Second Holocaust or road to oblivion?

American Jews should acknowledge that they are mired in an existential crisis that is largely self-inflicted. 

Matthew M. Hausman, J.D.

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Gilad Kariv orchestrates Reform 'wedding ceremony'

When Israeli Minister of Education Rabbi Rafi Peretz recently likened intermarriage in the US to a second Holocaust, he was roundly criticized by liberal Jews, including the ADL and representatives of the Conservative movement.  Some claimed his remark was contemptible or somehow constituted “Holocaust denial.” But despite the outrage and continuing controversy over his stark analogy, liberal and non-Orthodox organizations may really have been angered by the implicit indictment of their apparent inability to ensure Jewish continuity among their followers.  Their indignation was incongruous, moreover, considering how often progressives misapply Holocaust imagery to the US southern border crisis or falsely compare the Trump administration to Nazi Germany.   

Instead of condemning Rabbi Peretz, American Jews should perhaps acknowledge that they are mired in an existential crisis that is largely self-inflicted.  Though assimilation and intermarriage are certainly not genocide, they could if unabated decimate Jewish culture just as surely. And no matter how strenuously Jewish liberals might disagree, they cannot alter the fact that the progressive philosophy they cherish so dearly has been enabling assimilation since the days of Voltaire – a confirmed anti-Semite – and subverting Jewish tradition and national aspirations to the present day.    

Anger at the messenger should not negate the seriousness of his warning, which merely echoes the findings of the Pew Research Center survey showing a US intermarriage rate of 58% overall and 71% among the non-Orthodox.  The collective rate is significant in unaffiliated, Reform, and Conservative demographics, suggesting to many a correlation with lower or alternative standards of observance and education. 

The real picture might even be worse given Pew’s finding that “intermarriage is much more common among Jewish respondents who are themselves the children of intermarriage” and that “among married Jews who report that only one of their parents was Jewish, fully 83% are married to a non-Jewish spouse.”  Specifically, because those who identify by patrilineal descent are not Jewish according to Halakha (Jewish law), their marriages to Halakhic Jews would also constitute intermarriage.  The situation has probably not improved since these data were first published in 2013, as Jewish literacy remains comparatively low in secular and nontraditional populations. 

The likelihood of intermarriage clearly increases as observance and educational standards decline.  For Reform Jews, this may stem from their movement’s early rejection of the mitzvot (commandments) as binding, its ambivalence regarding the divinity of Torah, and the conflation of Judaism with progressive ideals.  Such themes distinguished the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which contained among others the following statements of principle:  

“We recognize in the Bible the record of the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the one God…[and consider] the Bible [as] reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age, and at times clothing its conception of divine Providence and Justice dealing with men in miraculous narratives…

"We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress…fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation…

"We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason…”

Though the movement tempered its initial radicalism somewhat over the years, its discomfort regarding traditional observance and Judeocentrism continued to mold Reform thought and practice – and influence assimilation.  Indeed, many in the Reform rabbinate acknowledged and attempted to address the problem twenty years ago by advocating greater observance; however, their recommendations were ineffective because they viewed the commandments as advisory rather than mandatory.  And while Reform clergy have continued to bemoan intermarriage within their congregations, they have little authority to discourage it now that 84% of them officiate at such unions, as reported by the JTA last year.  

The Reform movement’s inability to assure Jewish continuity was perhaps inevitable given its heterodox educational standards, enforced primarily through part-time Hebrew schools and youth programs that teach little in the way of substantive Jewish language or traditional law and ritual.  Indeed, curricula often emphasize progressive political values (which frequently regard ethnocentric loyalty and attachment to homeland as antiquated or intolerant), but fail to impart traditional basics or the linguistic skills necessary for understanding
And while Reform clergy have continued to bemoan intermarriage within their congregations, they have little authority to discourage it now that 84% of them officiate at such unions, as reported by the JTA last year.  
sacred text. 

