Synagogues and the Demise of Jewish Ethnicity

I have practically made a career of saying that for American Jews, at least, the secular and ethnic option is dead or dying. Some of my best friends disagree with me. Secular Jews themselves, they draw on the same sources I do to make their point – classic sociology, for example, which demonstrates conclusively that identity is much deeper than belief systems, so that if Judaism were to go the route of becoming fully a religion, it would also go the route of liberal churches that lost their ethnicity a long time ago and are now a faint echo of their original selves. The decline of mainline Protestants by fully a fifth since 1950 is a serious long term trend. There are still about 20 million of them, mind you. But we Jews — we start out so tiny in the first place!

I have never said, however, that Judaism is only a religion, and insofar as ethnicity means logging time together in all the many ways that produce solidarity of peoplehood, I am all for it. My point, in any case, is not what they (or I) are for (or against); it is the need to face up to what is happening regardless of what we think of it, and what is happening, inevitably and resolutely, is the disappearance of the sort of ethnic solidarity that prior generations enjoyed as a matter of course.

All Americans were once solidly ethnic, even the so-called WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), insofar as they maintained the kind of customs and community that marked them off from later arrivals like Italians and Jews. Catholicism was as much Irish or Italian or German as it was Catholic; in the 1890s, for example, German Benedictines in Minnesota fought their Irish bishop in St. Louis because he objected to their steady use of beer (not even the Trappists drink water, their Abbott Wimmer complained) – an ethnic, not a religious, matter.

And the point is: that is all gone now. We Jews are a latecomer to ethnicity’s demise but we are not immune to it.

Need this be the case elsewhere in the world? Perhaps not. It all depends on surrounding society. Canada has a better chance of sustaining Jewish ethnicity because of its multi-culturalism; Argentinian ethnicity is not in trouble. Alas, the presence or threat of anti-Semitism helps!

But here, at least – and eventually in Canada too, I suspect (for reasons I will not go into here) – the ethnicity of peoplehood without profound purpose is doomed. Yiddish is by now a distant memory. Traditional “Jewish” food (really Polish and Russian) is nothing to yearn for and no one is doing the yearning: young Jews eat sushi and go out for beer. Except for Israel, Hebrew never was the language of the folk, and shows no signs of becoming so. If anti-Semitism in America remains low to absent and if Israel continues its current policies, the next generation will not even identify automatically with Israel the way their elders do. I pray that will not happen, of course, but even if it doesn’t, Israel is insufficient to maintain Jewish America.

Finally, our high intermarriage rate (which is not going to go away) means that Jews of the next generation will increasingly be people with no childhood Jewish memories and no obvious reason to maintain Jewish friends, associations, and causes at the expense of non-Jewish ones.

We are not the first to suffer increasing marginalization from Jewish ethnicity. The process set in by the nineteenth century. French intellectual Edmund Fleg virtually gave up on Judaism, trading it in for an education in the western classics. Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his father recalling, “As a young man, I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me for not making an effort… to cling to a similar insignificant scrap.” They remained Jewish by identity, because the nineteenth century was saturated by anti-Semitism and racist to its core. But they too looked for something deeper – Kafka in Hasidic lore and Fleg in a combination of the Zionist story and universalistic Jewish values.

To be sure, if “religion” meant simply disembodied belief — a set of doctrines or tenets about God, an afterlife, and such — the ethnicists would have a point. Ever since Emil Durkheim (another alienated Jew), we have known that identity follows from eating together, mixing together, and generally putting in time together with the people one considers one’s own. Proponents of ethnic Judaism are not wrong to advocate a variety of cultural activities that draw Jews together in many institutional venues.

What differentiates my position from theirs is Durkheim’s further point: the decisive nature of ritual, especially religious ritual – most especially (I might add), here in America. When I say religion, I mean all that the ethnicists do, but with regularized ritual affirmations of the transcendent religious purpose justifying and demanding it.

Living in the Third-Republic anti-Catholic France, Durkheim yearned for national ritual to take the place of the established Church’s. One hundred years later, we have seen how nationalist ritual can indeed engender identity, but strong though American nationalism may be, it has built a culture in which religion is still a bedrock. Religions with powerful ritual succeed here, just as Durkheim predicted.

Such rituals require regularity and an inbuilt sense of obligation. They must reach the mind and touch the heart. They convince us of truths we never knew we knew; and retain our loyalty even in the rational aftermath where we wonder once again if we really believe them. They give us purpose, demand that we be our better selves, and root such quotidian pursuits as job and parenthood in a web of deeper meaning.

Our Jewish problem is that for most of us, certainly in non-Orthodox synagogues, our ritual life does none of that. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, people attend synagogue on the High Holy Days and for a bar or bat mitzvah, but otherwise, go shopping.

When I say religion must be at the center of Jewish life, then, I do not mean some rationalized code of belief. It is not the case that we worship because we believe – huge numbers of people have trouble with disembodied cognitive belief. Rather, we find cogency in those beliefs that come to life through what Durkheim called ritual effervescence.

Only synagogues are capable of providing the healthy life of ritualized Jewish belonging. We require communities rooted in a network of synagogues that offer ritualized engagement with the ultimate promises of Jewish tradition. Neither culturalism nor religious doctrine will succeed on their own. In a post-ethnic era, we need an alternative pathway to solidarity: in America, that pathway is a growing set of synagogues that offer compelling religious ritual for adults.

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