Oy Bay!

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

The immortality of the Jews

Posted by lchaimlover on July 2, 2007

Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that all views reflected here and in all of my articles are those of me, LchaimLover, and not of Oy Bay. Oyster is just kind enough to let me keep writing.



The Merneptah Stele: The first document to mention Israel, circa 1209 B.C.E 

Abraham had a circumcision. Ruth and Onkelos gave up their old lives to convert. Tevya disowned a daughter for marrying a Russian gentile. These are stories that Jews are very familiar with. These are part of our tradition. But today in our multicultural society…things have changed.

As I wrote recently, families in the Bay Area are foregoing circumcision so as not to cause unneeded pain to an infant. They are still practicing, but not shedding any bits of the baby to enter the covenant. In Los Angeles, Reform Temples there are going out of their way to advertise and offer classes called “A Taste of Judaism”, introductory classes to Judaism, intended to prosteletize to non-Jews, non-Jewish spouses, and unaffiliated Jews. While not circumcising seems popular with only a minority, openly advertising Jewish conversion seems to be a more popular subject.

What are we to make with these great breaks in tradition? Is it simply that we are “perceiving Judaism” in new ways? Or is it that after 5,000 years, Jews feel like they need to “fit in”?

Mark Twain, in 1898, wrote an article in defense of Jews, and in it he wrote:

“The Jews constitute but 1% of the human race … It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of… His contributions to the world’s list of great names are away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose… the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone…The Jew saw them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no dulling of his alert mind. All things are mortal but the Jew… What is the secret of his immortality?”

I believe that the secret Mr. Twain spoke of was that we didn’t need to fit in or perceive Judaism in any way different than the way that it has been perceived for thousands of years. I understand the need to modernize, and to at least “live” in the society which we are a part of. I think of myself as a Jewish American, and by no means am secretly conspiring to take over and make everything Jews (as for Reb Nachum that is an all together different story), but I do not see the need a bloodless brit. I am willing to jump through the 101 hoops set up by the R.C.C. to be a Jew. I am not willing to fit in.

Back in my senior year, they asked me a for a quote for my yearbook, and long before I had any notions of applying this to Judaism, I put down this quote from the Wonder Years. I find it amusing that it fits well here, in this argument.

To Jews, the misfits and rebels of the world’s civilizations.  To the same Jews whose presence and influence has changed the course of history on more than one occasion.

“Here’s to the misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently…You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only things you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. They push this human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”




9 Responses to “The immortality of the Jews”

  1. Friar Yid said

    I’m not sure I agree with framing the changes you’re describing (some of which aren’t that new) in terms of a need to fit in. The push to advertise Judaism is a result of American Jewish movements feeling, as always, the pressure to keep ahead in the numbers game, particularly as intermarriage continues to rise (and is also a long-neglected logical next-step of groups like Reform trying to keep one Jew instead of losing two- they finally got the bright idea that they should try to keep one and gain one, as well). This is about practicality, not keeping up with the church down the block. They wouldn’t be trying it if it didn’t at least seem to make sense, not the least from a business/organization POV.

    And again, I don’t buy the “fitting in” line for the bloodless brit. There might indeed be some peer pressure going on (and your posts seem to indicate there’s plenty on the opposite side, as well), but I really do think it’s more than that. The issue is these parents questioning whether they really believe in the brit itself as an act, if they accept the reasons and beliefs behind it, and if not, if the alternate reasons, like maintaining a long-standing cultural rite, are enough for them. Categorizing “taking your beliefs to their logical conclusion” as merely “fitting in” seems dangerously dismissive of what seems illustrative of a larger phenomenon of Jewish alienation with even the most traditionally universal mitzvot (though, as you noted, the decision to still keep elements of the brit ceremony itself is very interesting).

    I very much like the quote, except I’d say it’s equally applicable to the newest Jewish renegades as well as the total group. Perspective is everything of course, but there seems to be a tendency among traditionalists to suggest that Judaism has never changed or evolved with the circumstances around it, which doesn’t seem to be quite true (this being reflected in the diverse history and traditions of all the different flavors of Judaism and Jewish culture, though this has been significantly muddied and dampened in modern times, for a number of reasons). I’m not sure if we can really claim, any of us, that we perceive Judaism in the exact same way our ancestors did. That isn’t an attack or even a critique, just an observation- I’m not sure that this claim to be essentially identical in outlook to our predecessors is realistic or attainable (to say nothing of desirable).

