Noah Smith—Jews: The Parting of the Ways

What is Judaism? Is it a religion, an ethnicity, a culture, or a nation? It’s been all of these things, but what it really is, is a fellowship - a group of people who feel a connection to each other across time and space. More has probably been written about Jews, relative to their population size, than about any other fellowship of people on Earth. Many people can rattle off a list of Jewish accomplishments, either individual (polio vaccine, relativity, Facebook), or collective (ethical monotheism, Hollywood). 

But the fellowship is coming to an end. Judaism is breaking up into (at least) four groups, which increasingly feel no common bond with each other.

The first group are the Israelis. Actually, this group is far from homogeneous, since that nation is divided between secular/leftist and Orthodox religious groups, as well as national ancestries. But in general, Israelis have a culture that noticeably sets them apart from Jews elsewhere. Universal military service, constant conflict with surrounding peoples, and the experience of nation-building has forged a new culture in Israel that seems foreign to many Jews in America and elsewhere.

The second group are the secular American Jews (yours truly included). We’re mostly liberal, educated, and secular. Culturally, we’re not very much different at all from lapsed Catholics, Unitarians, weekend Buddhists, or atheists. We mostly marry non-Jews. Most of us grew up without experiencing anti-Semitism. We are very assimilated into the general culture of the United States, and soon we will cease to exist as a distinct group at all. 

The third group are the Ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic Jews, who have reacted to the modern world by retreating into ever more drastic medievalism. Hasidic communities are, to modern sensibilities, a parade of horrors. Sex abuse is rampant. Racism is endemic. Women are second-class citizens. There are herpes outbreaks from rabbis sucking the blood off of circumcision wounds. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not.

The fourth group are European Jews. Having survived the Holocaust, they live mostly as their ancestors did–as a distinct, mostly isolated religious minority, facing a slow steady assault of anti-Semitism.

These four groups are diverging from each other culturally, religiously, politically, and ethically. American Jews are slowly losing their emotional connection to Israel, and diverge sharply from Israelis on issues like Iran and Palestine. (On this, don’t miss Daniel Gordis’s Bloomberg View piece “American Jews Finding It Harder to Like Israel.”) As for the Hasids, their values are about as alien to other American Jews as those of ISIS - even my grandmother, a fluent Yiddish speaker and someone with a very strong Jewish identity, reviled the Hasidic culture and often told stories about its barbarism. As for European Jews, no one even hears very much about them anymore - the Holocaust severed a lot of family ties, and language barriers are hard to overcome.

So we have come to a parting of the ways. The fellowship of the Jews is broken, never to be reforged.

Actually, this shift was probably underway well before the modern age. The Industrial Revolution and the era of nationalism opened up sleepy Jewish communities throughout Europe. Jews began to assimilate into mainstream life in places like France, Germany, and the UK. Conflicts began between Zionists and anti-Zionists, religious and secular. The breakup of Judaism was interrupted by the Holocaust, which united Jews in suffering. But that interruption was temporary - eventually, the forces of globalization, secularization, and nationalism were destined to put an end to the strange little European subculture of yesteryear.

Is the end of the Jewish fellowship something to lament? I don’t think so. Cultures are adaptations to the demands of the age, and the age we live in now is just a very different one than the age that created the old European Jewish culture. As a character once said in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, “It’s not a museum, it’s a ride.” There are plenty of new identities and fellowships to be formed in the modern world. I would feel much more in common with the average science fiction fan, or Flaming Lips fan, or Stanford graduate than I would with the average Jewish person in France. If I have dual loyalties, they lie with Japan, not Israel.

Anyway, there will always be Jews out there - someone to wear the silly hats, to keep all the old rules. The Hasidic have very high birth rates. But as for the rest of us, we’re on to the next thing.