Jewish Journal


January 31, 2012

Hanukkah miracle: Israeli Jews light more candles than American Jews



One of the interesting things one can do with the new Guttman study of Israelis’ “beliefs, observance and values” (see: Who’s afraid of Israel’s belief in God?) is to compare the beliefs of Israelis to those of American Jews. Such comparisons demonstrate the many differences – and some similarities – between these two Jewish communities, the two largest and most important Jewish communities in today’s world.

Naturally, there are many nuggets in this study that can be compared to similar data from studies of American Jews – and today I’ll only give you a taste of a handful of such comparisons. I’ll start with belief in God, the question that dominated most journalistic headlines following the publication of the Guttman study. 
What you’ll see here is a combination of two studies – Guttman and Belonging without Believing, a study of “Jews and their Distinctive Patterns of Religiosity – and Secularity” by Steven Cohen and Lauren Blitzer (that is based on PEW’s Religious Landscape Survey). All in all, this study of American Jews discovered that “Compared to Christians, Jews are much less likely to say they believe in God in general or in a personal God, in the Bible as the word of God, in life after death, in heaven or in hell, and in miracles”. But how do American Jews score compared to Israeli Jews?

The questions of the two studies were not identical but are close enough. The Guttman study asked: “To what extent do you believe or not believe each of the following statements?” and had the category “God Exists” to which respondents had to give one of four scores: “Believe wholeheartedly, Believe but sometimes doubt, Generally doubt but sometimes believe, Do not believe at all”. The American study asked: “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” and, (if the respondent believes in God): “How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?”

Here’s how Jews score on belief – the numbers from both Israel and the US include those who are “certain”, and also those who believe with some doubts:

US JewsIsraeli Jews
All Believers83%80%

It is interesting though to also compare other questions. For example: Guttman asked: “To what extent do you believe or not believe that the Torah and precepts are God-given”. PEW asked: “Which comes closest to your view? [HOLY BOOK]* is the word of God, OR [HOLY BOOK]* is a book written by men and is not the word of God? [IF BELIEVE HOLY BOOK IS WORD OF GOD, ASK:] And would you say that [HOLY BOOK]* is to be taken literally, word for word, OR not everything in [HOLY BOOK]* should be taken literally, word for word?”

Here’s how Israelis Jews and American Jews compare, and again, we include both those who say it is all God’s doing and those who say “Word of God, but not literally true word for word” (in the PEW study), and those who say “believe wholeheartedly” as well as those who say “believe but sometimes doubt” (in the Guttman study):

US JewsIsraeli Jews
Torah is the word of God37%65%

As you can see, on this question American Jews and Israeli Jews seem to give different answers, but one has to consider the possibility that the different wording and framing of the question might be the reason for that.

And here’s one comparison of Jewish practices. An interesting one – as one might assume that American Jews have much better reason to be scrupulous in the habit of lighting Hanukkah candles (because of Christmas envy and all that jazz). Are they though?

Look at the following comparison: From the Guttman study, we include the numbers both from 1999 and 2009, and that’s because we have to compare them to the already outdated NJPS of 2001. Again, the questions and the framing of responses are not identical. The NJPS number include those who light candles on “all or most nights” of Hanukah, the Israeli number refer to those lighting candles “always” or “frequently”:

US JewsIsrael 1999Israel 2009
Light Hanukah candles72%76%<82%

This is quite amazing isn’t it? American Jews and Israeli Jews all light Hanukah candles – no real difference between the two communities. Real difference can be found when one compares the percentage of American and Israeli Jews who light Shabbat candles:

US JewsIsrael 1999Israel 2009
Light Shabbat candles28%55%66%

But here’s where there’s a huge difference in the way the two communities practice Judaism:

US JewsIsrael 1991Israel 2009
Keep kosher at home21%80%76%

The percentage of Israeli Jews keeping kosher has gone down somewhat in the last two decades, nevertheless, it is still much higher than the percentage of American Jews keeping kosher at home. In fact, the only group of American Jews that keeps kosher in a similar level to Israelis is the Orthodox American community with 86 percent keeping kosher at home, just a little bit higher than the percentage of Israelis, both religious and secular.

Stay tuned for more comparisons later this week.


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