The recent Pew Report has generated a good deal of commentary, especially the figures showing that an increasing number of Jews are disaffected from Judaism and unaffiliated with any Jewish community.
In a previous post, I wrote about the means by which Jewish continuity is preserved. Truthfully, it appears that the need for such safeguards is acute. We hear a great deal about the need to pull back from the precipice of assimilation, the need to stem the tide of intermarriage that threatens the future of Jewish communities in the United States. But what we don’t hear much about is why. Why resist assimilation? Why not allow ourselves to be absorbed into the body of human civilization the way countless other nations have done over the course of history?
Why do we take it for granted that Jewish continuity is a good thing?
Push vs. Pull
Well, there are certainly enough people—both Jews and non-Jews—who would say that it isn’t. They would argue that it’s time for the Jewish people to be absorbed into the greater body of humanity. As the song goes: “Imagine there’s no countries…” Just a solid homogeneous mass of humanity with no distinctions between nation and nation, culture and culture.
On the other side are those who point to anti-Semitism as the only thing keeping the Jewish people alive. We’ve all heard this argument: Living well is the best revenge. We’ll show the Anti-Semites! But are we to justify our existence only in opposition to our enemies? Are we to define ourselves by their enmity? What has their hatred to do with us? Surely it says more about them than about us!
Both arguments leave out the crux of the matter—we are part of something greater than ourselves. That “something” has its own existence, its own biography, and its own future. It does not belong to us, but rather we belong to it.
And truthfully, we have plenty to be proud of! Our strength is not in the “push” of the world’s hostility, but in the “pull” of our great adventure. We demean our essence if we define ourselves merely by the hostility or others toward us. Why let others determine the limits (which is after all the essence of definition) of our being?
Better that we define ourselves by what we wish to be and accomplish. But these things change over time, and so we continue to change as well. While we may have started out as a genetically and culturally homogeneous society, that is no longer true. Throughout the millennia, we have become quite a mixed lot, absorbing both genes and cultures from those among whom we’ve traveled and lived. And yet, the core identity remains through it all; our cultural DNA is still uniquely our own.
Diversity fuels life and creativity
Why is this? Is it just that nations, like individuals, strive to preserve their existence against outside influences? Or is it that nations, like the individual organs of the human organism, strive to preserve something greater than themselves? I would argue for the second answer: our core identity remains in the body of human civilization because it performs a necessary function. We have something to contribute to the world as a distinct people, which we could not contribute as individuals submerged into the undifferentiated mass of humankind. Of course the same could be said of every other nation. The world would be a poorer place if all cultural and racial differences were lost.
Alternately, thing of how physical systems work. There must be a difference in potential energy for anything to happen—a reservoir of heat amid cooler surroundings, a weight lifted to a greater height than its surroundings, a pendulum displaced from equilibrium… There must be differences or there will be no change. Only differences produce energy for things to happen.
All of this would argue against the assimilation of any nation or culture to the point that it ceases to exist as a separate entity.
A sense of mission
But there are things that make ours, in particular, an especially wonderful culture to which to belong. Part of our “great adventure” is that we have served as a conduit of cultural diversity to far-flung regions, without merging into the wider culture and without causing that culture to lose its individuality. For example, in the realm of music: How did Spanish song find its way into the repertoire of Greek and Turkish balladeers? How did the guitar and the violin find their way to Northern Europe? These are obviously trivial examples, though very beautiful ones.
But there are other things that we have imported and exported in our travels. Every people collects what it values most. In our case, the thing that we have collected with the greatest zeal has been ethical values. To our own values we have added the best of those among whom we’ve lived, with the result that we have become what the physicians call ‘a vector’ for the dissemination of values from culture to culture and from nation to nation. Even while we as individuals may not always live up to these values, nonetheless, we have inherited some great wisdom and outstanding morals that have stood the test of time, honed down through centuries of caring for one another through hardship and exile.
Such wisdom is worthy of preservation. It is a disservice to those who strove to ensure the survival of this wisdom to casually cast aside the heritage that they inherited and strove to pass on. But more than this, it is equally a disservice to the societies among whom we live to deprive them of the continued survival of this wisdom. Certainly it is a disservice to our children to deprive them of a heritage of such diversity and wealth.
But we have a message to future generations as well: perhaps you don’t need Israel or the Jewish People, but we need you. In fact, we need you even to the point of self-sacrifice. This is what tends to differentiate between the assimilationists and those who choose to identify with our people totally: it is whether that person sees such identification as worth self-sacrifice. And here is where our diversity interacts with our individuality; every Jew will see a different facet of our national existence as justifying that sacrifice. Each one will have a different vision of what Jewish continuity will mean and what parts of Jewish existence are worthy of survival.
And all of them will be correct.