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Bonnie K. Goodman
Librarian, Historian, and Journalist

The Latest Paradigm Shift in Judaism towards Secularism?

With so many American Jews identifying culturally as Jewish as opposed to religiously is secularism the next shift in Judaism? Source: Wikipedia
With so many American Jews identifying culturally as Jewish as opposed to religiously is secularism the next shift in Judaism? (Wikipedia)

For the past three weeks, I have been attending an online class, Paradigm Shifts in Judaism, hosted by Temple Beth Hillel and Beth El in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, a mainline suburb of Philadelphia. [1] Their congregation’s new rabbi, Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky, is teaching the four-part course; he is the former Assistant Rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. Rabbi Witkovsky’s lively and engaging lectures spotlight the major turning points in the observance of Judaism. [2] A Paradigm Shift is “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.” The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “an important change that happens when a new and different way replaces the usual way of thinking about or doing something.” [3] On the advertisement for the class, the question is “whether or not we are living through a paradigm shift today?”

Rabbi Witkovsky explains three significant shifts in Judaism in the class. The first shift was the start of monotheism and Hashem’s covenant with Abraham in the Book of Genesis. The second shift was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the creation of Rabbinic Judaism. The creation allowed Judaism to adapt from a temple-centered religion based on prayer, laws, Shabbat, and religious holidays. The third class examined how the Enlightenment movement, Haskalah altered Judaism and gave rise to denominations and modern branches of Judaism. Among the movements in the eighteenth century, how Emancipation gave rise to the Reform movement in Western Europe, which led to liberal Jewish movements, and on the opposite end, the rise of the Hasidic movement, which gave rise to modern ultra-Orthodox movements.

The class would be much more relevant in the university setting, where Jewish youth feel less connected to the religion and even have a Jewish identity. They would be able to see through history the quandaries Jews had with adapting Judaism and religious observance to a changing world, for over 3,000 Jews since Abraham have been grappling with the same struggles and questions. Appropriately, an overnight radio show on Canada’s iHeart Radio, The Late Showgram with David Cooper, veered off topic in his segment “Therapy Thursday on a Wednesday” with social worker Gary Direnfeld to discuss Jewish identity. Both are Jewish; Cooper is an older millennial doing the show from New York, and Direnfeld in Toronto, Canada, is a younger Baby Boomer, an age group usually more engaged with Judaism. The two discussed the conundrum of Jewish identity. Both affirmed they define themselves as culturally Jewish, but not religiously, with Cooper going as far as calling himself agnostic. Is it the shift young Jews are pushing modern Judaism to the precipice of a new era of Judaism?

The class looks at the shifts from a religious perspective instead of a historical one. As a historian, I tend to view everything from the prism of a historical perspective. Our last class is supposed to look beyond the modern development of the liberalization of Judaism and denominations, the Reform movement, and its backlash with the rise of Modern Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement. Two major historical shifts changed twentieth-century Jewry; in the 1940s, the Holocaust destructed six million Jews and shifted world Jewry’s center to the United States, and then the modern state of Israel was founded in 1948. The question is whether we are now part of the fourth paradigm shift in Judaism, moving from a religious identification to a cultural one that started with Israel’s modern political founding. In my research, I have written about the theory of civil religion in Judaism, or as the late sociologist Jonathan Woocher coined it, “Civil Judaism.” [4]

In the past thirty years, modern Jewish population surveys have shown that American Jewish youth were moving away from religious Judaism through intermarriage rates and then religious identification. In 1990, American Jewry received their first shock with the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed the rising intermarriage rates. [5] In 1990, the community overdrive in trying to determine a solution. Jewish continuity became the buzzword, along with Jewish education, one of the best solutions. Fast-forward twenty-three years to 2013, the Pew Research Center released a “Portrait of American Jews.” [6] The Pew report was a devastating view of non-Orthodox American Jewry, with an intermarriage rate overall above 50 percent, with the risk of losing Millennial Jews high, as they looked to intermarriage, was the most detached from the religion and Israel.

Before the crisis, American Jewry celebrated secular elements of the religion in a unique Civil Judaism that bonded the nation through community ties and common support for Jewish causes, including Zionism and support for Israel. Civil religion allows citizens to all celebrate their nation’s traditions. In Israel, civil religion takes on a religious flavor as the nation’s traditions and holidays adhere closely to Judaism, and even the most secular Israelis participate in Judaism’s traditions, if not at a religious level at a patriotic level. Sociologist Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America” introduced the modern concept of civil religion. [7] Bellah looked particularly at the American civil religion and the patriotic traditions that bond the nation across the religious divide.

