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Main | Trends in Western Religions - III. American Christianity »

Trends in Western Religions -- IV. Judaism

The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller

It is necessary to repeat that these four lectures on current trends in Islam, World Christianity, American Christianity, and Judaism have been presented in the reverse order of their initial historical appearance. That is because the lecturer is convinced that the primary perception of the primary trend in Islam is that it is becoming a religion intent on conquering the rest of the world. That, as I tried to suggest, is a dangerous misperception, which is why I addressed it first. It is a notion which must be given a quick and resolute burial.

Having then gone on to refer to world Christianity and American Christianity, we now shall turn to the religion which is by far the oldest of the western religions, Judaism. Indeed, many scholars have claimed that Judaism is the oldest major religion in the world, but they objectively admit that Hinduism gives it a close race. Other scholars say Hinduism is the oldest world religion. Let us agree that both religions are ancient.

As in the previous lectures, I will say only a little about the history of Judaism. Instead, we shall focus almost solely on trends over the previous century.

Depending on whose figures one chooses to accept, there are between fifteen and eighteen million Jews in the world today. Therefore, although Judaism in many respects is the foundational basis for both Christianity and Islam, it is far, far smaller than either of its religious “offspring.” We shall eventually consider why that is the case. In addition, we need to note that almost half the world’s Jews live in Israel, another five or six million in the United States, and the rest are scattered throughout the remainder of the world, but mainly in the Northern Hemisphere.

Before considering why there are so few Jews, it is important first to understand that not all Jews practice Judaism as their religion. Probably well less than half of the world’s Jews attend a synagogue even occasionally, much less regularly. Many active church members often speak disparagingly about “C&E Christians”: Christmas and Easter Christians. In like manner, there are many “HHD Jews”: High Holy Days Jews, those who come to synagogue or temple or shul only on Rosh Hashanah (literally “Beginning of the Year” or “New Year”) and/or Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement.”) Both of those holidays occur in early autumn.

Perhaps most C&E Christians consider themselves Christians, and virtually all HHD Jews consider themselves Jews. Presumably what God considers them may have more relevance than how they perceive themselves, but I shall pass no judgment on the religious quality of either group of people. Instead I merely note the phenomenon that culturally and religiously, both religions, and Islam as well, all have adherents of varying degrees of institutional involvement. No doubt it has ever been thus.

An important distinction needs to be made in order to comprehend everything that shall follow from here on. The distinction is this: “being Jewish” can be either an ethnic identity or a religious identity. To state it differently, “Jewish-ness” and “Judaism” are not the same thing. And to state that differently, everyone who is born Jewish is a Jew, but that does not mean that everyone born Jewish is automatically an adherent of the religion of Judaism. From here on out, at least by my nomenclature, “Jewish-ness” connotes an ethnic term, and “Judaism” is a religious term.

To test these ideas, I phoned my friend Margery Otto Buxbaum. Margie and I were classmates in high school and college in Madison, Wisconsin. We grew up in Christ Presbyterian Church in Madison. After college Margie married Richard Buxbaum. Dick came from a secular Philadelphia Jewish family. Margie converted to Judaism, and became a religious Jew. Eventually Margie no longer believed in God, and she joined the Society for Humanistic Judaism. For a time she was the national president of this small branch of ultra-Reform Judaism.

This all probably sounds completely feasible to most Jews, but it may be a hard stretch for non-Jews to try to wrap their minds around it. Here was a Gentile, born into a Christian family, who converted to Judaism, and then gave up belief in God, and then became a humanistic Jew. But can human-ism also be Juda-ism? To most Christians, probably not, but to many Jews, particularly secular, humanistic ones, most decidedly.   

There are many Jews who intentionally and/or existentially have no affiliation with Judaism as a religion. They may observe Jewish holidays, as many secular people in so-called “Christian countries” celebrate Christmas and may even go to church on Easter as well. Yet C&E people and HHD people may or may not think of themselves as Christians or Jews. However, as Jewish tradition has taught for many centuries, if your mother is a Jew, you are a Jew. She doesn’t have to be part of Judaism, nor do you, but if she is a Jew, you are a Jew.