The Conservative movement has not fared much better, particularly as it has become more identified with progressive political causes since the 1960s.  Whatever its standards of practice may have been fifty years ago, most congregants today are nonobservant and lead ritual lives indistinguishable from their Reform contemporaries.  The majority do not keep kosher, observe Shabbat or speak Hebrew, and many identify as “social justice warriors” first and foremost. Moreover, congregational leaders are often neither observant nor well-versed in traditional rabbinics.  Conservative day schools are no match for traditional yeshivas, and twice-weekly Hebrew schools (where most education occurs) are ill-equipped to teach substantive Jewish law and text. Few students of such supplemental programs can read or understand Tanakh (Jewish Bible) in the original Hebrew.

The non-Orthodox movements tend to equate political activism with ritual observance and sanctify progressivism as innately Jewish despite its frequent conflict with normative tradition.  And many of their members praise unbalanced criticism of Israel while portraying Jewish nationalism as chauvinistic. Though Reform and Conservative stalwarts would disagree, the institutional embrace of liberal politics has not advanced Jewish thought or practice, but rather has alienated many followers from their roots. 

Paradoxically, nontraditional Jews often seek acknowledgment of their movements’ legitimacy from Orthodox institutions, though it seems that genuine confidence in their rectitude would preclude their need for approval from a religious establishment whose standards they reject.  And while they demand recognition from the Orthodox, they do not regard Torah or Halakha with the same degree of reverence, but instead discount subject matter that offends their political sensibilities.  

Their disregard for Torah content inconsistent with their partisan worldview is illustrative.  They are troubled by Parshat Zachor (Devarim, 25:19), for example, wherein Israel was commanded to obliterate the Amalekites for their surprise attack in Rephidim after the Exodus, because it defies the concept of progressive universalism.  Likewise, they minimize the significance of Parshat Acherei-Mot (Vayikra, 16:1–18:30), which prohibits certain sexual relationships, because it undermines their sanctification of such relationships today. However, they cannot selectively disclaim portions of Torah while claiming to affirm its eternal values or divinity.  

The nontraditional movements seem to have traded normative Torah beliefs for political and temporal priorities that are extraneous to Judaism.  And they are abetted by secular communal organizations that emphasize political virtues over Torah values and by Democrats who attack conservatives while defending anti-Semites within their party.  However, those who promote progressivism as the sine qua nons of Jewish existence are often not familiar with classical Torah principles; for if they were, they would have to acknowledge that much of their partisan agenda contravenes traditional Judaism and enables assimilation.

Nevertheless, the tendency to intermarry does not necessarily signify self-rejection, but is often a passive outcome for people with weak Judaic backgrounds who never internalized the value of cultural self-preservation.  They may not consider intermarriage a goal, but neither do they view it as unacceptable or undesirable.  

Distinct from such passive assimilationists are those who willfully renounce their heritage in favor of non-Jewish belief systems.  This demographic includes people raised with little connection to traditional practice or spirituality, who seek to fill the void with supernal substance of any kind.  Some are drawn to so-called “messianic Judaism,” which is nothing more than evangelical Christianity falsely portrayed as “Jewish” despite its fundamental incompatibility with Torah law and belief.  Others succumb to the blandishments of missionaries who target poorly-educated Jews for conversion.  

Those who embrace other religions generally have limited Jewish education and possess neither the knowledge nor skills to withstand spiritual predation.  They typically do not understand Hebrew, are unfamiliar with Tanakh, and thus are incapable of countering evangelists who misrepresent, misquote, and mistranslate the Jewish Bible.  In particular, they are unable to compare original Hebrew text to supposed “fulfillment citations” frequently cited by Christian missionaries to see that none comport with what Hebrew Scripture actually says.  They are also unaware that theological concepts like trinitarianism and vicarious atonement are irreconcilable with Torah law.

Similar naivete characterizes secular progressives who claim that Jewish tradition validates leftist social policy, but who are unable to articulate why because they cannot read or understand Hebrew Scripture or Rabbinic literature.    

The American Jewish community is clearly in crisis and Rabbi Peretz was correct about the danger, regardless of his choice of metaphor.  The risk of spiritual and cultural decline – whether through intermarriage or the adoption of heretical beliefs – is very real. Thus, rather than attacking him, US Jewish leaders should be heeding his admonition and reorganizing their educational and ritual priorities to prevent exile from turning into oblivion.