The Jewish Future I: Judaism & Liberalism
The Jewish Future
I. Judaism & Liberalism
To the Editor:
Irving Kristol’s article, “Why Religion Is Good for the Jews” [August], impressively takes on Jewish organizations for fighting the wrong battles, and correctly urges them to rethink their priorities. As a case in point, his analysis of the breakdown of the so-called black-Jewish alliance, which he blames on the failure of welfare-state liberalism—with which the Jews are so highly identified—to solve the problems of the inner city, is compelling. Perhaps, however, he goes a little too far when he blames the creation of the urban underclass singularly on “liberal policies.” The “strong thuggish component” he refers to among some black university teachers is indeed a frightening development, but I wonder if this phenomenon is not best understood as a reflection of the frustration of so many students and teachers with effecting change in the black condition.
I understand, if I do not completely sympathize with, Mr. Kristol’s critique of liberalism, but I fully agree with his chastising Jewish organizations for their mistaken priorities. Jews would be so much better off worrying about what we are and are not doing among and for ourselves than worrying about black militancy, and what Christians may be doing. Although he views the issue through a distracting maze of anti-liberalism, Mr. Kristol is clear in his call for Jews to look inward and get busy educating their young about Jewish traditions and practices. I heartily agree with the course of action he presents, especially with his assertion that the official Jewish community will have to become a lot more Jewish than it is today, and that as a community we must allot the necessary resources to create the schools and colleges needed to stem the tide of intermarriage and total assimilation. His conclusion that Jewish education is the only solution to these problems which amount to the steady disappearance of the American Jewish community is, we can all agree, irrefutable.
Mr. Kristol expertly describes the important paradox that faces the Jewish community. He calls the United States a wonderful country, which it certainly is, where the dream of equality came true for Jews. Assimilation into the general society, not “continuity,” was of course the goal of the vast majority of Jewish immigrants at the end of the last century. It was beyond their dreams that Christians would want to marry their grandsons and granddaughters as they do today. They never could have imagined that the future of Judaism in America could actually be threatened by the blessings and success Jews have enjoyed from being American citizens. Hopefully, many young Jews are beginning to search for their roots and to understand the tradition they come from. However, they will need our help, our time, and resources, if this is to occur on a wide and lasting scale.
Edgar M. Bronfman
President, World Jewish Congress
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . Irving Kristol sees little hope for demographic survival unless the Jewish community purges itself of the prevailing “liberal ethos,” . . . which, he charges, has spawned not only a Jewish religious malaise, but is also largely responsible for the fact that “the most blatant and vicious form of anti-Semitism in this country emanates from the black community.” But Mr. Kristol fails to develop a convincing case for linking the liberal ethos to the rise of a black anti-Semitism so unexpectedly virulent that it has brought the Jewish community to “the verge of a nervous breakdown.” . . .
No community could be more hostile to the “liberal ethos” than Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, where hasidic fundamentalism embraces each jot and tittle of Torah law. Yet it is here, not in the uptown precincts of Manhattan’s liberal Jews, where ghetto blacks, for the first time in American history, raced through city streets shouting “Heil Hitler” and “Kill the Jews,” while at the same time a hasidic scholar was randomly executed.
A stone’s throw from Crown Heights, a quarter-century earlier, before Farrakhan’s rallies packed Madison Square Garden and before the liberal party line of political correctness penetrated college campuses, black voices supporting the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school-decentralization controversy alleged that a Jewish-dominated school bureaucracy conspired to destroy “the mind and soul of our black children.” . . .
How do these two events, a quarter-century apart, . . . connect to charges that “liberal policies . . . helped to create a black underclass and a demoralized black community”? Black anti-Semitism, Mr. Kristol affirms with meager evidence, “is a reaction to that liberal failure, and Jews, being so highly identified with liberalism, happen to make the most convenient target.” Yet if all Jews were to turn neoconservative, and join in a vaguely defined religious renewal, would Farrakhan’s fascist-like minions simply fade away? . . .
