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In recent years, an American Jewish sociologist has called this phenomenon “coalescence”—Jews defining their Judaism on the basis of categories of thought external or even inimical to Jewish religious though and practice. As I suggest in my recent book, “Faith Finding Meaning,” that you mentioned earlier, liberalism has become a “substitute faith” for most American Jews. As theologian Emil Fackenheim put it, “liberal Judaism is a contradiction in terms,” an oxymoron. Jewish liberalism attempts to reinterpret and to distort Judaism through the lens of liberalism, rather than seeking to critique liberalism through the lens of Judaism.
Already in the late 1960s, the eminent Jewish sociologist, Charles Liebman, analyzed Jewish liberalism, contrasting the liberal values of American Jews with those of Judaism. Liebman concluded that the cosmopolitan, universalistic and secular nature of Jewish liberalism poses a direct threat to the continuity of Judaism as a religion and to the ethnocentric raison d’etre of Jewish existence. Furthermore, Liebman points out that whereas among other groups, political affiliation is primarily driven by self-interest, especially economic self-interest, liberal American Jews do not usually mobilize around issues related to their own self-interest; indeed, not even around the “prime directive” of securing their own survival as Jews and the continuity of Judaism.
For the past few decades, the American Jewish sociologist, Steven Cohen, has written extensively on Jewish liberalism. Cohen identifies a direct correlation between the growth of secularism and the decline of an adherence to Jewish religious beliefs and practices, and the pervasiveness of liberalism among American Jews. As Cohen further observes, American Jews are among “the most religiously inactive, most theological skeptical, in short, the most secular group” in America, who identify Judaism not with its traditional beliefs and practices, but with the values and programs of political liberalism.
It is no wonder that the most recent (2001) demographic study of American Jewry found that 73 percent identified themselves as “secular,” with the fastest growing percentage of American Jews either defining themselves as having no religion at all or as practicing a religion other than Judaism. Further, as others have indicated, even those American Jews who believe themselves adherents to Judaism’s beliefs and practices, actually embrace something altogether different.
Like other liberals, Jewish liberals tend to denigrate tradition. Yet, Judaism is among the most tradition-oriented of world views. Though Judaism does not eschew change when necessary, it recognizes that denigrating tradition without reflection, imposing change for the sake of change, automatically considering change as a higher value than tradition, poses a real danger to the very existence and continuity of Judaism as a religious tradition. In short, American Jews have replaced their religious heritage with a secular religion—liberalism as represented by the Democratic Party.
FP: What influence has the immigrant experience had on American Jews’ views of themselves and their political affiliations—past and present?
Sherwin: Most American Jews are three or more generations removed from the immigrant experience. Yet, the experiences of Jewish immigrants first in Europe and later in the United States, continue to have a profound influence on current Jewish political affiliations and voting patterns. Studies by Steven Cohen and others have identified the significant impact of the political orientation of one generation of American Jews upon the next. It was from those immigrants, who came to the United States during the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1915, that contemporary American Jews inherited their proclivity toward liberal politics and social policies, and toward identification with the Democratic Party. It seems that American Jews have been much more successful in transmitting their political views and behaviors to subsequent generations than they have been in transmitting the beliefs and practices of their religious faith.
The story of Jewish immigration during this period (1880-1915) is a complex and multifaceted one. So, let me focus on a few salient points that our relevant to our discussion.
Jewish liberalism does not derive from the teachings of Judaism, but from the teachings of the French and German Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the founding of the American republic, Jews were given equal rights of citizenship in a country without a national church. Such was not the case in Europe, where “The Jewish Question” was hotly debated. This question focused on the issue of whether Jews should be granted full rights of citizenship or “political emancipation” in the countries in which they resided. Two distinct views framed this debate. In Europe, political conservatives generally considered Jews to be the paradigmatic “out-group,” denying in Germany that Jews could really be Germans, or Russians in Russia, Poles in Poland, etc. Jews were viewed and often viewed themselves as “a people apart,” unable or ineligible to fully integrate culturally, socially and politically in the lands of their residence. Conservatives in these countries often advocated and employed acute forms of oppression and discrimination against Jews, with anti-Semitic ideologies and actions being prominent features of their social policies. Often, these political conservatives were aligned with national churches which instilled a fear of the coercive power of religion and of religious institutions into the Jews of these countries.
The European liberals, on the other hand, largely favored the political emancipation of the Jews, opposing restrictions on Jewish economic, political and social mobility. They sought freedom from the authority of established institutions, especially religious ones that they found oppressive, and advocated a sharp disassociation of church and state, confining religious belief and practice to the private realm. Jews gravitated toward liberalism which they perceived to be protective of their safety and vulnerabilities, and conducive to the realization of their social, political and economic opportunities.
A major goal of the Enlightenment was the subversion of religious authority and tradition, particularly Christianity. But, because national Christian churches remained powerful, Judaism—which was a less dangerous target—came under severe attack. It is singularly ironic that various forms of modern liberal Judaism embraced Enlightenment teachings and replaced traditional Jewish teachings with Enlightenment ideas, despite the fact that a major goal of the Enlightenment was to subvert and to discredit religion, especially Judaism.
Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe came to America for physical safety, economic opportunity and political freedom, largely unavailable in Eastern Europe. Those who came were largely not among the wealthy nor the pious, either in Europe or upon their arrival in America. They more likely rebelled against religious authority than they embraced it. In Europe, and later in America, they cast their lot with the needs of the poor, including themselves; with the “workers” and their unions in America, with left wing politics including Communism and Socialism, and with the universalistic, secularist and internationalist teachings of the French and Russian Enlightenment and later of the early Russian Revolution.
Seeing American conservatives and Republicans as American versions of the conservatives they had encountered in Europe, Jews embraced left-wing politics and under Franklin Roosevelt their marriage to the Democratic Party was consummated—a marriage that extends until today. American Jews believed then, and continue to believe today, that the Democratic Party, especially its liberal agenda and the coalition of its members, ultimately protects their security, vulnerability, and their social, economic and political interests.
FP: Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin, thank you kindly for this most profound interview. We are out of time. But we need to continue with a follow-up interview in which we’ll discuss why a shift to conservatism has not yet occurred among American Jews and if you think that such a shift might soon occur. Frontpage readers stay tuned.
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