Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America

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9780684871042: Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America

"In an erudite and fascinating way, Elliott Abrams explores the immense but amazingly under-appreciated changes in Christian attitudes towards Jews as well as the failure of communication between orthodox and more secular Jews, arguing that American Jewry can only survive as a "religious" community. This provocative yet surprisingly readable book will foment discussion throughout the land."--Edward I. Koch, former mayor, New York City. (Judaism)

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Review:

The Jewish population in the United States may shrink by two million people in the next half-century. This demographic likelihood--well known in Jewish circles and due almost entirely to intermarriage--creates a dilemma for group survival. A big part of the problem, writes Elliott Abrams, has been the secularization of Jewish life. Abrams uncovers data showing that Jews are among the least religious people in America. Many have made a tragic mistake in equating Jewish security with removing all forms of religious devotion from public life. And now, says Abrams, they must either rediscover the faith that can sustain them or risk vanishing into the great American melting pot. Provocative, but persuasive, this highly readable book deserves a wide audience.

Review:

Abrams ... rehearses the Jewish decline with grim thoroughness. -- The New York Times Book Review, Richard A. Epstein

The grim data on Jewish assimilation and intermarriage that have called forth this book are by now well known. According to the National Jewish Population Study of 1990, most marriages involving an American Jew are exogamous. In short, the very survival of the American Jewish community is in doubt. To the growing chorus calling for strong action, Abrams adds his own distinctive voice.

Much of Elliott Abrams's book is devoted to an analysis less of the sociological facts than of the thinking that helped bring American Jewry to its present pass and even now occludes a clear vision of the way forward. Alongside their aggressively secular interpretation of the public order, American Jews have, in Abrams's words, "devised a variety of substitutes for Judaism" itself. But each of these substitutes, however praiseworthy on its merits or as a means of expressing a peculiarly Jewish ethos, fails from the point of view of ensuring Jewish survival.

With all the substitutes discredited, Jews, in Abrams's judgment, have but one recourse if they mean to survive: namely, to return to their religious faith. They must, in other words, practice Judaism, for "only Judaism can save the Jewish people, and ... only Judaism provides a justification for doing so."

There is a problem that runs throughout Abrams's engaging and generally clear-sighted book. At one point, he notes correctly that to be opposed to intermarriage is to stand in conflict with a traditional American ideal--namely, the ideal of "individual autonomy." He also mentions the French observer Michel Guillame Jean de Crèvecoeur, who as long ago as 1782 identified a "strange mixture of blood" as a characteristically American phenomenon. These facts being so, the challenge to Jewish survival may be much more deeply rooted in American culture and in the American past than the relatively recent developments that occupy Abrams's attention here--liberalism, separationism, and the various substitutes for religion in which American Jews have overinvested.

In this connection, it is strange that Abrams never draws a link, however partial, between the demographic disaster facing American Jews and the unintended cultural repercussions of the working of individual autonomy in the marketplace--to capitalism, in short, with its high estimation of personal choice, its distaste for collective identities and inherited status, and its belief that the customer is always right. All of these tenets are at odds with traditional Jewish law and theology. How Judaism's strikingly pre-modern concepts of the self and its obligations can be reconciled with the incomparable benefits of modern capitalism is a pressing question, and it is a pity that Abrams, an influential conservative activist, does not take it up. -- Commentary Magazine, Jon D. Levenson

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