Assimilation Confusion

On the Value of Remaining Identified as a Jew, in the Absence of Faith

10.07.13 4:00 PM ET

Amidst the flurry of rueful Jewish reactions to the recent Pew Study on Jewish American attitudes and identity is a recent piece that goes against the grain. Writing in Slate, Gabriel Roth challenges the dominant Jewish communal view that assimilation is problematic. “The loss of Jewishness as a meaningful identity in America is the kind of loss that occurs,” Roth writes, “when individuals are free to engage in the pursuit of happiness.”

Married to a non-Jew and with a daughter “who won’t be Bat Mitzvahed,” Roth wonders what, beyond “unsnobbish intellectualism, sympathy for the disadvantaged, psychoanalytic insight, rueful comedy, [and] smoked fish” are the Jewish gifts worth cherishing. And anyway, he continues, those gifts have been “thoroughly incorporated into American upper-middlebrow culture.”

Roth sagely aims his piece at non-religious Jews. Religious Jews, he assumes, are motivated by furthering the covenant, a goal that is intrinsically impervious to this kind of detached critique.

Among the categories typically available to Diaspora Jews, I’m not quite sure where I’d fall on the spectrum of Roth’s assumption of “religiosity.” I am active in my synagogue, celebrate all the Jewish holidays (though Shavuot tends to fall by the wayside), serve as a prayer leader on Rosh Hashana, yet I do not personally feel bound by covenantal obligations and don’t really believe in God.

But being non-Orthodox as well as inherently liberal and humanistic in my approach to Jewish life, I’m going to assume I’m included in Roth’s intended audience. Here are a few thoughts by way of response.

The broadest question Roth’s piece implicitly raises is whether the world would be worse off were Jews, due to their own assimilative tendencies, to eventually fade into the dustbin of history. As Roth speaks from his own experience so shall I. Just as Roth declares that his daughter won’t have a Bat Mitzvah, for my part, I know that I have been envisioning my son and daughter’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah Torah chanting since they were born, speak only Hebrew to my kids, send them to Jewish summer camp and afternoon Hebrew school, attend synagogue with them semi-regularly, and try to keep the rhythm of Jewish life alive in our home. There are two reasons that motivate me.

The first is instrumental. I want my children to be comfortable with the tools of Jewish literacy, to be part of the far-reaching conversation that represents contemporary Jewish life. Of course, all along I have been banking on the continuation of this conversation.

But Roth’s article suggests a significant conundrum: as we become aware that Jews are in fact assimilating, and hence this distinctive Jewish conversation may one day cease, is it something worth trying to preserve? Is Jewish continuity beyond for its own sake worse pursuing?

While it’s hard to argue with Roth’s point that many worthwhile Jewish cultural values have naturally been absorbed into broader North American culture, there is still something of value that I would not want my kids to part with.

I like that, without dogma, superstition, xenophobia, or theological fear, in our home we cultivate an appreciation for Jewish tradition, language, music, food and text. I like that my children have an extra window into the ethical aspects of some of the values they learn about more broadly, like the fact that the Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, comes from the root for justice. I value the fact that they will eventually be able to wrestle with Israeli policy from a position of both awareness and attachment. I like that they have a sense of the imagined community of the Jewish people. Certainly Jewish community is not the only community with which my children identify. They have their various neighborhood, civic, recreational and national identities, none of which are defined by Jewish tribalism. But why deny them one more slice of community, when we know that the sort of criss-crossing linkages of identity ultimately make a multicultural democracy that much more richly textured?

I cherish the fact that my kids have part of their minds, bodies and souls linked to a self-conscious system of cultural rites, tropes and traditions. It is a system that some refer to as counter-cultural, but in its more humanistic and liberal variant, it is more accurately thought of as a parallel system of aesthetic markers that animate and reinforce many social values that the broader society seeks to reinforce but which are often experienced in the abstract. And in its cultural distinctiveness, it reminds us that our busy, pleasure-and-ambition-seeking egos are part of something larger than ourselves.