Civil religion was a theory created by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 book “The Social Contract” chapter 8, book 4. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“The tenets of Rousseau’s civil religion include the affirmation of the existence of a supreme being and of the afterlife, the principle that the just will prosper and the wicked will be punished, and the claim that the social contract and the laws are sacred. In addition, the civil religion requires the provision that all those willing to tolerate others should themselves be tolerated, but those who insist that there is no salvation outside their particular church cannot be citizens of the state. The structure of religious beliefs within the just state is that of an overlapping consensus: the dogmas of the civil religion are such that they can be affirmed by adherents of a number of different faiths, both Christian and non-Christian.” [8]

In the 1980s, scholars delved into civil religion in Judaism in both the United States and Israel. Nowhere has the concept of civil religion and Judaism been perfected than in Israel, where at least for the majority Jewish population, a secular religion has evolved that incorporates Judaism in everyday life in a way that was lost on American Jewry. Social anthropologist and political scientist Myron Arnoff was the first to adapt and publish Bellah’s theory of Civil Religion to Israel or Judaism in his 1981 article, “Civil Religion in Israel.” Arnoff argued that Zionism was at the center of the state’s civil religion, which he used “to explain the complex range of religious views and relate them to the even more complex variety of ideological perspectives.” [9] [3]

Political scientists Charles S. Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya first analyzed Israeli civil religion in their 1983 article “The Dilemma of Reconciling Traditional Culture and Political Needs: Civil Religion in Israel” and subsequent book, “Civil Religion in Israel.” [10] They delineated the evolution of the adaption of civil religion in Israel for the predominantly Jewish population. Liebman and Don-Yehiya defined civil religion as “a system that provides sacred legitimization of the social order.” They described civil religion as “the ceremonial myths, and creeds with legitimate the social order, unite the population, and mobilize the society’s members in pursuit of its dominant political goals.” [11]

Civil religion was a way for Israeli Jews to express their Jewish identity. Liebman and Don Yehiya explain, “If any one factor accounts for the development of Israeli civil religion and its particular character, it is the continued Jewish identity of the vast majority of the population, the desire of the majority of Israelis to express that identity symbolically and transmit it to their children, and their inability to find in the system of traditional Judaism an adequate expression and vehicle for their Jewish Identity.”[12]

In his 2018 follow-up article “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017,” Don-Yehiya explains that civil religion, writing, and traditional religion are centered on a supernatural being, while civil religion is focused on society and its institutions, which are perceived as having intrinsic sacred nature. [13] Jonathan Woocher adapted the concept in his 1986 study Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews to American Jewry’s celebration of Jewish communal traditions, philanthropy, and Judaism and Israel, creating a civil Judaism. Woocher claims, “American Jewish civil religion is an activist religion emphasizing the pursuit of Jewish survival and social justice.” [14]

The Federation/UJA system became the central political/polity structure of American Jews. Woocher defined Jewish civil religion as “the constellation of beliefs and practices, myths and rituals which animates the organized American Jewish community today.” It was the “activity and ideology of the vast array of Jewish organizations which are typically thought of as ‘secular.’” Woocher believed there were seven elements to Civil Judaism:

1. The unity of the Jewish People

2. Mutual responsibility

3. Jewish survival in a threatening world

4. The centrality of the state of Israel

5. The enduring value of Jewish tradition

6. Tzedakah: philanthropy and social justice

7. Americaness as a virtue [15]

Woocher defines three tenants, “Holocaust Rebirth,” which views the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel as “a paradigm for Jewish history and a continuous inspiration for Jewish action.” The second tenet is “American Jewish exceptionalism,” which is the “striking Philo-Semitic character of American society.” The last tenet Woocher defines as “Jewish chosenness,” the only one based on Jewish religious tradition. [16]

Among the activities that make up Civil Judaism is a mix of religious observance and communal activities based on the Federation system. The religious activities include observing Shabbat and studying the sacred texts, but the secular and communal activities include “missions to Israel, retreats, major meetings, and conferences.” As historian Jonathan Sarna notes in his 1987 review of Woocher’s book, these activities were “designed to forge feelings of group solidarity and to spur Jews to the kind of activism that civil Judaism demands.” [17] Their first major challenge was raising money for Israel before, during, and after the Six-Day War. Then they endured controlling the growing assimilation problem, trying to maintain Jewish continuity, as intermarriage threatened Jewish hegemony.

