by Benjamin Shribman
In a section of the Times especially packed with news of grave goings-on in the world, it was almost refreshing to find something as ridiculous as Laurie Goodstein’s “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews.”. A survey carried out by the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life Project, apparently at the suggestion of Jane Eisner of the Jewish Daily Forward, reported to show a significant rise in “those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.” Resulting, writes Goodstein, in “rapid assimilation that is sweeping though every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.”
A half-century ago, “assimilation” was very often used by rabbis, Sunday School teachers, and leaders of Jewish organizations of various stripes, to strike fear into young American Jews, who might make no effort to: 1) prefer Jewish companions; 2) affiliate with synagogues and other Jewish organizations; and/or 3) otherwise develop their Jewishness through various acts of self-segregation. Ironically, it has turned out that American Jewishness survived this lack of effort just fine, and we have a diversity of self-identification, belief and practice that the Pew survey now stumbles upon and over. But what to make of it?
First, before dealing with the peculiarities that follow from various forms of Jewish self-identification, there is the funny problem of identification per se. Adopting none of the traditional criteria for answering the always contentious question, “Who is a Jew?” — a question we can usually do without — the Pew basically accepted as Jewish everyone who didn’t insist they weren’t. I found this approach congenial, hilarious (in the best sense), and fairly accurate. But, for better or worse, it’s used in the survey to allow the distinction between someone who says he or she is a Jew, and someone who ….. says he or she is a Jew. It appears that at least some respondents identified themselves as Jewish, but then said they didn’t really identify themselves as Jewish (probably the reverse occurred as well!). Meanwhile, Goodstein picked up on the fact that, in the survey, 34% of those who didn’t insist they weren’t Jewish said that you can still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus is the Messiah. One wonders whether anyone at Pew was tempted to call a halt to this project when these sorts of responses started to come in.
Having handled the identification issue uniquely, the Pew survey added a rather peculiar distinction between: a) a person being Jewish and “having religion;” and b) a person being Jewish and “having no religion.” How is this to be understood, and is there any uniformity in the understanding? I doubt it, and not just because of the 34%! For example, how much of “having religion” for American Jews (who claim they do) has to do with their understanding of, or perceived relationship to, Torah and Talmud; and how much to their identification with or relationship to Israel, their sense of their obligation to the commemoration of the Holocaust, or to their membership in a synagogue or JCC? And (why) does it matter? The Pew survey found that 76% of “Jews by religion” considered remembering the Holocaust to be an essential part of what it means to be Jewish, but only 23% of this group thought observing Jewish law was essential. Meanwhile 66% of the “Jews by religion” thought that a person could be Jewish without believing in G-d, and 30% of them thought a person could be Jewish while believing that Jesus is the Messiah.
Must we make anything of all this?
While I’m sure Goodstein had an easy time finding “authorities” to express alarm at the survey’s results, there is actually very little in the survey (or anywhere else) to suggest that American Jews aren’t thriving (because happy) in their Jewishness. The full report from Pew includes the finding that 94% of all the people who didn’t go out of their way to say they weren’t Jewish — what the survey calls the “NET” Jewish population — are proud of their Jewishness. So what could be bad?
The Pew’s analysis draws a distinction between the attitudes of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” and the “Millennials,” and perhaps this distinction can help clear things up a bit. My guess is that a good amount of the strangeness in the Pew responses is the consequence of many young and middle-aged Jews having concluded that their leaders (spiritual and political), and long-standing Jewish institutions, are either basically meshugenah, or irrelevant to their understanding of “being Jewish,” or some combination of the two. Most non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. have developed ways of practicing, believing, and being Jewish that depend far more on their peer groups, rituals like shabbat dinners, and the availability of Kosher for Passover groceries in their neighborhoods, than on traditional institutional affiliations and norms. I thought it was significant that the survey reported that 70% of the “NET Jewish” population said they had attended a seder in the last year, and more than half said they fasted (at least a little bit!?) on Yom Kippur in 2012.
In the eyes of some of my colleagues, promoting the bugbear of “assimilation” has backfired. American Jews have realized that intermarriage can enrich and promote Jewish life more easily than it can cause it to disappear. And in this new century, the majority of all but the ultra-Orthodox find a “blood theory” of Jewishness obsolete: disgraceful when held as a belief by neo-Nazis, and probably foolish when held to for practical purposes by the State of Israel, but doomed to obsolescence in any case. Furthermore, American Jews don’t think they need to align themselves with the politics of the local synagogue or JCC, or with our self-appointed “national leaders”, in order to be Jews-at-heart. One would think the Presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 made this clear if nothing else did.
Indeed, the reasons to affiliate with synagogues or JCCs, or other Jewish organizations, have become not just primarily but often exclusively practical: to give children something rather than nothing, to find good Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, to enjoy a nice swimming pool or camp experience, or to be eligible for other opportunities that may have nothing whatever to do with religious belief. The distrust that some of those described by the Pew survey as “without religion” feel toward “having religion” may, oddly enough, have little to do with Judaism or Jewishness; rather, it may reflect the feeling that our leaders and institutions have very little to do with what the NET Jews understand to be basic in Judaism and Jewishness. Therefore, in my eyes, “backfired” gets it wrong, because I find that the majority of young and middle-aged Jews in America today (NET and Gross — sorry, I couldn’t resist!) have a much healthier sense of culture and identity and politics than their elders.
Because there is no such person as a “lapsed Jew,” but only someone who lives as a Jew or doesn’t (according to his or her own devotion to this idea), a survey of American Jews will always probably give us more questions than answers, no matter how it’s conducted. The Pew Survey certainly does. Unfortunately, newspapers, radio, television, and most of all the internet, survive on answers, no matter how ridiculous. The only urgent message I can find in the full set of responses to the Pew survey is that our synagogues, schools, JCCs, and other organizations need to do a lot of work to be better connected, and more useful to those who don’t insist they aren’t Jewish.