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How Odd of God

I threw myself on my face and cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Alas, Lord YHWH, you are putting an end to the remnant of Israel!”
1—Ezekiel 11:13

In 1990, according to the National Jewish Population Survey, there were 4.2 million Jews in America (fewer than Hitler killed in Europe), and that number is shrinking. Even if one adds the 1.1 million people who have at least one Jewish parent but no longer identify themselves as part of any Jewish community, the number of Americans who are Jews is barely over 2 percent, down from 4 percent in 1937. Things are even worse in Europe, where there are under 2 million Jews (down from 10 million in 1939), and some of those are leaving.2 Bernard Wasserstein, a Fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford, writes in Vanishing Diaspora:

If emigration from the former Soviet Union continues at anything like its present level, only a tiny Jewish residue will remain anywhere in Eastern Europe by the turn of the century. The number of Jews in Europe by the year 2000 would then be not much more than 1 million—the lowest figure since the late Middle Ages.

What is causing this decline? One answer, especially in America, is: success. Like other affluent people, Jews (with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox) are marrying later and having fewer children—currently 1.6 per couple, which is not even a replacement rate. Besides, many of these marriages are to non-Jews, so that the children born in diminished numbers have diminished ties to their grandparents’ community. “Outmarriage,” which was at the low rate of 9 percent before 1965, is now between 53 and 58 percent, which means that more Jews are marrying non-Jews than fellow Jews.

As Arthur Hertzberg puts it in his new book, Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, the living stream of Jewish tradition once ran within constraining banks formed by enemies, which “compelled Jews to remain within their Jewishness.” Jews, “the chosen people,” could not choose their company. They tended to live together in urban neighborhoods (within walking distance of the synagogue), work together (in traditional businesses), take vacations together, play together in their clubs, learn together in their schools. In Portrait of American Jews, the sociologist Samuel Heilman describes the sudden collapse of that whole sustaining structure. Jewish neighborhoods have yielded to suburbanization. Social and economic mobility has widened the pool of prospective spouses. (Alan Dershowitz, in The Vanishing American Jew, recalls how Jewish camps in the Catskills were called matchmaker camps—both he and his brother found brides there.) Rabbinical training has been replaced with secular higher education. Jews make up 21 percent of the faculty at elite schools, and Dershowitz writes, “Depending on the year, somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of the students at Ivy League schools are Jewish.” This explosion into the upper levels of secular education has siphoned off talent that would once have gone into religious learning and instruction. Dershowitz describes the resulting paradox:

American Jews, who are the most highly educated group in this country when it comes to general knowledge, are the least educated when it comes to knowledge of their own heritage. We get our history from Fiddler on the Roof, our traditions from canned gefilte fish, our Bible stories from television, our culture from Jackie Mason, and our Jewish morality from the once-a-year synagogue sermon most of us sleep through.

There is nothing in Professor Heilman’s description of suburban synagogues to challenge Dershowitz’s words. He sees them more as social centers than as houses of worship. In a 1966 article, Arthur Hertzberg complained that the modern rabbi was less a model of learning and devotion to religious law than a therapist, community booster, and entertainer: “Most United States rabbis have become entirely too useful—and therefore are fundamentally useless.”3 Heilman notes that more Jews report observance of Thanksgiving dinner than of the Passover meal. The after-school classes that supply almost all the religious training young Jews now get are called deplorable by Heilman and Dershowitz. Heilman quotes the gibe of Leonard Fein, the columnist of the Jewish Daily Forward: “Hebrew school is mainly remembered as the place where Hebrew wasn’t learned.” Dershowitz contends that “no upwardly mobile American Jew would ever accept the quality of today’s Jewish education in secular elementary, high school, or college classes to which they send their children.” Children put up with this boring ordeal simply to qualify for their bar or bat mitzvah: “The moment that event takes place, the education stops, because it has served its limited purpose.”

