It’s a new age for the Jewish people. Two hundred years ago, Jews battled bigotry and prejudice.
Today, Jews are so well-accepted that it was perfectly conventional for Chelsea Clinton – daughter of former U.S. president Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – to marry Marc Mezvinsky in a ceremony that featured a tallit and sheva brachot, a rabbi and a minister. Jews have thoroughly integrated into North American society, and as a result, bigotry is scarce and intermarriage common.
For Jewish pundits, the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is a religious Rorschach test. For some Jews, it’s even a source of pride, a sign Jews have truly arrived. Others fret, 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. Articles and sermons agonize about this contemporary “Jewish problem,” a crisis of assimilation and indifference.
These pundits make compelling cases, but in some ways, they’re missing the point. Assimilation isn’t occurring just because Judaism has failed. It’s occurring because all institutions, including Judaism, are declining. As others have noted, institutional thinking has eroded across the board, in schools, sports and business. Respect for, and devotion to, institutions is disappearing.
Assimilation occurs when the institution of Judaism becomes a secondary concern, superseded by one’s individual needs.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 have tried to repackage Judaism into user-friendly parcels that are more appealing in our age of individualism. They’ve offered Jewish wisdom about leadership and family, and even tips on kosher sex. I use this approach myself, and it certainly makes 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’ve 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.
Given today’s deeply individualistic zeitgeist, who knows if there will still be Jews proclaiming “hineni” at the end of the 21st century.