Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Jewish culture...? Intermarriage...?

1) Jewish culture based on institutions sucks, and is bound to fail.
2) Jewish culture must exist organically on a communal level.
3) Prioritizing full-time education funding, above all else, is the only way to make Jewish culture real.

I just read an article in Haaretz (http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/872270.html). Its views are much further to the left than mine are, and I find his way of equating Hamas and the early Zionists dangerously simplistic, and his way of legitimizing Hamas as a Palestinian political force is dangerously and stupidly naive. Still, I agree with his view that racism is a serious problem in Israel. I also think that his article illustrated an important point about the concept of Am Yisrael and being culturally Jewish.

The writer was disturbed by an interview with a woman who worked for the Jewish Agency for Israel on the topic of Jewish assimilation. He feels that the whole endeavor of trying to get Jews to exclusively marry Jews is both racist and ultimately pointless. He argues that there is no benefit in having people maintain a genetically Jewish bloodline if they have no intention of living a traditional Jewish lifestyle. If a "Jewish" boy, raised with no knowledge of Judaism or interest in it, living in Argentina, marries a Catholic, where is the tragedy in that? Judaism is a religion, and he's not keeping it and wasn't raised with it. He would not have raised Torah-educated, mitzvah-observant children anyway. And what does that woman from the Jewish Agency have to offer that Argentinian boy? Not Judaism, certainly; she is not an observant or traditionally educated Jew to begin with. All she can offer him is Zionism and a connection with Israel, which, he says, is not an essential ingredient of Jewish identity, particularly in the Diaspora.

But if only it were as simple as to say that he is ignoring the importance of Jewish peoplehood! His points, as much as I dislike them, have a kernel of truth to them. Very few people of Jewish decent today are culturally Jewish. Israelis speak Hebrew as their native language and have Jewish holidays as national holidays. Their foods are Jewish renditions of foods that they or their great-grandparents brought in with them from their home countries, then made Israeli. Their customs are holdovers from a religious past in their families. They're culturally Jewish because Jewish culture is all around them, organically. But culture isn't sacred. It's important in helping to construct norms and personal identity in social context, but far less defining of human purpose, and meaning of existence. Religion is a way of cultivating spiritual awareness through ritual and community. Religion is intentional. Culture is incidental.

Religious Jews outside Israel keep Judaism alive through their lifestyle; the customs and holidays of the Jewish people are not just cultural keepsakes, but spiritually motivated, and obligatory practices. Whether they eat lockshen kugel, shishlik, chummus, or kneidlach; whether they speak Yiddish or Hebrew or Farsi- or not- is not what keeps them Jewish. It's Shabbat, kashrut, Torah study, tfilah, tzedakkah, and every other mitzvah that guides their lives and the lives of their families and communities. The rest is just icing on the cake.

So what about chilonim (non-religious Jews) who live in the Americas, Europe, etc? People who may call themselves "culturally Jewish," because they eat matzah balls once or twice a year (and sushi once or twice a week)? Are we doing them any good by trying to shove a Jewish identity, discarded over the generations, down their throats?

And we panic over intermarriage rates! If there is no tangible Jewish culture in an individual's life, there is no reason to marry only Jewish. Widespread intermarriage is not the problem. It is the natural consequence of people of Jewish heritage not living Jewish lives.

Let's not worry about intermarried couples. Let's stop getting in their faces. Intermarriage isn't the problem, it's a symptom. Let's not change Judaism because of widespread intermarriage either. Instead, let's focus on making Jewish culture and Judaism alive in the lay community. That means that the Jewish lay community, Orthodox or not, Israeli or not, must be fluent in Hebrew and Torah educated. Without a living spoken common language, there is no living culture. Without the ability to read Tanach, Talmud, Midrash, etc. independently, lay Jews aren't independent, and rabbis are just window dressing. Judaism needs to be something that Jews are immersed in for it to be part of them. Unless it's part of them, it's an institutionally imposed artifice. Aside from charity and other social justice work, funding for full-time Jewish education (day schools and yeshivas) must be the target of all Jewish communal efforts, across the denominational spectrum.

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