The Jewish continuity crisis of the 1990s put this golden age in peril as American Jews fell out of love with Israel and looked to a personal religious renaissance instead of the communal. In 2001, American Jews were shaken by 9/11 and renewed support for Israel, but it has been shaky and no longer unconditional. According to Woocher, the support of Israel and Jewish education were a cornerstone of this Jewish civil religion. Woocher writes, “They turned to the federations and demanded that verbal professions of concern for Jewish survival be matched by a greatly augmented financial and programmatic commitment to Jewish education as the best guarantor of Jewish continuity.” [18]

In 2006, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his seminal work, Woocher reexamined the American Jewish community’s adherence to its civil religion in a book chapter, “‘Sacred Survival’ Revisited: American Jewish Civil Religion in the New Millennium.” Woocher claims American Jewish civil religion has declined since he wrote his first study in the late 1980s. The decline corresponds with the rise of intermarriage that started in earnest in the 1990s. Woocher attributes the fall of the collective to the rise of individualism, which he calls “a highly individualized appropriation of Jewish symbols, beliefs, and practices as part of the search for personal meaning.” The focus on the individual has only increased since then. As Woocher indicates, “freedom of choice” is the new mantra instead of uniting around a community.

In his 2018 follow-up article “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017,” Don-Yehiya concurs that since 1982 when they first studied civil religion in Israel, there has also been a shift from the communal to the individual. Don-Yehiya explains there has been “more room for expressions of individuality and cultural pluralism. These changes have greatly intensified since 1982. It was reflected in the further decline in the authority of state institutions, the growing tendency to adopt individualistic patterns of behavior, and the further weakening of commitment to collective ideals and state authorities.” [19] Israeli civil religion relied on celebrating traditional Jewish holidays, festivals, and religious symbols within the public sphere, giving the nation a Jewish character celebrated by all Israeli Jews. However, recently there has been a shift to celebrating these holidays in private among family. Even national celebrations such as Hanukkah and Yom Haazmaut, which had public pageantry, have become familial celebrations in private with parties or picnics. Jewish identity remained central to Israeli civil religion.

Both recent Pew Research surveys in 2013 and 2020 determined a rising disconnect between American Jews and religion. American Jews do not have the opportunities to be exposed to Judaism without the religiosity of Israeli Jews. The biggest skeptics to the Jewish observance remain the American Jewish youth with loose attachment to Judaism and Israel; with anti-Semitism mostly a non-issue, assimilation is appealing and most opportune. The shift is from religion to secularism, a Judaism that finds importance in cultural activities, such as Jewish food, movies, news, and humor taking precedence over Jewish religious observance.

Younger Jews increasingly identify as Jews of no religion; they think of being Jews as an ethnic, cultural, or familial identity rather than a religious one. In 2020, 27 percent of American Jews identified as Jews of no religion. Young Jews under 50 years old are the most likely not to identify religiously, with 40 percent of Jews aged 18–29 and 33 percent of Jews between the ages of 30–49 viewing themselves as Jews of no religion. As Pew indicates, “Among young Jewish adults, however, two sharply divergent expressions of Jewishness appear to be gaining ground — one involving religion deeply enmeshed in every aspect of life, and the other involving little or no religion at all.” [20]

Woocher’s brand of civil Judaism, however, continues to be part of the cultural Judaism that most American Jews find essential, including those that do not consider themselves religiously Jewish. These elements include the Holocaust, morals and ethics, justice and equality, intellectualism, and humor. As Pew recounts, “Many American Jews prioritize cultural components of Judaism over religious ones. Most Jewish adults say that remembering the Holocaust, leading a moral and ethical life, working for justice and equality in society, and being intellectually curious is “essential” to what it means to them to be Jewish.” [21]

While the 2020 Pew survey seems more problematic for Jewish religious identity in the U.S., scholars have lamented Judaism’s demise for thirty years. After Pew released their 2013 survey, Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told the New York Times, “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification.” [22] Alan Dershowitz ominously and prophetically began his 1997 book, The Vanishing American Jew In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century, by stating, “American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality. As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, as well as “the lowest birth rate of any religious or ethnic community in the United States,” the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may soon be coming to an end.” [23]

