By Alex Kress, NFTY-PAR Alumni and HUC-JIR student
During the High Holy Days, we spend a significant portion of t’filot focusing inward in an attempt to improve ourselves for the coming year. But this Shabbat, I want to take our focus from the micro of the High Holy Days to the macro; from focusing on bettering ourselves to thinking about how we can strengthen the American Jewish community as a whole.
Every ten years or so an extensive survey is conducted to assess the state of American Jewry. The poll determines how many of us there are and the denomination we affiliate with. It discovers the rate of intermarriage and what American Jews find essential to being Jewish.
The results were released last week, which I discovered because I awoke to a newsfeed littered with tens of posts that this year’s Pew “Poll Shows [a] Major Shift in [the] Identity of US Jews.” Ma nishta na haShanah hazeh?” I thought to myself.
Why is this year different from any other?
Some were distressed at the intermarriage rate: “71% intermarriage outside of Orthodox. Oy Vey,” one rabbi wrote. Even with the Orthodox, the intermarriage rate is still at 58%, an enormous jump from 1970 when only 17% of Jews married outside the faith.
Another lamented the increase in Jewish adults who identify as having no religion, nearly 22%- it jumps to 32% among millennials, or all of us born after 1980.
Yet another was shocked that 34% of Jewish adults said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus is the messiah. I admit that I too find that rather shocking.
But the person who won ‘best Facebook response to the Pew Survey’ was Benji Lovitt, an American born Israeli comedian. In response to the frantic responses of the Jewish community, Benji wrote a parody article, Onion style, taking comedic swings at all of the denominations.
First a jab at the Orthodox: “The [Pew Research Center] was unable to reach a critical mass of [Orthodox] constituents, as they would not take phone calls from female pollsters,” he facetiously reported.
Next was our Reform Movement: “Seventy four percent of Reform Jews were found to really enjoy eating cheeseburgers. Surprisingly, this number rose to 86% among the rabbinical community.” Guilty as charged.
Then his own conservative movement: “Fifty-seven percent of responders who identified themselves as Conservative Jews claimed to have no idea what they stand for and had no further comment.”
And continued with jabs at the Reconstructions and Messianic Jews before claiming that “54% of Jews believe that a Christmas tree has no place in a Jewish home between January and November.”
While Benji fabricated those statistics in jest, I found the most interesting REAL statistic in the Pew Study was that having a sense of humor is more important to Jewish adults than being part of a Jewish community, observing Jewish law is more important than eating Jewish foods! Having humor is nearly as essential to Jewish identity among the Jewish adults polled as caring about Israel!
So why is it so important for us to have a sense of humor? Why is it essential to Jewish identity to be able to take a step back and laugh?
For one, laughter is one of our best survival mechanisms. Every holiday we are reminded of the same joke: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” It’s 1 part morbid to 1 part celebratory, with a pinch of Jewish guilt: It’s the quintessential Jewish joke.
During an internet comedy special, Jerry Seinfeld asked Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner about Mel’s famous film and play The Producers: Did “you think there was a profound revenge for Hitler’s crimes in making fun of him?”
Carl Reiner responds first: “The very fact that he did the definitive work against Hitler in the world! That the musical played in Germany and was the biggest hit!”
Mel chimes in a few seconds later: “I don’t know if they really liked it or were just apologizing. I’m not sure.”
But even more profound than laughter as a survival mechanism is laughter as an affirmation of life. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (FREED-rik NEE-chuh, if you were wondering) writes that one must learn to laugh at themselves. He teaches that ‘to laugh is to affirm life, even the suffering in life.’
Why then, is it so important, as Benji so wonderfully demonstrated, for us American Jews to be able to laugh about the recent poll numbers, that are startling on the surface? I think the answer comes from the 19th century Jewish movement known as mussar. Alan Morinis teaches us that “The word mussar itself means “correction” or “instruction” and also serves as the simple Hebrew word for “ethics.” But Mussar is most accurately described as a way of life. It shines light on the causes of suffering and shows us how to realize our highest spiritual potential, including an everyday experience infused with happiness, trust, and love.”
The ability to laugh at yourself, as Nietzsche called for, is essentially having an accurate self awareness, that is neither too grand nor too diminished. In other words, the instruction that comes with the ability to laugh at yourself is the soul trait of anavah, or humility.
As the judgments on the survey rolled out in social media and trickled through the Jewish world, it occurred to me that there were far too many insular oy veys and not enough ironic amusement; There was too much “this is the end all be all indictment of American Judaism’ and not enough “Really? Twice as many people age 18-49 can speak and understand Hebrew than the generation before them!”
Instead of building on the similarities that we share, the innate reaction to the survey was an egotistical hysteria over our personal values that were not reflected in the survey. We cared more about intermarriage skyrocketing than 94% saying they are proud to be Jewish!
C.S. Lewis wrote that, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Being humble individually allows us collectively, as an American Jewish people, to collaborate, to hear other opinions and views, to synthesize new ideas and visions, to join forces and strengthen an American Jewish community whose foundation needs rethinking.
Our tradition teaches us that ‘A small deed done in humility is a thousand times more acceptable to God than a great deed done in pride.’ By humbly working together, whether collaborating within the Reform Movement across synagogue and youth group affiliations or strengthening lines of communication interdenominationally, we can accomplish more collectively than we ever could alone.
But if our pride is too much to overcome and in ten years the results of the next survey are truly devastating and the End of the World is near, at least we will agree on one thing, according to Benji: that bagels are delicious.