Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Answer They Won't Accept

It must be twenty years ago a Jewish Canadian committee on "Jewish continuity" released its findings on the state of assimilation amongst Jews of the Great White North and recommendations on how to stem the erosion in attachment and numbers. Being a community committee, it was large, long-winded and full of interesting recommendations.
Fortunately our local Rav actually took the time to read the report instead of the newspaper summaries (apparently he suffered from insomnia) and present his disappointment with it. Going through all the advice, he noted one thing was missing: practical Jewish observance. Sure there was stuff about social groups, day schools and trips to Israel but when it came to suggesting the obvious - get Jews to start altering their behaviour and act like Jews - there was only silence. His conclusion was that the committee might very much like assimilation to go away but they weren't prepared to demand anything from their consituency to make that happen. Apparently they were quite sensitive to personal freedoms.
Not much has changed since then as this editorial by Jack Wertheimer demonstrates:
This is, of course, true -- but only up to a point. Unfortunately, this optimistic reading describes only a minority of intermarried families. The majority of intermarried families raise their children in a faith other than Judaism or in two faiths or no faith at all. Not surprisingly, when they reach adulthood, most of those offspring do not identify as Jews.
Few would dispute that the Jewish community has a far better chance of retaining the allegiance of individuals raised in homes in which both parents are Jewish than in those where one parent identifies with a different religion. Indeed, wherever Jews are a minority community, intermarriage is a major factor in the contraction of the Jewish population. How, then, does it serve Jewish group interests to silence all discussion about the relationship between intermarriage and assimilation?
This hesitance to grapple seriously with the issue of intermarriage is part of a broader phenomenon: Speaking of threats to Jewish survival has become passe. Many argue that such discussions no longer serve to rally Jews; if anything, they turn off people. Moreover, advocates of this point of view tend to argue that if Jews are disengaged, it is because of failings in our institutions. If only we had more compelling programs and wiser leaders, if only we would cater more to the desires and preferences of younger generations, we would retain larger numbers of Jews, they say.
These are serious arguments, but the reality is that while creative leaders and innovative programs aimed at young Jews have brought in some people from the periphery, large numbers of American Jews -- in some age groups, the majority -- still do not participate in any form of Jewish public life. Those who reject the language of crisis when describing this state of affairs in favor of an appeal to individual preferences must explain how they propose to re-create a culture of Jewish responsibility on that basis. If we want to strengthen our community amid the prevailing individualistic culture, we had better start with straight talk about our current condition.
The reactions to the Masa ad have exposed a series of complex issues worthy of extended conversation within our community. Rather than view the ad solely as a dragon successfully slain, we would do well to see it as an opportunity to ask ourselves some tough questions about the best ways to build Jewish social capital and draw in disengaged Jews -- as a chance to converse about what we expect ourselves and our fellow Jews to contribute to Jewish life.

