I have a longstanding argument with an elder over interfaith marriage and Jewish assimilation. He blames the liberal denominations for dropping the taboo on intermarriage. I counter that liberal Judaism was an inevitable response to enormous social changes, and the liberal movements only expanded the possibilities for Jewish engagement.
Neither of us “wins” the argument. He longs for the thick ethnic stew of his Brooklyn childhood; I earn a living chronicling the myriad Jewish choices available in the 21st century. We both wish that more Jews took their heritage more seriously, however they wish to express it. We agree there is a challenge; we disagree whether or not Jewish leaders could have held back the tide.
I had a similar reaction to a recent essay by Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward, titled “For 2013, A Marriage Agenda.” A “committed feminist,” Eisner admits to a very un-PC anxiety: The “non-Orthodox birthrate in America is far below replacement level.” Young non-Orthodox Jews are marrying later and having fewer children. Between one-third and one-half are marrying non-Jews.
As a result, she writes, “the future of egalitarian, progressive American Judaism” is endangered.
This puts Eisner in the uncomfortable position of “over-emphasizing traditional marriage and child-rearing at the expense of other paths to self-fulfillment and service, for men as well as women.” Nevertheless, she concludes, it may be time to “promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.”
Eisner doesn’t flesh out what form such “promotion” could take, although presumably it begins with soapboxes like hers, and perhaps continues on the bimas of egalitarian, progressive synagogues.
Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a similarly “natalist” piece for Commentary a few years ago. He blamed liberal rabbis for having rejected “traditional Jewish teachings” in order to “welcome Jews who live in unconventional family arrangements, and in particular to eliminate any negative judgment of gays and lesbians.” Wertheimer urges rabbis and Jewish communal leaders to do a better job of emphasizing “the power of Jewish norms and obligations” as they relate to marriage.
Blaming Jewish institutions for undermining Jewish family values always struck me as odd, however: Ask the average single person or childless couple how comfortable they feel in suburban synagogues. Hardly “free to be you and me” Neverlands, synagogues tend to operate on the assumption that “family” means two spouses with kids.
Eisner doesn’t play the blame game. She thinks straight people can learn from gays and lesbians who “fought so bravely for the right to marry.” But, like Wertheimer, she believes in the power of the pulpit and bully pulpit to elevate in-marriage, earlier marriage, and larger Jewish families as communal priorities.
This puts me right back into my argument with my elderly friend. Eisner acknowledges that Jews are subject to broader societal trends: Highly educated men and women often postpone marriage, and Jews are more accepted than ever. But where she puts her faith in a Jewish agenda, I can’t imagine change without policies that would encourage Jews to marry younger and have children younger — for example, a much better system of day care and more flexible workplaces that don’t force women (and, less typically, men) to choose between their careers and raising kids.
I despair, politically and culturally, of seeing such policy changes anytime soon. The Working Families Flexibility Act has been kicking around Congress for six years now. It would require employers to offer more part-time schedules and remove the stigma from workers who take time off to raise a family (or care for an elderly relative).
(Israel understands the link between public policy and personal choices. The state offers free in vitro fertilization procedures for up to two children, subsidized housing loans for families with three or more children, and 26 weeks — 14 paid — of maternity leave.)
Unfortunately, an economically ravaged America is in no mood for flexibility at the moment.
Which doesn’t mean that you need an act of Congress to shape Jewish values. I agree with Eisner that we “need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.”
But our demographic problems didn’t start with liberal sermons. They started on the day the first boatload of Jews set foot in America and were given a range of choices about how to live, and whether to live Jewishly at all. Anyone interested in promoting “natalism” among young Jews has to ask how much of these freedoms and choices they are willing to give up, and what structural changes have to be made to make a difference. Otherwise, it’s just hand-wringing.