While Nation of Islam rallies generally include anti-white diatribes, laser-beam hatred is focused on “bloodsucking Jews,” a phrase evoking the blood-libel myth. Apparently, Farrakhan’s ministers . . . are well aware of the historic multidimensional faces of anti-Semitism, which frequently culminated in the confiscation of the Jewish community’s assets. During the Middle Ages, Christian sovereign hosts fattened depleted state treasuries by levying confiscatory taxes. In our own time, Germany offered to trade Hungary’s captive Jews for 10,000 trucks.
The failure of welfare-state liberalism does not even remotely connect to the emergence of black anti-Semitism, which is fueled by envy of and resentment at Jewish achievement and relative affluence. . . . The ultimate game plan is to isolate Jews in a trade-off which historically translates, one way or another, into the spoliation of Jewish wealth in return for domestic peace. Rootless, gun-toting ghetto gangs, concentrated in major urban centers, are ripe for the style of leadership offered by the Nation of Islam.
Bayside, New York
To the Editor:
As always, Irving Kristol is right on the mark. . . . His thesis is that the non-Orthodox American Jewish community has wrapped itself in a sort of trinity consisting of “Judaism, secularism, and liberalism.” At the political level, it has defined the Jewish agenda as equivalent to the black agenda (or at least the version thereof voiced by the black establishment), despite the fact that the Jewish-black alliance never existed anywhere other than in the imagination of Jews. . . .
I think Mr. Kristol’s analysis is too charitable. American Jews did not link Judaism to liberalism, they replaced Judaism with the American liberal political agenda. And political liberalism served as the principal avenue of assimilation for non-Orthodox Jews. . . . The substitution of liberalism for Judaism also explains the high rate of intermarriage: if Judaism is nothing more than liberalism, then intermarriage with a non-Jewish liberal is really not intermarriage at all. There is nothing of substance in Judaism that can act as any obstacle to such intermarriage.
Since American political liberalism has become the religion of the Jews, they continue to practice it even when the liberal agenda is injurious to their self-interest: for example, with regard to affirmative action and the hostility of many liberal candidates to Israel. . . .
Pursuing the pseudo-Judaism of religious liberalism will ultimately lead to the disappearance of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community. The Orthodox will muddle through, as will those few who may follow Mr. Kristol’s clarion call to return to religion. . . . For most secular Jews, however, a return to Orthodoxy seems unlikely. The only remaining alternative, and it too will be adopted only by a small minority, and certainly not by the weak-willed, is Zionism.
To the Editor:
Irving Kristol asks if American Jews can learn to embrace the “crucial religious dimension” of their heritage and can begin to integrate it into their individual and corporate lives. My question is not can they or will they, but should they?. . . It is my belief that they should not.
They should not simply because it is intellectually untenable to do so. A year or so ago in his New Republic column, Michael Kinsley had occasion to quote George Orwell from a piece on T.S. Eliot:
In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree. The reason is that the Christian churches still demand assent to doctrines which no one seriously believes in. The most obvious case is the immortality of the soul.
We no longer believe in the immortality of the soul, or in the efficacy of prayer to a father God, or in some concept of the Jews as a superior people, or in the coming of a messiah ushering in a new cosmic order and accompanied by a resurrection of the dead. Twentieth-century men of intelligence—as diverse in their intellectual styles as Orwell, Camus, Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, and Allan Bloom (to name but a handful)—have agreed with Freud that such doctrines (attractive and popular for any number of reasons as they may be) are “illusions,” products of the intellectual infancy of the race. We can go on living under the spell of such illusions, but should we?
Isn’t it precisely the role of the intellectual to dispel illusions (however comforting); to shatter myths (however benign); to break the hypnotic hold of superstition, however painful and disquieting such a liberation may be in the short run? Isn’t it exactly the place of the intellectual not to hide but to describe nakedly the true terms of the human condition, in the process—such at least is the hope—freeing man in his struggle to carve out a destiny?