    I do not see the need a bloodless brit.

    But by the same token there are plenty of mitzvot and customs you might follow that plenty of other people might find entirely irrelevant and meaningless to their lives (kapporot comes to mind as a random example). But isn’t that the point and beauty of pluralism, the whole multi-faceted Torah thing?

    I am willing to jump through the 101 hoops set up by the R.C.C. to be a Jew.

    And for you, that’s great. But why would somebody that doesn’t recognize the RCC’s (or the RCA’s) authority or, frankly, care what they say or think, submit to their viewpoint? Except in places like Israel (or certain countries in Europe with Chief Rabbinates), the authority of the rabbis, particularly the Orthodox, is entirely limited to whoever actually follow their opinion. You have to buy into their ideology to accept their decisions as logical, and obviously, someone who did that wouldn’t be having a bloodless brit in the first place. This is where everything breaks down, and the problems of vast differences in perspective and problems of communication pop up. How do you and a bloodless brit proponent have a conversation with such radically different opinions on what Judaism is, how it should be practiced, and who to listen to?

    I am not willing to fit in.

    But the suggestion that all (most?) Jews should continue to practice rites they DON’T believe in and DON’T have any desire to follow is precisely asking them to fit in, only now you’re saying they need to fit into YOUR hole!

    That’s the real issue here, the perspective that any deviation from the officially sanctioned program constitutes some sort of irrevocable departure (and a de facto defection to the “other side”). I frankly don’t know how the two views can be reconciled.

  2. lchaimlover said

    I am 100% an advocate of pluralism. I do understand the need to live in the modern world and to adapt. I don’t need them to fit into my whole, if they are going to be a Jew though, they can’t always fit into Western Culture’s.
    Not every view of Judaism need to be in line with the “traditional” approach, but there does come a point when it just isn’t Judaism any more. I don’t think everyone should be a “frum” jew. I don’t think everyone should be a Conservative Jew. But I do think that if you are a Jew, be a Jew. Even secular Israelis honor traditions that define them as Jews, and I think that is excellent.

  3. Friar Yid said

    I don’t need them to fit into my whole, if they are going to be a Jew though, they can’t always fit into Western Culture’s.

    Certainly a fair point. I hope you agree, though, that it’s oftentimes difficult to make the determination of exactly where a person fits on the JewWestern Culture scale. They may practice a bloodless brit but keep kosher, for instance. Would one then cancel out the other? Does that make them more or less “as Jewish” as someone who is circumcised but eats treif?

    but there does come a point when it just isn’t Judaism any more.

    I agree in theory, but in practice I think it’s often very, very tricky to figure out the exact demarcation point, in part because you’re probably looking at aggregates- they may do one thing one way and another thing more traditionally. Or they might be very liberal on most things but still keep up some rituals, like High Holidays. Or they might relate to Jewishness in secular ways, through Zionism or Yiddish culture (which of course just muddies the water further).

    It just seems very complicated to try to draw any firm lines in the sand- in fact I think it’s probably much easier to talk about specific rites, rituals, or even movements than individual people or families. I guess I just tend to be more cautious about identifying any single act or practice as indicative of when someone’s gone beyond the pale, in part because I myself have a heterogeneous and eclectic group of practices- going to shul Friday nights but not Saturdays, lighting candles and doing kiddush and havdalah but not keeping kosher, etc. It’s a lot harder to figure out “how Jewish” someone is when their observances don’t follow strict patterns.

    But I do think that if you are a Jew, be a Jew. Even secular Israelis honor traditions that define them as Jews, and I think that is excellent.

    A fantastic sentiment, but where do you place newer traditions, such as “alternative seders” or the bloodless brit? That seems to be a real boundary marker in your mind. Couldn’t one just as easily view it as a continuation (admittedly heavily modified) of the earlier tradition? I guess I’m just having a hard time figuring out how you’re demarcating Jewish from Western, apart from mitzvot (which is some way, is precisely the dilemma of the modern Jewish experience).

