Rav Soloveitchik and Social Issues: The Diaspora Jewry Shoah

Mourning the ‘invisible Shoah’ of Diaspora Jewry.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Marriage contract (ketuba), ring
Marriage contract (ketuba), ring

The commandment to historically mourn

Rav Soloveitchik emphasizes that Tisha B'Av, which was this past Sunday,  is both a communal fast day, and a day of national mourning (a day of ‘avelut  yeshanah’, historical, retrospective mourning). And just as the mitzvoth of Pesach help us to existentially re-experience each year our personal exodus from Egypt, the customs of mourning and the saying of kinot on Tisha B'Av allow us to fulfill the commandment and personally enter into an emotional state of grief and sorrow over past events of Jewish destruction. 

Diaspora Jewry is undergoing a catastrophic, historical change

This article suggests that when we select topics of national destruction for our historical, retrospective mourning (our avelut yeshanah), we should consider the ‘invisible Shoah’ currently occurring in all of Diaspora Jewry. This disaster contains two elements. One, the disappearance of 50% of Diaspora Jewry every forty years due to intermarriage with non-Jews. Second, there is, in the Diaspora,  an increasing number of  non- halakhic Jews (people who self identify as being Jewish, but are not considered Jewish by our halakha)  who transiently adopt elements of Jewish identity and significantly  participate in Jewish communal life. In both case, the ethnically Jewish Diaspora (that has existed for thousands of years) is rapidly changing, and becoming a literal ‘balagan’ (a real mess) when judged by rabbinic halakha.

Rav Soloveitchik explains mourning the destruction of our Temple in the context of the historical tragedies of Clal Yisrael

The Rav teaches that the focus of our historical mourning must not simply be the physical destruction of the wood and stones of the Temple. It must use this historical event to mourn the spiritual distancing of G-d from his chosen Jewish people, and the physical and spiritual diminishing of the Jewish people that accompanies our loss of closeness to our G-d.

The Rav thus writes, “What is the topic of the Kinot (our avelut yeshanah)…Is our main request the rebuilding of the (wood and stones) of the Beit Mikdash? No…There is one thing we want…the disappearance of the iron curtain separating Ha Kodesh Baruch Hu from us…all we ask is …the unity between Him and Knesset Yisrael…G-d is far from us…H e is (also) very close to us. Let us experience this closeness…The mourning of Tisha B'Av has to be taught…we must learn how to mourn, to wail (to personally experience sadness and grief). (However)…the meaning of Tisha B'Av is not (just) pure emotion…There is, rather, an intellectual understanding that whatever tragic event happened (or happens to the Jewish People, such as the Holocaust) it is in reality an extension , a result, a consequence of the (original) hurban Beit Ha Mikdash… (for) the hurban Beit Ha Mikdash means the total experience of the Jews in exile…Hurban Beit Ha Mikdash ( should thus be understood) as the total galut, or exile experience “.  Jewish halacha thus prohibits, for the first part of Tisha B'Av,  all actions , such as  work and even regular Torah study, that will distract us from our existential goal of entering into a personal state of intellectual and emotional mourning over the tragedies of our exile, both past and present.

The catastrophic, social changes that are occurring amongst Diaspora Jewry

The current state of Diaspora Jewry is a justified topic for our mourning this Tisha B'Av.It is rapidly changing in ways that are catastrophic when judged by Jewish halacha. Thank G-d that he prepared the state of Israel as His covenantal answer to this evolving disaster.

I do not want to sound alarmist. I want to simply expose the general, Israeli religious public to three sociological facts. These facts are that:

1)Jews are disappearing in the Diaspora because Jews under 45 are experiencing negative population growth; that is to say that they are marrying late, if at all, and have less than two children ; and

2) Jews are rapidly intermarrying at a rate of over 50% in almost all Diaspora  (non Orthodox) communities.

These two negative developments have historical precedent. The third negative development has virtually no historical precedent, that is the phenomenon of ‘reverse assimilation ‘; the mass entry  of non-Jews into Jewish communal life. In our politically liberal age of very fluid and flexible cultural/ethnic identities, many non-Jews (as judged by the halakha) find it meaningful and interesting to transiently become involved in Jewish religious and cultural activities at various stage of their life. Thus, 30-40% of participants in Conservative synagogues, and 40-70% of participants in Reform synagogues, are non-Jews by halakhic standards. Many leaders of major Jewish organizations are non-Jews according to our halakha.

Liberal, non-orthodox Jews warmly welcome this type of ‘reverse assimilation’. Armed by their post modern, relativistic liberal ‘theology’, they see the inclusion of non-Jews in communal/synagogue life as a blessed event of multi-culturalism, one that spreads the wealth of Jewish learning and custom, in a universal, humanistic manner, to the whole world. (Don’t laugh. They are extremely serious in this strategy. They regard themselves as progressive multi-culturalists, and orthodox Jews as old fashioned, ethnic nationalists, or even worse, as racists).

These Reform leaders thus claim that American Jewry is thus growing and not disappearing (and will soon reach a total of seven million Americans who self-identify themselves as ‘Jews’). Orthodox Jewish leaders estimate, in contrast, that there are only three and a half to four million Jews (by halakhic standards) left in America, of whom roughly 600,000 are shomer Shabbat)

The grave consequences of the changing character of Diaspora Jewry

In brief, our tragedy is several folds. First, simply the number of Jews in the Diaspora is rapidly diminishing. Second,  the number of non Jews (by halakhic standards) who self identify as Jews,  and are  active in Jewish communal activities, is growing. These events inevitably create tremendous tension and potential conflict with the Israeli Jewish state and community where at least 90% of self identifying Jews are also Jews by halakhic standards, and where the status of marriage and conversion is still determined by halakhic standards.

Three, we are thus witnessing the rapid creation of two ‘Jewish’ communities who are different in an historically unprecedented way. Throughout most of Jewish history, there were communities of ethnic-halakhic, observant Jews, and communities of ethnic –halakhic, non observant Jews (frequently mixed). Jews who assimilated by conversion or intermarriage usually left the Jewish fold because there was little personal gain, and often a heavy price, by remaining part of the Jewish community.

Now for the first time, we will have an halakhic, ethnic Jewish community in the state of Israel (nationalistic, and traditionally religious in its social culture), and correspondingly ,in the Diaspora, a self identifying, self proclaimed, non-ethnic, non-halakhically defined ‘Jewish’ community based on liberal, humanistic , multi-cultural values.  (plus 15% orthodox  Jews) . Reform and most Conservative leaders see this as a positive, fruitful development. We orthodox Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, hold our heads and mourn over this tragic, historically unprecedented, ‘balagan’ (real mess).

Let us trust in G-d’s wisdom

We orthodox Jews- as often in our history- both bless |G-d, and , at the same time, wonder about His ways. Today, we bless him for creating the Jewish state in the Land of Israel as an effective answer to the challenge of assimilation, and as a mechanism for our religious and national rebirth. We wonder, at the same time, to what destination is G-d leading Diaspora Jewry

I humbly suggest that this silent, rapidly diminishing of Diaspora Jewry is a significant, real topic for our historical, retrospective mourning on Tisha B'Av .