Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Purpose of Assimilation

Essay: The Purpose of Assimilation

This is an article that may upset people and confuse others. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think these thoughts. The curse of a writer is to think with his fingers. Disclaimer: I’m not a historian, anthropologist, social scientist, scholar, nor do I have any academic credentials whatsoever to tackle the below – however, this has never stopped me from attempting anything…

The Jewish community of Montevideo is much like a very large extended family. In my experience and from visits to Jewish communities around the world, one usually finds a mixture of backgrounds, beliefs and affiliations with few connections between the different Jewish groups.

What I am discovering, having been here only a short time, is that many of the Jews I’ve met are related, know each other, grew up with each other and are connected to each other by at most one degree of separation.

It makes for interesting social and community dynamics, and I think that the differences that exist in most typical Jewish communities are felt more keenly, for better or worse, in Montevideo.

I want to touch on one aspect of Jewish existence that my observations have led me to start thinking about, but from a completely atypical perspective. I want to give some thought to assimilation.

Assimilation is the term that traditional Jews use when a fellow Jew “assimilates” to the host culture and cuts all or most ties to Jewish tradition and practice. This is closely connected to “intermarriage” where a Jew marries a non-Jew. Though related, the two terms are not interchangeable, as you may often find a Jewish couple that “assimilates” and you may also have an “intermarried” couple with strong Jewish identity. However, history has shown a certain correlation between “intermarriage” and “assimilation”.

I don’t want to discuss the reasons for either of these phenomena. They have been around since the beginning of the Jewish nation and show no sign of slowing down. Nor do I want to attack the defenders, the foes or those impartial to the dilution of Jewish identity.

What I want to do is look briefly at the phenomena from a historical perspective, based on the belief that beyond free will there is some master plan and purpose to Jewish history within the stream of world history. This is a priori a difficult question and perspective and may be akin to attempting to divine the “reason” behind the tragedies that befall us.

Nonetheless, the question is in my mind and I can’t let go. So, what might be the purpose, if we could be so bold as to ask, of the assimilation of Jews throughout history into its host cultures around the world?

I have not seen this question asked, let alone answered, but I will give it a try. The problem with asking the question is that it immediately gives “assimilation” some type of legitimacy and perhaps assumes some positive purpose to a phenomenon that throughout Jewish history has been considered akin to the death of a Jew.

However, in our generation we have seen these feelings watered down considerably to the point where “assimilation” and, “intermarriage,” however defined, are likely at historic highs with no slowdown in sight.

If we detach ourselves from what may be considered the tragedy of the abandonment and loss of generations of Jews from our small nation we may come to some surprising conclusions or at least theories.

Without getting into the minutia of Jewish history and using very broad strokes, two major Jewish “cultures” have survived to our day. I am talking of the Sepharadi and Ashkenazi traditions. Within these major grouping there are dozens and perhaps even hundreds of nuances and traditions

A third, much smaller group that stayed fairly isolated for hundreds of years are Yemenite Jews that have a narrower but perhaps historically more authentic tradition (their Hebrew pronunciation certainly seems more authentic than either of the two major traditions).

However, in the past century, we have found with increasing frequency “lost Jews”. Whether it is in Asia or Africa, communities have come forward that somehow, through millennia, have survived with some aspect of Jewish identity, practice or tradition, some theorized to go as far back as the exile of the ten tribes from Israel in biblical times.

From slightly more recent times we are discovering individuals throughout Europe, the Americas and even Australia that can trace their ancestry to the Jews of Spain who during the Inquisition were forced into mass conversions to Christianity but secretly kept some aspect of Jewish identity for centuries.

Now I take a step back and, without getting into the causes and tragedies, ask myself what has been the effect of these ancient “assimilations” and the resurgence, centuries and millennia later, of the descendents of these assimilationists, in all the populated continents of the world?

This is perhaps where the very visual, writer/engineer in me comes to the fore and I try to imagine a graphical representation of what my mind is trying to understand.

