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Are We All Jewish, Or Are We Just a Bunch of People Bundled Together By a Poll?

by Shmuel Rosner

October 2, 2013 | 8:39 am

HaZamir International Jewish High School Choir sings
at the Temple Emanu-El during the annual Holocaust
Remembrance Day in New York April 7, 2013.
Photo Reuters/Allison Joyce

"A Portrait of Jewish Americans" is much too complex to discuss in one article, and the sheer magnitude of this study- produced and released by the PEW research center- is much too rich to be summed up in one piece. Headlines are plentiful, and indeed, of the many Jewish outlets that have already tried to present the major findings to the public, many different points were emphasized. My favorite is Daniel Treiman's "Haredim in Church? The wackiest result from the Pew Jewish Americans survey". But obviously, Treiman's short post focuses on a nugget, not on the main course. For the more serious stuff you'd have to read Josh Nathan-Kazis, who wrote: "Jews Bound by Shared Beliefs Even as Markers of Faith Fade, Pew Study Shows". Or the LA Times, which wrote about "Jewish Secularism on Rise". If you want the alarmist spin, read Jeffrey Woolf who writes about the bell that "tolls for American Jewry". Jews are "more cultural, less religious", wrote the Washington Post. The right-wing Israeli Arutz Sheva chose to write that "40% of US Jews" say that "God gave Israel to Jews". And the New York Jewish Week headline says that "fast growing 'nones' seen reshaping Jewish community".

Since I'm writing on the day after– having been busy yesterday with Netanyahu, Iran and other issues – and since I also think such reports should not be consumed all at once - I'm not going to delve into the many details of the study. Instead, I will try to present one question about the meaning of one of the major findings – the finding related to "Jews of no religion", a growing sector of the Jewish community. "93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion", the report says, and "among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture".

What does this mean? Thinking methodically about all this takes time, but here are some quick questions - questions that might help us better understand the meaning of the new findings.

Do we accept the study's definition of "who is a Jew"? If we don't – if we think, for example, that Jews of no religion should not be counted as Jews – the whole premise changes: We'd have a much smaller community, but one that is more coherent (I raised this issue when I wrote, two days ago, about the number of Jews in America). And we'd have to tailor the future policies of Jewish institutions for the core of religiously-defined Jews and ignore all others.

I believe that most Jews wouldn't buy into such a clear-cut definition, and that very few would want to cut off all not-by-religion Jews from the community (I wouldn't accept such a view as well). And yet, it is an option on one end of the spectrum of possible responses to the new revelations. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum is the full adoption of a very broad definition of the "community" which includes everybody and attempts to cater to everybody. This means a much larger community. If one includes "all Americans who say they consider themselves Jewish for any reason – even if they do not have direct Jewish ancestry – the survey indicates the adult Jewish population would be roughly 3.8% of the overall adult population, or about 9.0 million people". That's a lot of people with very little connecting them by way of their "Judaism". Still, a staunch and ambitious proponent of "outreach" might argue that this is exactly the target group for a Jewish effort.

What is Judaism without religion? We know that the pollsters can find a group of people who – for whatever reasons – say that they are Jewish without having a Jewish religion. But as I wrote two days ago, Jews with no religion are not a group – they are many groups. They are many groups bundled together by a poll, not necessarily by being members of a "community". Of course one can say that a "Jew" is every person who says that he is a Jew. In fact, for the purpose of polling this is the easiest definition for counting Jews. Yet, saying that being a Jew has no meaning other than calling oneself Jewish is a borderline tautology. Jane Eisner, in a short post, suggested (I'm not sure if she truly meant what I'm going to attribute to her) an intriguing definition of being Jewish: "prioritize being Jewish over assimilating into a more amorphous American culture". I suspect that many of the Jews counted by the Pew survey would not have been counted had that been the study's definition of being a Jew.

What are the things that make someone "Jewish" or put anyone outside the Jewish camp? Large majorities of respondents identified "remembering the holocaust" and "leading an ethical\moral life" as "an essential part of what being Jewish means to them". Does this mean that it suffices for a person to remember the holocaust and lead a moral life to be considered Jewish? Let's complicate the question: In the Pew study "a sizable minority (34%) says a person can be Jewish even if he or she believes Jesus was the messiah". Do we agree with such a contention? Do we count people who believe Jesus was the messiah as Jewish? And what if I remember the holocaust and believe that Jesus was the messiah?

In one of Israel's famous conversion court cases – Brother Daniel – the justices seemed to agree that a person can't be both Jewish and Christian. American Jews might beg to differ – or might not. 34% is a lot, but I assume that those who agree with the Jesus contention are the less committed and less affiliated Jews. So here is another question: who paints for "us" – assuming there is an "us" to paint– the borders of the Jewish community? Do we want pollsters to do it, rabbis, community leaders, do we let people with very loose connection to Judaism to also participate in writing the rules of the community, or maybe we don't want any rules?

Is there a third-generation Jew-not-by-religion? In the recent Mosaic debate on intermarriage (if you didn't read it – you still can), you could get a sense of the problem we are dealing with here: there are many intermarried Jews (58% of the younger generation according to Pew), and there are many Jews "not by religion". But these Jews can't be counted on to carry the torch to the next generations. Not unless we find a way to make them, well, more committed to the idea. So here's one thing to think about: do we make JNBR (Jews not by religion) more committed to being Jewish by trying to get them back on the religion wagon (because that's the proven methodology of producing more committed Jews)? Or maybe what we have to do is find a new way of Jewish expression that also works for JNBR?

Of course, you might say that there is one such way that is proven. It is called "living in Israel", where one can easily pass on one's Jewish identity to the next generation without having even a shred of religion in one's soul. But there are two caveats to such a claim. The first one is practical – JNBRs aren't planning on moving to Israel anytime soon, and the Israeli "solution" is geographically sensitive. In fact "for Jews by religion, caring about Israel is much more central than it is for Jews of no religion", so the potential isn't even there. The second one is even more profound: I'm not that certain that Jewish identity in Israel is truly transferable to future generations without the religious component. The fact that many Israelis declare that they are "secular" doesn't mean that they'd answer a question such as "what is your religion" by saying that they have no religion. But those who would might not be able to pass their Judaism on to their offspring. In any case, Israel can't resolve this particular problem, and we have to go back to the previous question: what substitute component can keep Judaism alive without religion?

Do we want to invest in one-generation Jews? This is the last question for this post (which is becoming too long). What if JNBR is not transferable to future generations– what if we conclude that there's no way for us to make Judaism something that can live for very long without being a religion? Do we say that since such a formula can't work for very long, there is no point in paying much attention to the adherents of JNBR, or do we say: every Jew counts, and if it's a one-generation Jew– if we are close to certain that the grandchildren will not be Jewish– we still want to invest in the relationships with all of them, all nine million to whom we can attribute even a tiny shred of Jewish component? We'd have to ask more questions of course: what kind of investment do we want to make, and what other investments will we not be making because of it, and what message do we send to the more committed Jews by investing in the less committed Jews?

The Pew study is a fascinating read, but you'd be mistaken to think that it finally gives us conclusive answers to the questions we've been asking. This study merely gives us some data with which to begin to answer those questions, and some data from which we can learn that the number of questions we need to ask– the number of decisions we have to make– is even higher than we previously thought.

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