This is a concept around which many Christians and others cannot seem to wrap their minds, either. I confess that for years I had an almost impossible time trying to understand it myself, because I incorrectly assumed that all Jews were practitioners to one degree or another of the religion known as Judaism. If they didn’t practice Judaism, they were not Jews, I further assumed. However, that is not true. All Jews are equally Jewish who are ethnically, but not religiously, Jewish. For them, “Jewish-ness” is their thing, not “Judaism.” If you don’t believe me on this, ask anyone you know who is either a religious or a secular Jew.

There is one fly in this philosophical ointment, however. Most Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), and many merely Orthodox Jews, would claim that other Jews who are not religious Jews in the same manner that they are religious Jews are not really Jews at all. Similarly, many evangelical Christians think that unless all Christians believe what they believe, they are not Christians. Orthodox Jews believe that these other non-religious or non-Orthodox Jews are all apostates, people beyond the pale of genuine biblical Jewish religion. But that is an intra-Jewish dispute into which we outsiders shall not enter. And if we did, I am quite certain we would be unwelcome.

The result of this is that countless hundreds of thousands or in the low millions of Jews are agnostics, atheists, or nones, and they would identify themselves as such. They value their secularity, and take deep pride in it, but it is Jewish secularity. In recent history, such people as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Carl Sagan, and perhaps David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, and Hannah Arendt, would fit into that category. Furthermore (to further complicate the matter), some Jews have become adherents of other religions, including Christianity and Islam, and yet still consider themselves Jews.

Before turning our attention to Judaism as the historical and contemporaneous religion of the Jews, let us give some thought to what is widely known as “anti-Semitism.” The term “Semites” technically refers to several ethnic groups of people all of whom originated within five hundred to a thousand miles of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Historically, the Aramaeans, Hebrews, Canaanites, Syrians, Phoenicians, and other such peoples were Semitic, because their languages are all connected in linguistic origin. In a similar way, we speak of Indo-European languages, Romance languages (Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese), and Germanic languages (German, Dutch, the various Scandinavian languages, Anglo-Saxon, English).

However, over the centuries “anti-Semitic” came to mean, via the influence of Jews and others, “anti-Jewish.” The most hideous illustration of anti-Semitism, by far, was the Nazi Holocaust.

The perception of anti-Semitism by Jews, and especially the agonizing reality of the Holocaust, may be the most unifying factor for all Jews everywhere, regardless of their feelings about the ancient religion of Judaism per se. As Margie Buxbaum said to me, a little anti-Semitism goes a long way in keeping the Jews closely tied to one another.

Biblically, Jews were unified by their belief that they were the Chosen People of God and that God had promised them a land, the land of Canaan. In biblical times, they twice lost control of that land to conquerors, first to the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and then to the Romans in the first century BCE. In the first century CE, from 68-72 CE, the Jews revolted against Rome, and were crushed by Rome after a long and bitter war. Jerusalem was destroyed, and many of the Jews fled Judea or were driven out by the Romans. After another Jewish revolt against the Romans in 132-135 CE, relatively few Jews remained in Judea/Palestine/Israel. Then, in the late nineteenth century, with the advent of Zionism, Jews began to move back into Palestine in ever-growing numbers.

Why Are There So Few Jews and So Many Christians and Muslims?

Before turning to Zionism and the establishment of the modern state of Israel, let us ask why there are so many Christians and Muslims among the western religions, and so few Jews? That question is easily answered; Jews don’t proselytize. They do not seek converts. They allow Gentiles to become Jews, but they do not promote it, nor do they “advertise” it. They never have, or if they ever did, the practice never caught on.