Some think that hope for a revitalized Judaism lies with the ultra-Orthodox. They are not only observant but prolific. They marry other Jews, the marriages do not normally end in divorce, and they have large families. Dershowitz reprints a chart that Moment magazine ran in 1996 which showed the less observant Jewish denominations evanescing while the Orthodox numbers continue to grow and the ultra-Orthodox increase exponentially. For Dershowitz, this outcome would be disastrous. “I believe that it is unhealthy for the survival of Jewish life to depend so heavily on minority groups of Jews who themselves have so little to do with the Jewish values the majority of us cherish most.” (He means values like compassion, tolerance, and intellectual curiosity.) Heilman and Hertzberg think that he has little need for panic. They both cite statistics that show the forces of modern secularism are claiming many children of the Orthodox, who cannot be kept away from television, movies, computers, and rock music. One source of pressure for the Orthodox is that most of them do not fully share in the prosperity of other Jews, whose per capita income is nearly double that of non-Jews. The lifestyle of the observant limits their employment possibilities. Their larger families put stress on the budget. And, as Heilman puts it, “an active Jewish life is expensive to sustain.” It involves longer and more expensive private schooling, the higher costs of kosher food, the savings for a trip to Israel. That is why the Orthodox usually have less than other Jews, and that amount is going down.

What counsel do these writers offer to their fellow Jews? Heilman’s sober analysis leads him to the verge of despair. He replaces the ordinary five Jewish categories (secular, reform, conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox) with two—the heritage Jew and the active Jew. For him, the sociological indicators are that the heritage Jews, with only a vague attachment to ancestral memories or values, will find the content of their Jewishnesss progressively devaluing. On the other hand, the active Jews, in whose number he counts himself, those who observe their religion, are becoming ever more peripheral to American life. He concludes with a wistful regret that the only way to be true to the faith may be by return to Israel.

This is a disturbing conclusion. If Israel is seen as the last bastion of a dwindling Jewish body, if the Diaspora is written off as being in irreversible decline, the panic over survival may take desperate hold in Israel itself. The power of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli politics may be augmented, with all challenges to the nation equated with the Holocaust—a tendency the classics scholar Pierre Vidal-Naquet (whose parents were killed at Auschwitz) deplored in a recent speech at Northwestern University. Arthur Hertzberg puts it this way:

The famous historian of the Kabbalah and of Jewish messianism, Gershom Scholem, warned many times against calling the State of Israel “the first root of our redemption.” The Jewish nation, he insisted, is a human solution to contemporary political problems. To make it an instrument of the messianic drama is the greatest of heresies. The Jews must create a just and decent society for all its inhabitants; only then will it be a reflection of the Jewish spirit.

Alan Dershowitz is what Heilman, an active Jew, calls a heritage Jew. Agnostic about God, Dershowitz thinks that Judaism “has transcended religion and theology.” It is to be treasured as a great civilization, the falling off from which would be a great tragedy. He sees signs of that in the loss of intense intellectual interests among young Jews. “Even in my thirty-plus years of teaching at Harvard, I have seen a significant change: Jewish students are simply not as outstanding as they once seemed to be.” Continuation along this line will make it impossible to sustain the great Jewish accomplishments Dershowitz records: “Of America’s Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, nearly 40 percent have been Jews. Of America’s two hundred most influential intellectuals, half are full Jews, and 76 percent have at least one Jewish parent.” Since Dershowitz especially cherishes intellectual accomplishments, his answer to thinning intellectual resources is to institute rigorous schools of Jewishness. “Jewish day schools must be every bit as good as Choate, Exeter, Dalton, Friends, and Horace Mann.”

But what would these schools actually study? He has earlier told us that the modern Jews he admires most are secular Jews, people like Einstein, Kafka, Gershwin, Brandeis:

The great paradox of Jewish life is that virtually all of the positive values we identify with Jews—compassion, creativity, contributions to the world at large, charity, a quest for education—seem more characteristic of Jews who are closer to the secular end of the Jewish continuum than to the ultra-Orthodox end.