I picture a stormy sea of humanity. I picture some ink, some dye that has been spilled into this sea. The ink is the Jews. If we want to take the metaphor to a more visionary or even kabalistic direction, the ink can be shiny and sparkly, lighting the dark, turbulent ocean, though I’m not sure how that might work chemically.

The ink/sparks move with the current. But the current is unpredictable. It takes the sparks in many different directions. It splits the sparks up and sends them to all corners of the earth. Some of the sparks stay together in long, strong, continuous waves of light and color. Some of the sparks are taken to dark, far places where only a handful or even a single spark will reach and be occluded by the dark all around, remaining hidden from sight and even knowledge for a long time, but there nonetheless, dormant.

But then the waters move again, carrying the sparks in yet new directions. Reuniting old sparks with new ones, strengthening certain congregations of sparks while other streams get darker, weaker.

After millennia of mixing, there are Jewish sparks throughout the planet. It may be safe to say today, that almost anyone, whether they are of European, Asian, African or other descent, may have a Jewish ancestor. Some of the new statistics and anecdotes that are being compiled offer surprising revelations.

An undisclosed US security official (yes, security…) estimated that as many as 45 million Americans may be of Jewish descent, if not much more. A significant percentage of Spaniards, Portuguese and the colonizers of the new world are likely to have Jewish blood in their veins. More Asian and African peoples are revealing their Jewish roots. Individuals throughout the world are discovering their Jewish ancestry. What does it mean? What is the significance? How does this help us understand the assimilation that is occurring today?

After the Israeli government and army expelled the Jewish residents of Gush Katif from their homes, I was highly distraught. I had been a participant in the effort to forestall the expulsion and felt that Israel had dealt itself a severe blow. My father, however, said a few words that gave me some consolation. He said: “You can’t steal land.” The land will remain. The rightful owners will reclaim it one day.

I think in a certain sense the same must be true for a Jew. You can’t “lose” a Jew. A Jew remains a Jew no matter what. It is true that he may be so disenfranchised as to be barely recognizable as a Jew, however one may define that. It is true that by virtue of marriage and Jewish law, his children will not be formal Jews as to the letter of the law, but nonetheless, there is a Jewish spark flowing in the veins of their descendants. We have seen countless times converts that feel a burning desire to join the Jewish nation that either before or after discover their Jewish ancestry.

In my opinion, the assimilation of Jews to their host culture over the past millennia, centuries, decades, years, months, weeks, days and hours is part of a historic process. The classic view has been that this is a tragedy on a grand scale, that we have lost these members of our tribe. I agree with this view on the present level, where intervention is a possibility. A Jew who has a choice to remain affiliated with his people should do so. However, underneath the surface there is something strange and perhaps even wonderful brewing.

I am not proposing a change in Jewish law, but rather a change in perspective.

The wild, dark, turbulent oceans are now filled with sparks. And apparently it is meant to be so, especially if we believe in the guiding hand of God. I think the first step is to accept that this is so. We can no longer afford to live in denial. There are untold numbers of people of Jewish biological descent that are showing interest in their roots. The second step is to accept these sparks, the sparks that are attempting to reconnect, wherever they are and in whatever form they appear. They are our brothers, sparks that have survived generations in the dark, as outcasts, and now seek to somehow rejoin the bright stream. The third is to embrace and nurture these sparks. It is more than simple acceptance. It is to welcome them. It is to smile at them; to hug them. To tell them, yes, I recognize you. You are part of my family. We may be generations estranged. We may no longer speak the same language, have the same traditions, hold the same beliefs, but there is something deeper, more intrinsic, of grander fate that unites us. There is an ancestry not only of genealogy but also of faith, of mission, of purpose that needs to be rediscovered, re-explained, revived. We must find ways to bridge those gaps, to fill the void, to reconnect with the sparks of our brothers and thereby fill the world with light.

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