David Plotz: Why Is Judaism Such a Failure?

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 book
And 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.

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