Mr. Kristol, I am sure, will insist that God is no myth; on the contrary. However, at the risk of seeming impertinent I am prompted to ask the following question: does Mr. Kristol truly believe in the existence of God, or, rather, isn’t it a case of his finding the presumed consequences of nonbelief too terrible to contemplate? . . .
San Luis Obispo, California
To the Editor:
Irving Kristol provides a fine diagnosis of the American Jewish condition and is bluntly on target in his analysis of the history of the black-Jewish relationship. . . . But he assumes, mistakenly I believe, that Jewish secularism marks the abandonment of any sense of Jewishness or of Jewish affiliation. . . . Some of us know from experience that secular, humanistic Judaism is a viable option, a tertium quid between old-fashioned religion and loss of Jewishness. It can be an organized devotion to Jewish tradition and experience, albeit with some modifications of that experience and with some selection from that tradition.
Humanistic Judaism makes it possible for Jews not only to retain or regain a Jewish identity but even, when they intermarry, to reinforce that identity by bringing their spouses into a newly defined fold. This is neither to recommend intermarriage nor to disapprove of it. . ., but to remind us that intermarriage does not automatically obliterate Jewishness.
Secular, humanistic Jews are still few in organized numbers. Nonetheless they—we—represent a viable potential for Jewish continuity in the face of the loss, unavoidable for most emancipated intellectuals, of any old-time, or crudely theistic, religion.
Mr. Kristol says that the triple loyalty of Jews to secularism, humanism, and liberalism no longer seems as unproblematic as it once did. Perhaps it was always problematic and always threatened some loss of Jewish identity. But secular, humanistic Judaism is no longer necessarily conjoined to liberalism. This Judaism is open to varying political attitudes, including conservative ones, and it defines a new and potentially large Jewish identity, or movement.
Mr. Kristol says that our secular society is unraveling. Perhaps so, but as much because of reawakened warring orthodoxies as because of secularism. Mr. Kristol sees liberal Jews as opposed to prayer in schools. Perhaps that should be the wise and conservative stance of all Jews, as well as other religionists!
As for leftist Jews who are allied with black militancy, radical feminism, and anti-Israel politics—who float about freely and irresponsibly in academia—one could well say about them what Mr. Kristol says about the radical Left in general: “. . . about Jews and anti-Semitism they could not care less.” They are indeed lost at the moment to any viable Jewish identity. But their children might provide some surprises: expect them to move first to the Lubavitchers, before . . . still another generation, the grandchildren, moves back to a sensible secularism. . . .
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
To the Editor:
Irving Kristol’s analysis . . . is at once incisive and illuminating. . . . He urges Jews to return by way of religion to “being Jewish.” But why should they do so? . . . Mr. Kristol fails to point the way. He dismisses as “hollow,” the “Jewish message” of universal justice. Yet it is this very message that is the quintessence of “being Jewish,” for it unites all Jews, whether ultra-Orthodox or secular. . . .
As a secular Jew, I have long given up seeking an answer to the question of whether the Master of the Universe was in being at the beginning of time or brought into being by Abraham. In either case, it was God who entered into a covenant with His people, binding them to obey His commandments. These commandments are the bedrock of “universal justice” and of “being Jewish.” . . .
God is a party to this covenant which binds Abraham’s progeny, for God’s obligation is to “watch over” them. A Jewish male is circumcised as “a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:9-11), thereby in effect notarizing a compact which calls upon Jews to be “a light unto the nations.” This mission is the crux of “being Jewish,” not ritual or worship. A Jew who sings the praises of the Lord and keeps kosher but violates the covenant may be religious, but he is not being Jewish. . . .
The main thrust of the Christian assault is that God tore up the covenant and entered into a “new” one with Christendom. My impression is that the original is still in force; otherwise, how does one account for Israel? As to the existence of a second covenant, or an addendum to the first, I am not competent to judge.
By all rights, as the historian Arnold Toynbee fumed, Jews should long ago have become a fossil race. But at the core of the Jewish mystique which has kept Jewry alive in a hostile world is the commitment “to keep the way of the Lord in doing what is just and right.” It is this divine mission that underlies “being Jewish” and has put Jews in the forefront of the struggle for universal justice.
