The Paradox of Religious Indifference
I am often bewildered by two opposite trends.
On the one hand, I hear from people all the time who are on the periphery of the Jewish community, desperate to get closer.
There’s the young man in Kenya who contacted me recently because he and 56 other young non-Jewish Kenyans get together to celebrate every Shabbat. They are building a simple wooden structure to hold their Shabbat events in and they are looking for a Jewish teacher who will travel to Kenya to teach them Torah.
There’s the group of mostly non-Jews in Florida who read Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther) on Purim. They read it in English because no one in their community knows enough to read it in Hebrew.
There are the Bnei Anousim, the descendants of the forced converts from Spain and Portugal from 500 years ago who today number in the tens of millions. Among them are many who are anxious to reconnect with the Jewish people and return to Jewish observance.
There are dozens of groups around the world who claim to be descended from the Ten Lost Tribes and who want to reconnect to Israel, to the Jewish people and to the heritage they lost. The Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel (Returnees to Israel) organization works full-time researching the claims of these groups and helping those who want to return to do so.
There are approximately 22 million Christians worldwide discovering the Hebraic roots of their Christian faith and gradually moving closer to Jewish practice, including honoring Shabbat, studying the weekly Torah portion, learning Hebrew and observing Biblical holidays such as Passover and Sukkot.
There is a tradition that, when we talk about the ingathering of the exiles at the End of Days, we include those who aren’t Jewish by Jewish law and even those who don’t know yet they are distantly connected to the Jewish people. All over the world, people who are distantly connected are waking up and knocking on the proverbial door to Judaism asking to be allowed to come closer.
At the same exact time, assimilation and intermarriage in the US are astonishingly high. A 2017 study showed that, among American Jews aged 25-54 who are married, close to 60% are married to non-Jews. Let’s look at that number a bit more deeply, because it’s actually worse than it sounds.
If 60 out of a hundred Jews are married to non-Jews, that’s 60 new intermarried families. But if the remaining 40 out of a hundred are Jews marrying Jews, that only creates 20 new Jewish families.
Similarly, a recent New York Times op-ed The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah, written by Michael David Lukas, suggests that the very victory of Jewish values over Greek values for which we celebrate Hanukkah is no longer relevant to the majority of American Jews. Lukas wrote:
“For what am I if not a Hellenized Jew? (O.K., an Americanized Jew, but what’s the difference, really?) I eat pork every so often. Before having children, my wife and I agonized over the question of circumcision. And while I’ve never offered burned sacrifices to Zeus, I do go to yoga occasionally. When it comes down to it, it’s pretty clear that the Maccabees would have hated me. They would have hated me because I’m assimilated and because I’m the product of intermarriage.”
Another recent study by the Pew Research Center indicates that nearly half of US Jews don’t even identify with Judaism at all.
So we see two trends pulling in opposite directions. On the one hand, we see those whose status as Jews is unquestioned who are rejecting Jewish practice, and Jewish partners, in huge numbers.
At the exact same time, we see tens of millions of people, many more than the number of known Jews extant in the world today, clamoring to be recognized and to come closer to Jewish tradition.
How can we understand such opposing inclinations?
Here’s my theory.
We are in the period of time the rabbis call the "footsteps of Moshiach". According to the preeminent 11th century Biblical commentator Rashi, the term refers to "the time period towards the end of exile, immediately before the redemption."
In Hebrew, redemption is called geula, and it refers to the time period when God will bring this world, life as we know it, to an end, and the world will shift into another phase of being. In preparation for geula, God is giving each person a chance to choose. Will you be on the Jewish team at the End of Days?
My suspicion is that most American Jews who are throwing off their connection to Judaism and assimilating into the larger American culture are likely unaware that this cosmic realigning is even going on.
This then is the paradox of religious indifference.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
What is the concept of "ohr lagoyim" [a light to the nations], and how much should it be emphasized as an ultimate purpose of the Jewish nation/people, and/or the Jewish state of Israel? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
If you have a question about Jewish values that you would like to ask rabbis from multiple denominations, click here to enter your question. We will ask rabbis on our panel for answers and post them. You can also search our repository of over 800 questions and answers about Jewish values.
For more great Jewish content, please subscribe in the right-hand column. Once you confirm your subscription, you'll get an email whenever new content is published to the Jewish Values Online blog.