Monday, August 4, 2008

Thoughts After Visiting "Thoughts of a Secular Jew"

Today I visited the Thoughts of a Secular Jew website. He has a bare knuckles style that sometimes brings championship wrestling to the world of blogging. Since I am a minority in my mostly secular family, visiting his site is for me a bit like attending a family reunion.
He mentioned in one article the genetic dangers of shrinking the gene pool of a group by banning intermarriage. He cites the Amish and the Samaritans. To that I could add the Karaites and the Sabbateans, (followers of Shabtai Zvi) as well as the people of Malta, all of whom suffer from a shrunken gene pool in which genetic disorders are rampant. I agree that some Jewish groups create additional strictures on marrying out of what amounts to a subsect. Some chassidic groups are so small that failure to enlarge their gene pool is problematic.
Judaism does accept converts. Being the offspring of a mixed marriage, I am grateful for this. Yes I have encountered some prejudice on occasion, but I have family and a circle of friends to get me through each day. You need to have the attitude that "You're what's happening". Most people take people as they find them.
The Jewish people has aspects of a nation and of a faith. The Orthodox approach is to make sure that a prospective convert accepts the beliefs and practices of Judaism. Both Christianity and Islam will take a convert just on a declaration of faith or an act of baptism. A recurring scene in our history is the pogrom in which Christians or Muslims butchered Jews. Their sense of piety was secured with a perfunctory affirmation of belief which made no ethical demands to restrain their bestial impulses. A declaration of belief legitimised the cruelest acts as "defense of the faith".It would seem to be common sense that deeds matter. Judaism is most emphatic about that. It is fortuitous that we live in a country that is absorbing large numbers of immigrants. Almost no one wants to stop immigration entirely. Many want to slow the process so the majority already here can be assured that newcomers want to respect and perpetuate America's political and cultural traditions. This dilemma is a lot like that faced by the Jewish people as we face the future.
The first Reform Synagogue in America was founded in Charleston South Carolina in 1812. There is a story that the current congregation wanted to invite descendants of the original founders to a reunion. They could not locate any descendants who were Jewish according to Jewish law. Even if some such descendants exist, the difficulty of the search proves the point.
The families that own the New York Times have names that attest to their German Jewish ancestry. None of their descendants listed in the Times as top executive staff that are from those families are today Jewish.
What besides practice of the Jewish faith assures Jewish continuity. Those who have contested the orthodox control of the gates of acceptance have had several generations to show the success of their alternative. The results are not encouraging.
Extreme insularity has its down side as well. It saddens me to see people leaving Judaism because some zealot said that their interest in art, rock music or a secular education was heretical. Accepting converts and baal teshuvas and drumming out nonconformists seems like welcoming some through the front door and tossing out others through the back door. I like Shimshon Rafael Hirsh's approach of cautious participation in the larger society and rejection of that which is incompatible with Jewish belief.
I want the generations that follow me to perpetuate Judaism. There are other faiths and nationalities that want their groups to live on as well. As a Jew I understand and respect that. Experiencing life as an individual, a family member and a citizen of a nation does not make me parochial or indifferent to humanity at large although it is possible to make that choice. It deepens my love and appreciation for the human family.
Extending one's desire for immortality to a family and to a nation carries within it the seeds of altruism. While the orthodox Jewish community has made its ample share of mistakes, it has done much better than the unaffiliated, Conservative and Reform in perpetuating Jewish survival and indeed defining that as a desirable objective. Simple observation leads me to no other conclusion.
"Thoughts of a Secular Jew" raises valuable questions ,the asking of which strengthens the Jewish people. I thank its owner for leaving his blog address on a comment on my site. He has provided me with food for thought, for which I thank him. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

SJ said...

Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate it.