Dershowitz for the Defense of Judaism

Alan Dershowitz is one of the most insightful and provocative thinkers in America today, so perhaps I had exaggerated expectations of what he would propose as the solution to the contemporary problems of assimilation and intermarriage in the Jewish community. Even by more modest standards, however, the chutzpaddik defense lawyer’s new book, The Vanishing American Jew, would have to be judged a disappointment because it fails to break any new ground in the debate.

Like Chutzpah, Dershowitz’s new book is chocked full of facts, jokes, self-congratulation and name dropping. Unlike the earlier book, however, this one was poorly edited and amounts to what could have been a short, thoughtful essay being padded with redundant and irrelevant information to produce a book. In fact, the subject of the book is covered in the introduction where he lays out the problem and the conclusion where he offers his solution, which he previews early on by admitting his bias in favor of an “eclectic, tolerant, many-branched menorah.”

A central point in the book is that American Jews, as individuals, are more secure today than ever, while, as a people, we have never been in greater danger. The irony, Dershowitz notes, is that we are disappearing at the time of our greatest economic, political and social success. In his words, we’re being killed with kindness, which makes it easy for us to assimilate and intermarry.

Of course, Dershowitz and others forecasting the disappearance of American Jewry start from the premise that current demographic trends will continue. Much of the foreboding is based on the outdated National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, which might not have been accurate or may not reflect current Jewish life. Even if we accept the gloomy assessment of the community in 1990, extrapolation is dangerous. When Dershowitz cites a study suggesting the Jewish population could fall to 10,000 by 2076, I was reminded of the 1960s prognostications about the world’s oil supply drying up before the year 2000.

Besides, isn’t it a bit conceited to believe that millennia of Jewish evolution should end with our generation? Have we achieved perfection? Dershowitz is surely correct when he says that American Jews in the 21st Century will be different from any other Jewish community in history. Perhaps the emerging strain of Judaism will be a mutation, but that is part of the evolutionary process.

Even if the worst-case scenario is untrue, assimilation and intermarriage would remain matters of concern, and nowhere more so than in the Dershowitz household where the lawyer’s son married out of the faith. On one hand, you might ask what Dershowitz can teach us, given his inability, despite his powerful intellect and rhetorical skills, to convince his son of the importance of marrying a Jew. On the other hand, his experience may make him an ideal person to suggest remedies.

For most of our history, Dershowitz rightly observes, we operated according to what he calls the “Tsuris Theory of Jewish Survival,” that is, the need for persecution to survive. He argues that overt anti-Semites have been marginalized and now are mostly a nuisance. This sentence would have been enough to make his point, but Dershowitz reiterates it repeatedly in a separate chapter. Then, after spending more than 20 pages illustrating why we shouldn’t be afraid of anti-Semites, the following chapter is devoted to anti-Semites like the militias, Holocaust deniers and the Nation of Islam. He was correct initially in his analysis of the security of American Jewry and the only point of discussing groups that he earlier called marginal is to give Dershowitz the opportunity to offer advice (which is very good) on dealing with them.

While Dershowitz preaches tolerance, his own dogmatism sometimes makes him appear silly. For example, he relates a story about being asked to say Kaddish in a room at the Supreme Court and feeling conflicted because of his views on maintaining the separation between church and state. Is the slope really so slippery that saying a prayer for a friend once in a public building will somehow open the floodgates for a religion to be imposed on Americans?

Much of the book is devoted to attacking the intolerance of political and religious conservatives, in some instances merely to inject pet concerns that are irrelevant to the subject of Jewish continuity. While his thesis is that American Jews no longer have serious enemies, he is as guilty as the Jews he criticizes for blowing the threat of the few remaining ones out of proportion. He is particularly exercised by the Christian right and the threat he says it poses to Jews by lowering the wall of church-state separation.

The radical religious right has become a popular new liberal Jewish demon. Dershowitz acknowledges most members of the Christian right do not hate Jews; in fact, they’re extremely pro-Israel. Nevertheless, he sees them as a threat primarily because they disagree with his domestic political agenda. This defensiveness is precisely what he criticizes throughout the book. Since Dershowitz says it is possible to find support in the Jewish tradition for “virtually any political, economic or social agenda,” how can the public policy prescriptions of the religious right threaten Jewish life? The war of ideas that he believes Jews should compete in has not been won by the right. In fact, the new Crusaders continue to lose many of the battles. Consider, for example, the voters’ rejection of Pat Buchanan and the failure to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

And Dershowitz is simply wrong when he asserts that mainstream Jews are fearful of the religious right. On the contrary, the establishment has consistently sought to form coalitions with Christian groups. One of the most well attended sessions at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference has typically been the one related to Christian support for Israel (1997 was the first time in a several years that no such session was held). Dershowitz suggests the Christian Coalition threatens Jewish survival, but AIPAC invited its director, Ralph Reed, to be a featured speaker at its 1995 forum: “Evangelical Christians and American Jews: Is Partnership Possible on the Pro-Israel Agenda?” Not surprisingly, Reed’s answer was “yes.”

