Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Jewish, Ethnic and Racial Identity in America - The Future of Reform Judaism is Chinese
As the evolution or rather devolution of Jewish identity in America continues we are approaching a crossroads leading to two paths.
The first path is the original understanding of the Jewish people as a people and a nation following a covenant with G-d. Orthodox Jews remain closest to this, though they often tend to be weak on the nation part.
The second path is that of a Post-Jewish ethnic identity, which is to American Jewish identity what Post-Zionism is to Israeli identity. It disposes of any real Jewish identity in favor of a universalized Jewish identity. It is what we see being adopted among secular and liberal streams of American Jews.
To understand this second path it is necessary to look at the nature of ethnicity and race in America. For a long time race in America was defined as a contrast between black and white. These were not real categories but artificial ones created by the dominant culture of the time.
A wide variety of peoples usually but not always originating from Africa were classed under one category for the convenience of the Arab and European slavers who trafficked in them. Many of these peoples hated each other and had very little in common. By the 20th century many of them were mixed with White and Indian and other groups. Some in these categories were actually whiter than those officially considered White. Black or rather Negro was a convenient category for the dominant culture to class everyone they considered other.
Much the same thing has happened with the various Latino/Hispanic categories which piles in people who are Indians, Europeans, Africans and often a mix of the three into one box. Modern day Indians are quite often mixed up with Africans and Europeans creating altogether artificial tribes for financial benefits.
These categories were not originally based on the real identities of these peoples, but out of ignorance and a convenient way to file them all into one category. As the 20th century hit its latter half, they began reclaiming their identities, trying to turn negative identities into positive identities. These identities as Black, Indian or Hispanic, were just as much artificial constructs as before. These were not real peoples but chaotic conglomerations classed together out of ignorance.
The devolution of liberal streams of Judaism began with embracing secularism, deemphasizing a unique identity and destiny and seeking to universalize Judaism and the Jewish experience. To their shock of course they discovered that they couldn't take that course and still avoid intermarriage. Facing the choice between changing course to preserve their part of the Jewish people and liberalizing further, they liberalized further. Reform Judaism has taken the tack that intermarriage is perfectly normal and should be embraced in the hopes of getting the non-Jewish partner and their children to come to Temple too. Federation surveys only ask whether the person has some form of Jewish identity or connection to their roots.
Reform Judaism shows enough growth to prove this approach bears some fruit but all it really does is usher in the Post-Jewish era in which being Jewish is no more real an identity than Black and no more authentic than the Indian Tribes of the Great Casino. Jewish stops being a national covenant and becomes a matter of anyone who has some Jewish roots or is married to someone Jewish and sorta kinda considers that they might want to come to Temple some time. Jewish identity becomes optional, something you choose if you feel like it and discard if you don't.
It's a small step from there to simply tossing out any ethnic and national identity altogether and universalizing liberal Judaism into another liberal Christian denomination, something that was pretty much the goal of Reform Judaism all along. You can only toss out so many things in the name of reform, before you have nothing left except vague slogans and a borrowed identity.
And that doesn't work anyway. Unlike being Black which is designated by the perception of skin color, Jewish appearance isn't all that definitive. Unlike the Indians or any other minority for that matter, there's no real financial benefit to being Jewish. When you discard religion, the only appeal for remaining Jewish is to try and make Jewish identity seem hip or cool. And that can work for a bit but not for very long because being Jewish for real is more a painful reality than anything else. And without religion to define the context for all the hatred of Jews and discrimination and violence directed at Jews, the entire thing becomes the sort of meaningless horror that drives people to self-hatred or philosophy; two common occupations among Jews.
When liberal Judaism turns Judaism into another option in a religious landscape in which they can expect the majority of their congregations to be intermarried, they cease to have any meaningful attachment to the Jewish people. To see the future of Reform Judaism, simply think Chinese.
Asian-Americans have the second highest rate of intermarriage compared to Jews. It's at over 70 percent for Japanese-Americans. 40 percent for first generation Chinese. 60 percent for second generation Chinese. Combine a high intermarriage rate for both Jews and Asians with more cultural similarities between Jews and Asians, than between most other groups, a high presence in colleges and universities and the large result of Jewish and Asian intermarriages is no surprise. Most people I suspect have seen no shortage of such couples. Even in the Orthodox world, some of the more high profile converts via marriage have been Asian.
Take a high Asian birth rate and immigration rate to America, combine it with a high intermarriage rate with a shrinking Jewish population and you wind up with a Jewish population in America that looks increasingly Asian. Then pile on the adoptions of Asian babies by liberal Jewish couples that don't want the hassle of actually having their own children. Then walk into a Reform Temple 50 years from now and don't be surprised if it looks rather Chinese.
Converts, legitimate converts who seek to become Jewish in order to be close to G-d and the Jewish people, are a wonderful thing. However conversion as a means of legitimizing intermarriage is worthless. By throwing up their hands and responding to intermarriage by treating being Jewish as an option, liberal streams of Judaism have made their own extinction inevitable one way or another. More likely both. The first way is demographic death through intermarriage and assimilation away from Judaism. The second way is through intermarriage and assimilation into Judaism until is loses all attachment to a specific people and becomes to Judaism and the Jewish people, roughly what Christianity did. An alien identity and faith distantly attached to some Jewish ideas.
Thus the future of Reform Judaism is Chinese.