The Magazine

Jews Without Judaism

Mar 17, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 26 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Alan Dershowitz
The Vanishing American Jew
In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century
Little, Brown, 320 pp., $ 24.95

The Harvard law professor and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz argues that Jews will vanish unless they stay Jewish, a proposition with which it is difficult to disagree. Indeed, it is reminiscent of President Coolidge's remark that when people are thrown out of work, unemployment results. Of course, it is quite obvious why people want to stay employed; less obvious is why they should want to stay Jewish.

The Vanishing American Jew is Dershowitz's effort to define how the American Jewish community should confront a terrible demographic problem: its steady diminution in size, due to low birth rates, high intermarriage rates, and secularization. Strangely, the book is also a spirited defense of secular Judaism, for Dershowitz acknowledges that he is a Jew by emotion, ethnicity, education, upbringing -- but not by belief. He loves being Jewish -- from the Orthodox prayers and practices with which he was raised and educated, to the ethnic cuisine, to the stories and jokes (the very worst collection of which ever assembled is contained here). He is not, however, a religious man, and does not see God as central to Judaism.

But why should people not similarly raised and educated stay Jewish, unless they are Jews in the religious sense? Dershowitz has a razor-sharp mind and is a wonderful teacher; it is a mystery that he has written a book that cannot answer that question.

The basic problem with the book is clear from a story Dershowitz, with admirable candor, tells on himself. He notes that he would not himself wish to marry a non-Jewish woman, yet cannot fully explain to his own children why they should not. (In fact, Dershowitz relates, one of his sons married a Gentile.) His difficulties in thinking through the issue came to a head in a debate with the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, which Dershowitz -- a brilliant debater -- admits having lost:

He asked me whether I wanted my children to marry Jews. Without hesitation, I said yes. Then he asked whether my desire was based on Halakah [Jewish law]. I said no. "Then," he insisted, pointing a finger at me, "you are nothing but a racist." I was taken aback by this strident accusation, but Kahane explained: "There are plenty of wonderful non-Jewish people who would make marvelous spouses for your children. Why are you excluding them all, unless you are obligated to exclude them by religious law? If you are merely expressing an ethnic preference for one of your own kind, that is the essence of racism."

If Kahane was unkind in using the term "racist," his basic point was right. What possible reason is there to remain Jewish if one lacks deep cultural and ethnic roots -- now very rare among American Jews -- unless one actually believes in Judaism as a religion?

Dershowitz simply has no convincing answer, although he does have some suggestions. "God is an important part of Judaism," he graciously admits, but "God is not central to my particular brand of Jewishness." And anyway, " secular Judaism is an authentic form of Judaism." Dershowitz wants an "open Judaism" that welcomes everyone who wants to call himself a Jew, and respects every form of Jewish practice.

Accordingly, though education is critical for Jewish survival, "we need educators who believe in Jewish education for education's sake -- as an end, not only as a means toward returning Jews to God." That is, Jewish kids should not study Torah because God so commanded, they should study Torah because they should study Torah. And it is hard to see how even that would be fruitful, for "there is no singular Jewish position on abortion, euthanasia, or homosexuality, because these issues are different today than in Biblical, Talmudic, and medieval times." Nor are the barriers between Judaism and other religions very well fixed: Dershowitz wants rabbis to perform intermarriages, and asks "that a prayer should be written specifically for the non-Jewish family members of Jews who attend High Holiday services." His synagogue already has a prayer for agnostics; why not one for Christians?

The conclusion of Dershowitz's book, and its capstone, is a call for a new international conference much like the Zionist conference of 1897. This " worldwide Jewish conference to consider the Jewish future" would also be " telecast live by satellite so that Jews throughout the world could participate via the Internet and e-mail." As the Zionist conference called for a new Jewish state, this conference would help create "a new Jewish state of mind."

Once again, one must wonder why someone as smart as Dershowitz comes up with something so lame. A new conference? E-mail?