- Written by David Brickner
The Vanishing American Jew
by Alan M. Dershowitz
(Boston: Little, Brown & Co.)
395 pp. $24.95
With a title as bleak as The Vanishing American Jew, one might expect this latest offering from famed Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz to be a dour exercise in whining and hand-wringing. But instead of sounding like a prophet of doom, Dershowitz assumes the tone of a witty sage, offering insights on Jewish history, religion and politics with generous helpings of humor and personal anecdotes.
It is, perhaps, for very personal reasons that Dershowitz has written this book. He honestly recounts his own soul searching over his son Jamin's decision to marry an Irish Catholic woman. With the question, Will my grand-children be Jewish?" haunting him, one can't help feeling that this personal angst will color whatever conclusions Dershowitz may draw. No wonder part of his solution calls upon rabbis to embrace those who intermarry. Still, his openness about personal matters in the book is admirable.
Indeed, if this most colorful of public personalities was to be criticized, it might be for his frequent appearances at center stage with a host of interesting people in "supporting roles." However, name dropping is a forgivable offense when the stories are genuinely interesting -- and his are. On one occasion, Dershowitz tells how President Chaim Weizmann invited him and a group of international Jewish leaders to Israel to represent various communities of Diaspora Jews. He recounts how he stood up in the conference to contradict Weizmann and set him straight on a particular point. He also weaves in a story of how his efforts led to President Clinton being the only U.S. president ever to attend a Jewish High Holiday service. These anecdotes make for stimulating reading but don't provide much insight into the issue of the "vanishing Jew."
Nevertheless, there is a good deal of substance here. Dershowitz identifies problems that seem to be leading to the decline of American Jewry. In his opinion, "The primary reason why so many Jews, especially young Jews, are marrying non-Jews and assimilating today is that they do not see any positive reasons for remaining Jewish." Yet Dershowitz does not offer any of those positive reasons in his proposal for a solution. He also points out that dwelling on anti-Semitism is a poor rallying cry for maintaining Jewish identity. The victim mentality that kept the Jewish people together for so many generations has become irrelevant to younger Jews.
Perhaps Dershowitz's key weakness is in his refusal to acknowledge "the God connection" as he addresses the question of Jewish perpetuity. "I do not believe we are a 'chosen people' in the sense of any divine preference -- the fate of the Jewish people should not be left in God's hands," he comments. In fact, his conclusion calls for the recognition of an entirely secular Judaism.
Dershowitz deletes God from the equation because he doesn't believe in God. He considers himself an agnostic and shows nothing but disdain for those who believe God ordained the Jewish people for his own purposes. "Let foolish fundamentalists who find answers to all of today's problems in the literal words of yesterday's texts remain free to fetter their lives in the chains of the past -- just so long as they do not insist on binding others with those chains," Dershowitz says. He then spends three pages demonstrating to his own satisfaction that arguments for the existence of God are inconclusive at best. (One can almost hear his sigh of relief in having convinced himself of the unfathomability of these matters.)
Dershowitz's unwillingness to allow a divine component in the question of Jewish survival leaves him with the same old, tired arguments for Jewish survival. His "workable solution" is Jewish education. "If learning is indeed the secret of Jewish survival, then unless we can reverse the trend toward Jewish ignorance, we are doomed," he remarks.
But when has Jewish survival ever been a matter of our own learning? In fact, Jewish survival is no secret at all to those familiar with "yesterday's texts," for the God of Israel has staked his reputation on the survival of the Jews: "Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for a light by day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, 'If those ordinances depart from before Me,' says the Lord, 'then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before me forever.'"1
Throughout history, people and nations have failed to wipe out the Jewish people, not because of our own wisdom or strength, but because God has promised to protect and preserve us for his name's sake. How tragic it is that someone as passionate for his own people as Dershowitz would rely on Jewish education for answers, yet reject our greatest source of wisdom. Learning about ourselves will not save us from assimilation. Knowing our God will. Personal relationships with our Creator will make the difference in the lives of American Jews and anyone else, for that matter.
The prophet Jeremiah gives a stinging rebuke to those who would try to substitute learning or anything else for a relationship with God, who says, "My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns -- broken cisterns that can hold no water."2 Education is well and good as far as it goes, but when it comes to Jewish survival, the answers must be found in our fountain of living waters.