David Plotz: Why Is Judaism Such a Failure?

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In his last blog, David Plotz, author of Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, noted how perturbed he was by the idea of alienation in Jewish religious practice, and asked the question: “Is it time to start worshiping idols?”

jewish book council my jewish learning authors blogAuthor Robert Wright is too polite to ask directly, but The Evolution of God poses an awkward question for Jews. His book goes to great lengths to highlight the contributions each of the three Abrahamic religions have made to the development of monotheism: Judaism for inventing it; Christianity for turning it into a global business model; Islam for refining that model. What Wright never quite grapples with, but we Jews must, is the question: Why is Judaism such a failure?

OK, it’s true that we’re here and all the assorted Molechites, Baalites, Edomites, Canaanites, and other wicked -ites who bedeviled us in the Bible are nowhere to be found. So we can feel pretty good about that. But God told us we would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. We aren’t! If you believe the census data in the Torah — though I don’t — the Jewish population has grown only sevenfold in the last 3,500 years, a period during which the global population has multiplied more than thousandfold.

david plotz the good bookAnd just compare us to Christianity and Islam! They’ve got a billion-plus adherents each. And they’re growing like crazy, whereas if you can add a single Jew to the global roster these days, you’re practically hailed as a hero.

So where did we go wrong? (Incidentally, I’m doing my part: Three kids! All with nice Jewish names.) The Evolution of God gives a few hints, more about what the Christians and Muslims have done right than what Jews have done wrong. In the case of Christianity, for example, emphasizing brotherly love, piggybacking on the communities of the Roman Empire to expand, and ditching unpleasant entrance requirements (circumcision, dietary laws) all grew the business.

So why have we been so demographically unsuccessful? One important reason, of course, is that we’ve been repeatedly targeted for extermination. But there are others. We’re very finicky about whom we accept, and theologically, we’re pretty rigid. There are only a few varieties of Judaism, but there are practically endless varieties of Christianity, ranging from Orthodox traditions that encourage iconography to Catholic traditions that venerate Mary, to liberation theologies, to throwback Amish and Mennonites, to a Mormon offshoot that supposes Jesus came to America, to a Unitarian tradition that rejects the Trinity.

The monotheism of Christianity has one simple principle—accept Christ and his resurrection, essentially—and allows worshipers to customize the religion in practically any way they see fit. Speak in tongues! Pray to saints! Do a Latin mass! Do a punk service! Christianity has managed to crush or swallow so many other religions because it’s so adaptable.

We’ve managed to avoid being crushed or swallowed. But we’ve also decided not to compete. (Christianity is Toyota. Judaism is Ferrari.) Judaism largely refuses to adapt to local conditions. One of the oddest moments of my life was watching one Japanese Jew chew out another Japanese Jew for bringing a shrimp-flavored snack on a school field trip: It is almost literally an impossibility to avoid shrimp and pork in Japan.

The idea that our poor co-religionists in Tokyo have to sweat every snack food ingredient is deeply poignant. Our rigidity is a useful survival strategy in a difficult, unfriendly world. It strengthens in-group bonding, and enables us to defend our identities in far-flung places. But it also makes us almost uniquely ill-equipped to entice new adherents. To put it into Wright’s framework: Maybe our god isn’t evolving.

David Plotz is the editor of Slate magazine. His new book Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, is available now.

Posted on July 17, 2009

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3 thoughts on “David Plotz: Why Is Judaism Such a Failure?

  1. PaulGolin

    Hi David,

    I agree that Jews are “finicky about whom we accept” and would add that we are “too” finicky. Gary Tobin, who just passed away last week, wrote an excellent book on that topic called “Opening the Gates.” The problem is that our rigidity, which you rightfully identify as “a useful survival strategy in a difficult, unfriendly world” is much less relevant in the United States, an easy, friendly place for Jews. We therefore need a new strategy, which I believe is to better welcome newcomers into our community.

