July 26, 2007
Dumbing Down Judaism
You can't talk about Jewish philanthropy without talking about Jewish priorities. For many years now, a huge priority for the American Jewish community has been to fight assimilation -- what is elegantly called "Jewish continuity." It's a priority that is rarely challenged. How do you argue against Jewish continuity?
Well, the other day, I had lunch at Shilo's with a Talmud professor who's not overly worked up about Jewish continuity. In fact, my lunch guest, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of the Shtibl Minyan, wouldn't mind if the Jewish world lost its obsession with Jewish continuity and started worrying about something he considers more important.
What kind of Judaism the Jewish world wishes to "continue."
In this view, Judaism itself has been diminished by our obsession with "survival" and "continuity." By coddling and pandering to keep Jews from leaving the faith, we have trivialized our faith and turned it into fluff. Look around and you'll see how Judaism has slowly evolved into a consumer brand of sweetness and convenience -- into Judaism lite.
Not crazy about doing Shabbat? Come Friday night for a fabulous musical and social experience. No tickets for High Holy Day services? Just show up at any Chabad and they'll treat you like royalty. Never been to the Holy Land? If you're young, no problem -- it's your birthright and you can go for free.
If you find synagogue services too boring or complicated, we have an array of "spiritual" services where all you have to do is read English and hold hands and chant in unison. If you're single and you want to meet someone but your time is precious and limited, come have a latte and "speed" through a string of possible Jewish mates.
You know nothing about your Judaism? Don't feel bad, you're not alone. There are hundreds of introductory classes for you to choose from. There's Judaism for the "Clueless but Curious," "Kabbalah for Dummies," even a user-friendly "High Holiday Survival Guide."
If you're more into culture and attitude, there are magazines and Web sites that will show you how to be Jewish and cool. You don't believe in God? Don't worry, there's a whole movement for you with the word "human" in it. Just remember: our No. 1 concern is that you stay Jewish, even if you know nothing about your Judaism.
It's almost as if American Judaism, in its desperate struggle to keep Jews from vanishing into the gentile mainstream, has become a marketing carnival. And Jewish philanthropy -- driven by a Holocaust-level fear of losing Jews -- has helped fund this carnival.
At our lunch, Rabbi Cohen lamented the price we have paid to reach this point: the dumbing down of Judaism. In twisting ourselves into pretzels to reach out to vanishing Jews, we're marketing Judaism as a faith that can comfort, entertain and even elevate you -- but will rarely challenge you or make too many demands, intellectual or otherwise.
We are nurturing a generation of Jewish noshers who only want to lick the icing off the Jewish cake. Even the budding spiritual revival we hear so much about is based more on the need for personal empowerment and self-fulfillment than it is on deep knowledge of the Jewish tradition.
Our marketing of Judaism has created consumers, not thinkers.
My neighbors and friends who live a few doors from me, Rabbi Joel Rembaum and his wife, Fredi, told me on a recent Shabbat afternoon that the Jewish world needs to do more inreach, and less outreach. What they and Rabbi Cohen were saying is that we need to create a new generation of educated Jews from kindergarten up, rather than expend so much of our resources on throwing lifeboats to unaffiliated and disconnected grown-ups.
For me, that's probably going too far, because I've seen how outreach has brought so many young adults to reconnect with their Judaism. As I see it, any connection is better than no connection. Still, there is one mantra that I hear everywhere I go -- whether we're talking about outreach or inreach.
This is the mantra: Thousands of Jewish families cannot afford to send their children to Jewish day schools, and it is outrageous that the Jewish community cannot raise the money to subsidize these children.
It's so obvious that it's almost embarrassing: Is there a better antidote to the dumbing down of Judaism, and the eventual assimilation of Jews, than having Jewish kids get a Jewish education? Maybe the reason Jewish continuity efforts have been so unsuccessful (half of our adults still marry outside the faith) is that it's hard to stay connected to something you don't know much about.
For the large number of Jews who stay committed to their Judaism after getting a Jewish education, you can bet that when they grow up they'll demand more from their spiritual leaders than "Judaism for Dummies." If they have studied Talmud and other texts, they will be more likely to introduce knowledgeable debates into their congregations and communities, and, generally, add more depth and vibrancy to the Jewish conversation.
When we lament the lack of great Jewish thinkers in our generation -- who are the Heschels, Soloveichiks and Bubers of our day? -- we are also lamenting what Judaism has lost through their absence. I don't know about you, but I'd pay anything to hear what someone like Heschel would have to say about the great Jewish issues of our day. The knowledge that one can only get from a Jewish education is the first step to creating great Jewish thinkers, rather than simply clever ones.
But as we know, "Jewish education" is not as sexy a fundraising hook as "we're losing Jews!" "the world hates us!" and "we can never forget!" Never mind that Jewish education holds the secret to a stronger Jewish continuity: It strengthens Jews by strengthening Judaism, and it strengthens Judaism by strengthening Jews.
The real dumbing down of Judaism today is that the Jewish philanthropic world hasn't figured that out yet.