Friday, July 10, 2020 -
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A Zionist’s polemic: a dismal prognosis comes true

I REMEMBER reading the first edition of this book when it came out in 1977 and how depressed it made me feel. Now I have reread it in its new edition some 36 years later (published by Gefen), and it makes me even more depressed, for some of the things that he complained about then are even more true today.

Halkin’s arguments, very simply, are that Jewish life outside of Israel has no future, and that Israel urgently needs American Jews, and that, for these two reasons, serious American Jews need to move to Israel.

It is hard to deny that Jewish life outside of Israel has deteriorated even more in the generation since this book first came out.

The birthrate in the American Jewish community is below the 2.2 that it needs to be if we are to sustain ourselves, and the intermarriage rate, and the disaffiliation rate in the non-Orthodox community are even higher than they were when he first wrote this book.

And there are even more cultural and social problems in Israel that need an influx of educated Jews from the West today than they were a generation ago, so on all counts this is a grim book.

THERE are a few things that Halkin missed when he wrote this book in the mid-1970s. He saw the opening of the gates of the Soviet Union, but he did not foresee how the immigration of a million Soviet Jews would change the character of Israel.

He did not foresee the rise of Orthodox Jewry in this generation, and how it would affect Jewish life in America. But he was on target in his belief that Reform and Conservative Judaism might not have the staying power or the ability to hold on to their youth that they seemed to have at the time he wrote his book, and he was right that New Age Judaism was, at least in some places, a hodgepodge of Judaism and romanticism that was ersatz, at least in part.

He was right that the new agers were more concerned with enjoying themselves and with celebrating aesthetic experiences than with serving something beyond themselves, which is what religion is all about.

He was unnecessarily cruel in his treatment of this movement, but it is hard to deny that much of what he said about it is true, although it is a little bit unbecoming for someone who proudly declares himself a secularist on one page to rant against these groups on another page, as if he were a fervent Orthodox Jew.

But I guess that was his right.

IN the end, whether American Jewry will survive or not does not come down to debating the accuracy of birthrates or population statistics.

It comes down to whether Jews will have a sense of ultimate purpose in being Jewish, to whether they will find it something worth committing one’s life to, to whether they will find passion and a sense of obligation in their Jewish practices.

If they do, they will survive. If they don’t, if being Jewish means being anti-anti-Semitism, or belonging to a club called a synagogue that one drops into only a couple of times a year, then Halkin’s dire warnings will come true.

Israel will be the poorer for it too, for if we do not live purposeful Jewish lives here, Israel will have little meaning to us, and there will be little reason for us to identify with it.

So it comes down to this: will we live purposeful Jewish lives here or not? That is why, when I reread his book in this generation, it summons me to work and to teach and not to despair.

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