For a long time, Judaism survived because it was comfortable defining itself by its differences -- by its distinction from dominant culture. The myriad laws constraining interaction with the outside world, whom we may eat with and drink with, when we are allowed to do what kind of business with whom and how we must behave, how we must dress in a distinct fashion and not follow societal trends. All these rules helped keep us separate, as we were separate in Egypt and throughout history. We weren't always put in ghettoes; we often put ourselves in them because they insured the insular community which we craved by law. The eiruvs that we established reminded us that our religious identity and community have borders and we shouldn't stray too far. The rules for travel in general, limiting when we go, where we go and why we go. The fact that Jewish identity is so deeply interfused into every aspect of our being was a way of our keeping tabs on ourselves as Jews constantly. We are and always have been a distinct nation -- visible and different.
Today's watchword, though, is integration. We are modern Orthodox Jews who claim to be able to live in both worlds (that of our tradition and heritage and that of the modern Western culture) simultaneously. We can compartmentalize our beliefs so we can learn about and reconcile with what might otherwise be troubling and challenging secular ideas. We can be fully up-to-date on mass culture and yet somehow, be living lives completely in concert with the practices of our ancestors. And then we wonder about assimilation and intermarriage.
How, we wonder, can we get our children to love their religion and hold tight to its principles and practices? We ask this as we drive them to a party pumping the latest secular music. How, we fret, can we help our children stay in touch with their traditions and abide by religious law? We ponder this as we drop them off at the mall with a skimpy outfit and a credit card and say "see you in a few hours. Be good."
As I grow older I realize that, as admirable as the goal of having integrated, modern Orthodox children is, it might be unattainable. Maybe, the exact nature of what we are trying to do flies in the face of what has kept us "us" for so long. We didn't Hellenize in ancient Maccabean times and we didn't try to find a way to be sort of like the Greeks and yet still expect to be like the Jews. In Shushan, we were punished for fraternizing (in fact, most of our holidays are celebrations of different-ness, marked by rituals which separate us and pointing out in our prayers that we are not like anyone else and should be happy with that).
The tension which we create by trying to be two things at once may be what ultimately tears us apart. Instead of celebrating this friction and saying that it represents the best of the Jewish experience, being of the world but not losing ourselves in the world, maybe we should be saying that we appreciate the world and will enter into it when it is necessary but we are NOT of the world. We are a light to the nations exactly because we don't feel the need to be of the world.
I know. I'm a dinosaur. I sound like I am yearning for a new ghetto and a lifestyle much like shtetl living. But haven't many of us already proven that? I chose to live in a city with a large Jewish population. I chose to live within walking distance of 4 or 5 synagogues. I like having my kosher restaurants within reach. I send my kids to Jewish schools so that they can be surrounded by their religious identity all the time. I am in a ghetto and I like it and even within this relatively insulated bubble, our children are so inundated with modern ideas that they stray and we lose them. Maybe we should stop apologizing for wanting to live in little gated communities, and stop laughing at the groups who separate themselves and sneer at us for our openness and permissiveness. Maybe they aren't all wrong. Maybe there is a happy medium in which we can watch some TV, and walk the streets wearing t-shirts with smarmy sayings but not feel like we have to watch all the TV or compromise any element of what we believe and who we are. That we don't have to change our laws (under the guise of "adapting them to new realities") but we don't have to look and act like we are stuck in the 18th century.
We are an ancient religion and pay homage to our history in so many ways; we talk about how our old practices aren't outmoded and our time honored theology is still vital and relevant. But we say that out of one side of our mouth while out of the other we talk about how much we are integrated into the world around us. And then we can't figure out why things seem so unsatisfying. One could even say (and if I am not in trouble for all these opinions already, this should put me over the top) that the modern state of Israel is the epitome of this problem. The state wants to be both a Jewish bastion and a modern integrated non-religious state at the same time. Maybe it just can't be. Yes, that is depressing and not the message anyone wants to hear, but it is a bit more honest than the self-delusion we are perpetrating and perpetuating when we try to hold on to the past while using both hands to embrace the future.
Maybe, the more we allow the outside world in, the more we have to compensate by having even stronger visible links to our religion. Maybe if we know we will eventually work in the secular world, instead of "preparing" our children but showing them the outside world at a young age, we should be tightening up our religious expectations and schooling for our children until they get to the point where they have to integrate. Maybe for every experience where we are so well mixed with the world, we should work at an equally extreme act of separation to remind ourselves that we aren't like anyone else.
I don't have all the answers but we have, for too long, been unwilling to ask the question. We have shied away from demanding honesty from ourselves regarding what we expect and what is a fair expectation of this experiment we are conducting on our families and religion. So do I want to live behind a wall, surrounded only by people like me? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But I can't expect the same efficient continuity of transmission or consistency of lineage when I say no.