This article certainly mentions all the right things. What it fails to note is that modern society, especially in North America, has become extremely selfish. People are interested first, second and last in "what's in it for me?" Why should a person go to shul? What does he get out of it? Why contribute to the community? What's in it for him? For the Orthodox Jew with a sense of knesses Yisrael the answers are easy. For the non-religious one whose Jewish values are actually those of society's around him, they're not.
Yet throughout history there is only one measure and one measure alone that has guaranteed Jewish continuity: observance of Judaism. Amongst the observant portion of the community, the success of this strategy is obvious but even in the non-religious part, those Jews who attended day schools or camps are more likely to marry other Jews and have a semblance of Judaism in their lives than those who didn't.
In a modern multi-cultural society the reason is obvious. One can be a Jewish Canadian or a Canadian Jew. A Jewish Canadian has no reason to feel separate or different from a French Canadian or an Indian Canadian. If anything, the idea of a multi-cultural relationship accentuates the Canadian part of their identity, the major thing they have in common. For a Canadian Jew, however, it's the opposite. The French or Indian opposite me may have some common factors but when it comes to how I primarily identify myself, my Judaism sets me apart, eh?
Years ago a nurse in an ER I worked in asked me why Jews generally don't inter-marry. (I didn't tell her that unfortunately she's wrong) So I explained it to her like this: Let's say we were to date. Okay, it might start out well but problems would develop. As an observant Jew, forget pre-marital sex. Holding hands or even going back to her place alone for a movie would be out of the question. I couldn't eat in her home. I couldn't worship with her on her holidays. I could meet her parents but other than water or juice I couldn't accept hospitality from them. On my holidays she'd find herself left out of most things because the prayers are in Hebrew and the rituals are generally limited to Jews only. So how long could such a relationship last before the mutual incompatibility ended it? Not because one of us was "good" and the other "bad" I emphsized, just that the differences between us would be too insurmountable to developing a deep romantic relationship.
One might oppose this position by pointing out a few salient things. One is the level of drop-out from the Orthodox community and this is indeed a relevant concern. However, when one considers that, despite Reformative revisionism, most non-religious Jews do not have Jewish great-grandchildren, this means that Orthodoxy has been suffering from drop-out for centuries. Somehow we have managed to survive and even maintain our numbers even while supplying the rest of the Jewish community.
One might also bristle at the suggestion that only Orthodox standards guarantee continuity. Well the truth can be annoying, I'll admit. Note that I've already said that even in the non-religious part of the community there are measures that can increase the liklihood of avoiding assimilation. There are lots of Reformative Jews who feel a positive sense of their Judaism and marry other Jews for that reason. However, amonst the non-religious these are nowhere near as effective as within the Orthodox community. A Reformative kid from a good day school is more likely to marry and remain Jewish. An Orthodox kid is almost guaranteed to do that. If you're looking to effectively reduce assimilation, do you want "more likely" or "guaranteed"?
If a Jew's Yiddishkeit begins and ends at blintzes on Sunday morning, then that divide doesn't exist and there is no barrier to intermarriage. Why have continuity when there is nothing to continue? The answer the non-religious community does not want to hear is that traditional Jewish practice is the only guarantee against assimilation and disappearance.
No matter. We'll keep doing our thing for centuries to come and see what happens.

15 comments:

SJ said...

I assimilated to get away from the orthodox.

David said...

I think it's a no-brainer that Orthodox observance will (for the reasons you state) be more likely to perpetuate a Jewish community than non-Orthodox observance (or non-observance).
That said, where we part company is that you keep insisting that peoples' failure to find observance attractive is some kind of character defect or selfishness. "What's in it for me?" You're missing the point. Many people find Orthodoxy selfish; it's inwardly focused to the exclusion of its neighbors; its ethics center around other Jews, rather than around other people, and it tends to exalt ritual observance over actual virtue (all things you complain about yourself, so don't bother quibbling). Thus, if someone comes to the conclusion that this is a crock of sh_t, why does that make this person selfish?
Frankly, Garnel, you only practice all that ritual observance because you are getting something out of it (you feel superior, or you are convinced that you're doing the ratzon of Hakaddoishborokhoo). If someone doesn't get those warm fuzzies out of Orthodoxy, then he's not being selfish by declining to be Orthodox-- he's just being rational.
The burden is not on the average Jew to explain why he's not doing more to perpetuate a collection of inbred anal-retentives; on the contrary-- the burden is on Orthodoxy to articulate a reason why anyone should wish to do this.

Garnel Ironheart said...

David, stop presuming to understand me. You clearly don't.
If one looks at the decline of religion in general in the Western world, it has paralleled the decline in community and the rise of the individual in society. People stop going to shul/church because they are looking for a personal god who happens to answer all their wants with "yes" and agree with all their moral beliefs instead of wanting to join in a community where their own needs would come second.
And frankly, David, I don' practice all that ritual observances because I get warm fuzzies out of it. I practice them because I'm a Jew and am obligated from the oath at Sinai to do them! Do you think I was thrilled to get up extra early this morning so I could spend time walking around shul with a lulav and etrog? You think I enjoy going 25 hours without food? But as Rabbi Eliezer once said, what can I do? The will of my Father in Heaven is upon me.
Are there parts of Judaism I love and which give me fulfillment? Of course. The test of anyone's maturity is when they encounter parts of a system they don't particularly like. The adult embraces it with the same enthusiasm because of love of the system even if some of the specifics aren't so thrilling.