But how does one study Einstein or Brandeis? By doing physics or learning the law? That hardly qualifies as Jewish studies. And if one studies the galaxy of great Jews of the past, this seems to sink toward mere ethnic self-celebration. Dershowitz obviously understands this himself: when one looks at the texts he recommends for study, they are heavily scriptural, Talmudic, and ritualistic. He may admire secular Judaism, but how much is there to study if one excludes religion? This is a roundabout and unconscious collapse into agreement with Heilman on the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of sustaining a Jewish heritage just as heritage.

The combative Arthur Hertzberg can sound at times as dismissive of heritage Jews as Heilman himself. Though he shares many liberal values with Dershowitz, religion has always come first for him. He tells in his new book the story of the efforts of a fellow student at Johns Hopkins to recruit him for the Young Communist League. He asked what the Communists would do to religion if they came to power in America. When he was told that it would be abolished, that ended his flirtation with communism. Yet Hertzberg expresses admiration for many of the same secular Jews celebrated by Dershowitz—Kafka, for instance, or Freud. Whether they chose God is not the decisive issue. He chose them. “Is the Jewish God inescapable? My answer is a resounding yes.”

In a way, this is just what we expect from a man who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox household. His father was rabbi to the Hasidic community in Baltimore, and Hertzberg has retained many of his Hasidic ties. Aron Hirt-Manheimer, the younger scholar who helped Hertzberg write this book, tells us in the introduction:

Every morning he [Hertzberg] wraps himself in a large, old-world tallis (prayer shawl) and attaches tefillin (phylacteries, little black boxes containing passages from the Hebrew Bible) to his left arm and forehead. His most prized possession is the set of tefillin that he received as a bar mitzvah gift from his grandfather, who was murdered by the Nazis in Lvov in 1943, together with the rest of his family. Every year on the eve of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Hertzberg lights thirty-seven candles in their memory. He never prays alone; they and all their ancestors are his minyan.

Yet Hertzberg could not be contained within the rigid confines of Hasidism. This book, which is a highly personal reflection on the changing nature of God’s call through history, describes the Jewish vocation as a call to the breaking of idols, the telling of unpopular truths, the defense of human rights. Today that means the defense of women’s rights, of Palestinians’ rights. A long-time Zionist, Hertzberg believes that defense of others’ rights must be the goal of Zionism itself:

If Israel is to be a “Jewish and democratic state,” it must heed the ancient outcry of the prophet Amos—“Behold, you are to me just like the Ethiopians”—and treat Arabs and everyone else as equals. It is immoral to proclaim the Palestinians to be interlopers in the land that God gave to the Jews. Those who act on this assertion have forgotten that God gave the Holy Land to the Jews on condition that the stranger be protected, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The chosen people were chosen to do justice to others.

When the ultra-Orthodox say that Hertzberg has departed from his father’s ways, he responds that change has itself been part of the tradition:

The ancient rabbis who created the oral law were not Orthodox hard-liners; they were religious revolutionaries who opposed the orthodox leaders of their day—the entrenched priests of the Temple, who regarded the early rabbis as interlopers and as traducers of the inherited religion.

Yet Hertzberg has been a traditionalist on essentials. Many people debate now what makes a Jew a Jew. Genetic ties? Solidarity caused by persecution or its threat? Cultural memory? Shared values? Ritual discipline? Some shift about, uneasily, from one to another of these options. Hertzberg gives an answer that seems to some arrogant. God’s choice makes the Jews Jews. “God says, I chose you not because you are more numerous or powerful, and not because you are morally, spiritually, or intellectually superior. You are not. I chose you out of my unknowable will.”

