Commentary Magazine

In The Community: The Vanishing Jews

Seed as the Sand of the Sea?

Some years ago a book called The Vanishing Irish worried about the future of Ireland, but since then the Irish have stopped vanishing. The Jews have not stopped. Erich Rosenthal has told us that our birth rate is so low that the number of Jews in the United States is bound to decrease. Now to the news of loss by infertility he adds the news of loss by intermarriage. The volume of the American Jewish Year Book about to appear features a study by him showing that the rate of Jewish intermarriage is higher than has been generally assumed, and is rising.

Jewish intermarriage, precisely defined, refers to one of two things: a wedding in which either the bridegroom or the bride is not a Jew at the time of the ceremony, or a couple in which either the husband or the wife is not a Jew at the time of the inquiry or census. (If the husband or the wife is a convert to the other’s religion, it is not an intermarriage.) Only about 30 per cent of the children in Jewish intermarriages are raised as Jews or are considered to be Jews by their parents.

Professor Rosenthal’s data suggest that intermarried Jewish wives are more likely than Jewish husbands to disappear as Jews, probably without the formality of conversion to Christianity, and their children more likely than the children of Jewish men not to be considered as Jews. Since intermarriage is more normal, so to speak, for Jewish men than for Jewish women, it may be that when it is the woman who intermarries she has decided somewhat more firmly to cut her Jewish ties.

Both traditional rabbinical law and contemporary rabbinical policy are inadequate to these realities. Rabbinical law declares as a Jew the child of a Jewish mother. The reason for that principle of the halakhah is not so much that maternity is certain while paternity is putative—it’s a wise child, etc.—as the biblical finding of fact that the child takes his religion and culture from his mother. The Bible prohibits marriage with both the men and the women of the Israelites’ neighbors, but in the narratives it is the women who are especially to be feared. (In Ezra-Nehemiah the Judaeans’ gentile wives are said to raise their children as idolaters, and are banished.) But in the United States today, the odds are that a child born of intermarriage who is brought up as a Jew has a Jewish father.

As to the policy of the American rabbinate, it is less a policy than habits and reflexes. The rabbis, more than anyone else, are worried about our survival, but they seem to prefer not to know that we are failing to reproduce ourselves. When they do turn their attention to Jewish fertility, it is to invoke the support of Jewish tradition or law for birth control. There are famous Reform and Conservative responsa of that kind, and recently a well-known rabbi felt it necessary to say the same thing again—as if we needed the encouragement. Some years before Hitler came to power, the doom of the German Jews had already been pronounced. Their birth rate was so low by the 1920’s, the ratio of old to young so high, and intermarriage so common, that only an impossible average of 7 children in every German Jewish family could reverse the trend to extinction. We are more fortunate. To pass from minus to plus all we need is to raise the number of children in the average Jewish family to something like 2.5 or 3—not a great rise, but a rise nevertheless. If the rabbis wanted us to have more children, would they make a point of telling us that Jewish law favors birth control? They must imagine that we are unrestrained breeders.



It is on intermarriage that the rabbis center nearly all their concern for the Jewish future. Coolidge’s preacher was against sin, and they are against intermarriage. But clearly, fewer Jews are listening. What the rabbis say against intermarriage might be more compelling if what they say and do not say about a closely allied question, conversion to Judaism, were less puzzling. Most of them are unenthusiastic about conversion. They believe that it is untraditional, that the would-be convert is probably a disturbed personality, or that before trying to convert others to Judaism we should convert the Jews.

The argument from tradition is that since the Roman Empire of Constantine and his successors made converting Christians to Judaism a capital crime, it has been un-Jewish to proselytize. Though the Neture Karta are not popular with most of us, our reasoning about conversion is like their reasoning about Israel. They and other ultra-ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose the State of Israel as rebelliousness against God. When He decides to restore the Jews, they say, He will have no need of presumptuous mortals; He will send His Messiah. We end the ‘Alenu doxology (which Solomon Schechter called the Jewish Marseillaise) with the great verse from Zechariah: “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the Lord be one and His name one”; but to try to bring that day a little nearer would apparently be un-Jewish.

The appeal to tradition and history has other peculiarities. For one thing, according to Blumenkranz’s Juifs et Chrétiens . . . the Jews in Christian lands proselytized as hard as they could, law or no law, until the disaster of the crusades. But whether our ancestors stopped proselytizing in the 4th or the 12th century, when their oppressors forbade it, they had to enforce the edict with the death penalty. Now it is we who do the forbidding in the name of fidelity to tradition.

