Certainly no confusion of the ethnic with the religious presents more anomalies than the mixture of ethnic Jewishness and religious Judaism that American Jews have concocted for themselves. But the brew is fresh, not vintaged. For nearly the entire history of the Jews, to be a Jew meant to practice the religion set forth in the Torah revealed by God to Moses at Sinai, which the world knows as Judaism. A Jew who gave up Judaism adopted some other religion and ceased to identify himself with the Jews as a group. So the religion, Judaism, defined the group at both the entry and the exit points.
For the entire history of Judaism and for most of the history of the Jews, the definition of the Jewish group invoked purely theological categories. In that religion the Jews are called “Israel,” meaning the Israel of which Scriptures speak, the holy social entity (“people,” “nation”) that God called into being through the saints, beginning with Abraham and Sarah. Belonging to Israel imposes divine requirements: a belief in the one God who created Heaven and Earth and made himself known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then to Moses at Sinai and to prophets thereafter; and commandments that define the holy way of life that marks Israel as God’s people. So “Israel” in Judaism corresponds to the socioreligious entity Christianity calls the “Church” or the “mystical body of Christ.”
In the context of faith, therefore, “Israel” not only does not correspond to the state of Israel or to the Holy Land but it also has no relationship to “the Jewish People,” “the Jewish community,” or to any of the other secular formulations that define what it means to be a Jew today and to belong to the Jewish ethnic group. Above all, no imperative attaches itself to the continuation of the Jewish people, and “Jewish survival” bears no urgency in its own terms. None of the Ten Commandments maintains that God regards as an end in itself the maintenance of the Jews as a distinct social entity.
To illustrate the distinction between the Israel of the Torah and the various secular and cultural definitions of who constitutes a Jew and the Jewish people is easy: until the 17th-century philosopher of Jewish origin, Benedict Spinoza, there is no single instance of a Jew giving up Judaism (the religion of the Torah) and remaining Jewish—adopting no other religion, affiliating with no other social entity; that is, from Abraham to Spinoza, to be Israel meant to practice Judaism, and, more to the point, to cease to practice Judaism marked the end of belonging to Israel. (If for Spinoza, one could be a Jew without practicing Judaism, he did not indicate how long secular Jewishness might persist.) This is why historians point to Spinoza as the first secular or “modern” Jew.
But until the middle of the 19th century, Spinoza remained a singular figure. And everyone knew he had been excommunicated! So it was taken as the norm that someone who ceased to practice Judaism also abandoned the Jewish group and presumably entered some other religion and its community. When, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, Jews thought they were gaining entry into the civil society of Western civilization in Germany, France, Britain, and the United States, some, continuing to see themselves as Israelites in the religious meaning of the word, reformed Judaism to ht the new circumstance; others reaffirmed the received meaning of Israel as a people dwelling apart, in God’s eternal presence. The latter framed what they eventually called Orthodox Judaism, integrationist politically but separate religiously in the many aspects of culture subject to the Torah’s commandments. A few remained Jewish without practicing Judaism (yielding the counterpart to religious Judaism in secular Jewishness). But a great many opted out. They are represented by Felix Mendelssohn’s father, Karl Marx’s father, and Disraeli’s father, among the man) Jews who purchased Christianity as their ticket to Western civilization. In other words, they adopted the Christianity that ruled in the country of their citizenship (just as, after the massacres of World War II, numerous Jews cut off all tics not only to Judaism but to the Jewish group). So until nearly the 20th century, to be a Jew meant to practice Judaism, and to cease to practice Judaism meant to stop being a Jew. If Spinoza really was the first secular Jew, it took a long time to produce a second.