What proof can I offer that God singled out Abraham and his progeny to keep His way? I cannot even prove by direct evidence that God exists, let alone that He made this choice. The survival of the Jewish people over a 2,000-year period in the face of overwhelming forces to convert them and, if they would not convert, to demolish them, is to some an inexplicable mystery. To me it is a concrete reality, supplying the circumstantial evidence that backs up God’s choice. . . .
Most American Jews, even those who are very rich, are in the liberal camp, for liberalism appears to be compatible with the historic Jewish mission to do what is just and right. Yet I share Mr. Kristol’s view that liberalism is often misdirected, for it fails to factor in the limitations of human nature.
However, liberalism is not behind the decline of Jewishness in America. Nor is it the absence of persecution, for historically Jews often thrive when they are not oppressed, as in the medieval period in the Muslim world.
My prescription for reversing the alarming decline of American Jewry is not to tell Jews to abandon liberal causes, or to become more religious, but simply to stay Jewish. I would remind each wavering American Jew that he is linked by ties that can never be severed to our progenitor, Abraham, and that he is chained by the covenant to see to it that his children and grandchildren remain in the fold. . . .
A free-thinking Jew is as Jewish as a Hasid. In Israel we find many more secular than Orthodox Jews; all are Jewish and all are bound by the covenant to remain Jewish. No Jew is compelled to believe in God or to respect God’s covenant with His people. Should a Jew challenge the validity of this covenant on the grounds that there is no God, he might well win his case. . . . But, like Faust, he will prevail at the expense of his inner spirit, or whatever else it is that makes each human a unique being. A Jew who ceases to be Jewish is doomed to lose his true identity.
Finally, to reply to the question of what’s in it for a Jew to stay Jewish, my answer is that one born a Jew is endowed with a birthright that permits no other choice and exacts a heavy spiritual penalty should it be renounced. . . .
I do not, therefore, like Mr. Kristol, urge American Jews to become more religious, but only to consider who they really are.
New York City
To the Editor:
In a succession of articles over the last decade, Irving Kristol has written about the drift toward liberalism—religious and political—within the Jewish community, about where liberalism is leading the community, and about what might be done to change course. In these articles, Mr. Kristol has come close to putting his finger on the real problem. Exploring those areas where he falls short, though, may provide a window into attitudes and assumptions which are common to his generation, and which may give us an idea about what needs to be changed.
In a 1991 article in COMMENTARY [“The Future of American Jewry,” August 1991], Mr. Kristol saw the secular-humanist instinct within the American Jewish community as of a piece with its socialist impulse. He did not appear too worried, though, because just as socialism as a political solution was withering away, so secular humanism, in his view, would eventually succumb to history as well, and cease to be a force in American religion at all.
His thesis was, and is, persuasive, intellectually satisfying, even encouraging—but for Christians. Because Jews do not proselytize outside the faith, they must rely upon reproduction to replenish their community. But given American Jewish birthrates, which are well below replacement level, that is not a very rosy prospect: by the time secular humanism wanes among American Jews, there may not be enough non-Orthodox Jews left for it to matter. Time is not on the side of American Jewry, as it may once have been.
Now, in his latest article, Mr. Kristol argues that decades of liberal politics have left the major Jewish organizations “trapped in anachronistic modes of thinking.” Their long involvement in liberal social causes, he says, has prepared them to fight only the traditional foe of anti-Semitism (which, according to Mr. Kristol, they correctly recognize in resurgent black nationalism and erroneously see in Christian evangelism). But in his view the organizations in their liberal concerns are unable to recognize or address the new enemy of the Jewish people: intermarriage.
This is true as far as it goes, and that such a thinker as Irving Kristol can come out and say so signals a new trend among Jewish intellectuals. But blaming a liberal agenda and Jewish organizations for the crisis of intermarriage only cuts so deep. And the argument is especially strange coming from a conservative like Mr. Kristol. He would no doubt agree that individuals are responsible for their actions: the welfare mother who continues to have more children, for instance, or the criminal who claims to be the victim of an unfair society. So why does he shrink from applying this line of reasoning to Jewish matters?
