Viewpoint: Judaism is Too Afraid Of Assimilation

The religion needs to stop using this frightened, scarcity-based logic to try to engage people. It doesn't work

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Once again, we’re supposed to be wringing our hands. Every decade, another poll comes out showing that American Jews are more likely to “intermarry” and less likely to support controversial Israeli policies. This statistical one-two punch to Jewish preservationists becomes front page news—”Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews”—and Jewish philanthropies get the ammunition they need to press the urgency of the crisis: be more Jewish, or your generation will be to blame for extinguishing the everlasting light.

On one level, such crises work. Every convincing threat to Judaism and Israel leads to a strong bump in fundraising for both. But while it may yield more checks from ardent supporters, to the Jews in danger of further assimilation, such messaging begins to sound more like the desperate plea of an obsolete religion and culture than it is a relevant, compelling path to spiritual inquiry and ethical behavior.

A decade ago, when the last poll like this came out, I wrote a book— Nothing Sacred —arguing not to panic: Judaism was becoming an “open source” religion, and rather than moan at our assimilation, we should instead celebrate the incorporation of Jewish ideals into the culture at large. If we want to promote Judaism and its practices, we might need to transcend our rather primitive misconception of Judaism as a race.

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It was Pharaoh who first called the Jews a “people”. The notion of a Jewish bloodline didn’t emerge until the Inquisition as a justification for executing even those Jews who had converted. And it was Hitler (repurposing a bit of Jung) who called the Jews a race.

As I look at history and the Torah, Judaism isn’t really a religion at all, but a path beyond religion. It was developed by the equivalent of recovering cult members, as a way beyond the idolatry and death worship of Ancient Egypt. Instead of “believing” things, a disparate amalgam of tribes (those mythic sons of Jacob), developed a living myth together – as well as a system of law that could be amended as civilization evolved. Everything from the Sabbath to the US Constitution came out of these insights and this continuous process of revision and renewal.

By applying the techniques of the census taker to the Jewish people (a practice actually forbidden in Talmud – we’re not allowed to count ourselves) the would-be protectors of Judaism are practicing a dangerous game with diminishing returns. Amazingly, when I suggested as much after the 1999 poll, I was banned from speaking at events funded by the most centrist of Jewish institutional charities.

Yes, the core tenets of Judaism are radical. They suggest that human beings are responsible for this realm. They insist that our racial labels, and even our nation states, are mere social constructions. The principles of Judiasm are as progressive as the ideas of Buddhism or the Tao —systems of thought that have attracted many of the Jews now being blamed for the current exodus.

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All Judaism needs to do is bite its tongue and stop putting this frightened, scarcity-based logic at the forefront of its effort to engage its people. Instead, spend as much time just doing and celebrating whatever Judaism means to you. The rest will follow.

Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and the author of many books, most recently Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.