Faith or Fear by Elliott Abrams
Faith or Fear: How Jews can Survive in a Christian America
by Elliott Abrams
Free Press. 256 pp. $25.00
The grim data on Jewish assimilation and intermarriage that have called forth this book are by now well known. According to the National Jewish Population Study of 1990, most marriages involving an American Jew are exogamous. Other recent studies show that in families in which one originally non-Jewish parent has converted to Judaism, that parent is likely to be untroubled by the prospect that his or her children might reconvert to Christianity. As for the children of mixed marriages—i.e., those in which the non-Jewish spouse has not converted to Judaism—they tend, as Elliott Abrams points out here, “to accept something like a Christian definition of religion, in which personal faith is the key and community membership and solidarity are of much less importance.”
In short, the very survival of the American Jewish community is in doubt. To the growing chorus calling for strong action, Abrams adds his own distinctive voice.
Much of this book is devoted to an analysis less of the sociological facts than of the drinking that helped bring American Jewry to its present pass and even now occludes a clear vision of the way forward. The history is instructive. Given the longstanding anti-Semitism of most believing Christians, and the social inferiority of most Jews, it is understandable that an earlier generation of Jewish leaders should have clung to the view that the U.S. Constitution required an uncompromisingly secular public order. Jewish organizations, themselves often staffed by Jews indifferent or hostile to traditional religious observance, came to identify the Jewish interest with Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state; most of them still do.
Paradoxically enough, however, this rigid separationism has served not to lower but to heighten the distinctive Jewish “profile” in American society. Moreover, it has ended up working, at least in some instances, against Jewish survival. Thus, in the celebrated Kiryas Joel court case (1994), establishment Jewish organizations urged that nothing of a public nature be done to accommodate the educational needs of handicapped children in a hasidic township in New York State, lest it breach the wall of separation. As Abrams nicely observes,
The elements of the Jewish community having the greatest difficulty keeping their children Jewish used the courts to attack the practice by which the elements having the greatest success keeping their children Jewish were doing so.
Alongside their aggressively secular interpretation of the public order, American Jews have, in Abrams’s words, “devised a variety of substitutes for Judaism” itself. But each of these substitutes, however praiseworthy on its merits, or as a means of expressing a peculiarly Jewish ethos, fails from the point of view of ensuring Jewish survival. The enormous communal investment in philanthropy, for example, “can provide the mechanisms for doing good works for fellow Jews, but it cannot provide a motivation” for remaining Jewish. Nor can the Jewish commitment to Israel, which is bound to dissipate as, with growing acculturation, “ties based on history and memory . . . fade.” Nor, for the same reason, can the growing concentration upon the Holocaust. Finally, though many Jewish organizations find a kind of identity in resisting anti-Semitism, the data thankfully show this prejudice in steep decline, and hence a poor cement for the future.
With all the substitutes discredited, Jews, in Abrams’s judgment, have but one recourse if they mean to survive: namely, to return to their religious faith. They must, in other words, practice Judaism, for “only Judaism can save the Jewish people, and . . . only Judaism provides a justification for doing so.”
What does this mean? At a minimum, asserts Abrams, who calls himself a “somewhat observant Conservative Jew,” it entails a rejection of the individualistic approach which “allows each Jew to pick and choose, cafeteria-style, within the Jewish tradition.” Instead, even if all Jews do not become Orthodox, they should at least strive to emulate the example of the Orthodox, who have created a successful “counterculture” based on religious observance and day-school education. In an America that is itself, as Abrams seems to believe, becoming more religious and more conservative, this may even become an easier task than many Jews think.
A Jewish religious revival in America would have important implications. To accomplish it, Abrams writes, most Jews would have to reorientate their attitude to religion in general, relinquishing not only their doctrinaire attachment to secularism but their unthinking suspicion of and bias against Christianity (“apparently the only form of prejudice that remains respectable in the American Jewish community”). In fact, such a change is quite warranted in his view, for, although most Jews do not know it, both the Roman Catholic and the mainline Protestant churches have renounced their traditional anti-Semitic theologies, and are no longer hostile to Jewish religious particularism.
The case of evangelical Christians is admittedly more complicated. On the one hand, Abrams has no difficulty disproving the common perception that evangelical or fundamentalist Christian beliefs are correlated with anti-Semitic attitudes. He also points out rich historical ironies, including the fervent support shown by evangelicals for the state of Israel, often in the face of liberal Protestant opposition. Much of the Jewish distaste for evangelicals, Abrams rightly concludes, has to do less with their religion than with their conservative social attitudes. Having mistaken the platform of the Democratic party for the Torah of Moses, Jewish organizations tend to think “that opposing views are not only conservative but also ‘anti-Jewish.’ ”
On the other hand, Abrams acknowledges that “evangelicals too often fall short in their actual teachings about Judaism.” He also strenuously objects to their habit of targeting Jews for conversion—a practice to which he himself was subjected while engaged in research for this book. But here, unfortunately, he is trying to have things both ways. Like their positive view of Israel, the felt mandate among evangelicals and fundamentalists to proselytize the people of the “Old Covenant” derives from their interpretation of the New Testament, which evangelicals (often) and fundamentalists (always) read in an ahistorical and uncritical fashion. In asking these groups to abandon venerable traditions, Abrams, somewhat like the liberal separationists he abhors, seems to be advocating a public order that will keep robust religion in check.
But there is another problem that runs throughout Abrams’s engaging and generally clear-sighted book. At one point, he notes correctly that to be opposed to intermarriage is to stand in conflict with a traditional American ideal—namely, the ideal of “individual autonomy.” He also mentions the French observer Michel Guillame Jean de Créve-coeur, who as long ago as 1782 identified a “strange mixture of blood” as a characteristically American phenomenon. These facts being so, the challenge to Jewish survival may be much more deeply rooted in American culture and in the American past than the relatively recent developments that occupy Abrams’s attention here—liberalism, separationism, and the various substitutes for religion in which American Jews have overinvested.
In this connection, it is strange that Abrams never draws a link, however partial, between the demographic disaster facing American Jews and the unintended cultural repercussions of the working of individual autonomy in the marketplace—to capitalism, in short, with its high estimation of personal choice, its distaste for collective identities and inherited status, and its belief that the customer is always right. All of these tenets are at odds with traditional Jewish law and theology (though, in an additional twist, they also happen to be advocated today by many who regard themselves as Orthodox). How Judaism’s strikingly pre-modern concepts of the self and its obligations can be reconciled with the incomparable benefits of modern capitalism is a pressing question, and it is a pity that Abrams, an influential conservative activist, does not take it up.
“The good Jew is ritually observant and resists assimilation, in some sense living apart,” Elliott Abrams writes very wisely, “never fitting comfortably into American or any other society.” It is a safe bet that in an America more conservative, more religious, less anti-Semitic, and less separationist than our present society, this would continue to be the case.