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THE VANISHING AMERICAN JEW. By Alan M. Dershowitz . Little, Brown: 396 pp., $24.95

March 23, 1997|MICHAEL LERNER | Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, is the author of several books, including "Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation." He is rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco

Fresh from his courtroom victory as part of the defense team that won O.J. Simpson an acquittal on charges of having murdered two people, Alan Dershowitz, a distinguished Harvard Law School professor, now seeks to defend the Jews of America from the seductions of assimilation. He thinks he knows how to build Jewish identity in the 21st century.

In "The Vanishing American Jew," Dershowitz well articulates the problem facing Jews in the most prosperous and tolerant nation history has yet seen. No longer faced with significant levels of anti-Semitism, Jews are free to prosper in American society; increasingly, they are choosing to do so by abandoning their Jewish identification, by intermarrying at an astonishing rate (one out of two marries out of the faith, according to the most reliable recent studies) and by thinking of themselves as people who happen to have a Jewish parent rather than having a deep connection to the history, religion and spiritual heritage of the Jewish people.

Dershowitz likes being Jewish and thinks other Jews ought to also. He argues against the notion that there is any particular idea or perspective that is "essential" to Judaism, whether a belief in God or a liberal cultural secularism. To be sure, he likes secularism but offers no suggestions about how secular Jews might develop a cultural apparatus that would enable them to pass on traditions from generation to generation. He insists that Judaism has no political inclinations and seems unaware of the long Jewish legal tradition that requires the community to take care of the poor (not leaving the impoverished among us to the tender mercies of the market) or the Jewish legal obligation to help others in need (a responsibility that is not merely a matter of individual choice, as he implies). Indeed, Dershowitz's Judaism seems indistinguishable from good old-fashioned civil libertarianism.

Civil libertarianism may well be an important element in any society that we would wish to live in, but it doesn't provide the sort of robust credo or value system people need to impart meaning and purpose to their lives. So, one must ask, what is supposed to motivate Jews to retain their Jewish identity? Dershowitz offers an answer steeped in a kind of inchoate and sentimental nationalism.

Loyalty to the Jewish people is, by this account, everything. But loyalty to whom? And to what? Loyalty to the notion of "the people" is, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, dangerous; it quickly leads to a weakening of the capacity to hear the pain of others. Most notoriously, when it comes to Israel, too often American Jews are instructed by much of their leadership to unite "in support of whichever government happens to be in power," as Dershowitz bluntly observes. Endorsing this view, Dershowitz goes on to insist that "until we are prepared to put our bodies in harm's way by making aliyah [immigrating to Israel], we should never try to dictate to a fellow democracy how it should balance the risks and benefits of different roads to peace and security."

This is a criterion that is Stalinist in its implications, for it seeks to hold criticism hostage to a notion that would forever force honest and open discussion to take a backseat to narrow ideas of "national interest." Such a constricted view of nationalism preempts rational debate. Dershowitz uses criteria he would never accept, say, with regard to criticizing the practices and policies of other countries where he is unwilling to put his body in harm's way. Blind allegiance to one's people is as deforming as the dogmatism of religious fundamentalism that Dershowitz elsewhere in his book rightly rejects.

What is missing from Dershowitz is any sense of God or spirituality at the center of any revivified Jewish life in America. To approach the world from the standpoint of the spiritual is to ask fundamental questions about how to respond to the world around us with awe and wonder and amazement. The failure to take such a project seriously is at the core of the problem. The desire (especially among young people) for transcendent meaning and purpose is a desire that Dershowitz fails to acknowledge. It is the central flaw of a book that often adequately describes the predicament of a people whose very success materially, has not been matched by an ability to help young Jews understand how the spiritual wisdom of Judaism could provide them with a framework of meaning to navigate through the sea of cynicism and selfishness that surrounds them.

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