R. Yonah felt this deserves its own space. It is a comment in response to queries by our Catholic friend, Tom Morrissey, in Phoebe’s two posts, “Ugh, Natalism” and “The New ‘Right.'”

The Enlightenment did nothing to prevent the Holocaust. The Enlightenment did nothing to prevent Dreyfus. The Enlightenment did nothing to prevent signs in American parks and hotels that said “No Jews Allowed” or in some cases that I heard of personally in Canada, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” The world today still gives us antisemitism and in fact at times gives it to us in a far more sophisticated way that what we had seen a few hundred years ago. As I read recently, these days one sees antisemitism driven by the educated class and political leadership. I point you to the Muslim world where you have heads of state and media outlets which are often organs of the government vilifying Jews using classic antisemitic canards. I can also point you to the Left and to academia where the latest fashion is to write papers (soon to be a book) about “The Israel Lobby” where every Jew who doesn’t openly oppose Israel, is counted among the members of the supposedly pernicious “lobby.” Listening to the Left today, one also hears this sophisticated twaddle.

My point is that “Western pluralism” has significant limits.

Phoebe, in fact, points to those limits when she expresses the hope of being able to be Jewish in the sense that one would point to an American and say, “She’s from Wisconsin.” It may give you a broad idea of how/where that person may have grown up, but for all intents and purposes, she’s like you, an American.

I don’t discount for a minute that Phoebe is extremely bright and articulate. The question is whether she’s saying something new and I don’t believe she is. Consider, for example, that John Kerry and Madeleine Albright (and ex-Senator George Allen) discovered that their parents essentially sought to have them completely assimilate by eliminating any connection to Judaism. Consider movements where Jews were quite active such as Communism and Socialism that obliterate differences between people and strive to eliminate religious dogma from the lives of people. Consider simply the large number of Jews who have become not only secular but entirely unaffiliated with the Jewish community so that in essence they live their life with virtually no identification with their Jewish roots and certainly their spouses or descendants carry no such knowledge or sense of affiliation.

On the contrary, what Phoebe is saying is all too familiar.

I’ll tell you what it means to me. It means that my son will live in a world with far fewer Jews. He will live in a world where, whether he does them for cultural, historical or faithful reasons, the traditions he wishes to preserve will be far more difficult to preserve because the resources available to him will be greatly diminished, beginning with the number of potential spouses and including the number of synagogues or schools for his children or other cultural artifacts such as community centers, concerts, courses of study at universities, etc. I seek to preserve these things not just for myself, but for others including my son as well as our friends and their children. Phoebe belongs to the ranks of those who will not only make the overall pool of people and resources smaller, but by actually advocating such an outcome, may be convincing others to follow suit as well. Isn’t that reason enough to challenge her assertions?

Look, you asked the question in her post “Natalism” about what numbers of Jews are enough and whether the numbers even matter. This is an interesting question because many Orthodox Jews today will tell you they don’t care about the numbers if it means that they have to accept converts who weren’t converted by Orthodox rabbis. In fact, some go as far as to reject other streams of Judaism altogether. Of course, they then proceed to have many children themselves which suggests a desire to grow the population base of at least the “right kind” of Jewish people.

However, if you ask me, the issue is a pertinent one for non-Orthodox Jews for the reasons I mention above with respect to providing a large enough community to our children that they can enjoy a robust social environment as Jews, have opportunities to marry other Jews and raise children as Jews, have healthy communal services and functions, and be able to maintain traditions and a link to a valuable and ancient culture. This is difficult to do when your birthrate is below replacement levels and your educated population is marrying only half the time (stats similar to the general population where 50% aren’t married), and when they marry, half of them marry non-Jews and of those non-Jews about 80% retain their original faith. Their children tend not to view themselves as Jewish and lose touch with our faith and traditions. All of a sudden, when you send your child to a Jewish “Sunday school,” you notice the small number of children who attend. If you send him to Hebrew day school, you see the small numbers of other children who attend and the huge effort put forth to even get that many to attend.

