Since its publication on October 1, 2013, the Pew report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, has generated copious commentary and debate, mainly around its findings concerning the more than one million “Jews of no religion.” I suggest that much of the commentary reflects a misunderstanding about the meaning of the findings, and indeed, the structure of Jewish identity in America. Most of the reaction relates to the term “religion” as it appears in the two key categories: “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion.” At face value, these designations relate to things divine – belief in God, in an afterlife, divine commandments, synagogue rites and the like. I claim that a close reading of the Pew Study data and other studies of American Jews do not support such an understanding. Rather, the categories “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” denote different ways of relating to Jewish ethnicity and peoplehood and in the main are not concerned with God, liturgy or dogma. In fact, according to the survey most “Jews by religion” are not religious. What differentiates them from “Jews of no religion” is that their Jewish ethnicity is 1) important to them and 2) seems to have a normative, “sacred” dimension that induces them to action on behalf of the Jewish people. Most “Jews of no religion” feel no such compulsion.  Their ethnicity is just another neutral fact of their lives.

As noted by many, the Pew report highlighted those “Jews of no religion.” It especially emphasized this group’s overall lack of Jewish connection: They are much more likely to have a non-Jewish spouse (79% of married Jews of no religion vs. 36% of Jews by religion), they are much less likely to raise their children Jewish (67% will not raise their children Jewish vs. 7% of Jews by religion). They are less attached to Israel (only 12% are very attached); they belong to Jewish organizations of any kind to a much lesser extent; and they give much less, if at all, to Jewish causes.

It is not at all obvious that this should be the case. Jewish secularism has a long and honorable history involving intense Jewish engagement, especially in Eastern Europe, in the Zionist movement and the Yishuv/State of Israel (the movements and organizations that spring to mind are The General Jewish Workers Bund and the various Zionist-Marxist parties). As some commentators have noted, it also left its footprint in America, mainly through the thought of Mordecai Kaplan. Given such a history, in which commitment to the Jewish religion in whatever form was not a requirement for Jewish engagement, why are Jews of no religion so minimally engaged with Jewish life, with the Jewish community, and with Jewish organizations?

We can start to understand this by clarifying that the Jews of no religion phenomenon is very different from Jewish secularism in Eastern Europe. We can get a purchase on this if we examine, first, more closely the other category – Jews by religion.

Looking closely at “Jews by religion” shows that they are, in fact, not very religious, at least as the concept is understood and practiced by American non-Jewish society. In response to the question, “How important is religion in your life?” only 29% (including the Orthodox who are 10% of the Jewish population) answered “very important.” In contrast, among the general American population, 56% answered that it was very important, and among the population that defined itself as Christian, 69% said it was very important. We find similar numbers in regard to belief in God. 39% of Jews by religion (including Orthodox) indicated that they are absolutely certain regarding their belief in God. Among the general population, 69% said that they were absolutely certain of God’s existence, and among the Christian population, 78% were absolutely certain. Attendance at religious services shows the same pattern. Among the general American public, 50% report at least monthly attendance, while 62% of Christians report attending at least once a month. Among Jews by religion, in contrast, only 29% report monthly attendance.

Jews by religion even think about being Jewish in a non-religious fashion. 55% state that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture. Only 23% say that it is tied to religion. Two thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. The vast majority of Jews by religion do not seem to think that religion or things connected to religion are essential to being Jewish. When responding to a nine-item list, 76% said that remembering the Holocaust was essential to be being Jewish; 73% said living an ethical and moral life, and 60% said working for Justice/equality were essential. Low on the list at 23% was observing Jewish [religious] law, which was exceeded by “having a good sense of humor” (33%).

In other words,  Jews affiliate with religion but  are not religious, either in belief or in practice. What does this mean? What does it mean to be a Jew by religion?

We can start to get a sense of this if we look at the things that Jews by religion do and do identify with as opposed to the things that they don’t (i.e. religion). First of all, being Jewish is important to them: 90% said that being Jewish is very or somewhat important to them (56% very important).  In contrast, only 46% of Jews of no religion said so, and only 12% said it was very important). Even more significant, 85% said that they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and 71% indicated that they have a special responsibility to care for Jews in in need (among Jews of no religion, 42% and 36% respectively). Regarding Israel, 76% have an emotional attachment to Israel and 91% say that caring about Israel is an essential or important part of being Jewish. These feelings and attitudes are also backed up by behavior and action – 61% are members of synagogues or other Jewish organizations, and 67% have made a donation to a Jewish organization in the past year. So being Jewish by religion does not designate religious belief or practice, but does involve identification and solidarity with the Jewish people and commitment – in sentiment and in practice – to their welfare.

