Rabbi Jane Litman is the rabbi educator of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, Calif.
Turning Swords into Plowshares
"This article was first published in "The Beth El Builder," the bulletin of Congregation Beth El of Berkeley, California, and is reprinted with permission of the author.
The standard wisdom about Jewish life in America is that it is a double-edged sword.
As a community, we Jews have never known such freedom and prosperity. Jewish culture bursts forth as a flowering garden of theater, music, food, and literature. Jewish religiosity is robust and diverse, sustaining traditional institutions such as the synagogue and innovative practices such as meditation and creative ritual. In addition individual Jews achieve in virtually all fields of American life: business, politics, science, the academy, even the military.
But, the standard wisdom tells us, there is a terrible price to pay for all this success--we Jews are assimilating into American culture and losing our precious Jewish identity. People who hold this view often point to the high rate of intermarriage as its ultimate proof. According to this view, oppression and discrimination are the primary reasons for the longevity and vitality of the Jewish people throughout history. Tolerance within an open society leads to the ultimate demise of the Jewish people.
I beg to differ. What does American pop culture offer that is more attractive than Judaism? Shopping? Reality television shows? Fast food? No. Jews don't avoid their faith because American secular culture offers something more. If anything, the cause for assimilation in America is our very heritage of oppression and the heavy psychological burden that has put upon our people. As a people, we tend toward pessimism and hyper-vigilance, a perspective naturally emerging from our often painful past. We have trouble with faith and God; we resonate to alienation. We take in the contempt with which we have been treated by others. It is our troubled history as Jews that most causes us to turn away from the beauty that is Judaism. Oppression and suffering are not the friends of Judaism.
From my view, Jewish life in America isn't a double-edged sword of achievement on the one side but assimilation on the other, but rather a double blessing. Why?
There is one piece of the American Jewish experience that seems to be a balm for the psychological wound that is the legacy of hatred against the Jewish people. That balm is the love and caring of non-Jews. Many of these non-Jews not only fall in love with individual Jews, but also with Judaism. More than 300,000 Jews in America chose our faith. To them, Judaism isn't despised and unworthy. It is amazing and fulfilling. It isn't fearful and ever sorrowing, but joyous and uplifting. The Jewish community is healed by their presence and commitment. Born Jews often express to me their amazement and happiness at seeing so many people praise the depth and wonder of our faith.
Even the most doctrinaire alarmist must see how all these Jews by choice enrich the Jewish community. However, I want to go a bit further. I see many families in which a non-Jewish partner gives support and help toward Judaism. I can't count the number of non-Jewish dads who shlep the kids to religious school, or Christian moms who cook Passover dinner. Many of these non-Jews have a much more positive attitude toward religion in general than their Jewish partners. Ironically, they often provide the motive for the family engagement in Judaism!
Congregation Beth El warmly welcomes and cherishes both our interfaith families and our Jewish by choice (as well as our Jews by birth). We are extremely pleased at the success of our first annual seder for interfaith families, and look forward to a year of exciting outreach programming. Sometimes a sword is without edges at all. Then it is a plowshare.