Thursday, September 23, 2021

Weekly column by Vic Rosenthal

Islam is on track to become the world’s most widespread religious faith and will probably surpass Christianity in number of believers by 2070.

There are many reasons for this. One way to explain the growth or decline of a religious population is to look at the religion as a set of memes, mental entities that spread from one mind to another. These memes reproduce and change like life-forms, struggling with the forces of natural selection in their environment, the 7.9 billion human minds on planet Earth.

For example, here is a somewhat unfriendly answer to the question “why is Islam growing so rapidly?” in memetic terms. The pseudonymous author cites Islam’s built-in features that protect the memes that are part of Islam from changes that might weaken them, and facilitate its spread. Some of these features are common to other religions, but some seem to be unique to Islam. For example,

Islam commands its followers to create a government that supports it. … Other groups of religious people have had political aspirations, but no other major religious group orders its followers — as a religious duty — to create a government that follows its own system of law.

There is also the duty to take part in jihad, the doctrine that lands that have become Islamic must always remain so, the very concrete description of the joys of paradise that await good Muslims (and especially martyrs), and the numerous practical advantages that accrue to Muslims in Islamic lands. And of course, Islam is a veritable Hotel California: it is remarkably easy to join, but the penalty for leaving is death.

Other religions, like Christianity, engage in proselytizing and (at least in the past) facilitated their spread by conquest. Christianity too, in the relatively recent past, enforced disadvantageous conditions on non-Christian residents of Christian countries, including special taxation, limitations on occupations, even persecution and expulsion. Both Islam and Christianity have protected themselves with blasphemy laws and prosecutions, although generally speaking Christianity has been moving in a more moderate direction at the same time that radical Islamic practice has become more common.

Judaism, since the destruction of the Temple and until the reestablishment of the State of Israel, has been a diasporic religion. Its memes became adapted to an environment in which Jews were a minority, and temporal authority was always in the hands of non-Jews who displayed varying degrees of hostility. Since Biblical times, Judaism has not expanded by conquest; and until recently proselytizing has been minimal and conversion to Judaism difficult. Lacking temporal power, Judaism was unable to provide material advantages to converts, even if it had wanted to.

If the memes of Islam and Christianity were adapted to expansionism, Judaism was tuned to self-preservation. It needed to be, because the Christian and Muslim worlds where most Jews found themselves could be cruel and dangerous. Diaspora Judaism did undergo changes and evolved in different directions, but although customs and degrees of observance varied widely, the top priority remained survival, which meant maintaining separation from the non-Jewish majority. Jews are sometimes criticized for being “clannish,” tending to prefer the company of their own, favoring other Jews as employees, choosing Jewish lawyers and doctors, and so on. This is self-protective behavior.

When Reform Judaism appeared in the early 19th century, its de-emphasis of ritual observance (particularly Shabbat and kashrut) and its denial of the divine origin of the Torah was a radical departure from tradition, and indeed it weakened the self-protective nature of Judaism. Nevertheless it was still conservative (small “c”) in its understanding that the Jewish people were set apart from others – even if it was now possible for Jews to have lunch with Germans, they did not want their daughters to marry them.

This began to change with the migration of large numbers of Jews to the United States. After the beginning of the “Golden Age of American Jewry” around the end of WWII, Jews in the US felt less insecure. Little by little, barriers against Jews in housing, education, and employment disappeared. Jews began to take a disproportional part in American culture. Intermarriage increased, although until recently, even the Reform movement officially discouraged mixed marriages. Today it doesn’t take an official position on the question, although it encourages mixed couples to join its congregations and raise their children as Jews. Some Reform rabbis perform mixed marriages and some do not. As far as I know, the movement still requires rabbis to be married to Jews, although this might change.

But another mutation in the memeplex that is Judaism, which has occurred in the American Reform community very recently, has ripped out its “gene” for self-preservation, possibly disastrously for American Jews. To see what has happened, we need to consider the history of the movement.

Until the mid-1960s, early 1970s, American Reform Judaism was dominated by “classical Reform,” which aggressively tried to downplay the spiritual elements of Judaism, which it considered primitive. But American Jews who had been strongly affected by the radical cultural changes of the period found the experience of Reform worship empty and boring, and began to desert Reform Judaism for other streams of Judaism, Eastern religions, or secularism. Some even joined the “Jesus Freaks.” While their parents and grandparents believed it was important to maintain a connection to the Judaism of the past, even if it was attenuated, the boomers and their children didn’t see the point.

Reform Judaism responded in several ways. It tried to reintroduce traditional practices and customs, such as Hebrew prayers and Torah study, although its congregations lacked the Jewish background required or the attention span needed to obtain it. It became more welcoming to intermarried families. And it began to redefine Jewish observance, which previously meant performing the commandments defined in traditional halacha (Jewish law), as liberal social action. This strategy reached its peak with the appointment of politically progressive Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs as URJ President in 2012.

But history moves on and the golden age of American Jewry is coming to an end. The traditionally antisemitic extreme Right hasn’t gone away, but more importantly the newly ascendant progressive Left, imbued with postmodern/postcolonial ideas, and “critical theory” of various kinds, has turned against liberalism, free speech, equality of opportunity, and Israel. And no surprise: they don’t like Jews much, either.

The new Reform Judaism, led by the so-progressive Rabbi Jacobs, has been caught out. Social action no longer means liberalism, which implies tolerance to all religious and ethnic groups, but the support of movements that are explicitly racist, anti-American, and antisemitic. This style of Judaism, which has been adopted by some 90% of affiliated American Jews, no longer functions to protect Jews as a minority within a more and more hostile culture.

Today it seems that American Orthodox Jews are bearing the brunt of antisemitism, because of their greater visibility. But if the “Cultural Revolution” continues in the direction that it has begun to go, then there is no doubt that life for liberal Jews will become far more difficult. Orthodox Jews, who have maintained their traditional self-protective culture, are better prepared to weather the storm. I strongly doubt that Judaism will ever morph into an expansionist religion like Islam or Christianity. But it looks as though the liberal Jews of America may have sawn off the branch they were sitting on.


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