    However, I think you are remiss and almost irresponsible in suggesting that Christianity and Islam spread based solely on their ideology, without at all mentioning a little practice called “conversion by the sword.” Islam did not explode out of Arabia because Mohammed’s followers were wielding pamphlets. And Christianity did not “piggyback on the communities of the Roman Empire to expand” – what are you even trying to say there? It was adopted as the state religion, with proselytizing by other religions becoming illegal and severely punished. People weren’t given a choice or swayed by ideology. European Christians then went on to brutally conquer and colonize Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia, followed in tow by missionaries who “converted” the “savages” that their conquering armies had just decimated. It wasn’t a roundtable discussion on theology. (Buddhism may be the best example of spreading relatively peaceably but you don’t mention it.)

    I’m proud that as far as I know, the last time Jews converted by the sword was over 2,000 years ago (the Maccabees after recapturing the Temple). If the world is finally at the point where Judaism can compete in some kind of roundtable for new recruits, let’s get it on. But I don’t buy for a minute that it was Christianity’s or Islam’s more appealing or flexible ideology that got them a billion followers each (and I would suggest your description of Christianity’s flexibility as THE factor for growth is disproven by Islam having the same success without flexibility).


  2. matthue

    Christianity has gotten a bad rap as far as its converting practices go. I think we overestimate the role of pressure, violence and disease that were responsible for its spread — I think it was a lot more directly connected to social pressure and an eagerness to jump on new trends and ideas.

    Whereas Judaism, well, (a) isn’t that new, and (b) doesn’t mandate preaching, conversion, or testifying about being saved as a fundamental part of its practice.

    Ironic, that two Jews are discussing this and their names are Paul and Matthue. :)

  3. PaulGolin

    Hi Matthue,

    Um, the Spanish Inquisition? The constant threat (and periodic enactment) of expulsions from almost every European country at some point in history if Jews did not convert? Is that just a bad rap?! Or is it actual history. I don’t know exactly what you mean by “social pressure” but I wouldn’t categorize the choice of “convert or die” as jocular peer pressure or jumping on new trends. Jews didn’t get an apology for the Spanish Inquisition for 500 years. There are still “crypo-Jews” today who are rediscovering their Jewish roots, after countless generations of their families practiced the remnants of Jewish traditions in fear and secrecy because of the “social pressure” their Christian neighbors might apply to them if they learned of these strange practices.

    Here’s an analogy: When Russia and China became communist, the new state “religion” became atheism. Would you therefore say the people under those regimes were just being eager to jump on a new trend?! Yes, people in the Roman Empire in the first/second/third centuries AD were definitely seeking something new, and Judaism reached its peak in terms of percentage of population because it was spreading (probably through proselytizing) exactly for that reason; so of course there were many people at that time who were embracing Christianity from the bottom of their hearts. But when a totalitarian system like the Roman Empire decrees a state religion and outlaws all other religions, it’s kind of hard to know just how wholehearted any individual’s particular conversion is, and it’s safe to assume that huge numbers did it simply because they had no other choice.

    And that’s just Europe! What the conquistadors and slave-traders did was genocide 400 years before the word was invented. Most African-Americans today are Christian; gee, how did THAT happen? They weren’t Christian when they got on those ships in chains…

    Which is not to say that many slaves and their descendants were not devout Christians! I am in no way belittling anyone’s beliefs. But the question at hand here is how were the major “more successful” monotheistic religions spread, and I do not think I’m overestimated the immense suffering that countless hundreds of millions of souls underwent as their peoples were being converted to Christianity and Islam. By the second generation of believers, it might not matter and they may be thrilled to be that religion, but again, we’re talking about how it spread.

    You’re right that Jews don’t mandate conversion or testifying and that’s what I was saying I’m proud of, and which I wish other religions were the same. Because too many times in history, when the preaching and testifying didn’t seem to work, swords and guns finished the job. If not doing that is Judaism “failing” according to Mr. Plotz, let’s keep failing miserably!


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