The second argument, the alleged maladjustment of would-be converts, is an excuse for inertia. Almost by definition, a convert to any religion is likely to be maladjusted; but few religions refuse converts. Besides, maladjustment does not inhere in the genes, and the children of a convert can be as adjusted as anyone else. And anyway, the facts are in dispute. A rabbi with some experience of intermarriage and of conversion to and from Judaism tells me that if he were to generalize, he would judge our imports to be better than our exports—and, perhaps, than the average of our domestic market, too.

The third argument, priority for the home mission over the foreign mission, is another excuse for doing nothing. Are the resources withheld from the foreign field being used for a Jewish mission to the Jews? And it is untrue that the foreign mission weakens the home mission, because there is nothing like success abroad for arousing enthusiasm at home. The Anglican John Henry Newman’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church not only began a series of conversions to Catholicism that has not yet ended, it also strengthened the morale and devotion of Catholics by birth. Testimony, and above all the testimony of a life, rightly has much force. A few years ago a friend, a university teacher with notable gifts of learning and personality, was a “supply” rabbi in my congregation on Rosh Ha-shanah and Yom Kippur. Before Ne’ilah a woman told me how impressed she had been: “I said to myself, if someone as intelligent and scholarly as he is can be so sincere about it, then we must have a pretty good old religion after all.” If he had been a congregational rabbi his testimony would have been discounted. (What else should a rabbi be if not a sincere Jew?) If he had been a convert she would have been even more impressed.

In the face of a rise in intermarriage rabbis keep using arguments that clearly have been ineffective and may actually be offensive. When they warn against intermarriage, they might think of doing it in a way that will allow them to continue in some such fashion as this: “It is best not to intermarry, but probably some of you will. If you do, try to persuade your fiancé(e) to become a Jew. Why withhold our tradition and religion from someone you want to marry?” If aggressive proselytism really is un-Jewish, that would not be very aggressive.

Even with the rabbis passive, there is a fair amount of conversion to Judaism in the United States, nearly all of it before marriage. Whereas in Europe conversions to Judaism seem to have been rare enough to become anecdotes, here they are common enough to make a statistical difference. In the past ten years alone we have probably received as many converts as there are Jews in Minneapolis or Cincinnati. With some rabbinical initiative, conversion might offset our losses by intermarriage, or actually produce a gain. And once we try it for demographic reasons we may find that we like it for its own sake.



The Spirit Giveth Life?

By now Catholics and non-Catholics have been heard on Dr. John Rock’s The Time Has Come.1 Most non-Catholics think it wonderful that a Catholic doctor should advocate fertility control (in the form of The Pill). Most Catholics think that Dr. Rock is not really a Catholic doctor, he is a doctor who is a Catholic.

That is what we hear in public. Privately, the non-Catholic response is apt to be condescension and amusement: so there are, after all, enlightened spirits in Catholicism, and so a Catholic can, if he is brave enough, say things that will annoy the bishops and the Knights of Columbus; but how funny it is that someone should need so much courage and subtlety to plead for what everybody has long since known and does as a matter of course.

If Jews are among the condescending and the amused, it is because they have lost a feeling for their own tradition. One can smile at Dr. Rock’s exertions only if one does not take religious law seriously. Many Jewish religious liberals claim Maimonides as a rationalist ancestor, but he was not at all a liberal in their sense. For Maimonides a religion without law was not a real religion. He respected Islam, partly because it had law, but not Christianity, partly because he thought it had none. In the debate over birth control between Christians, or more generally between religious conservatives and liberals, Maimonides would probably have preferred the Catholic and conservative position—not only as at least pointing to some idea of law, but also because he held Judaism to be ascetic in such things.

It would not be hard to compile an anthology of sarcasm about legalism, as the opponents of religious law like to call it. Heine ridiculed the Rabbis’ problem of the egg laid on the Sabbath and Dean Inge ridiculed the Catholic rules for fasting on Friday, which prohibit meat, however lean, but permit lobster in a rich sauce. The point was that that sort of thing has nothing to do with spirituality. Is it to be supposed that God cares about eggs and meat? Human law is arbitrary: steal x dollars and it is petty larceny, steal x + 1 dollars and it is grand larceny; if you were born in this place you are a citizen of the United States, if you were born a few feet to the north you are a Canadian. Differences like these, which have nothing to do with the service of the heart, only prove man’s limitedness and failure to love. If God intended the marital relation to be exclusively or even primarily for begetting children, then the Catholic distinction between licit and illicit ways of preventing conception is blasphemous nonsense. Since that is not His intention, the Catholic hair-splitting is doubly nonsensical.