Only toward the end of the 19th century did large numbers of European Jews drop Judaism but remain Jewish. Many of these lived in the ethnic mosaics of Central and Eastern Europe where large populations of diverse tradition lived side-by-side but interacted as foreigners. To be a Jew meant to speak Yiddish, to dress in Jewish clothing, to make a living in callings deemed distinctly Jewish, and, above all, to define the world in a way particular to the Jewish group. To be a Pole or Ukrainian or a Latvian or a Rumanian or a Hungarian bore the same social meanings. In a given city, natives might speak several languages, depending on origin, and points of encounter outside the circle of faith and culture were severely circumscribed. As far to the west as Britain, people took for granted that one could be English or Jewish by birth or marriage, but not both. In the United States today we should call such a definition of culture ethnic tribalization, but in Canada ethnicity as a medium of social differentiation is publicly subsidized.
It was in that context that Jews who lost the faith sought a secular definition of who is a Jew and what is “Jewishness.” A Pole of the Jewish persuasion, or an authentic German of the Mosaic persuasion, so far as other Poles or Germans were concerned, was no more plausible than a flying cow. Nor did Jews themselves believe it, though in Germany, France, Britain, and the Unites States, many tried. That left the secular option, Jewishness. In response to the anti-religious propaganda of the Enlightenment and the militant secularism of socialism, communism, and some formulations of liberalism, large numbers of Jews exercised that option.
For some, the Jewish group would be recast as “a people, one people,” which should, and ultimately did, attain a political definition for itself as a nation; specifically, Zionists thought up and realized the state of Israel. For others, the Jews would form a language-community, with Yiddish and renewed Hebrew competing to define matters. For Jewish socialists (as distinct from Jews who left the Jewish world and became socialists or communists), the Jews would form a division in the united army of the international workers of the world; these formed Yiddish-speaking unions of enormous influence. Zionism and the Jewish Works Union, or Bund, took shape in the same year, 1897, and in Eastern Europe the latter became, after the religion, Judaism, the single most influential form of “being Jewish.” And for some few in Europe, but a great many a century later in the United States, the Jewish group would form a cultural entity, redefining their religious practices into cultural forms, turning commandments of God into customs and ceremonies.
American Jews for the first 200 of their 350 years of history in the United States took for granted that their principal institutional form would be the synagogue, and that they were Jewish by reason of practicing Judaism. As their communities took shape in colonial times, these Jews constructed synagogues, cemeteries, and schools. They had no ordained rabbis for those same 200 years (the first rabbinical schools were founded in the final quarter of the 19th century), but educated lay people managed well enough. When a large migration of German Jews in the mid-19th century redefined the demography of American Jewry, the immigrants affirmed that they formed a religious group and built synagogues, reshaping the faith to accommodate the requirements of American society. En masse, they opted for Reform Judaism, which they assumed would be the Judaism of America. History proved them right—today approximately 90 percent of those Jews who belong to synagogues identify with Reform Temples or Conservative synagogues.
The mass migrations from Russian and German and Austro- Hungarian Poland, White Russia, Ukraine, Rumania, Hungary, and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe from 1880 through 1920 changed the face of American Jewry. Far more numerous than the existing community, the immigrants were also remarkably diverse. They included not only practicing Jews but atheists, Zionists and Socialists and Zionist-Socialists, Hebraists and Yiddishists, and a great many other sorts of Jews then flourishing in the heartland of Eastern Europe. There, all of the ambiguities and complexities of the modern identity crisis affecting Jewry found their avatars, from the pure piety of the faithful—whether in Hasidic circles around a holy man or in yeshivas poring over the Talmud—to the utter, militant atheism of the Jewish socialists and communists. Some were highly educated in their faith or articulate in their atheism, but most practiced a residual, cultural piety, taking for granted that to be a Jew meant to practice Judaism but bearing only a light burden of religious knowledge to lend sense to religious practice.
