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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What is the biggest challenge facing the religion today?
by Howard Greenstein

One of the major challenges facing the future vitality of Judaism in America is the increasing incidence of mixed marriage. The more reliable estimates of marital unions between Jews and non-Jews now range as high as 40%. Despite the efforts to stem the tide of such matches, the trend is likely to continue if not accelerate, given the mobility and openness of American society.

Although most reliable studies suggest that in the vast majority of cases in which the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism, the children of such marriages are raised as Jews, the outcome is not nearly so encouraging in cases where there is no conversion. Nearly three-quarters of children raised in such families go on to marry non-Jews themselves, and only 4% of these raise their own children as Jews. As for their links with Jewish life, only a minority of children raised by dual-religion parents identify themselves with Judaism or with the institutions of the Jewish community. Like their parents, most tend not to join synagogues, contribute to Jewish causes, visit Israel or participate in Jewish rituals nearly as much as do the children of in-married families.

In any event, whatever the implications of mixed marriage, its current phenomenal growth will inevitably alter the current patterns of Jewish belief and practice. Much will depend on the frequency of non-Jewish spouses converting to Judaism and thereby ensuring a better prospect for Jewish continuity in their own households. Curiously enough, a marriage in which one partner is a Jew by choice usually results in equally strong ties to Judaism as does a marriage in which both partners are Jews by birth.

One of the most compelling challenges of all in determining the future form and content of Judaism in America is the impact of Israel. For Jews in the Diaspora, Israel has served variously as a source of identity, peoplehood, pride and dignity, as a potential haven or a spiritual center, and for many others, as a surrogate for Judaism, if not a “secular” religion. For Israel, Jews in America and in other western democracies represent an irreplaceable source of economic, moral and political support. They are also the most fertile prospects for future immigration as well as for intellectual, scientific and technological assistance. Israel and Diaspora Jewry, especially American Jewry, are mutually dependent. Each is essential to the other, and each exerts a reciprocal influence and cultural pull on the other.

At the same time, the two communities are not without their disagreements. Some observers attribute those differences and difficulties to problems in “communication.” In most instances however, they do not entail problems of language; rather they reflect important differences on basic issues of ideology.

Frequently, those rifts evolve out of conflicting expectations about the goals and purposes of a Jewish state. For many American Jews, the policies of a Jewish state cannot be divorced from the moral mandate of Jewish faith. For most Israelis, the requirements of nationhood and those of Judaism are entirely separate. And in the eyes of many, both in Israel and the Diaspora, “ne’er the twain shall meet.”

Few will challenge the proposition that Israel will continue to play a central role in Jewish life. The real question is whether or not that role will exhaust all other indigenous creative ventures within American Jewry. Certainly the centrality of Israel is paramount in providing physical and spiritual insurance for Jews in the Diaspora, and in serving as an immediate haven for those Jewish communities already in distress.

Israel also serves as the world center to preserve, embody and renew Jewish traditions and values, to preserve and perpetuate Jewish history and to infuse new life into Jewish culture. It is the central address for Jewish existence in the world today which binds all Jews into a single, unified community.
This mutual responsibility among Jews in America, Israel and elsewhere is not just a theoretical proposition for public debate. It is a major building block for more intelligent and productive insights into the meaning of Jewish identity. The horizon of the American Jew is no longer limited by two oceans. It now encompasses the whole world.

Although the depth of their convictions and the quality of their Jewish lives will depend upon their own initiative as well as circumstances impossible to anticipate, American Jews will still find inspiration in knowing that their covenant with God has endured the best and worst of times. With sufficient faith and determination, it always will.


Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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