Will the Future of American Jewry be Secured by Secularism or by Faith?

Reviews by Nathan J. Diament

The Vanishing American Jew

In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century       

By Alan M. Dershowitz

Little, Brown

1997, 320 pages

Faith or Fear

How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America

By Elliott Abrams

Free Press

1997, 237 pages

…I have been able to define for myself a positive Jewish identity and to live a meaningful Jewish life…I think Jewishly…teach Jewishly…practice law Jewishly…I surround myself with Jewish music and Jewish art…even my agnosticism is Jewish, since the God whose existence I wonder about is the Jewish God.

–Alan Dershowitz

Whether American Jews can commit themselves anew to the goal of survival, to reversing the demographic trends that threaten their collective future, depends on whether they still believe they are above all else members of a religious community.

–Elliott Abrams

Over the past 50 years, much of the American Jewish establishment has defined Jewish survival in fairly simple terms:  fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism and the socio-political conditions perceived to foster it.  Thus, the strategy pursued by leading Jewish organizations has been to fight in the courts and the legislatures for a high “wall of separation” between church and state and the lowering of any barriers to the access and equality of opportunity for Jewish individuals in our society.  While pursuing these goals single-mindedly, the establishment overlooked the fact that embrace of secularism came at the expense of the most salient feature of the Jewish people:  the Jewish religion.  Nonetheless, the perception of success — through Jews being admitted and welcomed to Ivy League colleges, Wall Street firms and high government posts — lulled the community into not only a sense of security, but a sense of victory; Jews had “made it” in America.

Then, several years ago, the American Jewish community had cold water thrown in its collective face by the demographic trends revealed in the National Jewish Population Study of 1990.  Suddenly, the community which enjoyed a self-image of vigor and vibrancy was confronted with harsh reality:  Jews have fallen from 3.7% of the U.S. population to 2%; of all Jews who have married since 1985, the majority have married non-Jews; demographers predict a drop of 1 million-2 million in the American Jewish population over the next two generations should these and similar trends continue.  This, and similar studies, set off a frenzy among Jewish organizations, thinkers and writers to develop prescriptions and programs that will secure “Jewish continuity” in the future.  What is it, they each wonder, that constitutes the essence of Judaism?  What is it that will successfully bind Jews to each other, to the generations of Jews that preceded them and to that which one can call “Judaism?”

Two well-known Jews, albeit well known primarily for their contributions outside of Jewish life, have weighed in recently with their diagnoses and prescriptions.  One could not imagine two books that parallel each other so well in much of their analyses, yet diverge so radically in their conclusions, than those by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams.

Dershowitz and Abrams each begin with the crisis of continuity and intermarriage indicated by the sorts of statistics mentioned above.  After depicting the crisis, they each begin to explain how the American Jewish community got into this predicament.  Both recognize that institutional anti-Semitism has largely disappeared from the American landscape.  While individuals may continue to hate Jews, there are few, if any, elite law firms, banking houses or corporations that exclude Jews from their ranks.  Moreover, as noted by Dershowitz (through one of the many — and there are many — autobiographical anecdotes in his book, along with a generous portion of borscht belt humor) the Clinton Administration has marked the end of Jewish exclusion at the highest levels of the United States government.  There are so many Jews in top-level positions, including multiple cabinet seats and two Jewish Supreme Court justices, that the practice of counting how many Jews there are in such positions seems out of place; a remnant of bygone days when the exclusion of Jews was of great concern to the community.  Thus, both authors recognize that the scourge of entrenched institutional anti-Semitism that once forced Jews to unite in common defense has quickly receded and loosened some of the bonds that held us together.

In recent years, many American Jews have focused their traditional concerns about anti-Semitism on the Christian Right.  Interestingly, Dershowitz and Abrams agree that fundamentalist Christians are not, as a group, anti-Semitic.  Here, however, the assumptions and conclusions of the authors begin to diverge.  For Dershowitz, “most of the leaders and grassroots members of the Christian Right are not…anti-Jewish so much as they are pro-Christian,” and their threat lies in the fact that they seek to the lower the “wall of separation” between church and state in America.  It is that separation, according to Dershowitz, which is “the single most important reason for the success of the American Jewish community.”  One begins to wonder, at this point, how Dershowitz can characterize the Jewish establishment’s pursuit of the secularism that yielded the current continuity crisis as a value to be championed.

Abrams takes on this characterization of religious Christians.  He contends that the gospel and recent pronouncements by church authorities demand that Christians respect Jews and be pro-Israel.  Moreover, Abrams cites the findings of a report from the Anti-Defamation League (not known for pro-evangelical sentiments) that concludes that there is little difference in the level of individual anti-Semitism on the part of devout Christians compared to agnostics.  Abrams persuasively makes the case that what divides most Jews from religious Christians are religion and politics.  With regard to religion, a 1990 survey revealed that while 55% of average Americans stated that religion was “very important” in their lives, only 30% of American Jews concurred.  As for politics, most Jews are political liberals and vehemently disagree with the more conservative political agenda advanced by traditional Christians.  This rankles Christians even more when Jews couch their political opposition as a concern for the role of religion in politics, yet do not object to religious political argumentation when it is consistent with a liberal agenda.