In a way, Catholics refute anti-legalist criticism as in Paul’s day Jews must have refuted his condemnation of the Law. They deny that there is a conflict between law and spirituality and insist that the opposite of law is not spirituality but lawlessness. (Linguistically, anti-legalism is antinomianism.) Dividing lines, as Burke said, are arbitrary, but though no man can say exactly when day becomes night, day is different from night. And so it is with religious law, which after all is for men, not angels. If men are to abstain from work on the Sabbath or from enjoying its fruits, they must know what work is and what it is not; and if they are to fast, they must know what is reconcilable with fasting and what is not. Heine and Inge were really attacking abstention from work on the Sabbath and fasting, not the quibbles of legalism.

Jews can therefore understand Dr. Rock’s difficulty, and the Catholics’ difficulty, with ironical sympathy. After Paul preached the abolition of the Law to the Corinthians, some of them understood him to mean the abolition of the law against sexual looseness. There must have been Corinthians who saw Paul’s outrage about their goings-on as proof that he was soft on legalism. Simultaneously to reject legalism and uphold law is easier in theory than in practice.

Catholic theology, like Christian theology generally, has never tired of contrasting good, Christian spirituality with bad, Jewish legalism. In the debate over birth control, it is the Catholics who are cast as legalist, and their critics—including many Jews—as spiritual. Now the Catholics know how it feels. Much of the attack on their so-called legalism invokes high principle to justify actions and desires that are understandable enough, but not so exalted as all that. The critics of Catholic teaching on birth control rarely say what everyone knows—that one reason for limiting the size of our families is to have a good time. Or if that is hinted at, it is in the cant of self-fulfillment—our duty not to allow the creative development of our personalities and capacities to be frustrated by too many children. Following the easy path is thus twice blessed: it is fun, and it lets us take a high moral tone toward the foolish and improvident who follow the hard path.

In the modern history of Judaism we find something similar. Years ago the scholar Louis Ginzberg observed that Reform Judaism criticized Orthodoxy for insisting on onerous external commandments while neglecting true inwardness; yet in Lithuania he had known many saintly Orthodox Jews and in the West few saintly Reform Jews, though Reform had rid itself of the burden of commandments. From the beginning Reform Judaism has had to worry about the consequences of its anti-legalism. Reform, which thought of itself as prophetic, understood in the 19th-century manner the Prophets’ opposition to cult and institution more literally than most scholars today believe the Prophets meant to be taken. But if cult and institution count for little, why go to the synagogue? So Reform rabbis find their people applying the anti-legalist ideology to the Reform synagogue itself, and have to admonish them in terms like these: “Don’t go on a picnic when you should be in the synagogue. You say that you can pray in the country. You can, but you know you won’t.” Which has not made picnics less popular.

The traditional Jewish case for law is stronger, or at any rate more persuasive, than the Catholic. The rabbis never imposed on the community obligations which they themselves were exempt from. The hasidic masters, though saints and mystics, were also, like their followers, husbands and fathers. In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, the clergy which teaches that the law forbids birth control, or birth control by effective means, is celibate. Justice is not manifestly seen to be done, and there is room for doubt—does the rigor of Catholic law owe something to the celibate’s envy, conscious or unconscious, of the married?

Here again the Church’s predicament is ultimately due to Paul. He said that the celibate can do God’s work more freely than the married. So Catholic priests do not marry. But he said that celibacy was no problem for him. Granted that that was true of Paul, of how many others can it be true? If priests married, they would have to practice what they preached.

As outsiders see it, Dr. Rock’s difficulties are artificial. He is trying to untie a Gordian knot, and that is unnecessarily hard: a Gordian knot should be cut. Still, if not theologically or practically, then at least aesthetically his effort must be admired—precisely because we think his task unnecessarily hard.

Oui, I’œuvre sort plus belle
    D’une forme au travail
Rebelle. . . .




1 Knopf, 203 pp., $3.95.

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