Mr. Kristol’s prescription for transmitting Judaism (or, as he puts it minimally, reversing intermarriage) does not recognize the role of the individual. He does suggest that, just as Christians are increasingly turning to more fundamental forms of their religion to provide structure in an age of moral uncertainty and chaos, so American Jewry might also “reestablish a Jewish core, a religious core, as a key to its identity.” But to achieve that identity he does not envision anything beyond new institutional initiatives, such as a focus among Jewish organizations on educational programs, led by the day schools, “running right through the college years,” which might “have a marked effect.”
That new focus would certainly be a step in the right direction, but, to borrow a term from politics, it would be big-government, welfare-state Judaism: handing over responsibility to the institutions. Although American Jewish organizations provide much-needed support for their fragile communities around the world, they do not create Jewish identity, and they must not be counted upon to do so in addition to their other pressing tasks.
The basic unit of Jewish communal life is not the synagogue or the day school, not the local Federation branch, B’nai B’rith lodge, or Hadassah chapter. It is the family. And the Jewish family has had more to do with the intermarriage crisis than the misguided liberal policies of any Jewish institutions: disregard for Judaism among Jewish families breeds disregard for Jewish families. . . .
After a century’s efforts to redefine Judaism along institutional, intellectual, or secular lines, we should know enough to reevaluate the notion that Jewish values can be transmitted in any meaningful way except through religious observance, the building blocks of the Jewish self. Stripped of its particularities, Judaism simply does not have enough momentum to ensure that its values will be passed along to new generations—in other words, not enough to stem the tide of intermarriage. . . .
The remedy is not necessarily a return to the Orthodoxy of the shtetl, but it must begin with a return to Jewish particularity, and within a communal context. Just as Jewish values exist only within Jewish observances, so must those observances be sustained by a family and community, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. Here is where Jewish institutions can play a constructive role, in explaining how Jewish living might be compatible with 20th-century America.
Personal responsibility, though, deserves to be underscored here. Everything comes down to the level of the personal. If intermarriage is bad and the survival of American Jewry is good, then each indi-vidual must take steps to counter the trend toward intermarriage. On the other hand, if America’s Jews do not see the death of American Jewry as a bad thing, we need only wait another generation or so, and the problem will have gone away.
To the Editor:
The problem with Irving Kristol’s prescription for Jewish survival—that American Jews abandon a faith in liberalism and reembrace their religious faith—is that Mr. Kristol presents such an action as simply making a rational public-policy choice. I do not think people calculate various options and then decide to choose faith as an alternative to other world views. Rather, faith is received after one or a series of inspirational life experiences. The difficulty is that many American Jews do not look for those experiences and do not recognize the ones they have as religious.
The policy proposal inherent in Mr. Kristol’s article is that the organized Jewish community should . . . systematically introduce American Jews to those spiritually stirring experiences that can be created. The form of such experiences might be adult-education classes, lectures, beginner’s services, and so on. Those forms, however, are far less important than the content of the experiences. If the aim is to make Jews more conscious of religion, then such experiences have to be explicitly spiritual and inspirational and have to teach people how to be more religiously sensitive.
Jewish spiritual experiences need to focus on helping people encounter the kind, loving, and personal God of Jewish tradition. This encounter, through prayer, or text, or song, or through some other means, is the heart of a spiritual life and leads to a fuller Jewish life.
Lawrence J. Epstein
Stony Brook, New York
To the Editor:
If Irving Kristol wants Jews to be more religious because he, too, is religious and would spread the faith, fine; if, like Benjamin Franklin, he simply feels that religion fosters virtuous behavior in even a moderately passionate flock, well, not perfect, but good enough. But, as best I can make out, Mr. Kristol wants Jews to be more Jewish because Christians are becoming more Christian and because non-practicing Jews increasingly end up with Gentile grandchildren. With this argument from ethnic insecurity and domestic realpolitik, I am less impressed.