Off the Derech said...

>obligated from the oath at Sinai to do them!

Good thing that never happened.

David said...

"David, stop presuming to understand me."

Why? You presume to understand the motivations of the 90% of the Jewish people who fail to adopt your opinions.

"If one looks at the decline of religion in general in the Western world, it has paralleled the decline in community and the rise of the individual in society."

Uh-huh. It has also paralleled the end of chattel slavery and serfdom, as well as most of the major scientific and intellectual advancements in human history. And, why is the rise of the individual in society such a repulsive concept to you? I think it's rather grand.


"People stop going to shul/church because they are looking for a personal god who happens to answer all their wants with "yes" and agree with all their moral beliefs instead of wanting to join in a community where their own needs would come second."

Darn it, Garnel, stop presuming to understand everyone! You don't! People stop going because it doesn't seem rational to base one's lifestyle on Near Eastern mythology. And lots of non-frum people put their own needs second to those of others-- but what's so praiseworthy about putting your needs "second" to a collection of inane rituals which help nobody?

"And frankly, David, I don't practice all that ritual observances (sic) because I get warm fuzzies out of it. I practice them because I'm a Jew and am obligated from the oath at Sinai to do them!"

Horse manure. You like being "chosen." You like being tight with God. Of course you get a warm fuzzy. You found meaning in this-- that's fine; others haven't. That's OK, too.

"Do you think I was thrilled to get up extra early this morning so I could spend time walking around shul with a lulav and etrog? You think I enjoy going 25 hours without food? But as Rabbi Eliezer once said, what can I do? The will of my Father in Heaven is upon me."


And it's exactly that belief that God actually cares about whether or not Garnel parades around with a bunch of foliage and a lemon he bought for $50+ that thrills you so much. Or else you wouldn't do it.

"The test of anyone's maturity is when they encounter parts of a system they don't particularly like."

No, no, no! That's the test of anyone's ability to distinguish himself from a sheep or a lemming.

You failed.

And, once again, you've fallen into your familiar pattern of making snide pronouncements about everyone else's motives, and then getting very defensive when someone else makes an observation about your motives.

Off the Derech said...

>You like being "chosen." You like being tight with God.

Bingo.

Shalmo said...

How sad and pitiful is the Jew Garnel?

the Jew is not a creature that exists, rather the Jew is a creature that "survives"

Today that is exactly all what Judaism is about...survival

Always existing on the fringe of oblivion, always worrying 24/7 whether this is it. Whether this will be the final century for the Jewish people. I don't see any divine planning here, if there is please reveal it

Is the mission that planned on Har Sinai?

Shalmo said...

a copy and paste from a portion of a facebook note I made:

--------

The most notorious of all Jewish beliefs is that they are a light unto the gentiles as scripture reports, this both by example (Deut. 4:5-8; Zech. 8:23) and by instructing the nations in God's Law (Isa. 2:3-4; Micah 4:2-3).

To be blunt this is just not true. Jews have NOT been a light unto the gentiles by example because Jewish history itself consistently records endless breaches of the covenant in Exodus 19; how many times have the Jews succumbed to pure polytheism (read the hebrew bible to find out)? The first temple itself having been repudiated to have been filled with pagan idols. What we have here is an endless history of rebellion against God. Even Moses' last words to the Jews in Deut. 31 were a prophecy on how after his death they would become "utterly corrupt" and turn from the way he commanded them.

Nor have they ever instructed the nations in God's law. Do we see any widespread propagation of the 7 laws Noachide laws? When have they ever done this? Do we know of any nation that adheres to either the 7 Noachide laws or the 613 mitzvohs aside from Israel? The answer is no. Look at how many countries adhere to Islam and Christianity, and compare that to the number of Jews today. There is no propagation either by example or by instruction on God's law by these people (even though that's what the scriptures record). In fact after the second temple exile from Judea, Jewish proselytizing ended altogether as the Talmud created certain hindrances in conversion to Judaism.