You asked in the Natalism conversation whether the Holocaust plays a role in the hope to maintain numbers. I’m sure it does to some. However, to me, it informs more than influences. There were 19 million Jews in the world in 1939 and about 13 million in 1945. Today, in a world where the population has at least doubled since then, Jews represent about 14-15 million. That indicates serious challenges to future stability outside of Israel. To you this may not be meaningful because you belong to a group that counts 700 million adherents and continues to proselytize even as its members are surrounded by a large number of others who either share the same faith or a variant of that faith. However, we, as Jews, not only don’t have the numbers, but are surrounded by you folks from these other faiths, in a society that orients itself around this faith. We meet you fine people in school, university, jobs, etc. and it’s much more likely when we’re surrounded by 97 of you to every two of us that we will find common interests with one of those 97 than one of the other 2.5 to 3 individuals who share our faith and background. In other words, it becomes even more challenging for us to maintain a connection or end up with a partner who cares about our culture, faith or traditions.

Does it matter? It matters to me. I find our traditions to be valuable and beautiful. I want to preserve them and would like to preserve a link to our ancient culture. Obviously, I do it from a secular perspective, but I am who I am because of those traditions and the values instilled in me by my family and community and believe it is critical to pass them on to my son and to have him pass them on as well.

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  • The Enlightenment can, however, pretty much take credit for Jewish emancipation, for Zionism, and for inspiring the ideas of EVERY movement which has fought against anti-Semitism…
    “Natalism” is a dead end. Even if the Jewish population increased like three fold, Jews would still be a very tiny and theoretically vulnerable minority. The defense against this doesn’t lie in having more babies but in creating a society where anti-Semitic oppression (and, logically, all other forms of oppression) are impossible.

  • That was an excellent post. It reflected what I thought very accurately, and what I’m sure many other people think. Keep up the good work!

  • I’ve been thinking about this as well. I have heard a lot of Jews talk about how great it is that we are so accepted into society today. I never respond the way I want to respond, which is that the German Jews also thought that they were very well accepted into society in the early 20th century. The French Jews thought they were accepted in the late 19th century. Just because we’re accepted now doesn’t mean that antisemitism is dead (in fact, we know it’s not). But I think Jews in the time of Dreyfus and the beginning of the Holocaust didn’t really have the tools to fight against antisemitism because they really thought they were accepted into society and couldn’t believe what was happening. I would hope that we Jews today are better armed.

    I guess the most important question is “Why?” Why do we defend our Judaism, why do we defend our culture… Or, maybe, why should we..? Or, maybe, what are we defending? We have to be able to answer that question and mean it.

  • Yes, an interesting post TM. It speaks to some of the points made in the originals, but to drag The Enlightenment and even “Western pluralism” into it is really besides the point.

    The eventual progress of history tells us that this only has made genocide and mass killing more technically possible over shorter periods of time. As often as not, this had little to do with the technology of killing per se either, but with the ease of mass communication of propaganda & the development of propagated hatreds of ethnic blocs. The manipulation of hatred by a state or elite is as old as any empire, but to have this codified in laws that are communicated quickly and efficiently and then acted upon by a coordinated state bureaucracy within hours, that’s the new element that was seen in the 20th century, creeping on up from the 19th.

    The last mass genocide in Rwandan in 1994 needed only 100 days to kill more than 500k innocent souls, mostly using farm implements, machetes & on occasion small arms. It was the mass propaganda sent over the radio that proved key here. Not much more was needed to mobilize the killing forces. Not much more than what was at hand in almost every home was all that was required to start the deadly chain reaction. Most Rwandans remained ignorant of their heritage from ‘The Enlightenment’, and their decided lack of ‘western pluralism’ probably prevented an effective legal response to the killings in their tragic aftermath, thwarting many of the War crimes trials there.