The result of this is that the percentage of Jews in the western world has risen very slowly since the birth of Christianity and Islam, while the two “daughter” religions have greatly increased through the centuries. Jews have never been evenly spread in small numbers throughout the West. Instead there have been fairly sizable pockets of Jews in certain western countries and cities, and few or almost none of them in other countries. Historically, they were concentrated particularly in eastern Europe --- in Russia, Poland, and in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In central and western Europe there were also many Jews in Germany, Holland, and France. As noted in a previous lecture, Jews were in Spain until 1492, when they were driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella. From the middle of the second century CE on, there were far larger numbers of Christians than Jews, and within a few decades of the time Muhammad died, already there were also many more Muslims than Jews.

Periodically, and widely dispersed, anti-Jewish pogroms (exterminations) were carried out. Jews were either killed or forced to leave their communities to go to other places where Jews were more welcomed or at least tolerated. Many Gentiles seem to think Jews are paranoid. If so, Jews have valid reasons for their paranoia. If there was any doubt about that before the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Holocaust gave all Jews an unforgettable foundation for their fears. Yet for at least three thousand years, Jews have been periodically persecuted by their neighbors and/or enemies.

Pogroms definitely cut into the potential growth of the world’s Jewish population. Since World War II, another trend that has particularly threatened both Jewishness and Judaism is intermarriage. In certain cities of certain countries, Jews may have lived in large Jewish communities, but they were always surrounded by far larger numbers of Christians and Muslims. That was true in Moscow, Minsk, Warsaw, and Berlin, in Teheran, Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria, and Tunis.

Islam or Christianity are not numerically jeopardized if young Muslims or Christians “marry out” and become Jewish. However, because there are relatively so few active participants in Judaism compared to the other two western religions, Judaism feels every individual loss much more keenly and painfully if one of their own leaves Judaism and converts to either of the daughter religions. In the early twenty-first century, Judaism is existentially much more threatened by intermarriage than by any outbreaks of overt, violent anti-Semitism.  

Sadly, in a Jewish-Gentile intermarriage, all too frequently both spouses drop their religion of origin altogether. In effect they become nones, those who ultimately claim no religious affiliation at all. Some people in intermarriages continue to attend their own religious congregations, or they go together to the synagogue on Friday night or Saturday morning and to the church on Sunday, or to one congregation one week and to other congregation the next week. As often as  not, however, they drop out completely, because they cannot or will not make a religious accommodation to one another’s religions.

I am now going to do something I did not do in the previous three lectures on religious trends. I want to give some personal experiences I have had with Jews throughout my life, because these experiences have at least tangential relevance to trends in Judaism.

A Lifelong Associations with Jews

I was born in a town in northern Illinois where there were very few Jews and no synagogue. My parents told me that Johnny Eichler was a Jew, but I didn’t know what that meant, and in any case, he was a friend and classmate. Our family then moved to small towns in Kansas and New York State, where, again, there were no Jews and thus no synagogues. When I was twelve, we moved to Madison, Wisconsin, which is where I grew into adulthood.

I would guesstimate that possibly as many as ten percent of our high school class were Jews, although some of them had been acculturated into Gentile Madison, and thus had either become Christians, or, more likely, in retrospect, nones. However, it would be more than sixty years before that term was widely used. But I was definitely aware that a goodly number of my classmates attended either the Reform or Conservative synagogues in Madison. (There was no Orthodox shul.) Frankly, I doubt that most of us in our high school class ever gave much thought to who was a Gentile and who was a Jew. Only by going though the Class of 1957 yearbook a few weeks ago and looking at the photographs was I even able to quantify my guesstimate.

I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There were several Jewish sororities and fraternities there. I was a member of a national collegiate organization called the Panel of Americans. A group of students would go together to address civic and religious groups in the city or on campus. Each panel consisted of a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, plus an American Muslim, if any was available, which not many were. We also had student representatives of ethnic minorities: usually an African American and a Native American. The Protestant and the Catholic never reported any significant instances of prejudice against them, if any at all. The others did, although not in glaring episodes which led to irreversibly bad memories. Basically we were liberal students trying to convince other students or ordinary Madisonians that we are all in the American experience together, and that that was a good thing. What can I say: The University of Wisconsin was very liberal in those days, and the Panel of Americans was an expression of that liberality. My association with those other students is one of my happiest collegiate memories.

