Our Rabbis Must Teach Us All to be Great Surfers

This post is part of The Exchange. The opinions expressed by contributors shared on The Exchange do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of CIJA, its staff, or Board of Directors.

 Rabbi Michael Goldstein’s Assimilation: Fight it? Accept it? rebuttal of Gabriel Roth’s piece, American Jews Are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated are 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, 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, even though presumably not aware of it, by adopting so called Jewish values, has  become more Jewish.

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 a religion to 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 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.  However, it 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.  After astutely describing and defining the problem, these pundits 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 affecting them.

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 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 “lifestyle,” to use Goldstein’s word, and all it comprises.

Every year we Jews bemoan the statistical and survey results coming from Pew or other organizations that slap us with unassailable evidence as to our lack of numerical growth and, worse, 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 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 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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