sang The Carpenters. They were wrong.
What keeps groups together through time?
A recent ad by the government of Israel, inviting American Jews to avoid assimilation by coming home, caused quite a ruckus. Which is an ancient Yiddish word for mischegas. But the facts are plain: Jews in America are disappearing because of the combination of low birth rate and huge levels of intermarriage with Gentiles, as well as indifference to or avoidance of the practice of Jewish religion. The one place on earth, prior to Israel in 1948, where Jews could be safe and free has become the place where they tend to evaporate. On their own.
That leads to wonder why Jews in the past did not dwindle much, despite the often challenging conditions in which they found themselves. My amateur sociologist's theory? It was precisely the challenging conditions --along with pre-emancipation Halakic law-- which kept them alive. With the exception of the Nazi extermination program, which had an unprecedented killing rate, the various strictures and sporadic outbreaks of violence, all expressions of their Gentile neighbors' dislike, created an ironic version of what the early rabbis called "building a fence around the Torah." While Jewish law created obstacles against assimilation from within, Gentile suspicion made its own wall against it from without. Once tradition-free Judaism met a relatively fence-free America and the Pill...
The two places where the Jewish birthrate is high are among very traditional Halakha-observant Orthodox groups, wherever they live, and in Israel, surrounded by a sea of Arabs who loathe Jews.
Continuing on my sociological way, it leads me to ask what forces actually keep groups intact. Sometimes, maybe always, you don't know the answer to that question until the groups begin to fray or diminish. I don't know anything about the internal Jewish discussion when Reform Judaism decided to make life easier for recently emancipated 19th century German Jews by adapting to the surrounding culture. I am sure some sectors predicted disaster. (Conservatives always do.) But who could have thought that an updated and ethically-based American Judaism would prove so unable to resist the allure of an extraordinarily welcoming Gentile nation? A classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Another aspect seems to be the creation of a publicly tolerated or respectable secular identity. After the French revolution, it became increasingly common and ok not to be associated with any religious group at all. So Jews could escape the burdens and isolation of history not by betraying their ancestors through conversion but by ignoring them through secular transcendence.
My friends the Anglicans come to mind. What held them together, such as they were, for most of 400 years was not only their State-sponsored status, ethnic/racial self-confidence, and clear episcopal governing structure, but their 1662 Book of Common Prayer. When they decided to allow a plethora of different local liturgies at the very same time that being White became a crime, their compulsive embrace of liberal modernity and post-modernity has proved to be their unravelling and perhaps their undoing.
The sociology of religion contains a paradigm --I forget by whom-- that differentiates religious groups as cults, sects, denominations or churches based on the level of tension with and difference from the surrounding culture. Too much and you remain a tiny isolated cult, too little and you become so mainstream that there's no feeling of loss if you leave it behind. You don't seem to value what costs you nothing. And who has mirrored the values of liberal America --created them, actually-- more than Reform Jews and mainstream Protestants?
I think of America, of course. We have been a Union precisely because we have always been trying to hold together our divisions. You only call something United which needs to be united because its natural momentum is toward separation. So I don't overestimate American harmony at all. From the very start we have had regional, racial and class tensions. And then there was 1861 and its awful aftermath. It feels to me now that we are in a Civil Cold War where two sides of the country are no longer opponents but enemies. Am I wrong to think that a significant portion of the country hates its own Republican countrymen more than it really hates Al Qaeda? If my neighborhood and city is any indication, it does. The election of 1800, were it to be replicated now, would be considered not a triumph of our Constitution --which it was, even by the skin of its teeth-- but its utter delegitimation. So what forces held us together, fractiously of course, in the past --especially things we took for granted-- which seem to be evaporating now?