To my knowledge we had no one in our seminary who was born Jewish who became a Christian at some point along the line, although there are a number of such Christian clergy in many denominations. In the first congregation I served in northern Wisconsin, again, no Jews and no synagogue. When I served as an assistant minister at a large church in Chicago, there were thousands of Jews among the hundreds of thousands of people who lived within three miles of the Fourth Presbyterian Church. We who lived there had a vague inkling of one another’s religious identity, if there was any. The Reform rabbis in the area attended the Near Northside clergy association.

In Morristown, New Jersey, where I served in my third pastorate, we had a sizable number of Jews in the area. There was a Conservative and a Reform synagogue, although no Orthodox congregation. Both of those rabbis attended the clergy association. There even was a Lubavitcher seminary outside town. The Lubavitcher movement is an ultra-Orthodox group of Jews. The males wear round, broad-brimmed black hats, long black coats, white shirts, usually with no ties, black pants, and black shoes. We would see them walking together around the Morristown Green with their long, very carefully curled forelocks (sideburns). It goes without saying that none of their teachers attended our clergy klatsch, although the abbot at the Morristown Dominican monastery and high school outside town did.

On Hilton Head Island there is a smaller percentage of Jews than in Madison, Chicago, or Morristown. The Jews who live here mix easily and – I am fairly certain –happily with the rest of us, including the very few Muslims we have here.

I recount all this to imply that from the standpoint of an admitted outsider, it appears to me that most American Jews intermix much more easily and nearly inconspicuously with Gentiles than is the case in Europe, particularly eastern Europe, or in the Middle East, North Africa, or South America. Many American Jews do not feel the inclination or importance of living beside or close to other Jews. If they want to do it, they do, but they do not feel for safety’s sake it is necessary to do it. At least that is the way it looks to this interested outsider goy.

Jews who emigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century or the early part of the twentieth century did not have such an easy assimilation, however. Many of them lived in self-imposed or Gentile-imposed ghettoes or shtetls such as they had known in Europe. Nonetheless, more quickly than most other immigrants, they made great personal and ethnic progress in business, the arts, science, medicine, education, finance, sports, and other endeavors. The result is that Jews have probably been more successfully assimilated and acculturated into America than in any other country in the world, including the state of Israel.

Does that mean American Jews think of themselves first as Americans and only secondarily as Jews? Some might see it that way, perhaps, but I suspect as many may perceive themselves first as Jews and secondly as Americans, or equally as Jews and as Americans. I say that not as a value judgment but as a sociological observation. Jewish identity is a much stronger index for the self-identity for Jews than is ethnic or religious identity for virtually any other ethnic or religious group in America.

Jews and the Modern State of Israel

For at least three thousand years, and possibly almost four thousand, Jews have believed themselves to be the chosen people of the only God who is truly God. Furthermore, they have believed that God promised them a land, a land flowing with milk and honey, at the southeast corner of the Mediterranean coast. They have nurtured that conviction in saga and story from ancient times. No other people are more rooted in a theological and geographical foundation than are the people of Israel. All the rest of us all over the world come from hither and yon, but Jews see themselves as coming from God by way of the land between the Jordan River on the east and the Mediterranean Sea on the west, and Mt. Hermon in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south.

Even though ethnologically we all ultimately came from East Africa long, long ago, all the rest of us originated from all over the world map after that. Our ethnicities are greatly varied and diverse, but all of us who came from “over there” (elsewhere in the world) and came “over here” (to America) no longer identify ourselves primarily as Chinese or Japanese or Filipinos or Poles or Germans or French or English or Scots or Africans. If our grandparents came within the last hundred years or so, we might possibly perceive ourselves as Chinese-Americans or Korean-Americans or Vietnamese-Americans. However, if we and our forebears have been here for three or four generations, we probably see ourselves just as “Americans” by now. I am a second-generation American, but not for a moment  have I ever thought of myself as a Canadian-American, but only as an American. (Politically, however, there have been many times as an American when I thought how splendid it would have been to be a native-born Canadian.)

