By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Here’re more indications that the greatest danger to the future of the Jewish people, and thus to Judaism, may come from within. What follows are hints of the ominous evidence I gleaned on the first of a two-day conference in Jerusalem under the title, “New Understandings of Gender, Love and the Jewish Family.”
The rate of intermarriage remains the prime concern. Despite the seemingly valiant attempt on the part of the American Reform movement to extend the definition of a Jew to include a person who has at least one Jewish parent (in contrast to the traditional insistence that the mother must be Jewish), Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University told us that most of the (patrilineal) children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers don’t identify as Jews, whereas most (matrilineal) children of Jewish mothers do.
But perhaps an even greater threat is the low birthrate among Diaspora Jews in general and American Jews in particular. The average number of children in a Jewish family in the United States is 1.5. And because those who marry (and there’s less of them) marry late, physical and mental abnormalities among their children have increased.
Israelis produce more children, which is why very soon most of the world’s Jews will be living in the Jewish state. Israeli secular families have on average 2.8 children. Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) families have six, which is why demographers predict that a growing percentage of Israelis, perhaps the majority, will soon become haredi.
The growth of religious extremism in all religions is too large a subject to be discussed here, but it’s quite obvious that the failure of modernity is an important factor in the lure of fundamentalism. Whereas a couple of generations ago many Jews left the traditional framework of Jewish life because modernity beckoned, that’s no longer the case; today modernity repels perhaps as much as it attracts.
Much of the tension between ostensibly rigid traditionalism and allegedly formless liberalism is reflected in the attitude to marriage. In the ultra-Orthodox community, religion is linked to obligation and family; in the secular world marriage is only a matter of individual preference. This means that whereas the former sees in marriage an opportunity to do God’s will the latter has only pleasing the self in mind.
That doesn’t mean that Orthodox marriages are by definition happier, but they may be more prepared to put up with things – especially the women – in order to do God’s will. Non-Orthodox Jews don’t have such considerations.
It’s important to bear in mind that ultra-Orthodoxy is by no means static. Many of the conference papers were devoted to studies of changes within the haredi world as manifest, for example, in the many movies about life in their communities made by ultra-Orthodox film makers, as well as other forms of artistic creativity.
Most of liberal Jews of one kind or another – so far still the majority – find the prospect of ultra-Orthodoxy becoming the normative manifestation of contemporary Judaism alarming. However, the fact that the liberal alternatives are neither articulated nor represented by women and men with sufficient passion makes that more likely.
Yet lecturing non-Orthodox Jews to marry and marry young isn’t likely to influence them, especially not in the Diaspora which is more prone to follow the mores of its neighbors than the call of its tradition.