In 2013, the Pew Report showed that Jews who identify as non-religious Jews tended to have children or grandchildren that did not identify as Jews as all. This was similar to the findings of the NJPS in 1990 and 2000-2001 about "cultural Jews."
About 60 years ago, Rabbi Jacob Agus argued against a similar cultural conception of Judaism. His observations were astute and prescient. Agus was looking forward, while the Pew Report and NJPSs were looking backward, but their conclusions are the same. And Agus's sharp writing is well worth reading today.
Here's the context. One hot topic then, as it is now, is why should a Jew follow halacha, or Jewish law. Orthodox Judaism has a simple answer: mitzvot are literally God's divine commands. Following halacha is literally following God's will. Reform Judaism (which defines itself as a non-halachic movement) also has a simple answer: one shouldn't. Or more precisely, one should follow general ethical rules because they are applicable to everyone, and Jewish ritual rules only if they are personally important or meaningful. In either case, halacha might be interesting or informative, but is not binding. Both movements easily answer the question.
But Conservative Judaism has no such simple answer. Unlike the Orthodox, most Conservative thinkers accept the conclusions of modern historical, textual, and archeological research and do not believe that the Torah and the oral law are literally words from God. And unlike the Reform, they do claim that halacha -- liberally interpreted -- is binding. These two claims present an interesting theoretical issue. If halacha is not a literal divine command, why should it be followed at all? In the words of the great thinker HaGaon HaRav HadGadol HaDor Ricky Ricardo, "Luuuuuucy, you got a lot of explainin' to do."
A lot of Conservative thinkers have written about this issue, with varying degrees of persuasiveness. Rabbi Elliot Dorff has compiled the writing of many of these thinkers from the past 100 years or so in a fascinating book called The Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai. (Page citations here are to this book.) Most of the writers are Conservative, but he also included excerpts from writers who are Reform, Orthodox, and other. There is a lot worth discussing in this book, and I will be blogging about it in upcoming posts. But let me start with Jacob Agus's insight.
Agus was responding to Mordecai Kaplan, who had argued that people of any society engage in the "folkways" of that society to remain as members of that society. And Jewish law is simply one of the folkways of the Jewish people. It is just what Jews do. They keep kosher, and go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and put on tefillin, etc. And Jews, to remain Jews, should follow these folkways.
There is much to criticize in Kaplan's justification for obeying halacha and doing mitzvot, but Jacob Agus offered a particularly powerful, insightful, and dead-on accurate critique. Agus first noted that the term "folkways" seemed both romantic and scientific, but was actually a particularly bland and sterile way of thinking about Jewish law.
The term "folkway" evokes the romantic admiration for plain people . . . . It is idyllic, almost pastoral in its connotations, redolent of fields and forests, of pre-citified, even if not of pre-civilized existence. But, even while it thus echoes the cravings of romantic nationalist, it seems to speak in the scientific accents of the anthropologist . . . and the modern American sociologist . . . . (pp. 164-165).
[T]he term 'folkways' can hardly be regarded as offering an adequate concept of Jewish law in our life. . . . [A]s a contemporary philosophy, it is sadly inadequate. Primarily, it lacks the moral quality which alone evokes a sense of obligation and feeling of consecration." (p. 165.)
Agus then argues that Kaplan's claim reduces to simply following the past for its own sake, and this is simply misguided nostalgia.
Why should we strive with might and main to preserve folkways? Their importance is supposed to reside in their inherent appeal and charm, not in any axiomatic claim to loyalty. Is the nostalgic reverence for parental practice to be glorified as an absolute imperative? Such a consummation would indeed offer a strange climax to the great adventure of Judaism, which began with a revolt against established customs and parental mores, as expressed in the command given to Abraham, "Go, thou, from thy land, the place where thou wast born and from the house of thy fathers." (p. 165.)
This is just foolishness.
[This] would be interpreted as the senseless stubbornness of a clannish people, fanatically isolating itself from the ways of the world, forebearing all mundane goods and spiritual values for the sake of mere tribal customs. Is the ardor of tribalism so beautiful a phenomenon, when we observe it among backward people of the globe, that we should be tempted to reinterpret the Jewish past or reconstruct the Jewish present by means of it? If today, we should see a people tenaciously clinging to its folkways to the point of sacrificing fortune, well-being and even life itself, in an environment where larger horizons, broader loyalties, and a fuller life is possible, we should unhesitatingly condemn them as being both monstrously foolish and bitterly reactionary. (p. 165.)And the kicker, anticipating the Pew Report by more than 60 years.
The idea of clinging tenaciously to folkways, regardless of their intrinsic charm and worth, could only appeal to a transitional generation that lost the purpose but retained the sentiment of group survival, remaining, for no good reason that it could give, morbidly sensitive to the specter of the melting pot. . . . [W]hy should we expect our children, who are likely to outstrip us in worldly wisdom, to fall victims to these delusions. (pp. 165-166, emphasis added.)
Ouch. That's not just good writing; it's exactly what happened. The Jews who practiced non-religious Judaism in the 1940s and 1950s were indeed a "transitional generation that lost the purpose" of Judaism. They disproportionately had children who lacked their "sentiment of group survival," and they in turn had children who disproportionately did not identify as Jews at all. Agus's rebuttal to Kaplan described the next 60 years of the American Jewish experience.
As I have argued earlier and earlier than that and even earlier that that, I think the key insight of the Pew Report and earlier NJPSs is that cultural and non-religious Judaism are on their way out. Jewish culture, without its connection to Judaism as a religion, is disappearing. Jewish culture is certainly changing American culture; cute Yiddish expressions and delis and Seinfeld have all become mainstream staples of American culture, just as many other cultures have effected American culture. But only a religious Judaism (orthodox or heterodox) can survive as a separate institution in the long run.
I will be blogging about the ideas of some of the thinkers in Dorff's book in upcoming posts, as well as some of my ideas, regarding this religious understanding of Judaism. Stay tuned . . . .