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What Should the Jews Do with “Jews Not by Religion”?

by Shmuel Rosner

December 22, 2013 | 5:54 am

Photo by Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

The ongoing discussion among professional and unprofessional Jews following the publication of the Pew study on the state of American Jewry isn't likely to abate very soon. And a lot of it is focused on the most controversial findings of this study, the ones concerning "Jews of no religion". Last week Roger Price published a long post in the Jewish Journal in which he claimed that:

We really do not know from the Pew Portrait what the Jewish respondents meant when they said that their religion was “Jewish,” and we know even less about the Jewish respondents who declined to do so. Were the latter expressing an aversion to a Sunday school theology of an omnipotent sky god or to ritual practices that seemed to them obscure, extraneous and restrictive?

Bill Robinson of the Jewish Education Project posted an article last month in which he argued:

The Pew study has seemingly found that Jews are becoming more secular and less religious. Many have responded by declaring the end is nigh; others that we need to radically shift gears and offer them secular Jewish life and learning that better meets their values. Instead of jumping to a solution, I began to wonder what Jews mean when they respond to a survey question, as Jews "not by religion".

These are just two examples of how many commentators have been reacting to the general tone of the Pew study rather than to the findings themselves.

Contrary to what Price says (in the paragraph I quoted, Price also says a couple of things about statistics and methodology which I'm not going to delve into), we do know a lot from the Pew study about "Jews of no religion". We know that, in virtually every parameter examined, they tend to be, well, less Jewish. Of course, one can argue that had we examined more categories we could have identified areas in which the "Jews of no religion" are no less Jewish – or even more Jewish. Yet the burden of proof rests on those who claim to know differently – to know that JNR's are in fact no less Jewish than "Jews by religion".

Contrary to what Robinson implies, Jews "of no religion" are not secular Jews. They are also – and here I find fault with the Pew researchers – not "cultural Jews".

I made the case against the idea that "Jews of no religion" are "cultural Jews" in a paper for The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) that was published last week. (The paper's main aim, though, is not to debunk misunderstandings but rather to try to map out the various possible policies that might stem from the findings related to JNR.) Assuming that JNR are now a big chunk of US Jewry, assuming that they do have some special characteristics, and assuming that their links to Judaism are weaker than those of other Jews – I find it almost impossible to argue otherwise – what, then, should Jewish institutions, organizations, leaders, do?

The paper doesn't give an answer – for the answer to emerge a debate over priorities should first be held. But it does map out the options. You can read it all here.

All in all, I discuss three general possibilities:

1. Doing nothing: "Jews not by religion" are Jews whose connection to Judaism is too thin to make it worth investing significant resources to draw them into the community. These are Jews on their way out, whose Jewishness is already not a strong enough identity component to build on in the attempt to "bring them back" or to "hold onto them" in the current frameworks of the Jewish community.

2. Change the Jews: This would require finding a way to return the "Jews not by religion" to being "Jews by religion." This does not mean "bringing them back to the Torah" in the religious sense since, as we have shown, the question of "religion" in this case is not a matter of observance versus non-observance, but rather entails identification with the ethnic group (most "Jews by religion" are not certain about the existence of God and do not consider keeping mitzvoth to be a central tenet of their Jewishness). Nevertheless, this would be an attempt to change the values, consciousness, and priorities of a large group of Jews who are quite far removed from the Jewish group (Fischer writes that the process of bringing them back "would seem to involve some kind of conversion experience").

3. Change Judaism: This would require identifying new and distinct forms of expression for "Jews not by religion." According to this approach, Judaism not by religion is a new form of Jewish life (possibly a direct result of the growing sector of Jews born to interfaith couples) for which an updated Jewish framework must be built. "Jews not by religion" do not wish to give up their Jewishness (hence, their reported pride) but have simply not found suitable forms of expression with which to preserve it.

If you want to read more about the pros and cons of each of the three approaches, take a look at the detailed paper. "This is a question that obviously has practical implications, but it also has an important moral dimension concerning the strength of the community's persistence in keeping all of its branches, even the most distant, within the Jewish fold".

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