Cover Story

Today's appeasers, separatists, and transformers

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

The data, however, do indicate that Christians who see Jews through a 17th-century lens, believing that most are thoroughly religious, are thoroughly wrong. Talking with a typical Jewish American is largely the same as talking with his gentile counterpart. Both are aware of Seinfeld and Madonna, bagels and KFC. Both are likely, if they feast at a religious table at all, to be shuffling through the cafeteria, choosing whatever spiritual dish suits their fancy at the moment. Many Jews have so little faith that in one sense the idea of moving from Judaism to Christianity is akin to moving from the Mickey Mouse club to the Donald Duck club: Why bother?

While Christians do not need to search the Talmud before starting up conversations, it's important to realize that many Jews are still angry with Christianity and see persecution of Jews through the century as the result of Christianity. If they have studied history at all, they have probably been taught that medieval Jews under Islam did not face similar horrors. (They should read one of historian Bat Ye'or's books on dhimmitude, the Islamic practice of treating Jews-and Christians-as people with no inherent rights at all.) This prejudice means that most Jews believe that no religion is better than the one they think has caused their suffering.

It's important, therefore, that more Jews see the great fondness for Judaism that many Christians have. So many Christians follow Mississippi's Walker Percy in being drawn to Jewish longing or Britain's Brian Griffiths in being drawn to Chagall and Jewish painting. Numerous intellectuals and academic wannabes are drawn to Woody Allen's angst, and millions of television viewers have been drawn to Jewish humor from Sid Caesar to Jerry Seinfeld.

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For those who want to communicate better with the minority who are Orthodox, it's time to reevaluate the Talmud. Periodically in medieval times the Talmud became the enemy, spoken of as a handbook in witchcraft. Pope Gregory IX commanded kings in 1239 to confiscate Hebrew books, and Pope Benedict XIII in 1415 banned the study of the Talmud in any form. But the Talmud contains, along with sections devoted to Temple worship, much about ways to follow biblical principles in complex situations. They are wonderfully moral books with teaching that, if followed more widely, would make life on earth better, although eternal life with God would be no closer. Morality, as we learn from the New Testament, is not enough, but it's better to fail while aiming high than aiming low.

Let's take one more look at those demographic figures. While last year's survey showed Orthodox Jewish adults making up only 8 percent of Jewish adults, they are the ones having big families and discipling their children in homeschools and religious schools. Some who attend Conservative synagogues have one foot in that camp as well. They are the future, while the thoroughly modern probably represent the past; the birth rate among secularized Jews is below even the replacement rate. And they are attracting those who left the farm to live in Paris and discovered it was Sodom.

The Los Angeles Times last June reported on 20 young men who were finishing a year of 14-hour-a-day Talmud study. One student, David Cohen, "a serious man with intense dark eyes" who graduated from UCLA in 1999 after majoring in psychology, spoke of the psychology of his contemporaries. "They think they are having a fun time, but they are fooling themselves," he said. "They have a blast, and the next day they have a hangover. The kind of happiness you get from studying the Talmud doesn't leave you."

That understanding is unlikely to lead Mr. Cohen and others toward appeasement. Two thousand years ago, appeasing the majority culture meant idol worship. Since secular liberalism is the dominant worldview of Europe and America, appeasement today means blending into the crowd of those who live as if God does not exist. A variant on that allows for the existence of a god who is like a sweet grandfather giving approving nods to all we do, and grateful for a short weekly visit. By that definition most Jews in both Israel and the United States are appeasers of modern secular liberal culture, as are most Americans from nominally Christian backgrounds.

The key question may be whether the new Orthodox become inward-looking separatists, as Talmudists historically have been, or outward-looking transformers. Some among the Orthodox (and some Conservatives) have realized that they can only defend what they have if they work with Christians to transform the society around them. Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin (WORLD, Feb. 15, 1997) is the founder and president of Toward Tradition, an educational organization working to build a Christian-Jewish alliance. Three years ago he wrote in his book, America's Real War, "Those of us who venerate freedom, be we Jewish or Christian, be we religious or secularized, have no option but to pray for the health of Christianity in America."


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