Mr. Kristol may believe that most Jews are too far gone to be susceptible to idealistic stirrings. Or perhaps he associates such blandishments with a leftist, countercultural, or even Christian agenda. But if appeals to straightforward religion or even practical morality are already obsolete or unavailing, it is surely too late: you cannot induce guilt in a generation of alleged cynics and narcissists with talk of demographic crisis, or proselytize with a gospel of political self-interest—and I think Mr. Kristol knows it.
What is needed is a genuine yearning for spirituality of some sort, and that Mr. Kristol seems oddly loath, maybe embarrassed, to invoke. Such modesty, however praiseworthy in a private context, is not necessarily advantageous in a would-be missionary.
Seth A. Halpern
Scarsdale, New York
To the Editor:
Irving Kristol’s article is excellent as far as it goes. There can be no doubt about the future of American Jews if present trends continue, but the only remedy Mr. Kristol suggests is Jewish education. And even on that he seems skeptical.
I propose that the remedy lies within the Jewish family. Intermarriage will decline and observance will increase for future generations when we see a rise in the number of families who observe Jewish tradition and law. . . . It does no good to send children to Jewish schools, to synagogue, or to social events if the home does not reflect Jewish life. What is the message when parents drop off children at a synagogue on Saturday and then continue on their way to play tennis or go to work? . . . When the parents personally and actively participate in Jewish traditions, the children will follow suit now and in the future.
It is no wonder that the intermarriage rate is so high today. Life with a Christian spouse is no different from the life experienced growing up. . . .
David S. Mazel
Silver Spring, Maryland
To the Editor:
I was pleased to read Irving Kristol’s reference to two studies concluding that “Jewish education correlates positively with involvement in Jewish causes, and does act as a brake on intermarriage.” But . . . education by itself is, of course, not enough. The impressionable child must see dedication on the part of the parent, i.e., by regular attendance at the synagogue, as well as observance of Jewish customs in the home. . . .
San Diego, California
To the Editor:
I applaud Irving Kristol for writing his article, long overdue as it is (it should have been written 30 years ago). The fact that at this late date serious people have to make the point that a community that calls itself Jewish ought to have some Jewish content and not simply be devoted to warmed-over liberalism, socialism, or other secular ideologies (most of them now dead) is a sad commentary on the dreadful state of affairs in Jewish life in America.
As Mr. Kristol points out, promoting Jewish day-school education should represent the major focus for the established communal organizations for the next twenty years if they hope to have any relevance at all to the younger generation and to survive the passing of the older generation.
I wish Mr. Kristol had elaborated more on the failure of Jewish organizations in dealing with the issue of Jewish education. The inability to transmit Jewish values and culture (outside the Orthodox community) and the absence of a younger generation of secular Jews committed to the Jewish community in some way are a function, above all, of the near total lack of interest in Jewish education displayed by the Federations and other “leaders” of the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Even today, the people in positions of financial influence in these organizations are still obsessed with perpetual fund-raising campaigns for Israel, although Israel is now a prosperous, self-sufficient country that does not need their money. Anti-Semitism, the other main concern of Jewish organizations, is of such limited significance in the U.S. that they have to provoke fights with the Christian Right (which is mainly anti-secular, not anti-Jewish) to justify the huge investment they have made in fighting anti-Semitism.
I was also disappointed by Mr. Kristol’s discussion of day-school education of the different streams in Jewish life—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. He repeats a tendency I have seen elsewhere among non-Orthodox Jews. . . . Rarely do these commentators, unfortunately including Mr. Kristol, comment on the one part of the Jewish population enjoying growth: . . . the Orthodox community—both the ultra-Orthodox and the modern Orthodox. Why is it that they, and he, dismiss contemporary Orthodox experience?. . . Is it that the revival of Orthodox Judaism—which so many of them had consigned to the dust heap of history not too long ago—is so unbelievable that they are dumbfounded by the whole phenomenon? Or is it embarrassment over its success and their failures? Or is it that the wall of separation between the Orthodox community and the rest of the Jewish population is so high that these commentators are simply unaware of what is going on?