I suggest that being Jewish by religion means participating in the “Jewish civil religion.”  The Jewish civil religion entails transnational Jewish solidarity and the sense of belonging to and promoting Jewish political, economic, and social flourishing (e.g. helping communities in distress, promoting Israel and its causes, advancing Jewish education and continuity). Its major practices involve membership in Jewish organizations, donations to Jewish causes, and mobilization for specific campaigns (e.g. political support for Israel or, in the past, freeing Soviet Jewry). As a “religion,” Jewish civil religion has a sacred aspect and rests upon a feeling of Jewish sacred ethnicity. The “sacredness” of Jewish sacred ethnicity expresses itself in a variety of ways: in the sense of Jewish “chosenness” or specialness, that Jews have special obligations to be moral or fight for justice, and in the normative obligations that it imposes – especially regarding Jewish identity itself and continuity – one ought to identify as a Jew! This sense of sacredness is not doctrinal, but rather, it is experienced. It does not necessarily entail formal religious belief. Indeed there are Jews who feel that Jews are somehow special but do not believe in God.

The Pew data enables us to deepen our understanding of Jewish civil religion because it presents us with a group that does not share in it – the Jews of no religion.

I am suggesting that what separates “Jews by religion” from “Jews of no religion” is not religion as it is commonly understood – related to synagogue, prayer, dogma, ritual commandments etc. that comprise “sacramental religion.” Both Jews by religion and Jews of no religion are, in the main, not religious. What separates them is their different relationship to Jewish ethnicity. Jews by religion as we have seen share a sense of sacred ethnicity, Jews of no religion have a sense of “ordinary” or “descriptive” ethnicity.   Jews of no religion are indeed proud of their Jewishness (83%), however only 12% said that it was “very important” to them. Most of these Jews of no religion, as we have seen, do not wish to pass on their Jewishness to their children, nor do they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. In other words, Jewish ethnicity for these people is a fact about themselves. It is a fact that most are not ashamed of and are even proud of. However, it is not very important to them – for the most part, it does not incur any special sense of belonging or obligation. And if their children will not feel or be Jewish, that’s fine too. Thus, the ethnicity of Jews of no religion is very similar to the ethnicity of other white ethnics described by Richard Alba as being in a “twilight.” For the most part white ethnics are totally assimilated into the American heartland with very high rates of intermarriage. For some their ethnic or increasingly multi-ethnic background can be occasionally highlighted “symbolically” or “optionally” in those situations in which it can provide “spice,” status or interest. It certainly does not contain any sacred or normative dimension, and it is sparsely passed on to their children.

Until the publication of this study we had thought that Jewish ethnicity was one thing – a dimension of Jewish identity people either shared or did not.  Now we see that this is not the case; there is ethnicity and there is ethnicity. There is ethnicity which is sacred and normative and there is ethnicity which is matter of fact and descriptive. My conclusion is that in the majority of cases when Jews say that their religion is Jewish, what they really mean is that their ethnicity is sacred. That is, the Jewish religion is an explicit, adequate symbol for the sacredness of Jewish ethnicity. Thus, I would claim that for most American Jews Jewish civil religion goes together with synagogue membership.

We must realize that the real meaning of the Pew study is that it introduces a new factor into discussions around Jewish identity and education. Most current discussions are concerned with prioritizing programming for two subgroups within the Jews by religion category – The Orthodox (whether Modern, Yeshivish, or Hassidic) who are strongly committed to Jewish education and a Jewish religious lifestyle, or the non-Orthodox and indeed not very religious majority who are still committed to the Jewish people, to Jewish organizations, and to Jewish philanthropy. The Pew study highlights a third large and significant group. This group, Jews of no religion, accepts their Jewishness as a matter of fact, like having blue eyes. It does not enjoin much of a sense of solidarity or any normative commitment to the welfare or continuity of the Jewish people or to Jewish culture (only 4% can minimally read Hebrew).

If we are to adopt interventions regarding Jews not by religion, we must realize that moving from a matter of fact, descriptive ethnicity to sacred, normative ethnicity would seem to involve some kind of conversion experience. It is a change in the very essence of one’s Jewishness. Such an intervention would be unlike almost anything major Jewish organizations habitually do and we would have to learn how to make it work. Thus, It is not enough to offer more activities, however diverse. There are enough of those. What is needed is to understand the mechanisms that could lead Jews who do not think their Jewishness compels them to act on behalf of the Jewish people to change their mind and begin to take part in its ongoing welfare and continuity.

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