Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.
The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.
But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.
As Jonathan pointed out, the new survey of New York Jewish life–which is a considerable portion of American Jewish life–shows the liberal wings of organized Jewry to be both less organized and less Jewish, in terms of their practice, affiliation, and education. It also raises serious questions about how less observant Jews have responded to this demographic challenge. They are not putting their children into Jewish day schools, it seems. And their attitude toward philanthropic giving sharply contrasts with that of their forebears, and does not at all rise to meet the needs of the moment.
As the authors write: “Jews are devoting more of their giving to nonsectarian rather than specifically Jewish causes, as seen in the behavior of younger Jews versus older Jews and in the behavior of Jews more recently as compared with earlier points in history.” Additionally, the “number of Jewish philanthropic causes and organizations has proliferated,” while the “donor base for Jewish federations in North America has diminished.” There is less to go around, yet the Jewish community is spreading itself thinner and even giving more to non-Jewish causes. One problem with this approach becomes clear in the section of the report on poverty.
An observer of the Jews of the United States will find no shortage of reasons to be depressed. But the language of an introductory address at a dinner with a traveling group of Knesset members and select young American Jewish invitees at the Avi Chai foundation’s headquarters in New York this past Thursday night gave small reason for hope.
First, a short review of Jewish troubles:
For 20 years, the intermarriage rate has hovered around 50 percent, and the overall population has likely not increased since the 1970s. Worse, both of these topics are today usually either studiously avoided or strangely characterized as strengths.
The vast majority of those Jews born since the 1970s have little Jewish knowledge, and so have unsurprisingly shown little interest in connecting to Jewish institutions as they have become adults. A corresponding drop off in “affiliation” rates with synagogues and organized charities has, since the mid-1990s, been dramatic.
More proof, as if any was needed after Sol Stern’s merciless evaluation in April’s COMMENTARY, that the alleged crisis in American Zionism is a psychodrama playing out inside Peter Beinart’s head and few other places:
Donations by U.S. Jews to Israeli nonprofits have doubled during the past 12 years, according to a first-of-its-kind study conducted by professors at Brandeis University. The study, scheduled to be completed in late April, disproves the widely held view by many Israelis that philanthropic donations from the United States have dropped over time due to economic and political reasons… [it] suggests quite the opposite.
The numbers are overstated a little bit – Ben Smith quickly noticed that the “doubled” claim doesn’t account for inflation — but otherwise conclusive.
The Alienation Thesis or the Distancing Thesis or the Detachment Thesis or whatever we’re calling it this week — the claim American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel because of Israeli policies — is the central dogma of the anti-Israel left. If it’s true then groups like J Street are engaged in the salutary work of broadening pro-Israel Jewish politics to include traditionally anti-Israel positions. If it’s false then those groups are taking Jews who would have ended up with muddy pro-Israel sentiments and are needlessly bombarding them with anti-Israel propaganda. “Alienation” or “distancing” or “detachment” is the argumentative premise at the source of everything that happens downstream.
It’s not an accident that sophisticated erstwhile J Street defenders like Jeffrey Goldberg instinctively throw it in whenever they try to defend the organization. J Street itself, for all of the organization’s borderline aggressive lack of tactical acumen, makes a point of blandly asserting that the thesis is true. Hand wringing pathos-soaked “why must Israel do things that make me sad” Jews like Peter Beinart have been blandly pretending it’s valid for the better part of a decade.
Bret Stephens’ burner of a column published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal is sure to make the rounds. He is also right to largely dismiss the political importance of American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Still, it’s worth considering why the perpetually boiling Jewish communal conversation on Israel never seems to have much practical political import.
The central fallacy and problem with the discussion is the idea that American Jewish attitudes are the primary influence on American policy toward Israel. If you look at the thing without much nuance, it’s easy to see why. The recently closed AIPAC policy conference attracted no less than 13,000 delegates, the largest in its history, a healthy jump from 10,000 a year ago, and probably a doubling in five years. AIPAC also claims 100,000 members and has an annual budget of around $70 million, making it the biggest American Jewish advocacy organization (although it’s worth noting it was only relatively recently that it passed the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League in this regard).
In short, the central Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying address is no cupcake, and it is getting dramatically stronger every year. It deserves extraordinary credit for its successes and growth.
An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.
In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.