The Old Trope that we’re the New Jews

August 13, 2004 | 11 comments

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology has circulated the following announcement:

On tuesday Oct. 12 at USU Menachem Fisch from the University of Tel Aviv will be speaking on “Science, Judaism and the Religious Crisis of Modernity”. Fisch has written widely on 19th century philosophy, plus the acclaimed book Rational Rabbis: Science and Talmudic Culture.

The announcement reminded me of reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. The whole thing gripped me but I really came afire when I read about 18th and 19th century rabbis who tried to open the ghetto to the world without losing the faith nurtured there. They thought reason could dance to faith’s tune, they wanted to understand modernity in the light of Judaism and learn what was good in modernity, they wanted to open to the world without losing themselves in it, they were exactly like me and my fellow-traveling neo-orthodox. They had the same enthusiasm and the same goals.

Note the sequel: Judaism opened and opened until in this country the observing Jews are those who go to synagogue on the occasional Sunday, to listen to a woman rabbi announce Wicca Wednesday before moving on into a few prayers and platitudes purloined from their former Law; and these are the observing Jews.

Where the Jews go today will we be tomorrow? I hope not. One reason for hope is the institutional church, run by non-theologians and non-intellectuals. Another reason is my faith in God, which outweighs my faith in the downwardness of human nature. He can navigate us between the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of isolation, if not without a few bumps.

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11 Responses to The Old Trope that we’re the New Jews

  1. Kaimi on August 13, 2004 at 2:05 pm


    I disagree strongly with your assertion that:

    “Judaism opened and opened until in this country the observing Jews are those who go to synagogue on the occasional Sunday, to listen to a woman rabbi announce Wicca Wednesday before moving on into a few prayers and platitudes purloined from their former Law; and these are the observing Jews.”

    Where in the world does that come from? I’ve known a lot of observant Jews who would be highly offended at your flip characterization of their faith.

    I’m at a loss as to how you could be making this kind of assertion. Do you know any observant Jews?

    There are entire neighborhoods (many in Brooklyn) where large Jewish communities exist and where they take their religion very seriously. Have you seen the arguments over proper areas of walking on the Sabbath, or the debates about wig use, or the presence of plankton in water, any other of a number of heated debates on religious issues?

    Your characterization is completely off the mark.

  2. Kaimi on August 13, 2004 at 2:12 pm

    One observant Jew’s characterization of the shabbat activity can be found here:

    (In particular, check out the “Typical Shabbat” information about halfway down the page).

  3. Adam Greenwood on August 13, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    I believe the orthodox Jews you refer to would know exactly who I’m talking about. I suspect we’re having a definitional problem here. You’re thinking one definition, probably a standard one, and I’m thinking another that must be deduced from context.

  4. danithew on August 13, 2004 at 3:18 pm


    Maybe you mean secular Jews as opposed to orthodox Jews? I think you’re generalizing way too much about Jewish people, which is a dangerous approach to take to such a diverse group — known for having a wide variety of perspectives on so many issues (including religion).

    Even if you are talking about secular Judaism, it’s hard to understand the characterization that you provide here.

    The biggest challenge Jewish people face in America is assimilation over a period of generations through marriage to non-Jewish people.

  5. Geoff B on August 13, 2004 at 4:43 pm

    Oy vey! We have become so politically correct that an obviously innocuous comment like Adam’s becomes a worrisome stab at offending all of judaism. I live in Miami, which has a huge Jewish community. There are all kinds of Jews here — Orthodox, Hasidic, Conservative, Reformed, Kaballah — you name it. I just read an estimate of 700,000 Jews in South Florida — probably the largest community outside of New York and Israel. The vast majority of the Jews whom I have known would see a comment like Adam’s and nod their heads knowingly. His point is that judaism has changed immensely from a cloistered, separate culture to one that is now “part of the world.” One of my best friends is Jewish and married a Catholic. The only thing he does for Sabbath now is drink wine on Fridays and light a candle. He goes to Catholic Mass occasionally with his wife. And he considers himself fairly observant.

    This does not diminish the very large number of Orthodox who are extremely notable in Miami Beach as they walk in suit in 85-degree weather rather than riding in cars. The Miami airport is filled with people in prayer shawls, especially on flights to New York. But even they would lament the Jews who have fallen away and are less observant — thus supporting Adam’s point.

  6. Jonathan Green on August 13, 2004 at 5:29 pm


    I think the phrase you’re looking for is,

    “Holy cow! Now that I go back and read my own post, I see it might be construed as implying that Reform Jews aren’t real Jews, or even making fun of them, which is the last thing I would want to do, since I’m absolutely the last person who should be saying who is and who isn’t Jewish, and that reference to Wiccans is really going to be lost on everybody who didn’t hear my sister tell that really funny joke that one time, in fact it might even sound incendiary. What I really meant to say was something like, ‘Some of the people who encouraged a Jewish engagement with modernity in the 19th century used rhetoric that sounds a lot like my own, 21st-century Mormon approach to modernity. Does that mean that one possible consequence might be a decline in traditional religious understanding or even an overall decline in religious faith, similar to what the Jewish world experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries? Is embracing modernity always going to lead to a decline in religious faith?’”

    To which I might reply, No, Adam, modernity is not what it once was. Like it or not, we’re all postmodern now. The 1890’s aren’t coming back. The historical situation of Mormons in 2004 is really, really different from, say, the situation of American and European Jews in the 19th century. I’m sure you have some good points to make, but why don’t you save them for a new thread on a similar topic when the whole Wiccan-inspired controversy dies down, maybe in a month or so? We’ll all be looking forward to it.

  7. Frank McIntyre on August 13, 2004 at 6:36 pm

    “I think the phrase you’re looking for is,”

    Even somebody in German studies can’t pretend that that was a phrase.

  8. danithew on August 13, 2004 at 7:07 pm

    I can’t resist putting in a joke from a book I’ve got called “Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews” by Rabbi Telushkin.

    This one is from chapter 6, titled “Assimilation and Its Delusions”:

    Jewish dietary restrictions:
    First generation: Anything that isn’t kosher.
    Second generation: Anything that isn’t kosher except Chinese food.
    Third generation: Anything with cholesterol.
    Fourth generation: Anything with meat in it, and anything that wasn’t organically grown.

    It seems to me this joke might be making the same point that is being made in the post.

  9. Bryce I on August 13, 2004 at 7:52 pm

    Frank ( & Jonathan ) –

    Actually, in German, that’s one word, isn’t it?

  10. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 13, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    I had some friends note that in their congregation the Rabbi had two classes for those preparing for Bar Mitzvahs — one for atheists and one for agnostics.

    The last one I attended was with a congregation that has hundreds of members but only 3-4 families who attend regularly.

    They would nod knowingly at the “Note the sequel” comment.

  11. Adam Greenwood on August 16, 2004 at 6:51 pm

    If even a person as irritated by my prose and as reflexively against my underlying point as Jonathan Green can understand what the underlying point was, then I am little inclined to think it needs clarifying.


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