I admit to sympathy for Dershowitz’s efforts to redefine Judaism so that it can fit his own beliefs, or, in some instances, lack of belief. He is a secular Jew, so it is important for him to point out that many people considered great Jews were also secular (e.g., Herzl, Meir, Ben-Gurion). He argues for the creation of “a Judaism that is not afraid of the competition of secular success — a Judaism that thrives on openness, equality and acceptance, rather than on insularity, insecurity, persecution and discrimination.” It would be interesting to hear the reaction of Conservative and Reform rabbis to this suggestion. My guess is they would say this is precisely what their movements have done without stemming the negative demographic trend.

Before offering his proposals, Dershowitz attempts to demonstrate that the solutions typically offered are insufficient at best. For example, he devotes a chapter to Israeli society and the idea that aliyah is the answer. The chapter is accurate, but unoriginal. The point could have been covered with a single sentence: Jewish continuity could be assured if American Jews moved to Israel, but they have not made aliyah and will not.

Dershowitz also discredits the idea that a return to Orthodoxy is the answer, in part by ridiculing Orthodox suggestions that the Judaism they practice is authentic and immutable. It is not difficult to demonstrate that Judaism has changed throughout history. As he notes, Jews no longer practice ritual sacrifices and prayers like Kol Nidre weren’t introduced until the 9th Century. It is easy to see why Orthodox Jews would be especially outraged by his attack on one of the central tenets of their faith, namely that the Oral Law was given to the Jewish people at Sinai. He denigrates the assertion as a “self-serving myth” created by rabbis to justify their religious authority. While at least most of the Torah “quakes with the voice of God,” Dershowitz says, the Talmud is full of “ordinary argumentation, conflicting views and trivia.” One of the examples he chooses to illustrate his point is a locker room-type discussion concerning the size of different rabbis’ penises (Bava Metzia 84a).

Of course, assailing Orthodoxy isn’t an answer to Jewish survival; it is simply a reflection of the fact that most Jews are like Dershowitz and don’t accept Orthodox teachings.

After scattering suggestions and platitudes through 290 pages, Dershowitz finally lays out in the final chapter six specific steps to promote Jewish survival.

The first is for Jews to become less clannish. “If we keep to ourselves, the way the ultra-Orthodox do, we will become like the Amish of Pennsylvania — a quaint sect whom tourists come to gape at and who have no influence on the outside world.” Since the reason for writing the book is that most Jews have already rejected insularity, I’m not sure of the necessity for this point. What is more bizarre, however, is his suggestion that Jews should be more like Quakers who are “less concerned about mixed marriages, more willing to share their message without conditions or conversions, more confident that they have something positive to offer in the marketplace of ideas.” The Quakers are a strange choice, in part, because their American Friends Service Committee has historically been one of the most anti-Israel organizations in America. He also says the Quakers are small in number but their influence is pervasive and generally positive. Now, as a political scientist, I don’t have any idea where he got this idea and can’t imagine a single Jew who would trade our influence on politics or society for that of the Quakers.

Dershowitz’s second suggestion is the one that gets people most agitated; that is, acceptance of non-Jewish spouses. This is hardly a new idea and while he is correct in stating that threats, guilt and other measures have failed to prevent intermarriage, the statistics he cited earlier in the book illustrated the low probability that the children of mixed marriages will remain Jewish.

The third proposal is to recognize the validity of secular Judaism. This form of Judaism doesn’t require belief in the supernatural, but is devoted to Jewish learning and regards Judaism as an evolving civilization. As he puts it, the movements can decide membership in their “clubs,” but can’t decide who is a Jew for other than religious purposes.

Paradoxically, Dershowitz argues that Jews need to be educated about Judaism so they have a true Yiddisher cup. By this he means that Jews need to complement their general knowledge with Jewish knowledge — history, Bible, philosophy, rituals and traditions. He argues that the rabbinical monopoly over education must be ended because its idea of Jewish literacy is only theology and ritual.

