Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chelsea, Marc and the Jewish Problem

One hundred years ago it would have been impossible, for a Jew would never have been considered an appropriate match for the daughter of the President of the United States; and one hundred years ago it would have been improbable, because very few Jews would have married out of the faith.

But 2010 is not 1810 or 1910. The news media yawned when Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky in a ceremony that featured a tallit and sheva brachot, a Rabbi and a Minister. Jews have thoroughly integrated into American society, and as a result bigotry is scarce and intermarriage common.

But for Jewish pundits, the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is a religious Rorschach test. Each pundit gazes into this intermarriage, and sees their own reflection. For some Jews, the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is actually a source of pride, a sign Jews have truly arrived. Others fret, wringing their hands and issuing jeremiads about how the Jewish community has failed. Orthodox polemicists blame the failure of the Liberal movements, outreach professionals blame the community’s failure at outreach, and Zionists see this intermarriage as indicative of the failure of Diaspora Judaism. Hundreds of op-eds and sermons have been devoted to dissecting this intermarriage and agonizing about the contemporary “Jewish problem”, a crisis of assimilation and indifference.

Many of these pundits make compelling cases, but I can’t help feeling like they’re all missing the point. Assimilation isn’t occurring because Judaism has failed; it’s occurring because all institutions, including Judaism, are declining. As David Brooks has pointed out, institutional thinking has eroded across the board, in schools and sports, in businesses and in banks. Respect for and devotion to institutions is disappearing.

Today’s mindset is profoundly individualistic. Every practice is evaluated by one simple criterion: “what’s in it for me?”. By contrast, institutional thinkers approach their institutions with a profound feeling of reverence and responsibility. Brooks quotes political scientist Hugh Heclo, who writes that “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.” Institutionalists are extremely uncommon nowadays.

Simply put, intermarriages occur when the institution of Judaism becomes a secondary concern, superseded by one’s individual needs. And since individualism is the order of the day, few can justify passing up true love in order to respect a millennia old tradition.

Some Rabbis have tried to repackage Judaism into user-friendly parcels in order to make it more appealing in an age of individualism. They have offered Jewish wisdom about leadership and family, and even tips on kosher sex. I use this approach myself, and it certainly helps make Judaism more relevant and meaningful. But ultimately, this approach will fail as a weapon against assimilation, because in our zeal to make every Jewish practice useful and beneficial, we have actually undercut the very foundations of Judaism. Judaism is founded on a sense of duty; we fast on Yom Kippur, even though it’s uncomfortable; we circumcise babies even though it’s painful. We do so because Judaism is a transcendent institution that we revere.

Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, proudly announced “Hineni- I am ready”; he was ready to sacrifice for any and all of God’s demands. And throughout history, Jews have been willing to put Jewish destiny before individual interests. Until now. With a deeply individualistic zeitgeist blowing by us, who knows if there will still be Jews who will proclaim “Hineni” at the end of the 21st century.

(But in the end, things are not so bleak. for a more optimistic continuation of this article, read this.)