An interesting story in The Jewish Chronicle caught my eye recently. In it, writer Sarah Angrist argues that, when looking at the current state of the North American Jewish community, “bemoaning the decline in synagogue membership, high rates of intermarriage, and our aging population” misses the point. She thinks that Judaism in America is (and has been) extremely successful because Jewish culture is flourishing. She finds that:
Encouraging signs in North America are evident in the proliferation of university Jewish studies programs, the widespread appeal of klezmer music, camps for children and adults, innovative art forms and exhibits, Jewish music performances, film festivals, and the success of the Yiddish Book Center in preserving materials.
I think Angrist is making an important point. While for many, being Jewish and connecting to Judaism takes a primarily religious form, this is not the case for others, and probably not for most North American Jews. On the other hand, Jewish cultural experiences and expressions such as the ones mentioned above are often more accessible to those for whom religion has lost its relevance.
However, one thing that Angrist does not mention is that Jewish culture is “picked up” by more than just secular Jews. Judaism, some say, is now the most popular religion in the United States. This does not only impact the number of people of other ethnic or religious backgrounds who happily marry Jews, but also a wider acceptance of a variety of Jewish cultural practices. When Madonna went “all out” with her adoption of Kabala (Jewish mysticism), it increased the popularity of Jewish mysticism beyond the limits of those who identify as Jewish. I now hear of Christians celebrating a Passover Seder, and of non-Jews scouring grocery stores for kosher food (including Hulk Hogan). Ted Marwin, a Judaic Studies professor from the University of Scranton, has spoken recently about
…the increase of the Ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, and the act of more [Christian] grooms stepping on glass under a huppah in Christian weddings.
This wider adoption of all things Jewish can sometimes offer new twists on what being Jewish and “doing Jewish” can mean; and this can be threatening to some. The risk is that the limits—the boundaries of our culture/religion—will become blurred. We may fear a future in which it will no longer be easy to determine who is Jewish and who is not; where it will not be obvious which practices, objects, and traditions are Jewish and which are otherwise. If we’re not careful we may end up with a thousand shades of Jewish grey.
But is that all that bad? And aren’t we already somewhat there? In a classic work of social anthropology, Norwegian Anthropologist Fredrik Barth argued that what defines a cultural group is not the maintenance of a clear border line – the closing in and keeping out – but rather the movement over and across boundaries. I think this may apply to North American Judaism too. By opening up our Jewish tent, and by welcoming in all those who wish to enter, as we do here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish outreach institute, we can assure a growing and vibrant North American Jewish community for years to come.