  4. Ish Tov said

    I think it really just comes down to whether or not you believe the Torah comes from God. If so, Brit Milah is a commandment from God given to Abraham and his descendants, and you do it. If not, it’s just a tradition; and you decide for yourself whether or not it’s relevant.

    On the conversion point, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to get specific people to convert. I heard a story recently from the days of the Beit HaMikdash. When they would come across a great gentile singer, they would suggest that he convert so that he could sing in the Temple.

    I don’t see anything wrong with the conversion route for people that are interested in Judaism. Ruth converted, and her great grandson David turned out pretty well.

  5. squeedle said

    I think this is much like the argument about what is art. There are certainly people we can point to and say, that person is definitely Jewish, that person is definitely not Jewish, but I don’t believe there is a “demarcation line,” although in my opinion bloodless brit comes pretty darn close. Never celebrating Passover at all, that’s pretty close, too. But that’s just my opinion and it’s worth exactly what you just paid for it.

    I’ve started to write way too much for a comment, so maybe I’ll post my thoughts over on CBDYAG instead 🙂

  6. Friar Yid said


    Some interesting observations. I’m particularly amused by your Passover reference. From what I’ve read, it seems to be the most universally observed Jewish ritual on earth, even by the most secular and disaffected of Jews. IMO, part of what makes this ritual work as an inspiring commentary on Jewish observance and identity is that every time this slogan- “most widely observed”, etc is trotted out, it doesn’t discriminate in the details- no one’s checking up on how people are conducting their seders, what language, what foods, if they stick to a traditional Hagaddah or make their own, and so on. It only acknowledges that however they’re doing it, Jews around the world are participating in Jewish life, peoplehood and identity.

    Of course, there are boundary points. One of the most bizarre (and a tad disturbing) things I’ve ever seen on public access television involved two muppet-ripoffs talking about a Messianic seder- “Now, Digger, this egg symbolizes Yeshua, our Messiah.” Even I’m not quite that enlightened (though I’ve heard some interesting arguments about how Messianic Judaism, absent its present proselytizing elements, could come to be seen as another quasi-legitimate, if alienated, Jewish offshoot).

    Anyway, I just found the Passover line amusing because my family’s Jewish holiday of choice was Hanukkah, not Passover, which we only celebrated a handful of times. One year I asked a few days before the holiday if we could have a seder, but my parents demurred. Not only did we not have a seder that year; the dinner we wound up eating that night happened to be burritos.

    I wasn’t exactly bothered by it, just amused. My parents didn’t even notice it until I pointed it out.

    Personally, though individual rites that seem to be a long way from the original sometimes seem a tad weird, occasionally even offputting, I would be more inclined to consider the LACK of rituals and activities to be the determination of someone’s potential lack of Jewish identity. A bloodless brit is not the norm, but, does, IMO, demonstrate a consciousness and some sort of commitment to Judaism that not having a brit, or any circumcision at all, do not. Ditto with Passover- having a seder, no matter how non-traditional (done in English, using ritz crackers instead of matzoh, connecting it to Tibetan liberation or the need for Jews to respect the stranger, etc) is still, to me, more of a statement than no seder at all.

    But obviously that’s not the only view.

  7. Oyster said

    FY: Don’t make me hurl. Messianic Judaism is as much an offshoot of Judaism as the peanut is a pea or a nut. Jews for Jesus, their premier group, was started by Southern Baptists, not any bifurcation of an extant Jewish group.

    I also have no problem with alternative Jewish expression (especially compared to no expression whatsoever). But I am rightfully skeptical on such group’s commitment to authentic Jewish practice and thought. More often it’s “Judaism lite” rather than a rigorous redefinition of Jewish ritual or philosophy…

    P.S.- I’m not gonna hurl because of a peanut allergy. I actually enjoy Thai food A LOT.

  8. Friar Yid said

    But I am rightfully skeptical on such group’s commitment to authentic Jewish practice and thought. More often it’s “Judaism lite” rather than a rigorous redefinition of Jewish ritual or philosophy…

    A fair point. Again, it all comes down to where you draw the line, which, as squeedle pointed out, is most likely going to be an individual thing.

  9. Oyster said

    You’re absolutely correct that it’s a subjective, individual thing. And I for one am all about erring on the side of creative expression of Jewish pride.

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