Commentary Magazine

A Certain People

To the Editor:

It is significant that Jack Wertheimer refers to American Jews as living in an autonomous “Diaspora” (from the Greek “strewing of seeds”) and not in the Galut (the Hebrew name of the exile from the land of the Jewish people). He provides a comprehensive snapshot of the American Jewish community at this point in time and provides thoughtful background for how it has developed.

On a longer historical time scale, however, it would seem that what is taking place is more like a cultural process of speciation. This is the divergent genetic drift that, in geographically separated populations with common roots, leads to a point where individuals from one population can no longer exchange genes with individuals from the other—their matings are sterile. It seems inevitable that, in the long run, American Jews whose roots cannot be transplanted to -Israel will go the way of the Jews of China and India, who can no longer be distinguished from the societies around them.

There may still be one or more versions of Judaism on display in the American cultural supermarket, with preachings of “tikkun olam” amid loud cries of “shtetl” and “bagel,” but the people so emoting may just be cultural tourists, with neither a Jewish history nor an informed commitment. Signs of this are already evident today, regardless of the efforts of the organized community to arrest this drift. If you strip the faux Hebrew and the faux Yiddish from much of Reform and Conservative Judaism, they become practically indistinguishable from the quasi-secular Protestantism that is our civic religion.

An even more interesting question is how long Israelis will remain recognizable as Jews according to the models developed in 2,000 years of exile. The answer to that question will determine whether the exiles have been redeemed, as willed by the Zionist dream, or merely relocated.

Washington, D.C.


To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer highlights an issue that American-Jewish and Israeli leaders tend to overlook and that Mr. Wertheimer himself fails properly to analyze. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey asked, “When you think of what it means to be a Jew in America, would you say that it means being a member of a religious group; an ethnic group; a cultural group; a nationality?” Being Jewish as defined by cultural-group membership was the most popular preference, chosen by 80 percent of Jews of no religion and by 70 percent of Jews by religion, while 68 percent and 57 percent, respectively, defined it in terms of ethnic group. About 40 percent of both these groups defined it as a nationality. There was a low level of support for the religious-group preference: only 49 percent of Jews by religion and 35 percent of Jews of no religion considered being Jewish as being a member of a religious group. The question was tellingly eliminated in the 2001 survey.

Mr. Wertheimer talks about the deepening chasm between Jewish “haves” and “have-nots,” which he defines in terms of Jewish education. He is correct that the bulk of Jewish children in the Diaspora do not receive a Jewish education and that the bulk of Israeli children receive an inadequate one. Considering that these two groups represent the majority of Jews in the world, one faces the phenomenon that the majority of Jews in the world today, even if they become Nobel Prize winners, are Jewishly ignorant. This situation has almost nothing to do with intermarriage, since children of Jewish in-marriage are no better off than those of intermarriage.

Jews in the Diaspora who attend religious day schools generally get something of an education, as well as participate in cross-continental programs that make it easier for them to visit Israel. The tie of nonreligious Jews to Israel clearly has to be on a cultural and political level, but there are hardly any facilities to further that kind of connection. This fact is generally not discussed—either by U.S. Jewish leaders or Israelis or the Jewish Agency. Mr. Wertheimer correctly observes that secular American Jews are attracted to nonreligious aspects of Israeli culture, from folk dancing to falafel. Yet his prescription for strengthening the bond between the nations is for more American Jews to embrace the Jewish religion. This seems not only unrealistic but also unnecessary to his stated objective.

London, England


Jack Wertheimer writes:

I genuinely appreciate the thoughtful letters of my two correspondents but disagree with their analyses. Walter Schimmerling seems convinced that not only will American and Israeli Jews inevitably drift apart, but 2,000 years of Jewish religious civilization (which was not without crises and lulls) will be swept away in Israel. It is true that Jewish cultural expression has changed over the course of history, but the survival of the Jewish religion for this long suggests it has staying power. The story will likely not close with us.

If nothing else, the galloping growth in Israel’s Haredi population should give pause to Mr. Schimmerling’s suggestion that the models of 2,000 years in exile are about to disappear. The challenge facing Jews today is the same as it has been: to transmit and renew Jewish religious civilization. This holy mission can and should bring Jews around the world together in a common conversation—with each other and with the tradition.

Mr. Posen reiterates his long-time preoccupation with the importance of secular Jewish culture, citing data suggesting that growing numbers of Jews are opting for a cultural self-definition. But this only tells us so much. The choice between religion and culture, in Jewish terms, is a false one. The term religion, with its connotation of a catechism of beliefs, is an essentially Christian category that does not quite get around the -varieties of Jewish experience—the encounter with God and His commandments, a profound connection to the Jewish people, and rich forms of cultural expression. Perhaps the respondents answer as they do because they recognize they are both religious and secular, with both terms assuming many meanings.

Why, Mr. Posen asks, do I emphasize religious education as crucial for building connections with Israel? To ask the question is to answer it. But if that is not enough, one could add that Jews who receive a religious education are most likely to feel a kinship with Israel and the Jewish people.

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