By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
One of my favorite legends is about the biblical Abraham who on his way to Mount Moriah – believing that God had commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac there – meets Satan who, of course, always asks very clever questions. This time he says to Abraham: If you carry out what you believe is God’s commandment, it’ll be the end of the Jewish people, for there’re no other Jews in the world and you’re too old to have other offspring.
To which Abraham replies: My business is to do God’s will; Jewish survival is God’s problem.
Last night I heard versions of this theology from two rabbis, one Reform (Naama Kelman, the Dean of the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College), the other Orthodox (Shlomo Riskin, founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, now Chief Rabbi of Efrat, etc. etc.). They were responding to a talk by Steven Cohen, arguably the most influential Jewish sociologist in the United States today. He was talking about the much debated Pew Report on the state of American Jewry.
Cohen was realistic-pessimistic and brought statistics gleaned from the Report that suggest that non-Orthodox Judaism is rapidly in numeric decline. Despite the growth of Orthodoxy – first, because its birth rate is more than twice that of non-Orthodox Jews and, second, because most Orthodox Jews marry Jews whereas non-Orthodox Jews don’t – the number of American Jews is getting smaller.
Though Cohen seems to appreciate the valiant efforts that the various non-Orthodox movements are making to keep Jews Jewish, he believes that the absolute priority should be given to providing opportunities for Jews to meet other Jews –clubs, camps, societies, trips to Israel and everything else of that ilk – because this will make them more likely to meet and marry Jews – and have Jewish children.
For example, the fact that more Jews in, say, Philadelphia will stay Jewish than in San Francisco is because, for a variety of reasons, the Jews in Philadelphia find it easier to meet other Jews than in San Francisco.
The rabbis didn’t disagree with any of that. However, their perspective wasn’t sociological but theological. They based themselves not on statistics but on history when they pointed to how often Jewish survival had been in danger throughout the ages, yet we’re here and thriving. Think only of what Judaism and the Jewish people looked liked at the end of the Holocaust and where we are today!
Though they speak from different ends of the Jewish religious spectrum they share a strong realistic optimism about Judaism and argue that conversion to Judaism should be made not easy or undemanding but more accessible and more welcoming.
Even though optimism doesn’t come easily to me, I share their understanding of Judaism that relies more on our long history than on contemporary statistics, more on the faith of Abraham than on the facts in the Pew Report.
However we view today’s Jewish realities, it should me more obvious than ever that our future depends on Israel. Most of the world’s Jews will soon live here. My fear is that those entrusted to lead this country are too caught up with their petty politics to see the larger picture. It’s this realism that usually curbs my optimism.