    So what does this have to do with the Jews? Not much, the Enlightenment did not save them either. Neither did a highly developed legal & ethical system in Germany. It did not prevent slavery for 100’s of years in Europe & America either, although it did slow it’s progress and eventually undermine it’s moral rationale. It indeed did not prevent the mass slaughter and displacement & dispossession of 1000’s of indigenous tribal groups around the globe as they were discovered and slowly all but eradicated by western powers looking for extractive wealth in live & dead skins or dead minerals or materials. Neither did our Enlightened medicine do much good for anyone much before 1900 either, but that’s another story. Cheers, ‘VJ’

  • I wonder sometimes if it is better to have 10,000 committed and engaged Jews than 10 million pretend Jews. If the ones who leave cannot find the astonishing beauty, and more significantly, how pervasive Jewish religious philosophy is in so many aspects of all other movements and religions, I say “go” and try to find your way but the truth is right here in front of you…

    But to poo-poo the enlightenment, hmmm, that seems odd, we (Americans) have a nation because of the enlightenment. People were terrible before it and are terrible after it.

    I know I am not a model for all the world to follow, but I also am one of the most involved in my Jewishness in my family in many generations. Including the immigrant Yiddish speaking ones who couldn’t WAIT to be out of the ghetto and just be. My point here is that perhaps the outward flow of Jews is somewhat natural but there is always a countervailing force waiting in the wings to cause contraction, ie bring Jews back. We just have to help figure out what it is.

    I read something once on chabad.org, I think, that said something like: would you tell you great-grandmother who was arrested for observing Shabbat that her sacrifice no longer matters to you? That one hit home for me because when I am praying I imagine that I am doing the same thing generations of my family did and it makes me feel connected.

  • Enlightenment values are essentially process. There is no guarantee that freedom of inquiry will lead to the results we want. Substantive values– e.g., anti-semitism is wrong– have to come from someplace else. So, it’s true that Enlightenment values won’t insure against Holocausts, or all manner of lesser evils.

    On the other hand, it’s significant that regimes that promote hatred and violence, like the Nazis, are equally opposed to free speech, ‘civil society’, and the like. They’re correct in seeing freedom of inquiry as a threat to their evil designs.

    I’ll take my chances, with JS Mill, in the marketplace of ideas. I’m no scientist, I’m a metaphysician, and I look to my own faith as a source of values. Mill, or Madison of Voltaire, won’t give me that. But I’ll take my chances that the truth will out– as, indeed, we’ve seen in our own, American history.

    As for natalism– why not see the glass as half-full? Here we are, after a century that saw a highly competent, largely effective campaign to physically eliminate wide swaths of the Jewish population– and you all are still standing, right? And thriving, with a state of your own.

    This may not resonate with you, Middle, but we are talking about the chosen people here, right? God’s not going to abandon you. I’d think anyone on this site who takes his/her faith seriously, will acknowledge that God’s not going to walk away from his covenant. Not a rationale for complacency, but as as Massah and Merribeh in the desert, ‘you have seen His works’.

  • Oh, and further on the Jewish population: there will always be more of us than of you (outside of Israel, of course), so the difficulty you outline will persist permanently, no?

    What spooked me about the comments to the natalism post was the suggestion that, at some point, individual choices like Phoebe’s must yield to a duty to the community to produce Jewish children. That’s a hell of a burden to saddle women with, isn’t it?

    If I’m Middle and marry a Jewish woman and have children, valuing my faith and heritage as I do, I’d do my best to hand it down. If I as a Catholic I want to marry a non-Catholic in a Catholic church, I have to sign a document affirming that I’ll raise any children as Catholics.

    I understand that individual commitment. But to transform it into a duty owed to the community– the implication being that any failure in the childbearing and -rearing department is a failure before the community– well, if I’m Phoebe, I’m heading for the exits.

