Thursday, April 24, 2008

Vive la nation!

I know I'm getting to this late, but Shmuel Rosner's Slate piece on intermarriage and Passover seders would be really, really useful to my research if it had in fact been written in a newspaper in 1840s France. But since it's from this year, it will have to just be useful to this blog post.

Rosner lays out the "optimistic" and "pessimistic" schools on intermarriage. But more on that later. He concludes the article by mentioning why the seder is especially tough for the intermarried:

Passover, more than any other Jewish holy day, is the one in which Jews celebrate not their religion but this strange concept of becoming a people. This idea, of Jewish people-hood—the historic fact that Jews, for generations, didn't see themselves as just sharing their faith, but also their national fate—will be the one most challenged by the influx of people from other religions into the Jewish community.

First off, it's pretty amazing to see any mention in a mainstream article of the fact that Judaism has not always held a religion-only definition. But what I can't tell from the above-quoted sentences is whether Rosner is saying that (diaspora) Judaism today is more than a religion. He mentions "the historic fact that Jews, for generations, didn't see themselves as just sharing their faith, but also their national fate," as though this were in the past. But if the seder as it exists today is also about Jewish people-hood, then perhaps Judaism has never really been just a religion. Which does bring up the question of which religions are 'just' religions--some clearly aren't. Once religion is about more than which building to nap through a sermon in on the weekends, it stops being 'religion-only.'

But back to the point: Why is the presence of non-Jews more threatening to the Jews as a people than to Judaism as a religion? Isn't it far more plausible that intermarriage will de facto bring new members into the Jewish people than that it will bring about round-the-block lines for the mikvah (or in the gentile man's case, a more extreme initiation)?

American Jews are especially familiar with the immigration narrative; if our ancestors could go through Ellis Island and make us American, why would we be so convinced that the Jewish nations' borders were closed? (By 'Jewish nation' I mean the Jewish people, not limited to the state of Israel). Now the Jewish religion's borders are closed in all kinds of ways, often to those who consider themselves Jewish. The Jewish 'race,' whatever that may be, is not likely to be a rallying point in this day and age. But the Jewish nation could--and does--bring in more people, not to mention let those out who've had enough. A national understanding of Judaism is really the only one that simultaneously rejects the idea of an immutable Jewish race and makes sense of the fact that one can be fully Jewish without having any particular religious sentiment or affiliation.


schmaltzlover said...

I think Rosner is assuming you've read the studies he cites, particularly "A tale of two Jewries" by Stpehen Cohen. Cohen says:

ethnicity connotes the collective aspect of Jewish identity and community. It is expressed in the prevalence of Jews with Jewish spouses, friends, and neighbors. It encompasses Jews joining together to form organizations, charities, industries, and political movements

Cohen's data finds "ethnic decline" and "religious stability", and argues that intermarriage (and what Rosner calls bringing people from other religions into the Jewish community) will weaken ethnic bonds more than religious observance.

Phoebe's half-Christian children will still go to Seder, but won't join B'nai Brith. Is that true?

Phoebe said...

The best is when commenters who don't know me personally-- or do but go by pseudonyms-- make predictions about my life. My dachshunds will be raised half Latvian Orthodox, half Karaite. Children, shudder.

Schmaltzlover said...

Ooops. I've offended you again. I'm sorry.

More generally then -- Cohen suggests than children with only one Jewish parent may be (somewhat) religiously observant (Hannukah candles, etc), but will not see themselves tied to the Jewish community, creating "Two Jewries" and weakening the idea of Jewish people-hood.

Cohen emphasizes the need for building Jewish capital (trips to Israel, etc), which raises the strengthens the relative position of Judaism in an intermarriage. He also suggests creating a rabbinical "conversion corps" to increasing efforts to convert non-Jewish spouses.

Cohen also hates Xmas trees, the modern Jewish-American S(h)ibboleth. I heart Xmas trees. I hope you dogs will as well.

Andrew Stevens said...

Which does bring up the question of which religions are 'just' religions--some clearly aren't. Once religion is about more than which building to nap through a sermon in on the weekends, it stops being 'religion-only.'

I think this means that no religion is just a religion, which seems odd. Well, some modern religions probably qualify - Unitarianism, the Church of England, Congregationalism.

Ted F. said...

Isn't going childless a violation of Fackenheim's 614th commandment? (Once I realized that that was my route, I stopped bothering with the more onerous parts of Deuteronomy.)

I'm not sure I agree with the author's premise:

1) Isn't part of the Jewish tradition of the Seder having guests? We open the door for Elijah, but we're supposed to be taking in wayfarers and sharing the experience with them.

2) One of two or three things I took away from being taught by Mr. Laventhal in my decidedly majority-Gentile public school in New Orleans (with us being two of maybe three or four Jews in that school observant enough to share matzot during Passover season) is that even a secular Jew can appreciate Passover in the American sense of valuing freedom.

Phoebe said...

Ted F.:

I don't think it counts as "going childless" to think "children, ick" at age 24. I mean it would if I were Hasidic, but... right.

How would the intermarried spouse/parent of the interfaith children count as a "wayfarer"? I'll address this more in a post on what it means when people discuss "optimistic" and "pessimistic" views on intermarriage, but I find that Jewish discussions of intermarriage too often portray non-Jewish spouses as faceless representatives of majority culture, not as individuals with their own cultural traditions they feel to be worth preserving, traditions which might be part of the majority culture but which might not.