The Pew Research Center’s recently released “Portrait of Jewish Americans” set off alarm bells in the Jewish world over “assimilation.” The study implied that Jews are becoming less Jewish, that Judaism itself is becoming diluted by outside, secular culture, and that we and all we hold dear is at risk of disappearing.
Humbly, I would like to offer an alternative point of view.
I currently have two CDs playing on almost constant rotation in my car: “Higher and Higher,” Neshama Carlebach’s collaboration with the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir, and “Achat Sha’alti,” the first studio album by “Kirtan Rabbi” Andrew Hahn. The former combines Hasidic melodies with the soulful singing of a gospel choir. The latter fuses kirtan, a form of Indian call-and-response chanting, with the words of Hebrew liturgy.
In my opinion, both albums are extraordinary. But more importantly, listening to these CDs is, for me, a profoundly spiritual experience. It is also deeply Jewish. These collections are, at their core, revitalized versions of traditional Jewish prayer, enhanced through a non-Jewish musical language.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Jewish prayer is supposed to be “spiritual ecstasy,” Yet that is not the experience many of us have with prayer. Many of us frequently feel dispassionate about, disengaged with, and lost in prayer. By blending Jewish liturgy with non-traditional, and not intrinsically Jewish, melodies and arrangements, these albums foster enhanced emotional resonance, spiritual uplift, and connection.
Put differently, and a bit more broadly, Judaism is strengthened through interacting with, learning from, and incorporating the insights of the non-Jewish world.
There is, of course, a word for the phenomenon described above: “assimilation.” Assimilation means to take in, absorb, or fully understand outside information, ideas, or culture for one’s own benefit. Assimilation, seen from this perspective, is a good thing for Jews and Judaism.
In his essay “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History,” Rabbi Gerson Cohen, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, writes, “A frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate ... that in a profound sense ... assimilation ... was a stimulus to original thinking and expression.”
For instance, Maimonides assimilated the Greek philosophy of Aristotle and Plato in order to write his “Guide for the Perplexed,” one of the most influential works of Jewish philosophy ever composed. Theodor Herzl and other early Zionist visionaries assimilated the nationalistic philosophies of nineteenth century Europe to envision and achieve a sovereign, modern, democratic Jewish state.
The Jewish encounter with the natural and social sciences in the universities of Europe opened new ways to bring forth the tradition’s relevance in our time. And I am thankful the Jewish tradition has assimilated American democratic and egalitarian commitments, pushing us to advance the equality of women, as well as gays and lesbians, in Judaism. America has also challenged Judaism to reconnect with its biblical abhorrence of slavery and racial discrimination, and with its commitment to bettering the whole, and not simply the Jewish, world.
Indeed, even the great boogey-man of assimilation, intermarriage, shows how assimilation can be good. Despite the Pew study’s implication that intermarriage contributes to the erosion of Jewish identity, it also has the potential to foster Jewish strength. News broke recently that geneticists now believe today’s Ashkenazi Jews descend primarily from Roman women married to Jewish men freshly exiled from the Levant. That means many of the Jews reading this column would not be here without intermarriage.
And when I taught in and coordinated the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, the nation’s largest conversion program, I witnessed intermarriage bringing non-Jews into conversation with our ancient and timeless wisdom. This helped create many new Jews, and, in bringing Jewish partners back into the arena of Jewish study, brought wayward Jews closer to their tradition.
Of course, assimilation has its dangers. In order to bring in and absorb that which is outside, borders have to be opened. This invariably allows some good to escape and provides the nefarious entry. In Jewish communal conversations, we usually focus on these aspects of assimilation, because we are (justifiably, in many ways) anxious about disappearing.
But we cannot prevent the challenges of assimilation without jeopardizing the opportunities. The only way to prevent one kind of assimilation is to bar access to the other. And that trade is bad for Jews and Judaism. It disables us from adopting the extraordinary gifts and insights of the non-Jewish world. A shtetl may lose less Jews and less of Judaism to the outside culture, but without the outside culture’s influence, Jews and Judaism fossilize.
The truth of the matter, as Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the Jewish think-tank Clal, pointed out in a recent call, is that assimilation is causing “churning,” not erosion. Jews and Judaism are changing, not disappearing. These changes are the inevitable consequence of being a living community with a living culture interacting with other communities and cultures. True, some of these changes may be unwelcome; no culture is uniformly good, and some outside values and practices might diminish positive aspects of Jewish culture. But vulnerability is the price for vitality. Much in these interactions, and the changes they yield, is fruitful and good for Judaism. More importantly, without them, we wither.
As a student of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s process thought, I see the Jewish people, like everything else in existence, as constantly evolving. It perpetually transforms itself through synthesizing outside ideas and values with its internal culture. We are in the midst of becoming the next iteration of ourselves in that dynamic process. Letting the outside in has its risks, but it is the only way to grow and flourish.