Last month, I heard Tal Keinan and David Gregory discuss how Jewish identity needs to change if our religion is to exist in future generations. Both men are brilliant and accomplished, their respective understanding of the challenge our people face is well-considered, and their suggestions on how it can be overcome were large in scale, yet practical.
I couldn’t have disagreed with either of them more.
Gregory, a political analyst for CNN and the former host of “Meet the Press,” and Keinan, an American entrepreneur and social innovator, were in conversation at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, asking “Can Judaism survive the 21st century?” The event, co-sponsored by NJJN and Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, was part of the launch of Keinan’s new book, “God is in the Crowd” (Penguin Random House).
Keinan said that most Jewish people, especially in the U.S. and Israel, rarely experience anti-Semitism. Although this is, at least on the outermost layer, a positive and unique development, Keinan argues that anti-Semitism has long served as a unifying force for Jews, and an inability to identify as collective victims threatens our very existence.
In addition, growing assimilation makes it harder for Jews to find each other. “The statistical odds of my grandchildren meeting another Jew of the opposite sex and the same age or similar age are almost zero in this country,” he said. “Just because we always have been here doesn’t mean we always will be here … for us to assume that we’re somehow special and our path is eternal, I think is a mistake.”
He’s right, of course (though we differ sharply on the issue of Jews being special). It’s important to recognize that our continued presence, certainly in the U.S., is no sure thing.
Gregory was born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother — “A lot of people would say, ‘Oh, well you know, you’re not really Jewish,’” he said. To that he notes, “I’m Jewish enough for the Nazis.” He is married to a non-Jewish woman but they are raising their children as Jews and he is clearly committed to his faith. And like Keinan, he thinks Judaism is in grave danger.
But they have different approaches to address this crisis. Gregory said that Jews, most of whom aren’t comfortable with the idea of a divine being, ought to put God front and center.
“I am a non-Orthodox, Reform Jew with a non-Jewish wife from a non-Jewish Catholic mother who’s raising his hand for God over here, because I believe it gets to a place of Jewish identity that has a sense of the holy, of family, ritual observation, and existence, and Israel bound together in a very loving mix.” A renewed relationship with God, he believes, “is the future of Judaism.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Keinan, who is not observant, said, “Let’s not let God be an obstacle to us opting into Judaism.” Instead, he seems to support some iteration of “Big Tent Judaism,” in which Jews of every flavor are included and work together for the sake of something more important. He has no qualms with anyone who believes in God or a strict reading of halacha, just as long as those who don’t are still allowed in the tent. It doesn’t matter “that you think I’m a heretic,” he said, or that “I think you’re crazy,” because “we’re building something that’s bigger than this.”
Despite their almost diametrically opposed solutions, both speakers were on the same page that something has to change.
“There’s not enough creativity out there,” Gregory said. “We should be drawn in more by our leaders and our organizations who are not using the same old playbook from 50 years ago, but who are reaching us where we are today.”
Listening to Keinan and Gregory, I wondered if, in considering new ideas to keep Judaism relevant and vibrant, they were actually calling for setting aside the world’s oldest and most stable religion.
Coming up with big ideas and creative thinking to renew a commitment to Judaism has never made much sense to me. After all, the continued existence of the Jewish people has been one of the only constants for thousands of years and through it all we maintained our faith and traditions. Only after we let both of those crucial components go by the wayside did we begin to fragment and disintegrate.
Keinan argues that our continuity is a result of consistent attempts to annihilate us, and although there is some validity to that, I don’t subscribe to the theory that anti-Semitism is the tie that binds.
Our internal problems began when we started ignoring God and eschewed our Jewish practices. Orthodoxy, the denomination that is growing fastest, is grounded in religious practice rather than culture. Studies also find that more liberal streams of Judaism are in sharp decline; if our struggles to keep Judaism relevant is primarily due to the seeming deterioration of anti-Semitism, wouldn’t the Orthodox movement fare the same?
This is not a paean to Orthodox Judaism, the branch which with I am most comfortable. Lord knows (no doubt) we have no shortage of our own struggles, ranging from the lack of spirituality in prayer and ritual, which becomes rote, to failing to welcome others in the community and taking a pass on social causes that don’t directly benefit Orthodox Jews.
But there is a long and proven track record for keeping Judaism alive and well, a Judaism that is anchored by belief in God and adherence to the Torah. Why should we look for new ways to engage future generations in Jewish life when the old methods have always worked and are still doing well today?
It’s appropriate that Passover is upon us, as our redemption began with faith (the slaves crying out to God for help) and ended with action (the Jews spreading the lamb’s blood on doorposts for protection from the Angel of Death). Instead of just thinking out of the box, why not rededicate ourselves to God, mitzvot, and welcoming Jews of all stripes into our communal tent?
Contact Gabe Kahn via email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter, @sgabekahn.