Secular Liberalism’s Threat to American Jews

January 1998By David C. Stolinsky

David C. Stolinksy, M.D., who is of the Jewish faith, lives in Los Angeles. He is semi-retired after 25 years of medical school teaching at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Southern California.

Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America.  By Elliott Abrams. Free Press. 237 pages. $25.



We study endangered species because they are God’s creatures and we do not want them to disappear, but also because we may gain insights into survival that are applicable to other species, including our own. Thus it is that Abrams’s book should appeal not only to Jews like myself but to anyone interested in how groups become endangered and what can be done about it.

And make no mistake, the American Jew is in danger of disappearing. Abrams’s first chapter, aptly entitled “Crisis,” gives the numbers:

“Jews, who once [were] 3.7 percent of the U.S. population, have fallen to about 2 percent. One-third of all Americans of Jewish ancestry no longer report Judaism as their religion. Of all Jews who have married since 1985, the majority have married non-Jews, while the rate of conversion for non-Jewish spouses is declining. Only 28 percent of the children of intermarried couples are raised as Jews. Demographers predict a drop of anywhere from one million to over two million in the American Jewish population in the next two generations.”

These phenomena are of recent origin. From 1870 through 1959, Jews had the lowest intermarriage rate of any group, about seven percent. Then came rapid change. For the years 1965 to 1971, the intermarriage rate was 23 percent, and by 1984 it was a startling 51 percent. Add to this a low fertility rate (partly because people are marrying later) and it is easy to see that the Jewish population is falling far short of reproducing itself.

How many American Jews are there? There are 6.8 million persons of Jewish descent, but of these, 1.3 million profess another religion and 1.1 million say they have no religion. Thus there are 4.4 million religious Jews and 1.1 million secular Jews, for a generous total of 5.5 million. Of the 1.3 million now professing another religion, 1,115,000 were children of mixed marriages raised in another religion, and only 210,000 were raised as Jews and later converted. Despite the furor among Jews when the Southern Baptists recently announced their desire to convert them, the principal problem is intermarriage, not conversion. As Irving Kristol has remarked, “The danger facing American Jews today is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them.”

Having identified the problem, Abrams goes on to trace its origin, which he sees as secularism. Many Jewish immigrants came from lands where they had been persecuted for their religion or at least prevented from entering the mainstream of society. As a result, most had lived in close-knit Jewish communities, where parental and religious authority further limited their choices. In America these constraints loosened for them: Not only were they free to practice their religion; they were free to practice none.

Yet these immigrants retained enough of their languages and customs that they and their children remained attached to Jewishness, whether or not they practiced the Jewish religion. Moreover, they were surrounded by practicing Christians, which helped to preserve their separateness. Anti-Semitism was still common enough to ensure that they felt separate — and it made intermarriage rare. Then came the Nazi era and the Holocaust, which intensified their sense of Jewish identity and also made anti-Semitism far less acceptable for Americans.

What happened next may be described as too much of a good thing. In an overreaction to religious persecution in Europe, many Jews put their faith — sometimes all their faith — in secularism and separation of church and state. They went beyond insisting that Judaism be treated with the same respect as Christianity to fear of any government support of religion, and even, Abrams suggests, to fear of religion itself.

Abrams details the extensive revision of the Catholic position on the Jews, beginning with Vatican II and continuing with the heroic role of Pope John Paul II. While I was familiar with this change, I had not realized its extent and depth. The Catholic position on Israel remains ambiguous, partly as a result of concern for Palestinian Christians and the persecuted Christians in Muslim lands, but the position on Jews and Judaism has altered remarkably for the better. “Mainline” Protestant groups have made similar but less extensive changes; their position on Israel is often hostile. Evangelical Protestant groups have made less effort to allay Jewish fears, but they are among Israel’s strongest backers.

Despite all this, many Jews remain suspicious of Christians’ motives. As Abrams says, Christians have done more to rethink their position on Jews than vice versa. In part this is due to bitter memories of persecution. But in part it is due to the fact that most American Jews are political liberals, and they have come to confuse their liberalism with their Judasim, and conservatism (political or religious) with intolerance.