Today, who disputes the poor quality of Jewish education? As he says, most non-Orthodox kids drop out of Hebrew school after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah with a 7th or 8th grade Jewish education. None of us, he points out, would permit our children to have only a 7th or 8th grade education in science, math or literature. The after-school Hebrew education provided by Reform and Conservative synagogues is woefully inadequate. I remember when my family moved from Denver to Sacramento. I was eight years old, but my day school education was so advanced compared to the Hebrew school at the conservative shul that I was placed in the Bar Mitzvah class.

The fourth point in the Dershowitz program is the need for new Jewish leadership, particularly educators. To improve the situation, he suggests judging teachers like CEOs of competitive businesses and paying them salaries commensurate with the importance of their work. This is certainly a popular idea, at least outside the education system. It’s not clear if Dershowitz would apply such standards beyond the Jewish community, since it would require the elimination of the tenure system that allows many of the professor’s colleagues to be employed despite their failure to perform like successful CEOs.

Point five is that Jewish schools need to be improved, so they are as good as Quaker schools (he apparently has a thing for Quakers), and open to all who wish to learn about the Jewish way of life.

Finally, Dershowitz says, we must educate ourselves. For this he suggests a compromise between what he calls “Judaism Lite,” reading compendiums like Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, and “Judaism Heavy,” studying original sources. What Dershowitz calls “Low-fat Judaism” would involve studying original sources edited to make them accessible to a broad audience.

He also argues that Jewish learning should be more accessible and relevant to life. He asserts that studying Jewish sources will make someone a better Jew and a better lawyer, doctor or accountant. For example, he mentions that Jews in the Eastern European shtetls would consult Jewish sources on business. One problem is that many Jews who’ve had experience with some Orthodox businessmen in New York City, for example, perceive them as more crooked than secular business people. The answer, of course, is that those Jews are not obeying the laws. Unfortunately, a similar argument can be made against people with the best of intentions. For example, a typical response from Orthodox Jews is that people who disagree with them simply aren’t knowledgeable enough. If enhancing education is meant only to lead all Jews to the same conclusions, then it is indoctrination, not education.

Moreover, no matter what we teach, or Dershowitz preaches, children will be influenced by their parents’ actions. What lessons will they learn from seeing Jews throwing stones at cars on Shabbat in Israel or reading about Jews assaulting women for immodest dress? What will be their reaction to seeing a Jew eating lobster or celebrating Christmas?

Incidentally, if you’re wondering whether Dershowitz refers to O.J., he does. In the midst of detailing his solution to the problem of the Jewish people, Dershowitz digresses into the typical defense lawyer’s justification for representing people who they know are guilty. Since he brings up Simpson in the context of feeling guilty about getting off someone he knew committed a crime, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to infer he believes O.J. was guilty.

At root, Dershowitz wants to show that the way he practices Judaism is as good as any other. “Why should there be only one definition of who is a Jew?” he asks. “In fact, there are different criteria.” This begs the question of why anyone should be Jewish at all. I’m reminded of a quote in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, “How can God be God if he is worshiped in only one way?”

If we accept Dershowitz’s premise that Judaism is essentially a matter of self-identification, then we can define away the problem. Jews will continue to exist in the future, but they will no more resemble the Jews of today than the Jews of today resemble those of Biblical times.

I wrote a satirical piece in grad school suggesting the creation of a “Reconservadoxy” movement. It would hold the Sabbath sacred, but not consider the attendance of college football games a violation. Shellfish could be made kosher by boiling, frying or serving cold on a bed of lettuce with cocktail sauce.

In America, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and, to a lesser extent, Reconstructionist Jews have gained legitimacy. Why? The non-Orthodox movements are relatively recent incarnations, so why is it so difficult to believe another type of Judaism will emerge, based on some new consensus about rituals and beliefs? It may be too disorganized to become a “movement,” but it is likely to include people who rarely, if ever, step inside a synagogue. It could be comprised entirely of people who are intermarried and do not keep kosher. Perhaps the only thing that will make them Jewish is their desire to identify themselves that way, or maybe their connection is a belief in God, a feeling that the Torah is their book, an affinity for the culture of Judaism, and/or a love of Israel.

Is this evolution good or bad for the Jewish people? The answer depends on whether you believe the quantity of Jews is more important than the quality of Jewish life. Many Jews, particularly the Orthodox, would argue Judaism is being diluted to the point of being unrecognizable. For Dershowitz, however, Judaism is malleable and has no set form to dilute. By allowing individuals to identify themselves as Jews, whatever their criteria, Dershowitz virtually ensures Jewish survival without the need to follow any of his prescriptions.