  • “Phoebe belongs to the ranks of those who will not only make the overall pool of people and resources smaller, but by actually advocating such an outcome, may be convincing others to follow suit as well. Isn’t that reason enough to challenge her assertions?”

    I don’t see how. Even if you find an academic approach to Judaism distasteful, furthering knowledge about Jewish history and literature– something I hope to eventually do in my career– is hardly making the overall pool of resources smaller. As for the threat of disappearance, it’s unclear to me how calls for “Jewish babies” and appeals to be Jewish based on how awful it is that Jews are the world’s scapegoat are supposed to make this more appealing.

    “My point is that ‘Western pluralism’ has significant limits.”

    You are chastising Islamic fundamentalists and postmodern/Left academics as representatives of the Enlightenment, when such individuals are themselves challenging Enlightenment ideas of West-centered universalism. What you’re bothered by is in fact anti-Enlightenment rhetoric and action.

  • Furthermore, why are my family plans in particular an issue? I never said anything about wanting or not wanting “Jewish babies” myself, but was commenting on this general wave of advocating politically for Jewish women, in general terms, to produce them. Let me remind everyone that I am 23, am not ultra-orthodox, and thus it cannot be inferred from the fact that I am not currently nor have I ever been a mother that I’m some kind of advocate for childlessness.

  • Your family plans aren’t an issue at all. You posted about intermarriage when you finished Birthright, letting us know that in-marriage shouldn’t be encouraged and that it’s an affront to do so. You then posted about “Natalism,” saying “It’s asking women to give up dreams and careers for the good of whichever race or nation, and asking men to refrain from putting on condoms when having sex with their wives. Yes, that sounds about fair.” My comments and this post address your general theme, not you. I wrote “Phoebe belongs to the ranks of those who will not only make the overall pool of people and resources smaller, but by actually advocating such an outcome, may be convincing others to follow suit as well. Isn’t that reason enough to challenge her assertions?” This is a discussion of your assertions and not you. I wish you a happy life whether you marry or not, whether you marry a Jew or not, whether you have children or not and regardless of how they are raised. You don’t owe anybody anything and nobody has expectations from you. On the contrary, I think the resistance and reservations that you’re expressing so strongly are to certain people’s expressed hopes that Jews will marry other Jews, have children and raise them as Jews.

    Chag sa’meach.

  • I tried to leave a post here but it turned out to be longer than the original. I ended up commenting on my own blog. It wasn’t intended to be shameless promotion of my blog, it just ended up to be a longer comment than I expected.

    By the way — I’m on Phoebe’s side of this debate. Forewarned.

  • Tom Morrissey wrote:
    Enlightenment values are essentially process. There is no guarantee that freedom of inquiry will lead to the results we want. Substantive values– e.g., anti-semitism is wrong– have to come from someplace else. So, it’s true that Enlightenment values won’t insure against Holocausts, or all manner of lesser evils.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    That’s right – and it’s a direct result of the boxing off of religious/spiritual aspects of human experience, so as to elevate a materialist notion of reality, and to favor material inquiry. The scientific method has yielded great progress, but utterly fails in moral and other realms, as we are finding out.

    For Jews, this is an even sharper distinction – and made the Enlightenment’s offer of Emancipation far more wrenching than previous paths of apostacy/assimilation. If you became a Christian, at least you were entering a world that still gave you solid moral earth beneath your feet. Accepting Enlightenment-era emancipation meant buying into an assertively G-dless worldview.

    Reform and Conservative Jews – and their post-demoninational offspring – are still struggling with the attempt to square this circle – to define Judaism within the modern West’s profoundly G-dless frame of reference.

    It’s much easier to “go the other way” – educated Orthodox Jews have found it relatively easy to accommodate the results of scientific inquiry. Most of the fundamentalist gnashing of teeth flows from ignorance and petty politics on the part of certain rabbis, not from any fundamental contradiction.