Freedom: The Promise And The Challenge

"Freedom to observe, freedom to neglect," in the words of one 19th-century rabbi

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Yet it was never quite that simple, as even some of those fortunate American Jews understood. For all the horrors of the golus (exile), it had relieved Jews of the responsibility to determine for themselves the basis of identity and the obligation of community. Whatever vi­cious rifts had rent Jewry in the Old World--Hasidim versus Mitnagdim [Orthodox Jews who vehemently opposed the Hasidic movement] in Poland and Lithuania, Reform ver­sus Modern Orthodox in Germany, freethinkers like Mendelssohn and Spinoza against Judaism itself--re­mained irrelevant to the impermeable barrier between Christian and Jew.

Freedom to Observe or Neglect

"In countries where we have lived for centuries," Theodor Herzl wrote, "we are still cried down as strangers." That barrier, as much as Talmud and To­rah, maintained the concept of Klal Yisrael [the community of Israel]. But as early as 1893, well before the bulk of Jewish immigration and nearly a century ahead of the peak era of assimilation, a Reform rabbi named Maurice Harris delivered a remark­ably perceptive prophecy about the mixed blessing of American freedom:

Those Jews are emancipated in America in the fullest sense; we are an integral part of the nation, sharing its duties and its rights, and at times indistinguishable from the Gentiles. In the large cities there are self-im­posed Ghettoes, it is true, but they are created by pover­ty rather than religion, and their ranks are serried by many agnostic and atheistic exceptions, who, neverthe­less, pass uncriticized. The religious freedom for which we have fought 3,000 years is ours at last. But there are two sides to freedom--freedom to observe, freedom to neglect. In the Ghetto, it was easier to observe; in the larger world, it is easier to neglect.

Those words echo through the decades and indeed the centuries. It is true that America has been a Promised Land for Jews, the re­joinder not only to the Dreyfus Affair, the Kishinev pogrom, Stalin and Hitler, but al­so to the Zionist precept that Jews could only live a nor­mal life in a Jewish state.

At this juncture in time, Jews hold more than 30 seats in Congress while accounting for less than two percent of the population. In the Ivy League universities that before World War II maintained anti-Semitic quotas, Jews now account for 20 to 30 percent of their student bodies and faculties. The most successful musical in Broadway history, at least financially speaking, is that quintessential example of edgy, outsider Jewish humor, Mel Brooks' The Producers. And when Joseph Lieberman was named Al Gore's running mate in 2000, the first Jewish candidate for vice president on a major party; Time magazine ran the cover headline "Chutzpah!" in the serene assurance that its tens of millions of non­-Jewish readers would get the joke.

It is also true, though, that there are "two sides to free­dom." Nowhere else in history have Jews been as eager and as successful in shedding their Jewishness, not as a life-saving act of conversion but as a willing selection in the cafeteria of American identity. Many hands have been wrung, many calumnies uttered, much ink spilled on the subject of the intermarriage rate, as if intermarriage were a disease with a cure rather than the logical outgrowth of our tribal love affair with America and America's with us. The thoroughgoing assimilation of post-war America, the emergence of Jewishness as just another brand of white ethnicity that can be halved or quartered, attests most profoundly to Oscar Wilde's aphorism to be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.

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Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author most recently of Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (Simon & Schuster), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.