Ethnologically, and astonishingly, Jews remain Jews forever. The Hebrew Bible quotes God as saying this: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Jews, even secular Jews, have that statement etched into their DNA as do none of the rest of us. Among all ethnicities, Jewish-ness instills in Jews the singularity of their ethnicity as for no other people. Jews who do not practice Judaism consider themselves as Jewish as if they were a rabbi or the president of the local Hadassah chapter.

That trend has existed as long as Jews have existed. But the trend is now being tested as never before, and from two directions. The first is a population issue. Jews in general are not reproducing nearly fast enough. Orthodox Jewish women are having lots of babies, as do traditional and conservative religious women of other religions. In Israel and the USA, Orthodox Jewish couples are gold medal winners at child production. That is not true for Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews. To stay even in population, in every nation or nationality anywhere, their couples over their lifetimes must average at least 1.2 children, although it is statistically well known that no couple ever has 1.2 children. But on average for an entire population, less than that number and the total population shrinks; more than that and it increases.

Not enough Jewish women are having enough babies to keep the worldwide Jewish population going steadily into the indefinite future. If Christian and Muslim women don’t have lots of babies, Christianity and Islam are nor threatened with demographic extinction. Nevertheless, at the current low rate of reproduction, after a few centuries, Jews, Jewish-ness, and Judaism may not be here. That is a grave concern to a congenital Christian fretter. It should be a grave concern to Jews too, even to those who don’t fret. The extinction of Jews and Judaism is simply unthinkable.

There is no point in anyone saying that climate change or nuclear weapons or unhinged politicians may destroy us all anyway, so why worry? I worry. If the foundational people for all of the major Western scriptures are gone, where will the Christians and Muslims be? Jewish nones can certainly continue Jewish-ness, but can there be Jewish-ness without Judaism? Is it not a theological necessary that a profoundly unique people should continue to proclaim every shabbat,Shema Yisroel, Adonoy elohenu ,Adonoy echod”: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one! So Judaism is confronted by a fairly rapidly declining number of religious Jews, and that is a very serious problem.

And that leads us to a consideration of the second factor facing the continuation of Jewish-ness and Judaism. The most important event in modern history for the Jews since World War II was the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Many people, Jews as well as Gentiles, believe Israel never would have come into existence had it not been for the indescribable horror of the Holocaust. The deliberate extermination of six million Jews by Hitler and the Nazis quickly moved the international community to agree to the creation of what the British Balfour Declaration had been promising since late 1917, before the First World War was over, and before the dividing up of the Ottoman Empire had occurred.

Arthur Balfour was the British foreign secretary at the time. He made public the intention of the British government to carve out a Jewish state “in Palestine.” The declaration gave no details as to boundaries or existing ethnic realities or geopolitical specifics, but it did go on record by stating the intention of the British government to do everything in its power to help create a Jewish state.

However, no one in 1917, least of all Arthur Balfour, could have foreseen the issues that would be prompted by the Allied dismemberment of the Middle East, or the British Mandate in Palestine and Transjordan after World War I, or the inevitability of World War II, or the Holocaust, or the Israeli War of Independence in 1947-48, or the several wars and multitude of events following that. But through it all and in it all and beyond it all was Ha-Tikvah, The Hope, the hope that Jews would once again have the land they believed had been first promised to them by God via Abraham nearly four thousand years earlier. It was such a glorious slogan that inspired the early Zionists: “A Land Without People for a People Without Land!”

