Can Judaism survive without its religious foundations? (Oct. 1997)

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By Megan Wilson, for the Mitzpeh

Volume XVIII Issue 2 cover page, October 1997

Volume XVIII Issue 2 cover page, October 1997

The American Jewish community can only survive if it returns to its religious roots, a leading public policy expert argued.

His opponent at last week’s campus debate countered by crediting secular Jews with sustaining Jewish culture and even with creating the state of Israel.

Elliot Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and Seymour Martin Lipset, professor of public policy at George Mason University, debated their opposing views on the future of American Judaism on Oct. 5 for about 300 people in Tyser Auditorium.

The crowd was invited from area synagogues, the School of Public Affairs, and the mailing list of the Florence and Norman Brody Family Foundation Public Policy Forum, who sponsored the debate.

In the hour-long debate, Lipset and Abrams took turns answering questions asked by three panelist from the campus School of Public Affairs.

Abrams, who argued that American Jewry can only survive as a religious community, blamed secularism for the current state of the American Jewish community.

He said that secularism has produced, “an amorphous and unsustainable Jewishness – part ethnicity, part politics, part Israel, part Holocaust – that cannot be transmitted from generation to generation reliably.”

He added that what can be transmitted reliably is Judaism as a religion.

Abrams began by asking the audience to imagine a Jewish community organized along purely secular lines.

According to Abrams, in this secular community, Jews would attend synagogue only a few times a year. The main focus of this community would be fighting anti-semitism or sending aid to Israel – not prayer, religion or God.

“We have carried out this thought experiment in real life, in the American Jewish Community,” Abrams said. “We’ve been secularizing ourselves and the community for decades and now we can see the results.”

These results include the high rate of intermarriage and the low percentage of Jews who regularly attend synagogue, he said.

Lipset countered Abrams by praising the efforts of America’s [secular] Jews, who he credited with making invaluable contributions to world Judaism and to the creating of Israel.

“We have in America millions of people who by religious criteria are not Jewish, but who still feel themselves Jewish and want to be involved in the Jewish community for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Elliot Abrams of the PUblic Policy Center in Washington, D.C. (at left) and Seymour Martin Lipset of George Mason University (at right) debate trends in Jewish thought. Devin Shieh/Mitzpeh

Elliot Abrams of the PUblic Policy Center in Washington, D.C. (at left) and Seymour Martin Lipset of George Mason University (at right) debate trends in Jewish thought. Devin Shieh/Mitzpeh

After their opening statements, Lipset and Abrams took turns fielding questions from the panelists.

The questions in the formal debate ranged from whether American Jews had to choose between the United States and Judaism, to how the Jewish community can best foster Jewish education.

Abrams argued that Jews can coexist in America and in the Jewish community, but only If they truthfully follow the tenants of their type of Judaism.

“I’m not arguing, ‘if you’re a Reformed Jew you should be Conservative,’ or, ‘if you’re Conservative you should be Reformed,’” said Abrams. “What I am arguing, to each of them, you should be what you say you are. You say you are a Reformed Jew, a Reformed Jew should be in Temple Friday night. Were you in Temple Friday night?”

The key to reconciling this Judaism with the secular world, according to Abrams, is practicing a “separateness” he likens to the “apartness” practiced by many Evangelical Christians.

“Most evangelicals I know feel somewhat apart because they look at our culture and they don’t like it,” said Abrams. “They are constantly saying to their kids, ‘I don’t want you to see that TV show, I don’t want you to see that movie.’ Jews should be doing that kind of apartness. It’s a kind of psychological or mental apartness.”

Lipset countered Abrams’ point by insisting that Jews will not be able to stand apart religiously because the influence of other religions and secular culture is just too great.

He cited universities as contributing to this erosion of the Jewish community.

“The university, more than any other institution, assumes that you don’t discriminate [based on religion],” said Lipset. “You can’t tell a boy or a girl, ‘I’m not going to go out with you because you’re of a different religion.’ That would be frowned on.”

Lipset said he felt that since the Jewish community, as defined solely by religion, is unable to fight American secularism, that those secular Jews who identify with Judaism should not be excluded.

Instead, he said, the Jewish community must incorporate these Jews into the community, thereby ensuring its survival.

Both Abrams and Lipset have distinguished themselves in the field of public policy and in the Jewish community.

Abrams has served as Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and as Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. He has appeared on “Nightline,” “Meet the Press,” and “Face the Nation.” In 1997, he was praised for his book “Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America.”

Lipset has earned esteem in the fields of political sociology, Canadian and American studies, social stratification and the American Jewish community.

He is the author or co-author of 23 books or monographs and over 450 articles. His most recent books include “Jews and the New American Scene” (1995) and “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword” (1996).

He has served as national chair of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Commission, and of the Faculty Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal.

The debate was the final of four lectures sponsored by the Brody Family Foundation. The lecture will be carried by the Flagship Channel, and may be aired on PBS.

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