The Orthodox day schools in America are the fastest-growing parochial-school system in the country, and the community they support has a lower rate of attrition of its young to the general society than probably any other religious group in the country—including the Mormons. Irving Kristol has written very sympathetically in the past about traditional Judaism and its values and principles. Why doesn’t he comment on its successes and why it might or might not serve as a model for the rest of the Jewish population?
Ellen S. Shnidman
Rochester, New York
To the Editor:
Irving Kristol’s analysis of the central problem facing the American Jewish community is astute. Vast numbers of Jews have shed their Judaism, either trading it in for the secular religion of political liberalism, or simply abandoning it in pursuit of pure assimilation. He is correct, also, in noting that the various institutions which comprise the Jewish establishment have noticed what has been happening, are alarmed by it, and are instituting all manner of educational programs in response.
Unfortunately, Mr. Kristol pulls his punches when suggesting a solution. Education is a necessary first step in inculcating Jewishness, of course. But the ultimate success of any educational program, regardless of the sentiment propelling it, depends on how compelling the content is. The point of Jewish education is Jewish observance, and it seems to me unlikely that Reform programs which substitute liberal sentiment for Jewish law, literature, and prayer are likely to succeed. . . .
Perhaps Mr. Kristol suspects as much. On two occasions he takes care to point out that his observations do not apply to Orthodoxy. If, as Mr. Kristol implies, the Orthodox have managed to build a culture and an educational system that radically inhibit intermarriage and assimilation, let alone the various personal excesses that have created such an unhappy society, then shouldn’t the rest of us study that model with an eye to borrowing from it, or more radically still, adopting it?
Of course, the Orthodox have had mixed success, too. All less observant Jews are descended from more observant ancestors. But in recent decades various branches of Orthodoxy, especially in the U.S., have witnessed great growth, and have had significant success in attracting new adherents from among the secular. This is no small accomplishment, given the discipline and rigor that Orthodoxy, in any of its forms, requires.
Furthermore, it seems to me that in a culture which offers smart young Jews the pick of any world view they might choose, Judaism is that much more intellectually competitive in its more rigorous, less diluted, forms. Nor, given their disciplined lives, is it an accident that Orthodox Jews are far more sympathetic to the views which comprise political and cultural conservatism in our time than are secular Jews. . . .
The Orthodox may not have all the answers to the questions the community must grapple with. But we should listen to those they do have.
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
In thinking about Irving Kristol’s “Why Religion Is Good for the Jews,” it occurred to me that one of Judaism’s principal problems in retaining its own adherents is that it does not seek converts. To ask someone born into another faith to convert to one’s own, one must first understand it clearly. It is not good enough to tell a potential convert that God has Himself designated a particular religion as the true one, because most, if not all, religions make the same claim.
Since Jews traditionally have not sought to gain converts, we have had no need for this clarity of understanding, and the resulting fuzziness about the value of our religion, at least among the non-Orthodox, has made us easy targets for groups that proselytize actively. Perhaps the time has come to reevaluate the traditional Jewish position on converts and thereby identify what it is about Judaism that might attract non-Jews. If we can figure that out, we should also know what will hold Jews.
Yale M. Zussman
North Quincy, Massachusetts
To the Editor:
Permit me to applaud Irving Kristol’s article. The only flaw I find is in the title, which may have turned off some of your readers. I suggest that a title that more nearly fits my reading of Mr. Kristol’s thesis is “How Smart Jews Can Make Damn Fools of Themselves.”
David H. Fax
Irving Kristol writes:
I am grateful to those who have written approvingly of my article, and also to those who wrote critically. One of the virtues of writing for COMMENTARY is that its readers are not passive consumers of ideas but are prepared to wrestle with them, and with their authors too.
