued reluctance to define who is a Jew by the traditional halachic standard. Resources will be squandered on outreach to people who are not Jews, do not define themselves as Jews, and even among those who do, have no interest or desire to conform to norms and values that have sustained us as a people. It is unsurprising, then, that Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (Labor) rejected any suggestion (and even documentary proof) that the non-Orthodox movements in America are in steep decline, closing and consolidating temples and losing members. And even among the members retained there is unfortunately a diminution of commitment to Torah, mitzvot (even as they define them) and support for Israel.
Undoubtedly, it will be suggested that assimilation can be reduced if we throw symbols and money at the movements that have presided over the assimilatory processes. Thus, high on the agenda is partitioning the Kotel to accommodate all streams of Judaism, including a section for mixed prayers. That will not bring even one Jew closer to Judaism and is more likely to serve as a backdrop for future interfaith weddings. For now, the government has allegedly put the plan on the backburner, even as construction on the new plaza continues, all to make it easier to trot out at a time of its choosing. The plan is not dead and we must remain vigilant in articulating how repugnant and unprecedented is the very notion of carving up a nation’s holy sites to service those that dissent from the long-established standards of holiness of that religion.
And, of course, politicians often equate spending money on a problem with solving the problem. It is a hardy perennial of all politicians in every government, familiar to Americans in the boondoggles that are public education and public transport. In this context, there is a headlong rush to subsidize the heterodox movements in Israel as well as to fund Jewish identity and Israel awareness projects with the Reform and Conservative movements in America and Europe.
This attitude is a product of the ideologies of some left-wing politicians and the political demands made of them by their supporters. It stands no chance of impeding assimilation and is just as likely to encourage more. You can’t cure the illness with what spurred the symptoms in the first place.
What can be done? For sure there is no panacea and we should not delude ourselves that at this point it is possible to save every Jew. That is a worthy goal but not the definition of success as it is unattainable until Messianic times. What can be done, realistically, is to reinforce Jewish identity in all its aspects – and that alone will naturally increase the connection and affinity of Jews for Israel. How?
In the current environment, it is not realistic to expect all Jews to be Shomrei Mitzvot; that too awaits the Moshiach. It is also unrealistic to expect much headway among non-halachic Jews, although there are certainly some who want to be part of the Jewish people and even come closer to observance, just as it is impracticable to expect Jews en masse to identify with Orthodoxy, a term which, to them, has become laden with politics and is perceived (falsely) as pejorative.
But Jewish identity can be enhanced in two very practical ways – teaching the history of the Jewish people, of which non-observant Jews are fully part, accompanied by a gradual introduction to the mitzvot, which is our shared heritage. To perceive Jewish history, as many secular people do, detached from G-d, Torah, the Prophets and the Providential survival of our tormented but glorious nation, is a non-starter. It won’t work. Every ethnic group – Italians, Russians, Japanese, etc. – can take pride in its history, but it is not necessarily going to induce them to challenge themselves, to sacrifice (although many do) and to make important life decisions based on that history.
If Spain and Spaniards were reviled on campuses, a Spanish-American might not have the gumption to stand against the relentless tide. He would need a reason to put himself out front beyond his ethnic attachment. Jews on campuses, for example, are faced with that challenge. Many hide, and many others swim with the tide and become anti-Israel.
Rebuilding Jewish identity means affording Jews pride in our history – G-d’s choice of Avraham and Sarah, the covenant of the Torah and the land of Israel, our Exodus from Egypt, our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai and the conquest of the land of Israel, the destruction of the two Temples that were preceded by the recurring prophetic vision of an ultimate return to Israel, the vicissitudes of Jewish history which, despite its often lugubrious backdrop, saw the Jewish people prosper in every country in the Diaspora, contribute to each society and civilization itself in manifold and enduring ways, and then with divine guidance, fulfill the prophetic vision of old and return to the land and declare Jewish sovereignty over it. Each aspect is unprecedented in the history of nations. There is nothing remotely similar in any other nation’s history, and we should be proud of it and grateful for it.
And what safeguarded our identity throughout the millennia was the Torah we studied and the mitzvot observed, often under great stress. Each aspect of Jewish history must be accompanied by an explanation of one of these pillars – Shabbat, Kashrut, family purity, the sanctity of marriage, prayer, Torah study and the like. How the Jewish home is sanctified by a Mezuzah, Jewish garments by tzitzit, tefillin and the prohibition of shaatnez, the Jewish day by prayer and berachot (blessings) and above all by a constant awareness of G-d. The ignorance of many Jews of some of the basics of Judaism is staggering. They don’t even know what they are rejecting.
Understanding our history and culture – culture in the narrow sense of the uniqueness of our lifestyle rather than the foods we eat and the comedians we have produced – will give all Jews a greater sense of belonging. They will look at Israel as the place of true Jewish consciousness and the fulfillment of Jewish yearnings rather than the political entity that perpetually infuriates the New York Times, the United Nations, and all our enemies.
An attempt to form a Jewish identity based only on a connection to Israel will not succeed; arguably, it has not succeeded that well in Israel itself. So why would we expect it to succeed in the exile? Conversely, rooting our identity in Torah and mitzvot narrowly understood, without its national dimension, has merit per se but will not strengthen the Jewish state at all.
It is the combination of both – both, simultaneously – that has the best chance of saving some remnant of the Jewish people scattered across the world. No one with a substantive understanding of Jewish history and practice, and the pride that such engenders, will consider intermarriage or gravitate towards assimilation. Why would they? This awareness will give them a full individual identity as well as attract them to a cause greater than themselves, and link themselves to generations past and future. It will enable them to stand up to Israel haters on campus and to Jew haters in society. It will give them a deep and passionate connection to all Jews across the world. It will bring them closer to Torah observance. It stands to reason it will increase Aliya as well.
That should be the goal of this caucus and bears the greatest potential for its success.