Jews were not historically the suffering religious zealots many paint us to have been. Likewise, the famous communist writer Maxim Gorky pictured the gloomy lives of Russian proletarians he never knew—but these same proletarians found their new jobs to be much better than the peasant life they had abandoned; they enjoyed their life. Historians love to relate disasters; peaceful affluence looks boring in books. But between extermination of the Crusades and the Black Death, Jews lived peaceably, just as we live now after the Holocaust.

Jews lived, worked, married, danced, amassed wealth, and studied. They led the normal lives of happy people. Their rites and dress, antiquated today, were progressive at the time they were introduced. Common Jewish women never learned Shulhan Aruh, and observed only basic, simple, commonsense rituals.

The ancient Jews of the Diaspora communicated extensively with their pagan neighbors. Christians had so frequented the synagogues that Church authorities such as John Chrysostom spouted pages of condemnations. Pagans went to the famously honest Jewish courts for arbitration. Pagan politicians made gifts to synagogues to secure the support of Jewish communities, which were active in the political life of the Diaspora then as now. Court Jews, whether Samuel Oppenheimer in Vienna or Edgar Bronfman in America, assimilated and showed little loyalty to the Jewish people, but we have weathered that.

Jewish-American parents go to Reform temples of atheism but insist nevertheless on their children marrying Jews. It cannot be that millions of reasonable Jews are all wrong, but rather the orthodox rabbis refuse to hear the bell toll. Orthodox Judaism is hopelessly outdated. It was never meant to be such. From Hillel’s prozbul to Shlomo Ganzfried’s Kitzur Shulhan Aruch, rabbis ingeniously adapted the law to current needs. Hillel’s school prevailed over Shammai’s because Hillel offered a more liberal interpretation, but modern rabbis insist on strengthening the prohibitions, creating “a wall around the wall around the Talmud which interprets the commandments.”

Even the assimilated American Jews retain a sense of Jewish identity—but not the identity which the rabbis try to force on them. Being rejected by the proper rabbis as non-observant semi-apostates, the Jews abandon Judaism altogether or turn to the mockery of Reformism, which puts the “kosher Judaism” label on any kind of moderately ethical behavior. Conservative Judaism failed to dance the thin line between the Orthodox recognition of the Torah’s divinity and the Reformists’ “anything goes” strain of Judaism. Few Conservative rabbis have returned to the orthodoxy, while the majority drift toward Reformism. Hillel’s approach is as valuable now as it was twenty-three centuries ago: accept the Torah’s divinity and interpret it liberally.

Jews today are as good as at any time before. Jews today are no less religious than at any time before; the Maccabbee fundamentalists were a small minority, while the Jewish majority embraced Hellenistic reforms. Jews will continue to cling to the simple and doable law of the Torah—if only the Orthodox rabbis don’t push them away with demands of antiquated observance.