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David Klinghoffer

The Disappearing Jews

Elliott Abrams offers American Jews a secular reason for returning to the faith of their fathers.

You could safely bet the price of this book—in fact, the price of several copies—that over the recent Jewish high holy days no cultural or political topic provided the hook for as many rabbinical sermons as Elliott Abrams's Faith and Fear. In the Jewish community, one hears references to it constantly. That is good news, because the book is not only important for what it says, but also for what it doesn't say.

The argument here can be condensed to three points:

1. The orientation of the official Jewish community—its most powerful leaders and the organizations they run—is driven fundamentally by a fear of and flight from Judaism. Abrams, who is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, would have done well to have provided a definition of what he believes authentic Judaism is. There are several contenders for the title, ranging from the Reform Movement—which rejects the main tenets of the Judaism that existed for three millennia before anyone heard of Reform—to Orthodox Judaism, which upholds those tenets (i.e., an eternally valid Torah, given to Moses at Sinai along with an oral tradition explaining it). Yet, despite this omission, it's clear he means that the official representatives of the community fear some version of the religion as defined by ancient tradition.

Otherwise, how to explain the two most striking features of contemporary Jewish leadership? The first is antireligious agitating, such as the persistent demands for legislative and judicial action to curb the influence of faith in American life and the general atmosphere of anti-Christian suspicion found in statements like the Anti-Defamation League's notorious attack on the Christian Right. Both are typically explained as a reaction to Christian anti-Semitism, present and potential. Yet Abrams painstakingly documents the evolution of Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical thinking in the direction of acceptance verging on embrace of Jews and Judaism.

In fact, it isn't so much that Jewish leaders fear Christianity per se. Liberal Jewish groups insist equally on striking at Jewish religious excursions into the public square, including patently milquetoast ones like a Reform rabbi's attempt to read a prayer at a high-school commencement. (A secular Jewish girl in Rhode Island, for whom "it was too much to ask … [that she] stand quietly or sit silently when others prayed," brought that case, which ended up in the Supreme Court.)

Combine this with the other striking fact about American Jewish life—the obsessive search for substitute religions, whether Zionism, liberalism, ethnic Jewishness, Holocaust veneration, or the preoccupation with phantom anti-Semitism—and you begin to get the picture. Abrams calls it "the Jews' widespread anxiety about Judaism."

One might add that this anxiety was predictable. Judaism imposes prodigious demands on all aspects of the Jew's everyday life. It is a burden King David regarded as joyous (see Ps. 19:9); but many other Jews, from Saint Paul to Marx and Freud to the current leader of the Reform Movement, have felt otherwise. As long as there have been Jews, factions among our people have sought methods of escape. Pious Christians, who observe more of the strictures of Judaism than many Jews do, excite Jewish resentment because they remind us of the commitment to biblical faith that so many of us have given up. It's a common human response to dislike people who make you feel guilty.

Faith or Fear:
How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America
by Elliott Abrams
Free Press
237 pp.; $25

2. This aggressive secularism has resulted in a demographic catastrophe. The substitute religions, liberalism and the rest, were intended to secure the future of American Jews in safety and liberty. Whether they helped at all can be debated, but one thing is clear: they have proved increasingly powerless to attract the commitment of young American Jews. Presented with the argument that they should identify themselves with their people because Israel needs financial support (increasingly it doesn't), or to fight anti-Semitism (barely in evidence in America), or to deny Hitler a posthumous victory (what he failed to do with his ovens may be accomplished by assimilation and intermarriage), young Jews shrug. In the appalling stories told by "survivors," a word typically used without a modifier as if to say survivors of calamities other than the Holocaust aren't worth mentioning, they see no reason to alter their plans to marry whomever they fall in love with, Jewish or not.

No one should have been surprised by the 1990 statistic that more than half of Jews who get married now marry non-Jews. Nor by the fact, also cited by Abrams, that "20 per cent of the 'core' Jewish population has left the Jewish religion." Their parents never convinced them—probably never even hinted—that in the question of Jewish identity there is anything particularly urgent at stake. Abrams is the first writer to put this statistical and sociological argument on record at book length, and he has done so with great clarity and force. No wonder Jews are talking about his work, and not only talking. They are agreeing, which Jews rarely do about anything. Whether they will act on the remedy he offers is another matter.

