A new study of American Jews points to the emergence of what authors Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman call a “privatized Judaism” rooted in “a more open notion of community, a more fluid conception of Jewish identity, and a more critical approach to peoplehood and belonging.” Not surprisingly, privatized Jews tend to be young (35 and under), intermarried, and less attached to Israel then their elders.
Jews love this kind of study. It feeds our paranoia that we are about to die out. We have been feeding this fear at least since the second century BCE when a study showed that young, cosmopolitan Jews were attracted to Greek philosophy and culture.
We aren’t dying; we are changing. Of course we may die out, but if we do it will be because we have become irrelevant, at which point our disappearance is deserved and not to be mourned. Irrelevance, not change, is the real challenge to Jewish life and survival.
Ask most Jews why they should be Jewish and they have no idea. Those that do most often speak of loyalty to parents, tribe, and culture; maybe even God and Torah. But rarely will someone say, “I am a Jew because the world needs Jews and the prophetic Jewish message of universal justice and compassion.” Yet it is this that really matters.
The Jewish mission is to promote Ethical Monotheism, the idea that One God gives rise to one world, one humanity, and one moral code: justice and compassion for all. At the heart of who we are is the prophetic call to do justly and love mercy. Where is the survey measuring that? As long as we measure Jewishness by love of Israel or synagogue attendance we will never address the core problem. Jews will love Israel when Israel becomes a light unto the nations, a beacon of justice and compassion. Jews will come together in community when the community does something worthy of their time and energy.
If Jewish youth are redefining community, identity, peoplehood, and belonging let’s fund a study that shows us what these new definitions are and where they may be going. Then let’s work with these new realities to create a compelling Judaism that can infuse the life of the emerging Jew with the prophetic call for justice and compassion and a Judaism that embodies it.