Future face of Judaism will reflect diversity, U.C. Davis prof predicts

During the next half-century, the American Jewish community may come to resemble a Benetton ad, growing as diverse as "the faces you see on an Israeli bus."

So says David Biale, the Emmanuel Ringelblum professor of Jewish history at U.C. Davis.

With a high rate of intermarriage and adoption, coupled with an influx of non-Ashkenazi Jews from Israel, the face of American Jewry is changing, he said in a recent talk at San Francisco's Delancey Street.

The former director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union spoke to an audience of roughly 40 as part of "The Shaken Mosaic" series sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and area synagogues.

Coming on the heels of the publication of a number of scholarly books predicting imminent schisms and antagonism in the nation's Jewish community, Biale presented a rosier scenario.

Rather than conclude that the American Jewish community is doomed, he instead maintained that imminent changes are a "sign of vitality." Nonetheless, the community needs to develop new methods of coping with the phenomena.

Certainly the prediction of increasing diversity was the most visible change predicted by Biale. He cited a recent poll showing 56 percent of American Jews were either neutral or approved of interfaith marriages. What's more, a whopping 50 percent of those polled said it was actually "racist" to oppose interfaith marriages.

Along with children raised in interfaith households, Biale argued that adopted children would greatly change the face of the American Jewish community in the coming decades.

"It turns out that Jews have one of the highest rates of infertility of any ethnic group," he said. "Part of this is because Jews tend to marry late. But as a consequence of this, the rate of Jewish adoption of children from South America or Asia is actually very high. We should begin to see more Jews who look South American or Asian."

In addition, he pointed out that Israeli Jews are immigrating to the United States, many of them Mizrachi or of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

All those changes are altering the picture of what it means to "look" Jewish. But the development of an ambiguous ethnic identity is by no means unprecedented in Judaism, Biale said. In fact, it's as old as the Bible. He recalled the biblical story of David and Uriah the Hittite. David lusted after Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, yet according to the Book of Deuteronomy, Israelis were not supposed to marry Hittites.

"So what is this guy doing with Bathsheba; why is [Uriah] a general in David's army?" Biale asked. "This opens up the idea that there were different views of what it meant to be Israeli and Jewish in the biblical period. The name 'Uriah' suggests that he was a worshipper of the Jewish God; Uriah means 'God is my light.' So he was a worshipper of the Jewish God, but he was a Hittite. That's a multiple ethnic identity, and I think that's something we're going to see much more of over the next 25 to 50 years."

In addition to an alteration in its external appearance, Biale predicted that the American Jewish community may undergo something of a spiritual transformation as well.

Describing America as "particularly fertile" ground for new religions, Biale foresaw future amalgamations of Jewish and other traditions, using the increase in Jewish-Buddhists as an example.

The professor figured the greatest transformation, however, would involve the growing role of women in the religious Jewish community.

"I think one of the great forces for change and vitality…has to do with the inclusion of women as equals," he said, citing women rabbis in the liberal Jewish movements and the growing acceptance of women as scholars in all movements. "In the Orthodox world, more and more women are studying the Talmud. The increasing number of Orthodox women studying means that there are greater numbers of women recognized as peskot," legal authorities who can render decisions.

Biale, who has taught at Haifa University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, also looked at the Holocaust and the state of Israel, phenomena that have pulled together Jews of all persuasions in the past.

As polls demonstrate a growing acceptance of Jews in America, Biale said the specter of anti-Semitism may not be able to serve as a uniting factor in the future. How the Holocaust will be viewed after the last survivors die off also poses a quandary.

"It'll be very interesting to see whether Jewish spirituality in the future will include memorials of the Holocaust in its own rituals," said Biale. "During the Crusades in 1096, many Jews were killed, spawning an amazing 'cult of the dead.' Memories of the Jews who were martyred were central to how Jews of the Middle Ages understood themselves. Will this be the case with the American Jewish community as well?"

Optimistically predicting a more peaceful and technologically forward Israel in 50 years, Biale said a changed Israel will mean changed relations with America's Jews.

"One of my Israeli friends likes to joke that in 50 years the majority of Israel will be Orthodox — Russian Orthodox," he quipped. "Israel is becoming multicultural, meaning that the Israeli identity is not going to be simple and, therefore, our relation to that will not be simple at all."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.