Even as far back as 1989, historian Arthur Hertzberg lamented the problem intermarriage causes to Jewish continuity. In response to Calvin Goldscheider’s review of his essay “What Future for American Jews?” in the New Yorker, Hertzberg wrote, “The evidence has been mounting that, at most, 30 percent of the children of intermarried couples receive any considerable exposure to Jewish traditions, and that even fewer feel connected to the Jewish community.” [24]

A 2018 survey entitled “Together and Apart: Israeli Jews’ Views on their Relationship to American Jews and Religious Pluralism” backs up that living in Israel gives a far more Jewish experience at any level of observance than it does in the Diaspora. [25] Israeli Jews consider that their civil religion, even among secular Israelis, guarantees a far more Jewish enriching life than American Jews do. According to the study, with a “two-to-one ratio, Israeli Jews believe that a Jewish life is much more meaningful in Israel than in the U.S.” Israelis also hold a negative view of American Jewry’s religious habit, with “a plurality of 46% vs. 41%” believing “most non-Orthodox American Jews assimilating in the next 10–20 years.” [26]

So are we amid a fourth paradigm shift in Judaism, one that emphasizes secular civil religion? However, according to Pew with 73 percent of American Jews still identify religiously with Judaism, and all Israeli Jews, even those that are secular, still identify as Jewish. As Pew indicates, “Virtually all Israeli Jews say they are Jewish — and almost none say they have no religion — even though roughly half describe themselves as secular and one-in-five do not believe in God.” [27] With those results, it is difficult to see this movement as anything more than a slight deviation rather than an actual paradigm shift. The trend toward cultural Judaism that started with the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel has not yet replaced traditional Judaism and observance. Until it encompasses a majority of Jews, not just in the United States and Israel, it will qualify as a shift in Judaism; until then, the last significant paradigm shift remains the introduction of denominations in Judaism.

[1] https://www.tbhbe.org/event/paradigm-shifts-in-judaism.html

[2] https://www.tbhbe.org/stream.html

[3] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/paradigm%20shift

[4] Jonathan S. Woocher, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

[5] https://www.jewishdatabank.org/content/upload/bjdb/Highlights_of_the_CJF_1990_National_Jewish_Population_Survey_Summary_Report_v3.pdf

[6] “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013.

https://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

[7] Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus, vol. 96, no. 1, 1967, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20027022.

[8] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/#CiviReliTole

[9] Myron J. Aronoff, “Civil Religion in Israel.” RAIN, no. 44, 1981, pp. 2–6. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3032231.

[10] Charles S.Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya. “The Dilemma of Reconciling Traditional Culture and Political Needs: Civil Religion in Israel.” Comparative Politics, vol. 16, no. 1, 1983, pp. 53–66. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/421595.

[11] Aronoff, “Civil Religion in Israel.”

[12]

[13] Eliezer Don-Yehiya, “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017.” Israel Studies 23(3):189 · October 2018 DOI: 10.2979/israelstudies.23.3.23

[14] Woocher, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, 131.

[15] https://www.commentary.org/articles/jonathan-sarna-3/sacred-survival-by-jonathan-woocher/

[16] https://www.commentary.org/articles/jonathan-sarna-3/sacred-survival-by-jonathan-woocher/

[17] https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/sarna/reviewessays/Archive/SacredSurvivalReview.pdf

[18] Woocher, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, 66.

[19] Don-Yehiya, “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017.”

[20] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/

[21] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/

[22] http://washingtonjewishweek.com/46743/five-years-later-building-on-pew/featured-left/

[23] https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/d/dershowitz-jew.html

[24] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1990/03/15/the-jews-in-america/; https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1989/11/23/what-future-for-american-jews/

[25] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-survey-israelis-think-netanyahu-s-gov-t-shouldn-t-listen-to-u-s-jews-1.6114439

[26] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/

[27] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a librarian, historian, and journalist. She has a BA in History & Art History, an MLIS, Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program, where her thesis was entitled, "Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Anti-Semitism, 1860-1913." She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism. She is currently expanding her article about Confederate cabinet secretary Judah Benjamin "The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South" into a full-length biography.
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