I cannot take up all the points touched on in these letters and shall focus mainly on what seems to me to be a major one: the relation of Jewish liberalism to black anti-Semitism.
Edgar M. Bronfman is quite right in singling out “frustration” among black university students and teachers as they confront the black condition in America. This condition is awful for at least one-third of the black community and has worsened dramatically in the past 30 years. The “politically-correct” interpretation of the spectacular upsurge in crime, illegitimacy, drug addiction, etc. in our inner cities is that “white racism” is to blame. No one can really believe that, since you don’t have to be a social scientist—a moderately long memory will do—to know that such racism has been in steady decline over the past decade. So what did happen?
By now there is a consensus, both scholarly and political, that the congeries of generous federal and state welfare programs since the early 1960’s has helped create a dependent and demoralized population in the inner cities. This is why “welfare reform” is high on everyone’s legislative agenda—including President Clinton’s. But this puts educated blacks in a difficult position. They feel a natural (and commendable) solidarity with their suffering brethren and do not want to seem to be “blaming the victims”—their own kith and kin being, often enough, among these victims. At the same time, the more radical among the black university population, now in a post-civil-rights era, do have a near-paranoid sense that white “compassion,” resulting in an overblown welfare state that corrupts the spirit of poor blacks, is deliberately at fault. A scapegoat would be very useful to this vision.
But why the Jews? Why should general denunciations of “white racism” end up focusing on the Jews? Why not the Christian conservatives who kept aloof from the struggle for black civil rights and are not famous for pro-black sympathies? The Christian conservatives, however, have not been ardent and eloquent supporters of the welfare state. By attacking the Jews, the most liberal segment of the white population, and historically a convenient scapegoat in any case, these radical (or, as they are now called, “militant”) blacks avoid seeming to “blame the victims” while at the same time avoiding a direct criticism of the welfare state that might lead to a shrinking of welfare programs—programs that do allow dependent black families to survive, if barely and badly.
Jewish idealism, in its liberal version, is now reaping the bitter fruit of its spiritual arrogance and ideological folly. Active and visible participation by Jews in the civil-rights movement is a proper source of pride for American Jews. The continuation of this visible and active role by Jews into the post-civil-rights era, working with the established black institutions like the NAACP and the Urban League—now themselves under severe attack by black “nationalists” (racists, actually)—to shape the black future in America, has been a disaster. In this future, an ever-expanding, ever-more “compassionate” welfare state was a sine qua non. To the degree that this welfare state has encouraged the economic, social, and moral collapse of the inner-city black populations, Jews do bear a special responsibility. The sooner the fantasy of some sort of Jewish-black “coalition” or “alliance” is removed from the horizon of the Jewish community, the better off we shall be.
Leo Blond points to the trouble in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights where hasidic Jews, relatively poor and politically conservative, have been under attack by black anti-Semites. In fact, the welfare state is at issue there, too, since much of the friction involves the “fair” distribution of welfare-state “goodies,” especially housing. But isolated instances of old-fashioned populist anti-Semitism among blacks (or Christians) are not a serious problem today. It is when the educated elite begins to show signs of anti-Semitic paranoia that one gets alarmed.
Glenn Diamond and Morris Grossman do not see how anyone can take seriously the idea that the Jewish religion is crucial to Jewish survival or to a satisfactory Jewish identity. But the secular humanism they recommend, transcending as it does all religions, gives Jews no reason to exist as Jews at all—except, perhaps, as a fossilized tribal remnant. Fossilization does not appeal to me.
Some dear friends of mine are both Jewish and atheist. Their children and grandchildren will almost surely end up being neither. But this, I fear, is not the place for the kind of serious discussion of religion and theology that is needed. That belongs elsewhere in the pages of COMMENTARY.
To those correspondents who emphasize the importance of the Jewish family, I can only express my agreement. If you want Jewish children, a Jewish family in a Jewish household is a necessary condition. But it is not, these days especially, a sufficient condition. The family is not omnipotent, and always needs the sanction and assistance of institutions, secular as well as Jewish.