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Beyond Jewish Triumphalism

One issue that is brought up a lot is the size of the Jewish people. We make up .2 percent of the population. Do you feel Judaism is on track to grow?

How big a gall bladder do you need to have?

(Laughs.) I don't know, depending, I suppose, on what I do with it.

Okay, you see what I am saying? I don't think that size is that much of an issue here. The pituitary, how big is it? but it does what it has to do. Think of the contributions that are being made. There is a very interesting little thing on the web now -- "boycott Israel" lists.  If you boycott Israel you won't use this and you won't use that and you won't do this and that, all the stuff that came from Israel you won't use, you know? That means no cell phones or drip technology, etc.

Well, that's nothing new. Mark Twain wrote about the contributions of the Jews over one hundred years ago.

Right, so I'm not worried about it.

So the question of numbers isn't important?

Not as long as there is healthy stuff.

What about our internal divisions? Some people say there have always been movements in Judaism, even going back to the Pharisees and Sadducees from the Roman times and so forth. Some people think of the movement phenomenon more as a 19th- and 20th-century invention, or maybe 18th-century if you include chassidut. What is the future of movements?

If something is an organism, it has to have different parts to the body. The tree has to have roots and branches and leaves, and the leaves get sloughed off every year. There's fruit and there are seeds. There's differentiation. That's why I translate yah tzevaot ("the lord of hosts") as "the lord of diversity." Whom do you include as a part of klal yisroel (the community of Israel) and whom do you reject?

Now there are some people, like the satmar (a rather severe sect of Hasidic Judaism), who would say that anybody to whom I wouldn't give an alyiah (an honor) in my shul (synagogue) could not be called klal yisroel (the people of Israel, i.e., Jews). Shame on them. The midrash says "gefen mimitzrayim taseyah," we are like a vine. A vine has leaves, fruit, roots; it has diversity. There will always be a variety of people, and anyone who doesn't recognize that is a fool.

With all the changes, do you think there will come a time when we can say, yes this person is but no that person isn't Jewish? This person is a member of the tribe, that person is a friend of the tribe.

There are all kinds of ways in which you can cut that. If I begin genetically, it will be very clear that some people are not genetically Jewish and some people are. And many converts are going to be out if I use the genetic criterion. If I use the measure of self-identification, where someone says, I am a Jew because I identify as one, then there is another criterion for counting. The question is what criteria do I use -- why don't I want to count some people?

But I have a feeling that if you think of it sociologically, you'll find that there is a bell-shaped curve. The greater sample of people will be closer to the center where the curve is up, but there will be also be some people on the fringes. Jewish Renewal is moving closer to the center, away from the fringes. However, some of them are not moving toward the center. Some of them are being left behind, like the Karites and the Samaritans. Some of them will get lost.

I've noticed that certain movements may swing back and forth like a pendulum but they look for that middle area eventually.

That's correct, except that there are some movements that are moribund, that no longer have vitality. In the declining fringe areas you lose the vitality and in the upward fringe areas, you gain vitality. It moves forward, like a snail.

And something is left behind. So what about groups such as the secular humanists?

Ah, yes, the G-dless Jews.

This tried to be a movement, but seems clearly to be on the declining fringe. There are a lot of secular Jews but they don't identify with a movement.

They were very much interested in how to continue to be Jewish without having to have a god, an old man in the sky who's going to tell me "you mustn't masturbate," if I were to characterize that. So they have their shul and they celebrate the holidays, and Professor Reinus (one of the founders of the Jewish Secular Humanist movement) would be very happy with them. But we don't know what connects them to a Jewish identification. A lot of people can pass today as a non-Jew. Every Jew is a Jew by choice. So you can pass if you want to. And then the question is going to be whether the descendants will revert to faith in a generation or two, which often happens.

7/12/2010 4:00:00 AM