This is particularly shocking since in Judaism not only is it impossible for any gentile to be a pious gentile, but it is also forbidden for a gentile to follow the dictates of a religion that is not Judaism [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:11]. The Talmud makes it abundantly clear that any Gentile religious system is illicit and the only alternatives for Gentiles are conversion or observance of the Seven Laws of Noah which, by definition, exclude any other religious system [Laws of Kings 10:9]. So if Judaism is the only option, and gentiles can never be pious, why has there never been any mass propagation of the religion?

Instead what the rabbis do is spend endless hours bickering with each other over nonsensical laws in halacha; excessive legalism being the worst aspect of Jewish law.

So if there indeed is some divine plan for the purpose of Judaism, I fail to see what it is. Are Jews here to spread monotheism? Well congratulations most of the world is monotheistic, so now what purpose does being a Jew have?

Garnel Ironheart said...

Ah Shalmo, got a break from all your homework? Perhaps you should be hanging around with your friends. Oh right, that's why you have time to bug me.

Anyway, back to real people.

David,

> It has also paralleled the end of chattel slavery and serfdom

No, I think it's more paralleled the rise in general prosperity that accompanied the end of World War 2. People with a lot to lose don't like taking gambles with things like war. They might lose it all.

Look at the U.S. Sixty years ago this was a country that took the best punch Japan could muster, absorbed it and then spent the next 3 years concentrating on destroying its enemies. If a Pearl Harbour attack were to happen nowadays... oh wait, it did and the leftists are still whining like Neville Chamberlain. Except Chamberlain had the good sense to shut up and disappear once WW2 started.

> Darn it, Garnel, stop presuming to understand everyone

You know what's funny, right? You're doing the exact same thing but getting mad at me for doing it. At first I was worried but now I realize you're just joking the whole time.

> That's the test of anyone's ability to distinguish himself from a sheep

No, no, no! (to quote you) A sheep does the stuff he hates and likes it because he's told he must like it. The adult grumbles but does it because he knows it's necessary.

Anyway, have a good Yom Tov.

David said...

I'm "real people!" How cool is that!?!

You're still dead wrong about everything, and I'm certainly not going to be put in the position of defending the leftists-- I assure you, I despise them more than you do. And, of course I'm doing the same thing that you are (i.e., trashing people's motivations). The difference is that you're doing it with a rather broad brush, and I'm just nailing you. Finally, the decline of religion predates WWII-- most folks trace it to the Enlightenment (or, Haskala, if you like), and I think the evidence is on their side.
Anyhow, a gut yontiff to you, too, you pious twit.

Bartley Kulp said...

David, I fail to see how you observe that religion is in world decline.

For example in the US, even though the number of people who consider themselves affiliated with a religion is in decline. These are not dogmatic atheist that we are talking about.

David said...

Bartley:
Your own example states that, in the US, "the number of people who consider themselves affiliated with a religion is in decline." So, what is it that you fail to see?

Bartley Kulp said...

What it means is that people are sole searching. This is not a complete rejection of religion as was done in Europe starting in the late 19th century.

Also take note that Evangelical Christianity is actually on the rise in North America. Lastly 30 years ago nobody thought that projected that Orthodox Judaism would be anything beyond a marginalized movement today. The dominant movement at the time was conservative.

David said...

Sole searching? They're looking for bottom-feeding fish, or something for their shoes?

Evangelical Christianity may be on the rise, but so is atheism. And, 30 years ago, nobody thought OJ would be much and now it's a whopping 10% of the Jewish population-- down from, what, 90% a few generations ago?

E-Man said...

David-

If you believe that Judaism is true then the reason you follow it has nothing to do with personal satisfaction, you are following it because it is true.

I think when Garnel says that religion is in decline because people are selfish is for the following reasons, this is my own opinion. Many people do not believe religions are true or false, or at least every part of religion. A lot of people follow their religions because that is how they grew up and that is their community. Many people keep the religion because their parents wanted them to. Now, throwing off religion means to disappoint your parents. That is a form of selfishness. On the other hand, there are people that think it may be true, but disregard it anyway because it does not suit them. These people are utterly selfish, if they believe it is true. Denying the will of G-D, the being that created you?? He gave you life and you turn your back on him?? Then there are those who do not believe in G-D. These people are not necessarily selfish, but when you think there is no point to life except your own existence why wouldn't you be selfish?