Author Mnookin widens big tent

Robert Mnookin
Photo by Martha Stewart

It’s big-tent Jewish identity on steroids.

To help assure the continuation of the non-Orthodox Jewish community in America, Harvard law professor Robert H. Mnookin advocates accepting as part of the American Jewish community “anyone who wishes to identify as Jewish, no matter how many Jewish parents he has.” This does not require formal religious conversion, he said.

This is “a big tent approach,” Mnookin told a standing-room-only crowd at Politics and Prose in the District on Sunday, “that violates centuries of Jewish tradition.”

But Mnooken, whose book “The Jewish American Paradox” was recently published, believes it meets current needs and “offers a sound basis for Jewish identity in America. Anyone who wants to publicly identify himself as part of the Jewish enterprise, welcome.”

Such a radical change is needed, he noted, in spite of the success of the American Jewish community, which has prospered, been integrated into the larger society and gained national respect as no other community has in the history of the Diaspora.

Despite our unprecedented success, according to the author, we American Jews face four major challenges — a decline in religious observance, intermarriage, divergent views of Israel and diminished anti-Semitism — that threaten our community’s vibrancy. Only innovative solutions can ensure continuing Jewish identity among the majority of non-Orthodox American Jews.

Our commitment to the Jewish religion “is thin,” he said. The data is clear: Excepting Orthodox Jews, American Jews tend to be less observant than their Christian neighbors, measured by attendance at services or membership in church or synagogue. Only one third of self-professed American Jews belong to a congregation. Many Jews are not believers, nearly half say they are agnostic or do not believe in God at all. Twenty-two percent of Jews report they have no religion, 32 percent among millennials.

The numbers surrounding intermarriage are stunning. Since 2000, Mnookin said, 57 percent of Jews who married — and 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews — have intermarried. As a result, many American Jews view intermarriage as the greatest threat to Jewish survival, and many American Jewish leaders, including rabbis, have focused their efforts on preventing intermarriage.

Such a strategy is bound to fail, the author believes. Jews are only 2 percent of the population and those contemplating marriage are likely to find they have much in common “with those who don’t share their religious heritage.” In addition, many millennials are uncomfortable with the idea of only marrying a Jew, finding that “it borders on racism.”

We need to concentrate on “welcoming and integrating those [intermarried] families into the Jewish community,” he said.

“To my mind,” he writes in his book, “the issue is: What are we doing about the next generation? Not, how can we stop intermarriage?”

There are reasons for optimism, Mnookin said. A recent study in Boston showed 60 percent of children of mixed marriages were being raised as Jews.

A third challenge is Israel. It was once thought that pride in Israel would serve to “unite a diverse American Jewish community” and “buttress Jewish identity” in the United States, he ”Today, I fear the opposite is coming true.”

Although he said he is committed to Israel’s survival, he is disturbed by policies toward the Palestinians
and the power that the Orthodox establishment has over some aspects of life in the Jewish state. He said he supports J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group.

Finally, Mnookin said that while over time anti-Semitism has “helped keep the tribe together,” that is no longer the case. Anti-Semitism still exists in the United States, but in his lifetime there has been “a remarkable diminution” of its “relevance in the actual lives Jews are living.”

The author’s approach to Jewish identity and intermarriage seemed not to arouse hostility — or even controversy — in the audience on Sunday.

One questioner asked him if his big-tent ideas meant accepting Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus.

“That’s a perfectly fair question and one that I struggled with,” he answered.

Mnookin said he understands the theological problems with those groups. He also conceded that identity is complicated. In addition to what you think of yourself, other people’s thoughts also are relevant. “But for me, big-tent self-identification is good enough,” he said.

Another questioner noted that the Orthodox would charge that he is making it too easy to become Jewish, that he has no standards.

Mnooken responded that Orthodox congregations could set their own standards for themselves under his big-tent theory.

“My [Harvard] colleague Alan Dershowitz wrote about ‘The Vanishing American Jew.’ That’s b___ s___,” Mnookin said. “American Jews are not going to vanish.

“But in 30 years, I worry that the only people who identify as Jewish will be the fervent Zionists and the Orthodox. They’re going to be around, but I have a feeling of regret because the contribution to American life of the others has been enormous.”

Aaron Leibel is a Washington-area writer.

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