The immigrants created a native American Judaism that defined itself as a religious group with social commitments, no different from the Mormons or the Catholics. They very quickly extended the definition to encompass ethnicity without religion, despite religion, and alongside religion. But no one imagined Jewish ethnicity as a purely individual and private attitude; everyone took for granted that the Jews formed a social entity, a group, differing only on what that group should make of itself. Now the characteristic form of American Jewry, the synagogue, competed with a variety of other institutional arrangements designed to Americanize the immigrants. Jewish organized unions in various industries, needle trades for instance, espoused a socialism that defined public discourse and that was far more aggressive and articulate than the barely literate Judaic theology of the immigrants. An intellectually mature and highly educated Orthodox Judaism developed very slowly, its principal institutions, yeshivas for instance, rare and weak, its synagogues small and lacking stability, its rabbis poorly treated. Only after World War II, with a large-scale immigration of European survivors of the holocaust from Central and Eastern Europe, did Orthodoxy renew itself. Then the issue of accommodating American society gave way to other concerns altogether, and several Orthodox Judaisms, some Hasidic, some centered in the great academic societies of the yeshira tradition, all of them segregationist to the core, competed with the integrationist and accommodationist Orthodoxy that had begun a generation earlier in the United States, and a generation before that in Germany and Britain.
When we contemplate the contemporary condition of Jews as an ethnic group and Judaism as a religious tradition, we confront a remarkable fact: the advent, for the first time, of Jews who identify themselves as Jewish in ethnicity. To find those Jews, and there are many, we have to take account of the entire population of Jews in the United States, half of whom do not belong to synagogues and who—if they practice any Judaism—do so in ways other than those defined as normative by organized Judaisms. To state matters simply: one, a person may belong to no institution of a Jewish character but define being ethnically Jewish as a matter of personal identity alone; it is how he feels. Two, a person may belong to a synagogue or actively participate in a religious institution of another sort, such as a yeshiva, where the focus is on learning but where prayers are said, and define being Jewish as belonging to holy Israel, God’s first love, the kingdom of priests and holy people of whom Scripture speaks; it is how he lives the holy life. Three, a person may belong to an institution of a Jewish character that is not religious and define being ethnically Jewish as a matter of both personal and public identification; it is how he votes and determines with whom he associates for secular sorts of activities.
This differentiation into ideal types obscures the everyday fact that about half of American Jews fall into both the second and the third categories. The reason is that most of the same people who sustain the community in its secular formulations also belong to synagogues. In the United States, ethnic Jews may take active roles in Zionist organizations such as Hadassah, in Jewish community philanthropies called Federations or Welfare Funds, in political organizations such as the American Jewish Congress, or in service organizations such as B’nai B’rith, and may also belong to synagogues. When it comes to public activity, they practice secular Jewishness, invoking the twin symbols, the holocaust and the state of Israel, to explain their identification as participants in the American commonwealth. When it comes to private activity in home and family, to rites of passage (birth/circumcision, puberty/bar mitzvah, marriage/huppah, and death), to certain religious rites celebrated in the home and family, they practice classical Judaism, whether in its normative or reform formulations. The duality may be expressed by saying these Jews wish to be Jewish in public, in a political way, and Judaic in private, at home and in family in a religious manner.
So much for the Jews as a community. What about the other half—those who belong in one category only? A very small number of Jews, mainly in segregationist Orthodoxy, define themselves in wholly Judaic-religious terms, living out their lives in yeshiva-study and synagogue worship; a much smaller number belong to Reform Temples and define being Jewish in equally limited, narrowly religious terms. In the nearly complete ethnicization of Reform Judaism, these classical reformers are swallowed up: they identify not with secular-Jewish but only religious-Judaic institutions.
But the rest—about half of the Jews who live in the United States—define themselves in singularly ethnic terms. For them, “being Jewish” is a matter of who they are and what they are—it is something of which they are proud—but it carries no requirement to participate in public life as part of a community. Here Spinoza’s model governs: the radically isolated individual of Jewish origin and Jewish predilections and proclivities, however these may be defined, even down to a style of joketelling. Secular Jewishness defines traits deemed ethnically characteristic, even innate. Feelings and personal preferences take over, as secular Jews elevate the importance of having the “correct” feelings. In place of faith, history, and covenantal loyalty, they invoke personal opinion, memory, and ephemera of attitudes and political sympathies, certain that the right opinion, the correct collective memory, and the accepted attitude will suffice to make this person Jewish, that one not.