The problem was and is and seemingly always will be that the first part of the slogan was not true. There were people living in the land of Palestine, many hundreds of thousands of them. They were Arabs. They had been living there in varying numbers from the time most of the Jews were driven out of Judea after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt against the Romans in the second century. True, some Jews remained, but very few, and they deliberately maintained a very low profile. In any event, when the state of Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, there were far more Arab Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea than there were Jewish Palestinians.

The United Nations partition of the land theoretically created two states, one for the Arabs (Palestine) and one for the Jews (Israel). The boundaries inscribed on a map were soon changed by the War for Independence. The Israelis fought the local Palestinian Arabs plus the invading armies of the Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, and Iraqis. Greatly outnumbered and outgunned, the Israelis nevertheless won the war, conquering some of the Palestinian land that had been delineated by the UN partition plan. After the Six-Day War in June of 1967, much Palestinian territory became known as the Israeli-occupied “West Bank,” whose border was marked by the so-called “Green Line.”

Seven hundred thousand Arabs living within the Israeli boundaries fled to Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East during or immediately after the Six-
Day war. Within three years of 1948, seven hundred thousand Jews who had been living in various Middle Eastern nations and elsewhere emigrated into Israel.

Few people now living in Israel or the West Bank, whether Jews or Arabs, can agree on what happened in 1948, or what has happened since that time. Suffice it to say that the Jewish-Arab grievances have only magnified in the past seventy years.

The Arab Israelis living within the state of Israel are multiplying much more quickly than the Jewish Israelis. At some point in the near future, there will be more Israeli Arabs than Israeli Jews, despite the fact that Israeli Haredi Jews, the ultra-Orthodox, who do not even recognize the state of Israel although they are citizens of it, are also multiplying quickly. All this baby production is a natural means for individual Jewish or Arab couples to complicate an already extremely complicated situation.

The two overarching questions now facing Israel and Israelis are these: Shall Israel be a secular democracy for all the people living there, or shall it be a Jewish state? Demographically, it will not be possible to be both. And shall Israel control all the land west of the Jordan River, or shall the Israelis and Palestinians work out a truly equitable two-state solution, one Jewish (Israel), and the other Arab (Palestine)?

Besides having major political and geographical ramifications for the Jews and Arabs of Israel and the West Bank, the existence of Israel also has a profound influence on Judaism and Jewish-ness. How committed are Jews living elsewhere in the world to the state of Israel? And how committed are Israeli Jews to Jews living elsewhere in the world? What ought to be the proper attitude toward Israel by the world’s Jews, if there is one? And if there are many attitudes, what are they, and are they truly “proper”?

As an outsider, it seems to me that “Jewish-ness” (Jewish ethnicity) probably answers that question differently than does Judaism. In general, secular ethnic Jews likely do not have the same kinds of emotional attachments to Israel that religious Jews have, whether they do or do not live in Israel. If that is true (and I don’t know whether it is true, because I’m not a Jew and therefore I cannot perceive it as a Jew), I am more concerned with how the religious Jews of Judaism see Israel than how the secular Jews of Jewish ethnicity see Israel. Is the modern state of Israel part of the claimed biblical promise of God to the Jews that is promulgated in Genesis 12 to Abraham and his descendants, or isn’t it? Historically, it is important for all of us to remember that it was secular, not religious Jews, who were the primary early enthusiasts of Zionism.

As an insider to Christianity, I can attest to the fact that many evangelical Christians, mainly in America, perceive the state of Israel to be an absolutely pivotal part of God’s plan to end the world soon and for the return of the Messiah to earth (whom they, but not the Jews, believe is Jesus). When that happens, many evangelicals believe the Christian Messiah Jesus will lead everyone who is saved to heaven, leaving the rest of us on earth where, presumably fairly quickly, we shall end up in hell.

You may perhaps naturally ask, who shall the saved be? Proper evangelicals, that’s who, people who believe proper doctrines, plus all the Jews, who will miraculously convert to Christianity in this awesome, awful, apocalyptic end.

