June 4, 2013A Star of David decorates the ceiling at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.Astrid Riecken / For The Washington Post
The greatest surprise in the new Pew study of U.S. Jews and Jewish identity, is not the 58 percent intermarriage rate (71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews), the fact that two thirds of U.S, Jews do not belong to a synagogue, the revelation that a quarter do not believe in God, or that a third had Christmas trees in their homes. The greatest surprise is not even that 34 percent of those surveyed said that believing in Jesus as the Messiah is not inconsistent with being Jewish.
In fact, if you are Jewish and reading this post, there is a good chance that you fall into at least some of these categories, and not the least bit surprised by any of this, unless it is the discovery that you have far more company than you may have previously thought!
The greatest, and perhaps most troubling, part of the study is that the non-Jews who conducted it, are more Jewish in their approach to Jewish identity than many of the custodians of Jewish culture who are commenting on the study and its results!
As a traditional Jew, I respect the fact that there is no such thing as “more” or “less” Jewish. You are or you aren’t. But that is precisely what so many Jewish experts seem to miss, even as the folks at Pew respect that fact. That is why they took seriously the responses of those who in past Jewish-sponsored were either excluded or categorized as “less” or “marginally” Jewish.
Belief in God? When did that become a marker for who is “deeply” Jewish, or otherwise “less assimilated, as the experts are saying? Don’t get me wrong, I believe in God, and see it as central to my own Jewish identity. But a defining feature of Jewishness, the decrease in which spells are dissolution as a people? That is simply not the case.
Judaism, as we have known from the beginning, is not simply a religion, and the absence of God or uncertainly about God’s existence as a component in Jewish Identity, while upsetting for many of us, is neither a barrier to great Jewishness, nor a predictor of its weakening. Just ask Albert Einstein, Isaiah Berlin, David Ben Gurion, Primo Levi or Golda Meir. I could go on, but you get the point.
And while I love my synagogue, because Jewish is not only a religion, rates of synagogue membership are also not something to bemoan, at least not in terms of the future of the Jewish people. It’s something to bemoan, perhaps, for those of us who love synagogues, but that is another matter.
Similar arguments could be made for the other statistics mentioned above, at least insofar as they are used to conflate the weakness of a specific kind of religious understanding of Jewishness, with Jewishness itself. The surveyors managed to resist that conflation, and in doing so, present us with a picture of radical change, more than of impending doom.
I am not na ve, and the Pew study presents real and serious challenges regarding the shape and substance of future Judaisms and for the Jewish people as a whole. On balance though, we still stand at 2.2 percent of the growing population of the United States, so the notion of demise or even shrinkage seems to be a straw man, at least for the most part.
The real question emerging from this amazing, and amazingly Jewish, study is how to take full advantage of the strengths and diversity we posses both as a spiritual/intellectual tradition, and as a people living in the freest, most integrated Diaspora in which we have ever been blessed to live.