|Corned beef on rye, Schwartz's Hebrew Deli, Montreal|
Before there was science, there was religion, to explain how the universe was created, how animals came to be, why good people get sick and die. Faith filled the empty moments in the day—of which were many—with ritual and requirement, explaining eternal mysteries and softening the frequent tragedy of life. It served a purpose, when life moved at a camel's pace.
Over the past century, however, science has stepped in to allow us to understand much that religion once handled. The origins of the universe, the nature of disease. And the frantic pace of modern life will latch onto every spare second if you're not careful—which, ironically, creates a new niche for religion, which like any organism, adapts to survive. Now religion is here to slow us down, snatch back a little time from the spinning gears of 21st century living, to help us pause and contemplate what mysteries remain. So though weakened, religion chugs along, changing as it goes.
Still, when I read the latest example of how faith's still-strong grip on our culture is loosening, I am generally glad. Much suffering, much oppression, occurred in the name of religion and occurs, still. While I wouldn't go so far as to say we are better off without it—there are still those empty moments and nagging mysteries, not to mention the need for community—weakened religion is also voluntary religion, and I firmly believe faith should be something you choose, not something forced upon you by others.
Thus I was torn, a few weeks back, the Pew Research Center put out a 212 page study called "A Portrait of Jewish America." It might as well have been called "Jews are Toast." It didn't come out and say the religion is circling the drain, but the numbers don't lie. Two-thirds of Jews don't belong to a synagogue, 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marry non-Jews, almost a fifth of Jewish children aren't being raised as Jews. It's a recipe for extinction.
Can't very well smile inwardly when other religions dwindle, pleased that the irrational chains are finally being struck off of humanity, the blinders cast aside, then put up a howl when it's my particular sect's turn. And, to my credit, intellectually, I see the Pew study as more of the same. Catholicism fades, Islam loosens its rigid strictures, and of course American Jews drift quietly away (okay, go ahead, insert your joke: "About time they did something quietly...")
And yet. . .
Jews are the home team. Born, raised, bar mitzvahed, wed and too late now for me to simply shrug off the whole megillah. It smacks of betrayal. You have to root for the home team. It doesn't matter if the owner is a tightwad, the coach a bum, the game child's play and nonsense. Nobody in the American League said, "The designated hitter rule is stupid, and besides, we've got football now..."
Or maybe they did.
As with baseball, a case can be made that Judaism is important, culturally—for a long time before globalism started to really mix the world up, Jews were the vanguard of the stranger living amongst you. We were the Other, the observers. That's why people hate us so much. We spoil their uniformity and make them think, which few people want to do too vigorously or too often. Why think when you can believe? Jews were for thinking before thinking was cool, at least secular Jews. The Orthodox, well, let them speak for themselves.
The study was barely noticed. Gentile society, of course, doesn't care, and Jewish officialdom, with its dismal track record botching the big issues facing Jews, whatever they are, is already punting this one too, ignoring the growing distance, for instance, between what secular Jews remain and Israel, whose non-policy toward the Palestinians looks shakier to Jew and non-Jew alike, year-by-year. They've been fiddling while the religion burns for years now, and aren't about to stop.
So recognizing my own bias, why care? It isn't as if there is an intrinsic need for a small Jewish minority to question mainstream beliefs anymore. We set the example, now exit the stage, to join the Shakers. Other faiths will step up. The Muslims are doing a fine job as the new minority American faith on deck, and they can complain about crosses in the public way as loudly as Jews did. Society now has gays to test how much it really believes in tolerance of fractional minorities.
And there will always be some Jews. A core of Jewishness, kept alive by the hermetically sealed world of the Ultra-Orthodox and the Hasidim. Their society is designed to endure—that's where the whole non-change thing comes in. Sure, we smirk at them for the black hats and wigs and 17th century traditions. But they know that if you swap your heavy black coat for a smart Calvin Klein jacket, you're halfway a Unitarian. As long they exist, there will be a steady stream of secular Jews dribbling away from them, like the tail of a comet.
Of course extrapolating the current trend into infinity a classic recipe for misreading the future. Maybe this is not a falling star, but a pendulum. We're swinging toward assimilation the past few decades, and then we'll swing back. If you can say one thing about Jews, we tend to endure, no matter what life throws at us. So maybe the flame of faith goes low, then flares up again. If we can survive Nazi slaughter, we can survive American assimilation too.
No big point to make today. I'm not going to gin up a false alarm, or start going to temple just so Judaism as a whole will glow a few atoms brighter. Life's too short to expend in ritual that you don't savor. All religions fade as their primary purpose—command us exactly how to fill our lives and explain an otherwise incomprehensible world—is replaced by lesser social and emotional benefits. No one misses the vanished religions of the past—no one mourns the absence of Zeus-worshipping pantheists. All religions are gently fading, and a good thing, too. It only stings a bit more when it's your own home team that's losing in the late innings. As much as the head wants to nod and say, "Yes, yes, that's how it goes," the heart still wants to cry, "Aw c'mon guys, get a few hits, will ya? Doesn't anybody know how to play this game?"
|Corned beef on rye, 2nd Ave. Deli, New York City|