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Interview with Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, author of Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Revival

Contemporary American JudaismThe following is an interview with Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, author of Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal

Question: Is your book a comprehensive look at all aspects of American Judaism?

Dana Evan Kaplan: Yes and no. I cover a tremendous amount of territory, which was a great opportunity to learn about many aspects of American Judaism that I knew relatively little about. But the book is not intended to be an encyclopedia of contemporary American Judaism. The primary focus is on how American Judaism has changed since 1945 and especially since the 1970s. The material that I present is intended to help readers understand what has happened over the past few decades.

My subject is primarily the American Judaism that was and is practiced by the “mainstream” Jewish community. As a result of this focus, I talk very little about Haredi Judaism, what used to be referred to as “ultra-Orthodox” Judaism. The book discusses two particular segments of Haredi Judaism at length—Chabad-Lubavitch and the baal teshuva movement. The reason for this was that both of these subgroups have had a tremendous impact on the broader Jewish community.

Q: What is the central argument in the book?

DEK.: I argue that American Jews, like other Americans, have become much more interested in personal spirituality, and this has transformed American Judaism. Until the end of World War II, religion was seen as an ascribed part of identity rather than an achieved status. It was ascribed because, like one’s race, it was seen as being immutable. In 1955 a Gallup poll found that only one in twenty five Americans had switched religions. But, by the mid-1980s, American society had changed dramatically. There are many reasons for this shift, including changing social mores, geographic mobility, globalization, and so forth. As American Jews began to search for existential meaning, the organizations and institutions began to feel more and more pressure to respond to that need.

Q: In your book you talk about the “rise and fall of American Jewish denominationalism.” Do you really believe that the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements are a thing of the past?


DEK.: Yes. I remember when Rabbi Paul Menitoff, then the executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, predicted the end of the Conservative movement in January 2004. There was shock and outrage. But I think that prediction that we will soon see an era of “dual denominationalism” will come to be reality. In recent weeks I’ve seen a number of news stories about Conservative and Reform congregations merging and multidenominational efforts of various sorts. The question is: Is this primarily a cost-saving measure in tough economic times, or does it reflect a long-term trend? I would argue that it is both, but with the emphasis on the latter.

Q: You write about the “collapse of the intermarriage stigma.” Have attitudes toward interfaith marriage really changed that much?

D.E.K.: Yes. As late as the early 1960s, the intermarriage rate was still in the single digits. A Jewish person “marrying out” was regarded as a traitor to the community. But, outside of the Orthodox, that attitude has disappeared. Certainly in my congregation it is expected that the children of members will date people who are not born Jewish. The hope is that they will bring their partner into the congregation after they marry. So, intermarriage does not necessarily mean that the Jewish community is going to disappear. But those demographers who draw a direct connection between intermarriage and doubling or tripling of the American Jewish community are being overly optimistic.

Q: How do American Jews see their religion differently now as opposed to two generations ago?

D.E.K.: In my book I speculate that most Jews in the 1940s and 1950s saw being Jewish and being American as separate components of their identity. This is no longer the case for most American Jews. Rather, American and Jewish values are increasingly seen as indistinguishable, a process Sylvia Barack Fishman calls “coalescence.” The distinction between what is Jewish and what is American has been effectively eliminated. “The boundaries have disappeared and the two belief systems have merged into one coalesced whole known as ‘Judaism.’” For many American Jews, liberal values such as democracy, pluralism, inclusivity, and human rights are now seen as core Jewish values. Likewise, elements of Judaism are now seen as part of American culture and society. All you have to do is turn on the TV.

Q: Do you see syncretism—the integration of two or more religions into a new entity—as a threat or an opportunity for the future of American Judaism?

D.E.K.: Both. I am a bit surprised that more people haven’t been writing about the potential problems resulting from the conscious or unconscious integration of aspects of other religions into Judaism. I was just reading about Jewish paganism which, in all seriousness, is an emerging religious orientation among some American Jews. But the primary “threat” comes from the integration of Christianity into Judaism. As you know, there are many Jewish-Christian interfaith couples joining synagogues. Under those circumstances, it is amazing that Christian theological conceptions and practices have had so little impact on synagogue life—at least so far. But it seems inevitable that this is going to become a significant issue in the coming years. I think that readers will be amused at my discussion of the Chrismukkah phenomena.

Q: The emphasis on personal spirituality has led to some highly unusual developments. Can you name a few mentioned in your book?

D.E.K.: For the majority of American Jews who do not feel constrained by halacha (Jewish law), everything is possible and nothing is for sure. The sole criteria is “what do I find spiritually meaningful?” So, for example, a group of women in Northern California wanted to symbolize how transgressive their lesbian sexual orientation was by putting bread on the seder plate. Others have decided to get a Hebrew tattoo to show the world how proud they are of their Jewish identity, not caring that tattooing was prohibited in Jewish law. One young man in Northern California even had a number tattooed on his arm as sign of solidarity with the victims of the Holocaust. A rabbi in Wisconsin conducted a ceremony labeled a bark mitzvah to acknowledge the importance of a family pet. I personally attended a Native American sweat lodge and considered organizing a Jewish version. I’m still waiting to attend my first Jewitchery ceremony!

Q: In your conclusion, you cite the inscription on the Merneptah Stela, commissioned by the pharaoh of Egypt. What possible relevance does that have to contemporary American Judaism?


D.E. K.: The inscription includes the pronouncement “Israel is stripped bare, wholly lacking seed.” So more than three thousand years ago people were pronouncing that Israel had come to the end of its history. The pharaoh was only one in a long line of enemies who predicted the demise of the Jewish people. The American scholar Simon Rawidowicz spoke of Israel as “the ever-dying people,” by which he meant that every generation saw themselves as the last, but that somehow we were able to keep going. Nevertheless, I point out that sustaining Judaism in the twenty first century is going to be a tremendous challenge. Contemporary Jews face the irony that while Judaism has established itself as an important component of American culture, the Jews themselves are losing much of the distinctiveness that made them a historic people.