Common wisdom has long held that assimilation grows stronger with each passing generation. As an example, in my own family on my dad’s side, my Bubbe and Zaide were born in eastern Europe. They grew up speaking Yiddish, lived in neighborhoods here in Baltimore where only Jews lived, had friendships only with Jews, kept kosher, as much as possible kept Shabbat, and were much more eastern-European-Jewish in terms of their culture and identity than they were American. My dad – next generation – went to City College High. He ran track there, became a passionate Orioles and Colts fan, went to college – the first in his family to do so. He knew Hebrew – still does – because he went to a Zionist camp growing up and went to Hebrew high school 3 days a week. But his identity was more American, his cultural comfort level was Sinatra and Broadway, not Yiddish theater. He and my mother had no hesitation in terms of moving to a community in upstate New York where there were very few Jews, let alone Jewish neighborhoods to live in – something my Bubbe and Zaide found inconceivable.
Then you have my sister and my brother and me. Certainly we knew we were Jewish growing up, we went to Hebrew school, my brother and I had b’nai mitzvah, all three of us continued our Jewish education into high school with confirmation. On RH and YK we went to shul, occasionally had Shabbat dinner at home. But we were secular Jews, and culturally we were entirely American. Most of our friends were not Jewish. My brother and I played varsity soccer, the only Jews on the team, my sister danced in the local dance company, again, as far as I remember the only Jew. Judaism was a part of our identity, but growing up by no means was it the biggest or most important part. And that is by and large the way we see it work in today’s Jewish community as well. Each generation a little bit less intensely Jewish, a little bit more American.
Now you might expect that a rabbi finds a trend like that to be disturbing, and there is no question that increasing assimilation generation by generation creates very difficult challenges for those of us who work in the synagogue world and who care about Jewish life and community. That being said, this morning I want to argue that assimilation is not only acceptable, but that it is actually necessary for the survival of Jewish community and possibly for the survival of Judaism itself.
Consider with me for a moment the three main characters in the book of Genesis – they are? Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. I am skipping over Isaac because the truth is he is a relatively minor character in the Genesis narratives. And as important as the matriarchs are, the primary focus is on those three. Lets start with Abraham. He is the idealist, fiercely devoted to serving God, so much so that he is willing to sacrifice his son in God’s service. His relationship with God is the most important thing in his life, the one thing that defines him more than anything else. He is generation number one.
Jacob, his grandson, is in a very different place with his religious life and identity. He is the ‘God wrestler’, a person who struggles with faith and its importance in his life, not always sure of God’s attention or protection. Jacob doesn’t entirely assimilate – his ethnic and religious identity is too strongly ingrained. But he has serious doubts, and he does not wait around for God to take care of him. Instead he uses his own intellect and cunning, his own strength and determination to navigate the challenges of his life. Jacob believes if he doesn’t do it no one will do it for him – not even God.
Then we arrive at the next generation – Jacob’s son Joseph, Abraham’s great grandson. And what do we find with Joseph? He is by far the most assimilated character in the entire Torah. Joseph has fully and completely integrated into Egyptian life and culture. He has taken an Egyptian name, he has married an Egyptian woman, he works in the Egyptian government. He has become so completely and thoroughly Egyptian that in this morning’s Torah portion, after multiple interactions with his own brothers, he finally has to actually say to them – “Hey! Wake up! This person you’ve been talking to now off and on for months – face to face, close up – its me! Its Joseph!” As it says in this morning’s portion – אני יוסף אחיכם – I am Joseph your brother!!
But as assimilated as Joseph is – as Egyptian as he has become – it is he who assures the future of the Jewish people. Joseph is the one who brings his brothers and father to Egypt, enabling them to survive the famine. It is Joseph who honors his father by making sure he is buried in the land of Israel. And interestingly enough, it is Joseph who makes sure to bring his children, who must be even more Egyptian than he is, to Jacob for a blessing and a last encounter with the great patriarch of early Jewish life.
Now I don’t know if anyone reads the Forward any more. I still take a glance through it when it comes out if I have the time. This week there was an article that described current demographic trends in the Jewish community, and showed that the overall percentage of Jews who are Orthodox is rapidly growing. If you take the Jewish community and divide it into three age ranges – 56 and older, 28-45, and 17 and younger, this is what you see: Jews 56 and older %5 are Orthodox – that is it! In the 28-45 age range that percentage grows significantly – %15 of Jews between the ages of 28-45 are Orthodox. But then you get to 17 and younger and the number grows even more dramatically – %27 in that age range are Orthodox!
You might look at those numbers and think ‘this is good for the Jews,’ because the community will more and more be made up of Orthodox Jews, who are observant, knowledgable and devoted to their faith. Those Jews should be able to transmit a sense of the importance of Judaism and the tradition to their children and grandchildren, and ensure a process of continuity for the Jewish people for generations to come. Good for the Jews, right?
But I think there is also a potential problem in that growing percentage of Orthodox Jews, namely this: in the Orthodox community you don’t have any Josephs. You don’t have people who are fully assimilated and integrated into American life and culture. And I would argue that for the Jewish community to be safe and sound and successful, we need to have some Josephs out there. We need people who know they are Jewish, but who are comfortable and fully integrated in the secular world. We need people who have non-Jewish friends and business contacts. We need people who feel just as comfortable in the non-Jewish world as they do in the Jewish world. We need Jews involved in government, the sciences, the arts, the media, the entertainment world. And by and large those Jews are not going to come from the Orthodox community, which if anything is becoming more insular, and more distant and cut off from the secular world.
So do we need to worry about assimilation? We do – it IS growing, and it does present us with greater and greater challenges in terms of maintaining our identity and traditions and the continuity of our faith. And the increase in the Orthodox population will help to address those challenges. But we should also remember that assimilation should be celebrated, that it is symbol of the Jewish community’s success, and that without it we would simply not be where we are today. May we continue from strength to strength for generations to come –