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Bill Narvey

Bill Narvey: Our Rabbis Must Teach All Us Jews to be Great Surfers

by Bill Narvey, December 18, 2013

Rabbi Michael Goldstein’s  Assimilation: Fight it? Accept it?  rebutting  Gabriel Roth’s piece, American Jews Are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated is found on the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) site at:  


Roth’s initial essay is linked just under the title to Goldstein’s response.  Both are interesting perspectives as regards the status of non-Orthodox American Jews who are becoming or have become assimilated, which for Roth is a status to be embraced while for Goldstein, it is to be resisted.


Roth’s essay essentially justifies his own assimilated situation, explaining why he is free of guilt.  For  American Jews who are assimilating or are already assimilated,  yet who  remain conflicted by guilt, Roth’s piece is a useful guide  to rid themselves of guilt and live happy assimilated American lives.


Roth makes  the case that assimilation of American Jews into American culture with the consequent loss of Jewish identity, is to be celebrated in the sense that assimilated Jews have not become more like non-Jewish America, but non-Jewish America, by adopting so called Jewish values, has  become more Jewish, even though presumably not aware of it. 

As for Rabbi Michael Goldstein’s response, addressed to those Jews who want to preserve their unique Jewish identity and life or who are feeling challenged to do so, he observes  the Pew survey is evidence that modern  (as opposed to Orthodox) Judaism is transitioning from being a religion into a culture.  His observation accords with Roth’s. 

Goldstein concedes Roth’s argument, but only as far as it goes within the context of factors Roth fixes on.


Goldstein thus offers his rebuttal by referencing considerations  that he contends must be also be factored in, which he sums up in the word “lifestyle” that offers Jews  “opportunities to build a relationship with God, and that relationship has intrinsic value that enriches all aspects of one’s life”.


Goldstein’s  counter sounds good in theory.  It however,  begs the questions, exactly what lifestyle opportunities, what intrinsic value and exactly how are Jews to come to recognize and incorporate these intrinsic values into their lives and seize upon these opportunities to shape their lifestyle to resist the temptations of assimilation?


In closing, Goldstein’s advice is::   “We need to do what we can to bring back a Jewish religion that enriches the lives of its practitioners, connects them to God, and impacts their lifestyles in a unique, Jewish way.” 


Again, a wonderful thought, but exactly how is that to be accomplished?


Goldstein’s piece disappoints, just  like so many other highly regarded pundits who write on a vast array of social and political ills, whether related to Jews, Israel or other matters.  These  pundits, after astutely describing and defining the problem, conclude with a clarion call for people to wake up and take a stand or make some change in their lives to resolve the problem they sufferer with. 


These pundits  rarely if ever go the extra mile and take responsibility to explain to or lay out a precise game plan for the people they call on to wake up as to what exactly they are supposed to do, once they are so awakened.


Few know as much about Judaism, all that Jewish identity and life encompasses and its relevance yet today in our modern Western society, than our Rabbis.  It is they who have chosen their calling to be our Judaic and spiritual leaders and have thus charged themselves with responsibility to teach and guide us in Judaism and how, in these modern times where temptation is strong, to be a part of the whole of our Western society, while still celebrating living our unique Jewish “lifestyles” and all it comprises as  Goldstein uses that word.


Every year we Jews bemoan the statistical and survey results coming from Pew or other organizations that slaps us with unassailable evidence as to our lack of numerical growth and worse and how we are being inexorably weakened as Jews by the assimilative forces assailing us.  Every year Rabbis and lay leadership, defensively tell us they are doing all they can do and  promising us they can and will do better to help us withstand the assimilative wave that is taking an existential toll.  Doubtlessly, they do try to do more, but the evidence is incontrovertible that what has been done and what more is done each year, is simply not enough.


Our Rabbis must  abjectly admit this reality, if they are to not waste energy defending their efforts and instead fully commit to coming up with a better game plan. 


We are living in a modern age of rapid technological and sociological change

 that many find overwhelming.  Unable to withstand, adapt to or incorporate these changes into their lives to maintain their own  unique individuality and to chart their own courses, many simply either succumb  and go with the flow or they allow these changes to pass them by, opening themselves up to being  looked down upon as old fashioned or out of step.


Non-Orthodox Jews have been particularly hard hit by the assimilative forces of change. 


Metaphorically speaking,  modernity is like a wild fast moving sea.   Orthodox and many non-Orthodox Jews  are great surfers, riding the crests of the waves of change. Increasing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews however, find themselves unable to stay on their surfboards and thus fall into the troughs, washed over by the waves of assimilation.


Our Rabbis, best equipped to do so, must teach all us Jews how to be great surfers.

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