In spite of great odds, persecution, the Holocaust and secular assimilation, the people of Israel have been preserved as identifiably Jewish though they were exiled around the world in the diaspora for two thousand years. This is a fulfillment of God’s promise:
“Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night – only if this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a people before me forever.” (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
An Alarming Situation
Modern Orthodox Rabbi Stuart Weiss of Ra’anana, Israel, recently sounded an alarm concerning whether the world’s largest diaspora Jewish community will maintain its Jewish identity in coming generations (Jerusalem Post feature on October 17th). He quoted from the statistics of a major survey of Jewish people in North America1. The report noted that over 70% of non Orthodox American Jews intermarry. The great majority of intermarried couples do not raise their children to be Jews.
Furthermore, the report noted a stunning decline in synagogue affiliation among the non-Orthodox. In addition, the level of Jewish practice and knowledge among non-Orthodox Jews is at an all-time low. The survey noted that Jewish identity was not greatly important to many of those surveyed.
Rabbi Weiss concludes that outside the Orthodox fold, most Jewish people in North America are assimilating. Their Jewish identity is fading away. Like many other Orthodox commentators2 Weiss attributes this phenomenon to a lack of Jewish education and formation.
Israel – A Ray of Hope
Weiss then goes on to extol Israel: In Israel, Jews marry Jews, have the Sabbath and Feast Days off as Holy Days, and speak Hebrew. Even secular Jews are in a Jewish pattern of life guided by the Jewish Biblical calendar, and walk down the street secure in their identity.
So is the answer simply that Jews from around the world should make aliya – moving to Israel to preserve Jewish identity? This is indeed a step in the right direction, but does not provide the full answer.
Depth of Jewish identity does not come by merely living in Israel. It is better, even among secular Jews, but there is a problem even in Israel. Some Israelis end up leaving Israel, including some of the best talent in business, science, and engineering fields to seek a more successful and affluent life in other countries.
The Holocaust and Persecution are not Sufficient Answers
In the years following the Second World War, Emil Fackenheim, a Jewish philosopher and Reform rabbi gave a famous reason not to assimilate. Described by Fackenheim as the “614th commandment”, this is that we must deny Hitler a posthumous victory by assimilation where the Jews disappear, since destroying us was his goal. Many Jews, however, have not found this logic sufficiently compelling. On a personal level, many families living in countries around the world have chosen to conceal their Jewish roots from their children in order to facilitate an easier life of integrating in the surrounding culture without having to experience anti-Semitism. Indeed persecution has been the cause of some choosing to discard their Jewish identity.
Jewish Culture is not a Sufficient Answer
There are good and beautiful things in Jewish culture, but without God as the center, over a few generations, it too is proving to be insufficient. The motivation to convey Jewish culture is not succeeding among secular Jews.
So what is the Answer?
Maintaining Jewish identity must be based on a spiritual foundation that is sufficient to weather the pressures of conformity to the surrounding society.The reason for Jewish decline is the same as the reason for the decline in mainline Christian denominations. Liberal Christianity simply does not believe in Christianity enough to take the time and energy to impart it to the next generation. The next generation leaves in droves. It is the same with liberal Judaism and even more so among secular Jews.
Living in Israel is only a partial answer. Israelis need to have good reasons as to why they should make the sacrifice to live in a state where the pressures are great, the cost of living is high, and war is ever at the doorstep. The issues of Jewish commitment are similar in the case of Israel and the Diaspora. Over the long haul we can only expect Jewish people to make the sacrifice to live in Israel or to identify themselves as Jewish in the Diaspora, if they believe they are part of a great divine purpose. Yes, some will find reasons without such a purpose, but we are speaking of overall statistics. When Reform Judaism teaches that there is no life after death, that God is a question mark, and that the Bible is simply a compilation of Jewish legends – the potential for assimilation s very high! Why should we care to stay Jewish?
Messianic Jews share with Orthodox Jews an overall sense of divine purpose in our Jewish identity. In fact this sense of divine purpose is strengthened by faith in Yeshua. We both believe in life after death. We both believe that Israel will be an instrument of world redemption.
Modern Orthodox Jews who believe in Israel will lay down their lives for Israel and for their Jewish way of life. They educate their children in the importance of Jewish life. Messianic Jews share this conviction as followers of Yeshua who remain Jewish. This includes living a Jewish life and sharing in the Jewish community.
A Closing Statistic and Our Great Opportunity
I want to close with one more amazing statistic. Fully 32% of those surveyed said that one could believe in Yeshua and still be counted as Jewish! In Israel, the percentage may be even higher. We can call these people to Yeshua and, when they come, we can call them to fulfill the divine purpose of their Jewish destiny. This is a huge opportunity. May we find God’s way to seize it.
1 A Portrait of Jewish Americans, The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews, published October 1st 2013,http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/
2 The assertion is frequently made by Orthodox leaders and educators that the level and content of Jewish education and lifestyle formation in the non-Orthodox Jewish movements is woefully inadequate, leaving the members of those movements unable to defend themselves against assimilatory pressures and the depredations of missionary activity.