Remarkably, Dershowitz and Abrams both recognize that the many “substitute faiths” (Abrams’ term) American Jews have identified with Judaism over the past 50 years have failed to engage more recent generations and keep Jews affiliated.  Fighting anti-Semitism, support for the State of Israel and the pursuit of social justice through progressive politics have all been offered as definitions of Judaism for the American Jewish community and they have failed to avert the demographic crisis that has resulted.  The reasons underlying this failure are where the two authors really part company.

Dershowitz contends that none of these substitute faiths have succeeded in keeping most Jews Jewish because — well, because they haven’t.  The waning of institutional anti-Semitism makes fighting anti-Semitism less engaging, asking American Jews to make aliyah is unrealistic, and suggesting that political liberalism is the same as Judaism is incorrect, since the traditional sources are much more complicated than first surmised.  Dershowitz also adds to his list of “unworkable” solutions the suggestion that all Jews “return to religious adherence.”  He deems such a return unworkable mostly because he identifies observance with the most isolationist segments of the Orthodox community.  Dershowitz recounts his response to those who ask him how they can “make sure” that their children will not intermarry.  His response is a seven-step program which includes moving to “a totally Orthodox shtetl like New Square…do not teach your children any English, [and] arrange their marriage.”  Dershowitz then proceeds to inform us that most of his questioners are unprepared to adopt the Chassidic way of life.  Thus, according to Dershowitz, the return to religion is not a solution for American Jewish continuity since most American Jews are unwilling to sever all connections to modern society.

For those in the Orthodox community, this argument is intuitively illogical, and the discernible seeds of its failings are found within Dershowitz’s book itself; he simply ignores them.  After describing the Chassidic approach that most American Jews would not partake of, Dershowitz writes of the Modern Orthodox community.  He writes with great admiration of Yeshiva University president Norman Lamm and others who are deeply committed to Orthodoxy while engaging the modern world.  He further notes that the extremely low intermarriage rate found among Chassidic Jews is similarly found among Modern Orthodox Jews.  Yet, he still insists that even Modern Orthodoxy is not a viable solution for the continuity crisis, since most young Jews are “simply not religious by nature.”

For Alan Dershowitz, then, while some American Jews might remain Jewish through their support for Israel, their devotion to liberal politics, or even through a return to religion, these approaches will not stem the tide of assimilation that confronts the community.  What, then, is Dershowitz’s solution?  “Learning, learning, learning.”  Dershowitz believes that the American Jewish community must focus its efforts upon fostering greater Jewish literacy.  We must, in his words, “fill the Yiddersher cup” with Jewish knowledge.  From the study of the Bible to Maimonides to Achad Ha’am to Heschel, studying the vast library of Jewish knowledge will connect Jews to Judaism.

The question one can ask Dershowitz, of course, is “how?”  How is this suggestion more “workable” than those that he rejects?  Dershowitz does not suggest any particular end to which this increased learning is connected; it is learning for the sake of learning, “not…as a means toward returning Jews to God.”  In fact, it seems very much like a return to Mordechai Kaplan’s conception of Judaism as civilization.  Dershowitz marries this proposal to a series of seemingly unrealistic initiatives including “open Jewish schools” modeled on those run by the Quakers and an international conference on the Jewish state of mind.

Alan Dershowitz does a fine job of laying out the crisis the Jewish community is confronting and a fair job of explaining how it got here; yet he fails to respond to the challenge of the crisis meaningfully.  If secularism has failed us, why defend it and hope that it will save us now?

Elliott Abrams does not believe that secularism is the answer to the continuity crisis.  He believes that the American Jewish establishment must learn from the successes of the “Orthodox nuisance” (that is, the nuisance of its success) and return to a Judaism that has its religious identity as its centerpiece.  He simply asks:  “If the central issue” is “continuity,” shouldn’t we look to the one element of the Jewish community that has been the most successful at it?  “Do not the Orthodox and other traditionally observant Jews have the right to claim success — and to insist that their approach must be right?”  For Abrams, the reason why the various substitute faiths — fighting anti-Semitism, Israel, liberalism — have failed to keep Jews Jewish is precisely because they are substitutes.

Moreover, with regard to the Jewish community’s attitude toward religion and state, Abrams persuasively contends that the interests of Jews as a religious community will be best served in an American society that is religiously pluralistic rather than secularist.  A religious America will not be one in which Jews and other minority religions are the objects of persecution, but one in which morality, the kind of meaningful morality that can only be derived from traditions of faith, will play a central role in shaping our society.  On this question,  Abrams quotes a compelling thought from the black activist Robert Woodson:  “You are walking back to your car through a deserted downtown parking lot and a group of young black men start…coming toward you.  Do you feel any better, any safer, if you notice that each one is carrying a Bible and they seem to be coming from church?”  Thus, Abrams asserts, the American Jewish establishment would do well not only to adopt the Orthodox community’s principles with regard to Judaism, but also with regard to the role of religion in society on issues that have divided both the establishment and Orthodox camps — issues ranging from education vouchers that may be used to subsidize parochial school to the public display of menorahs.

Although The Vanishing American Jew is an entertaining read, full of stories starring Alan Dershowitz, Faith or Fear is a more serious and focused analysis of the issues at hand.  These books are valuable resources for the American Jewish community’s current consideration of how to assure its continuity.  For those seeking continuity of the status quo, they will find it in Alan Dershowitz’s secularism; those seeking to ensure the continuity of the Jewish community will find it in Elliott Abrams’ challenge that Jews return to authentic Judaism.

Nathan Diament is the director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union.

This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.