Instead of worrying about the vanishing American Jew, mainstream Jewish organizations opposed vouchers that would have allowed more poor and middle-class students to attend Jewish day schools. These organizations went to court to prevent public-school teachers from helping disabled students in a Jewish parochial school, to prevent a clergyman (a rabbi) from giving a nonsectarian prayer at a public-school graduation, and to prevent a Bible club from meeting after school. Fear of a state religion has become fear of any involvement of religion in public life, a position utterly at odds with traditional Jewish values.

But the really bad news is that, compared with 74 percent of blacks, 57 percent of white Catholics, and 47 percent of white Protestants, only 34 percent of American Jews say that religion is very important in their lives. Many American Jews have replaced their Judaism with a kind of “civil religion,” with devotion to charitable and cultural causes, but this cannot substitute for religion. Even devotion to the state of Israel cannot substitute for religion. This devotion fades in times of peace and when the Israeli government is in conservative hands — again illustrating the substitution of liberalism for Judaism. This substitution is glaringly evident when one asks for the “Jewish” position on homosexuality, abortion, teenage sex, or the death penalty — and hears the liberal position, which in each case is contrary to traditional Jewish teaching. Traditional Judaism might well call secularism and liberalism forms of idolatry.

What can be done? Abrams proposes a return to devotion to God and the Torah, closer relations between non-Orthodox and Orthodox, more Jewish day schools supported by community funds (using the Catholic model), and an understanding that American Jews have a closer spiritual kinship with American Christians than with secular liberals.

My main criticism of Abrams’s book lies in its subtitle. If this really were “a Christian America,” then Jewish survival would be both more likely and less crucial: More likely, because Jews maintained their religion and prospered for the two centuries America was clearly a Christian country, but less crucial, because there would be others to carry on much of what is essential in their message. But this is rapidly becoming a post-Christian country, where many people really believe in nothing, whatever they may claim. In such a country, ceasing to be Jewish is easier — one need not become a Christian; one merely believes in nothing. But it is also more destructive — without numerous, committed Christians, if the Jews disappear who will be left to tell about God?

What is true for a small group of Jews may not be true for other larger faith groups. Nevertheless, small groups are more likely to become extinct; by observing them we may be forewarned of dangers to larger groups. What have we learned from the developments described by Abrams?

It seems clear that there is danger in failing to adapt to changing circumstances. The Orthodox Jewish community in American remains small and relatively isolated, despite its vigor. But there is also danger in adapting too much. The Reform movement has high rates of intermarriage and attrition in the second and later generations. The middle road as represented by the Conservative movement, which I favor, seems a logical compromise, yet there, too, membership is shrinking. What does all this mean?

If Abrams’s data suggest anything, it is that whether we call it adapting, modernizing, or aggiornamento, we must ask: (1) Does what we are adapting to deserve to be accommodated? (2) Can what we are changing be changed without altering our essence? (3) What will remain after we are finished with the process?

Indeed, we must decide whether religion is a branch of bean counting. What really matters? Today’s “bottom line” attendance figures, or something else? Is one Orthodox couple, whose dedication predicts that their grandchildren will remain Jews, worth less than two Reform couples, whose grandchildren are unlikely to be Jews in anything but name? How do we read the bare attendance figures so as to account for the loyalty that predicts a continued existence in the future? Still, the Orthodox are a bit like the Amish — vigorous in their own piety, but with little effect on others.

As a child I was taught that we Jews should be a light unto the nations. The Orthodox are too isolated to shine that light effectively. But they are maintaining themselves, and continued existence is a prerequisite to that role. The Reform movement is neither maintaining itself nor transmitting the essentials of Judaism. The Conservatives try to strike a balance of old and new, but they are diminishing, too. How can the Jews, or any religious community, balance the sometimes conflicting tasks of being a light unto the nations, maintaining their numbers, and retaining their purpose?

I don’t know the answer to this question, any more than I do to others that Abrams’s book raises. But the value of this book is that it raises urgent questions about the undeniable present crisis in Judaism, the possible future crisis in Christianity, and the state of the soul in America.



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