In a recent piece published in Mosaic about the widening gap between American Jewry and Israel, Daniel Gordis tells an evocative story, and shares a boffo conclusion that should raise serious questions and concerns for non-Orthodox Jews.
The story: A group of young Israeli Jewish leaders meets with a group of young American Jewish leaders from the Bay Area. Israelis to Americans: “What must a Jew do in order to be included in a particular initiative?”
Americans to Israelis: “Here in the Bay Area we do not use the word ‘must’.”
Daniel Gordis on the exchange:
The Israelis, who ranged all the way from ultra-Orthodox to ultra-secular, were uniformly stunned-and also deeply disturbed. None of them, no matter where he or she resided on the political or religious spectrum, could even begin to imagine a meaningful Jewish existence that did not place at its core the notion of obligation.
Here at Temple Emanuel, do we use the word “must”? Do you use the word “must”? Is “must” part of your world?
The boffo conclusion: The Jews who do must are winning. The Jews who do not do must are losing. At least in terms of numbers. At least in terms of perpetuating our values.
Two researchers have tracked the potential number of descendants from 100 Jews in each of five categories: secular, Reform, Conservative, centrist Orthodox, and right-wing Orthodox. After four generations, they project, and assuming current trends continue, 100 secular Jews today will yield only four progeny. From 100 Reform Jews, the number in four generations will have fallen to 13; from 100 Conservative Jews, to 52. By contrast, 100 centrist-Orthodox Jews today will yield 337 Jews at the end of the same time span, while the Jewish descendants of 100 right-wing Orthodox Jews will number 3,398.
If this analysis is even partly correct, it strongly suggests that Jewish communities that do must are much more successful in perpetuating their values. Jewish communities that do not do must are much more likely to disappear, fading away into the great American melting pot.
Should we reconsider our relationship to this fraught word? Given who we are, can we?