More to the point, secular Jews outside the framework of community suppose themselves smart, witty, and focused. In the hands of enemies, Jewishness finds its definition in such counterpart traits as clever, nihilistic and cynical, and aggressive. Both sides appeal to what we may dismiss as either racism or cultural determinism, depending on whether we opt for the explanation of traits by reason of nature or nurture. It hardly matters. When it comes to the privatization of secular Jewishness, we enter a world without rationality, racist or cultural. Like Hermann Goering, who said he would decide who was a Jew, secular Jews decide what “being Jewish” means to the ultimate “mc.” Once the individual decides to be Jewish on his own, then idiosyncratic interpretation takes over, and all larger public meanings fail.
Hal B. Levine’s recent study of New Zealanders of mixed parentage, with one Jewish parent, is instructive here, considering that one out of every two American Jews marries an unconverted Gentile. Whom did Levine interview? There is Kevin, son of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father. Of his mother’s Jewishness: “His mother distanced herself religiously and culturally; she was Jewish ‘in her way.’ He identifies her sense of humor and the fact that she knew Yiddish as evidence of this. He does not deny being Jewish himself, saying that he feels ‘internally Jewish’ and is not preoccupied with external definitions.” Those Levine interviewed emphasized “the voluntary and psychological nature of identification: you can choose, based on how you feel.” All this is private, rarely even familial, let alone communal. Perhaps Tara stands for the lot of them. She has a Jewish father and a Maori mother: “Tara is proud to have Jewish relatives. . . . She attributes certain aspects of her expressive nature to her Jewish background, which she knows aren’t Maori and certainly aren’t European.” Here, then, is the other secular Jewishness: residual, individual, and trivial. Few of Levine’s subjects contemplated a Jewish generation beyond themselves.
In the context of radical privatization of secular Jewishness, half-Jews, quarter-Jews, whole Jews, children of a Jewish mother but a Gentile father (thus part of Israel as defined by Judaism), children of a Jewish father but a Gentile mother (part of Israel as defined by Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism but not according to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism)—all of these varieties produce a vast spectrum of choices. Approximately a quarter of a million American Jews practice a religion other than Judaism, whether an Eastern religion (many members of the Unification Church are Jews), or Christianity in one or another of the evangelical definitions framed by “Jews for Jesus,” “Messianic Jews,” and the like. Here ethnicity loses all meaning, and “Jew” and “Jewish” stand for whatever someone wishes them to mean. In this setting many fear for the future of “the Jewish People.”
Even now the debate over what to do next rages. One side, represented by militant secular activists, wishes American Jews once and for all to abandon any claim to religiosity and deny a privilege, within Jewry, to Judaism. Philanthropists devote tens of millions of dollars to sustain the secular option. Secularists wish to define themselves wholly as an ethnic group: “no rules, just right,” “have it your way,” and other current slogans serve to define matters. The other side points to a return to the religion, Judaism, as the guarantor of the Jewish future. These positions are currently represented, respectively, by Alan M. Dershowitz in The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century, written in response to his son’s marriage to a Gentile, and Elliott Abrams’ Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America, which insists that the Jews will die out if their religion is marginalized. Neither book has any bearing on the religion, Judaism, in which Israel forms a generative category but defines no end in itself. But the reason Dershowitz and Abrams fail is not theological but, appropriately, sociological: for the half or more of American Jews who practice “being Jewish” outside of the organized Jewish community and the synagogue, the two positions share the single trait of monumental irrelevance.
Nor does the Torah have any stake in the outcome of this debate. For we should look in vain in the Torah, encompassing not only Scripture but the entire oral tradition, for anyone who would concur that the purpose of the Torah (a.k.a. Judaism) is to secure the continuity of the Jews as a group (“the Jewish People”) . Nothing happened to Spinoza’s model after him. For outside of the synagogue and its enduring life in the service of the One God, and absent militant anti-Semitism, no secular model—Jewishness without Judaism—has ever served to sustain a diaspora Jewish group for much longer than a generation and a half. And in the nation-state of Israel, issues are drawn still more sharply. But that is another story.