Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The home team, losing in the late innings

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


  1. As much as I agree that much evil has been perpetrated in the name of religion, I can't help feeling that even without of religion, humanity would be creative enough to find new reasons to oppress and cause suffering.

  2. Neil,

    Given the treatment of Jews over the centuries, why wouldn't many choose to assimilate now that they have that choice? Regarding the influence of faith, my concern is what's going to replace it. Going from the version of the Golden Rule in which you do the right thing unto others to the version in which "he who has the gold makes the rules" doesn't necessarily seem like an improvement to me. If you remove faith from morality, can you come up with something that most people will go along with in a society? I'm not sure about that given how we increasingly live in a looking out for number one world. If we don't come up with a replacement that works, we may devolve into a world where might literally makes right.

  3. The fool has said in his heart. " there is no god". Psalms 14:1

    1. That's like quoting McDonald's saying, "Order a large fries!" The Bible, that's where all this stuff comes from -- quoting it, and poorly, to back it up, Mr. Anonymous, well, it just doesn't pack the rhetorical oomph that you might think it does. Still, thanks for playing.

    2. You said thanks for playing? Anon not anon once said that. Hmmm

      or is ana really that Zorn guy?

  4. As a guy who had a bar mitzvah 51 years ago, I'm now an absolute atheist.
    Because if you do believe in god, then your god is pure evil!
    Because no god that's supposed to be loving would have allowed the Holocaust, which is what made me an atheist.
    Belief in god is a mental illness & the sooner we cure that mental illness, the better off this planet will be!

    1. right on! from another Anonymous

    2. Having dealt with people with mental illnesses, I think it's remarkably "trollish" on your part to conflate that with believing in the existence of God. Religious people have no monopoly on the use of violence to eliminate those who do not share their views. Right? I think that the real danger comes not from theists, polytheists, atheists or agnostics. Instead, it's the secular and religious "true believers".

  5. Neil,

    I used to read your column at the ST religiously. :-)

    I just found your web site(via Dan Savage), and very much enjoy the additional writing. Thank you for taking the time to write EGGD.


    1. Okay, that should be EGDD. How did I screw that up? :-)

  6. Consider Humanistic Judaism as the future.

  7. Remember Mr., you are not better than Christians and they aren't better than you.

  8. NS- stop giving that ANA fodder, don't reply to him or give him power to show as if he hurt your feelings-I think he thrives on it

  9. Jews are the home team....and it's hard not to root for the home team. White yarmulkes for the home games, black ones on the road. It doesn't matter if the owner is a jerk and the manager stinks, or if the current roster is pathetic. They're the colors and the team you grew up with. I like to say I was born a Democrat, a Jew, and a Cub fan. I'm still a Democrat by choice and and a Cub fan by choice. That third one? It's like choosing brown eyes or the color of your skin. You are what you are.

    My ethnic origins are as Jewish as lox or gefilte fish. My father's mother was a Bolshevik who fled Russia because she ran with the terrorists and there was a price on her teen-aged head...the Bernadine Dohrn of 1905. But my old man had no use for Judaism because his parents were too poor to send him to Hebrew school. (The youngest of his six brothers did get to go, but he later became a beatnik, so maybe it was a big waste.) My mom was religious, and only spoke Yiddish until she started school. Her mother left her family behind and emigrated at 17, from the town where "Fiddler on the Roof" was set. Twenty-five years later, they all went up the chimney. The letters stopped coming to East Garfield Park.

    But I guess somebody forgot to install some vital part before I left the factory. The engine sputters and misses. I grew up in a town that was majority Jewish, with a few naturally I wanted to be an Italian greaser. Too many Jewish kids were only concerned with looks and money and status. After two years of Hebrew school, I quit, and wouldn't go back. Oh, I loved the language, and learning the history of my people, but hated the way it was such a circus, with fights and kids screwing around all the time. Finally had a tutor, and got bar mitzvahed anyway.

    That was the last of the megillah for me. I rarely dated among my own faith. My college girlfriend was Scandinavian, and I've had two non-Jewish wives. To read that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marry non-Jews is to realize how much that figure has was a fraction of that figure when I was growing up.

    Nu? I guess all this means is that I'm a Jew, and always will be, but I'm not really Jewish. One of the tribe, but non-observant. I come for the food and stay for the music...those images of sandwiches make me drool, and I love klezmer bands. It's all about ethnicity with me, and not much else, although I still say the Hanukkah blessings over the same menorah I've been lighting for sixty years.

    And most Jews don't really agonize over an afterlife. We're just light bulbs. There's no light bulb heaven or light bulb hell. The light within goes out when the brain ceases to function, and the bulb begins to decompose and has to be disposed of. Read that one at thirteen. Still believe it.

    Most faiths seem to be merely mental constructs that people use to stave off the fear of nothingness, which gets more real as one ages. And the realization that life will continue to proceed, just as it always has, only without you. No snow. No summer. No baseball. No beaches. In heaven, there is no beer.

    To walk through a cemetery on a beautiful summer's day, and to realize that all these people once had lives and thoughts like your own, or that a summer will come and that you will not be here to see it....that's the saddest and hardest and scariest part of all. If religion helps someone to deal with all that, fine. Good for you. Whatever gets you through the night. But it's definitely not everyone's glass of tea.

    1. SandyK
      Well said.
      Whenever I start worrying about the “nothingness” to come after death, I just think of how painless it was to not be “here” all those millions of years before I was born.


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