If that seems fantastical to you, it does to me too, but that is what millions of evangelicals believe. And the greatest crypto-evangelical of them all (hard as that may be to believe) has decreed that the American Embassy in Israel shall move from Tel Aviv (where it has stood since 1948) to Jerusalem, where the moving thereof could start another Middle Eastern or world war.

In the meantime, under the current Israeli government, Israel has become increasingly more oligarchic and autocratic. The Israeli prime minister has continued a cynical policy which sadly long preceded his time in office, whereby Israeli settlements are being built throughout the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. This policy virtually renders impossible a two-state solution for the biblical holy land, the land between the river and the sea and the northern mountains and the southern gulf.

The longer it takes for a two-state solution to be hammered out, the less likely it is that democracy will be possible in Israel. There will be a majority of Muslim Arabs there, whatever the borders may be, but those Arabs inevitably will be second-class citizens, because they will be Arabs in a Jewish state. And Judaism will not be, and cannot be, and should not be, the official religion of such a bifurcated state.

For as geographically and demographically small a nation as Israel is, it is probably more politically and religiously complicated than any other contemporary country on earth. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to have organized eight or nine tour groups which have gone to Israel, starting in the late 1970s, and ending in 1998, when too many American Christians were convinced it was too dangerous. Always we went into Israel proper as well as into the West Bank. As time went on, it became more evident that things were not going well for either the Jews or the Palestinians, but especially for the Palestinians.

The world has allowed itself to be drawn into enormous internal Israeli-Palestinian political issues. The United States of America has always tried to be the honest broker for both sides, which is an impossibility. Thus we have almost always sided with Israel on the most difficult issues, no matter who was the American President was or what was the political party that was in power. No other country sees us as an honest broker, and we delude ourselves if we think we are.

No one knows what shall happen over time in that small sliver of land on the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. The controversies have become too intractable, and the animosities have gnawed their way like a cancer too deeply into the ethnic psyches of two ancient and proud peoples.

The political conundrums have flooded my mind for many years. But the religious question is the one that most concerns me.

The religious question regarding the Jews is not the same as the ethnic question. There will always be Jews, just as there will always be English or Scots or Welsh or Irish, Germans or French or Italians, Chinese and Japanese and Koreans, Zulus and Hutus, South Africans and Rwandans, Mayans and Mexicans, Incas and Peruvians. And many Americans will proudly proclaim they are English or Scots or Germans or Italians, many generations after their forebears steeped ashore at Ellis Island or in San Diego or San Francisco. And that is all nice, and nostalgic, and there is cuisine and culture and art and music and literature associated with all of it.

However, to my way of thinking, being Jewish is more than ethnicity. More than brains and blintzes and Yiddish phrases, as truly wonderful as all those things are. In my mind, being Jewish is much more about the Shema and the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) and the Torah (the interpretation of the biblical laws). “Adonoy” (the Lord), the common biblical concept of God is not all, but the Lord Adonoy is above all and in all and through all.

Ethnicity, any ethnicity, is at best important; it is not all-important. Only God is all-important, and only religion recognizes the all-importance of God. Jews, by means of Judaism, were the first people to claim allegiance to only one God.

If too many Jews become merely ethnic Jews, if Jews, like the rest of us, become too riddled with nones, can the essence of being a Jew continue?  William Butler Yeats observed this kind of dilemma in his prescient poem for the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, called The Second Coming. “Things fall apart/ The center cannot hold.” Can Jewish-ness hold if there is no Judaism?

I’m not very worried about Christianity or Islam. But I am worried about Judaism. For the sake of the Jews, I hope God is not as worried as I am. But then, I suspect God never worries. Why worry, says God. It will be what it will be, says He.

At present, nones are a relatively minor threat to Islam and Christianity. In time they could become a huge issue. Nones are no threat at all to Jewish ethnicity. But they are an enormous danger to Judaism.   


-       March 17, 2018

John Miller is a writer, author, lecturer, and preacher-for-over-fifty-years who is pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC.


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