Those who do not believe in God cannot, of course, accept this; and even many Jews who do believe are loath to make such a claim. It seems to say that God “plays favorites.” One of Hertzberg’s teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, tried to warn him away from such an arrogant position: “Even then I was arguing for chosenness as he was insisting this was an antidemocratic idea.” Hertzberg over the years has offended people with his emphasis on God’s choice of the Jews. One suspects that this is at least part of the reason that some publishers turned this book down as “reactionary.”

Yet there is a paradox here. The definitions of Jewishness given by some Jewish thinkers do imply, however indirectly, a superiority to other peoples—intellectual superiority, ethical superiority, civilizational superiority. Chosenness as Hertzberg defines it does not imply—in fact, it denies—superiority. God’s mysterious choice is a burden more than a benefit, an obligation not a privilege. It demands that Jews be a sign of His presence, a witness to His truth—and witnesses often end up martyrs. That is why there are a thousand jokes of the “Lord, choose someone else” variety. Hertzberg’s position, whatever its truth claims, is a more objective thing than the various subjectivisms that others make the essence of Jewishness.

According to Hertzberg, Jewish chosenness does not exist only for the good of Jews. A window that lets through the light does not contain it all on its own surfaces. Isaiah shines on everyone. He is a world treasure, not just a Jewish possession. The great historian Arnaldo Momigliano once wrote that between the eighth and the fifth centuries BCE there was a spiritual breakthrough for mankind all over the globe, signified by wisdom teachers like Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Isaiah, Heraclitus, and Aeschylus.5 Those who do not believe in God will consider this a breaking out upward of the human spirit. But those who believe in God may just as well see it as a breaking in downward of a Mystery only dimly glimpsable in any of His revelations. God has many prophets, and opens diverse windows.

Because of Hertzberg’s view that the Jews were chosen out of God’s “unknowable will,” they do not always have to recognize that they are chosen for them to be chosen. They can flee from God as Jonah did, unwilling to bear the onerous testimony against Nineveh. But God still works through them, making them idol-breakers. And His words still haunt them. Kafka was learning Hebrew when he died and “running his fingers over the map of Palestine.” Even the agnostic Alan Dershowitz is trying to set up schools for others to study the sacred texts. Though many of the most prominent Jews are secular, Hertzberg cites a 1997 survey done for the American Jewish Committee to show that most Jews are not secular, since 85 percent of them believe there is a God (63 percent “definitely,” 22 percent “probably”), while only 15 percent believe there is not (12 percent “probably,” only 3 percent “definitely”). The number of believers may not seem high when compared with the national average, but Hertzberg notes that the Jewish people are highly educated—and the numbers of unbelievers in the general population are almost all highly educated. The Jews go against that national trend.

Hertzberg’s definition of Jewishness makes him less panicky than others about Jewish survival. Some ask, What can I do to make sure the Jewish people do not fade out of existence? Hertzberg asks, What must Jews do to fulfill God’s purpose in choosing them? If He still has an errand for them, He will make it possible for them to fulfill it. If not, if chosenness goes, there will be no Jews. That was their essence. But Hertzberg is not afraid. The choice was also a promise: “You will be My people.”

For me, the most impressive thing about Hertzberg’s definition of the chosen people is its adequacy. All other explanations for Jewish exceptionalism—for its searing history of unspeakable suffering and incredible courage and faithfulness to the truth—seem trivial by comparison. Was all this just a product of good genes, or moral sensitivity, or social solidarity, or ancestral loyalties? I think the more mysterious explanation at least approaches the scale of the phenomenon being explained. Something very strange did indeed happen to the Jews in history. It was God.

  1. 1

    Translation by Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20 (Doubleday, 1983), p. 135.

  2. 2

    In 1985, Arnaldo Momigliano noted in this journal that Jews in Italy, who at the beginning of the nineteenth century numbered 1/1,000th of the population, were down to 1/2,000th of it. The New York Review, October 24, 1985, p. 22.

  3. 3

    Arthur Hertzberg, “The Changing American Rabbinate,” Midstream, January 1966, p. 22.

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