3. To revive the prospects of American Jews, writes Abrams, the community must give up its false gods and return to—Judaism:

For what is required in American Jewry now is a change in the publicly acknowledged goals and standards of the community. It would be a far cry from the present attitude of disdain, or at best indifference, that is so often directed at those Jews who reject the community's assimilationist norms. It would make the financing of religious education a central community activity, so that no Jewish family that seeks a religious education for its children is prevented by the issue of costs. It would mean making the link to Israel far less a matter of financial support, and far more one of personal contact and commitment. It would mean bridging the gap between the lay organizations—above all, the Federations—and the community's religious institutions—its day schools and its synagogues. …

But far more important than the necessary changes in budget and programs is the change in understanding. The new understanding would not be that Orthodoxy is better than the Conservative or Reform movements, but rather that the fundamental proposition on which the Orthodox operate is in fact correct: Judaism, not Jewishness, must be the heart of a Jew's life and of the community's life.

Abrams is calling for a religious revival of far greater scope than the one that has been going on for several decades now, namely, the return of tens of thousands of secular Jews to the faith in Torah that their great-grandparents rejected. Tens of thousands aren't enough. Abrams rightly argues that without a much broader return to traditional Judaism, American Jewry will continue to shrink, leaving only an Orthodox remnant, passionate but small.

It's in the nature of his book, however, that it can only point the way to such a revival. It will not incite one.

After all, Faith or Fear is basically a secular book. It could not really be otherwise. Abrams identifies himself as a "somewhat observant Conservative Jew," but he remains cagey about what, religiously speaking, he himself believes. Certainly he believes in the Jewish people, but in this book I count only three references to Judaism which imply that he believes in G-d. He speaks of a wish to convey to his children his "faith" that "the covenant of Abraham abides today," yet he puts the Supreme Being between quote marks: "it is now very clear that the 'presence of G-d' is the only guarantee of Jewish continuity." He couches his argument in terms of the mere survival of the Jews per se.

That is, Abrams in effect says, if a century from now we want there still to be a substantial community of Americans who call themselves "Jews," then on the part of Jews living today there must be a return to tradition. Whether Jewish tradition possesses value beyond serving as a bulwark against ethnic disintegration—in other words, whether it is in any ultimate sense true or not—is not a question Abrams chooses to pursue.

He can't be blamed for that, for the audience he has set out to persuade is composed, as he notes, of Jews who fear Judaism. According to our tradition, all Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai and thus possess the intuition that something is asked of them by G-d. They sense that the demands of the Torah apply to all Jews. Many of us find that implicit knowledge deeply threatening. These are, in short, the Jews who get nose jobs, whose discomfort with their identity as Jews can be so great that they will pay a surgeon literally to cut it out of their faces. Others, squeamish of knives, defend themselves against the claims of G-d by adopting the secular ideology called liberalism, with its assumption that man, not G-d, is the arbiter of all values. Anyway, they don't want other Jews telling them to observe the Sabbath or keep kosher because G-d asks them to. Any reference to him that isn't between quotation marks would disrupt Abrams's purpose, to put it mildly.

Yet at some point the question of truth must be forthrightly addressed. Is it true that G-d has a mission for the Jews, crystallized in his Torah, or isn't it? If not, then no program for the preservation of the Jews as a distinct people can claim anything better than a sentimental justification. Elliott Abrams has changed the terms of debate among American Jews, regarding the survival of our community, by forcefully arguing that young Jews can no longer be appealed to on sentimental grounds alone.

Now that the definitive secular case has been made for a return to Judaism, the ground may soon be ready for the religious case. There would be a certain aesthetic appeal—the appeal of symmetry, of putting one shoe on after the other—if in a few years Elliott Abrams published a book, complementing this one, that argued that G-d lives, that he cares about our commitment to him, and therefore that, as Abrams had said earlier though for different reasons, Jews must return to Judaism.

David Klinghoffer is literary editor of National Review.

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