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Is It Good For The Jews?

posted by Brad Hirschfield

An article by Julia Duin at the Washington Times focuses on the fact that Jews identify as “secular” about five times more than American Christians and that they increasingly find typical religious observance less than central to their lives. Is that a problem? Not necessarily.

The rate of religious observance among American Jews has dropped precipitously over the past two decades, to the point where more than one out of every three Jews is thoroughly secularized, according to a new survey.
The 2008 American Jewish Identification Survey (AJIS), part of a broader survey of U.S. religious identification, also showed that the number of Americans who identify themselves as Jews – regardless of their religious practice – decreased slightly from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.2 million to 5.4 million today.
The composition of that group also has changed dramatically since 1990, the survey showed. Where just 20 percent of Jewish adults – about 1.12 million people – described themselves as nonreligious or cultural Jews 19 years ago, that total has risen to about 35 percent or 1.88 million people.
The survey, released by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., was a follow-up from two earlier AJIS surveys in 1990 and 2001. The 2001 survey showed the declining religiosity among Jews that continued in the 2008 study.
The survey will raise alarm bells among American Jews, but it shouldn’t, said Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“This gives our leaders the opportunity to respond to where Jewish people are,” he said. “They should resist the urge to bemoan where they are not.”
The study, he added, “doesn’t say the Jewish people or Judaism is dying. What it is saying is the way religiously identified Jews are practicing their Judaism is not working for a lot of people. It’s an opportunity – the kind of opportunity that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.”


The really interesting thing is that there is no real change in the number of Jews, according to the study. The more I think about it, even since speaking with the Times, the more certain I am that we are seeing a shift, not an end. People are still identifying as Jewish, they are simply reporting that much of Judaism doesn’t work for them.
If anything, the trend of continued identification as Jews even in the absence of a workable spiritual framework is a sign of the respondents’ profound connection to their Jewishness. It would be far easier to simply say that one is no longer Jewish if Judaism wasn’t working for them, but they don’t. If that isn’t a marker of connection, I don’t know what is.
Of course this will be difficult for most Christians and even many Jews to appreciate, because in both instances there is a presumption that Judaism is just another form of religion – defined by dogmas, faith statements, and specific practices without which there would be no Judaism – rather like any other Christian denomination. But Jewishness, Judaism, call it what you want, is far bigger and far more elastic than that.
Ultimately it is a shared sense of destiny which is shaped by all those who claim it. The details of that claim are worked out in every generation, and such it has always been. To the extent that we realize that, we realize that this is a moment of real opportunity. We can return the spiritual-intellectual-historical-cultural legacy of the past 3,000 years to all those who would claim it in order to do the two things which it was always meant to do: enrich the lives of those who claim that legacy, and empower them to use that legacy to make the world a better place for all human beings.
If Judaism does those two things (and it does, or at least it can), then there is nothing about which to worry, and if it does not, then why do we need it?



  • Your Name

    “Ultimately it is a shared sense of destiny which is shaped by all those who claim it.”
    I was born and raised Jewish, but now consider myself a Jewish Christian, practicing elements of both (seeing my christianity as an extension of my Jewish identity). I seek to claim that same sense of destiny as you, yet many of my fellow Jews would seek to deny it from me.
    Is Jewishness without Judaism is still being Jewish, yet Jewishness with Christianity (whose origins are in Judaism) is not? The Jewish community needs to decide either everyone who rejects Judaism remains Jewish (including Christians and secularist), or EVERYONE who rejects Judaism remains Jewish nonetheless.

  • Nathan

    Sorry, a correction:
    “Ultimately it is a shared sense of destiny which is shaped by all those who claim it.”
    I was born and raised Jewish, but now consider myself a Jewish Christian, practicing elements of both (seeing my christianity as an extension of my Jewish identity). I seek to claim that same sense of destiny as you, yet many of my fellow Jews would seek to deny it from me.
    Is Jewishness without Judaism is still being Jewish, yet Jewishness with Christianity (whose origins are in Judaism) is not? The Jewish community needs to decide either everyone who rejects Judaism remains Jewish (including Christians and secularist), or everyone who rejects Judaism CEASESto be Jewish.

  • Robert

    You’re entirely free to worship G-d as you choose, but I wonder if maybe you will be a Jewish-Christian-Buddhist next.

  • Larry

    Seems to me that this data needs to be read in light of some earlier data (from Pew, I think), indicating that a high percentage of Americans are not currently practicing the religion in which they were raised. Since we have small “market share” but high “brand awareness,” a society in which as many as one in four people will adopt a new faith is one that is likely to see many, many new Jews for whom the religious aspects of Judaism work quite well (and indeed, are what attracted them to Judaism).
    At the same time as that is happening, other Jews who don’t find Jewish spirituality working will continue to report “Jewish, secular” on these sorts of surveys, maintaining a sense of being Jewish even in the absence of any theology (or in the presence of a theology that is outside the bounds of normative Judaism, like Nathan).

  • Scott R.

    “Is Jewishness without Judaism is still being Jewish, yet Jewishness with Christianity (whose origins are in Judaism) is not? The Jewish community needs to decide either everyone who rejects Judaism remains Jewish (including Christians and secularist), or everyone who rejects Judaism CEASESto be Jewish.”
    Judaism is very specific – worship a man as a Jew and you are committing idolatry. You can not believe in J and remain a Jew. It is worshiping a different. Jews and Xians do NOT worship the same god when you add those two extra people.

  • Lucy

    It is important to consider a couple of issues when it comes to Jewish identification. First, it is generally accepted that if your mother is Jewish (no matter how secular) you are atomatically Jewish, no matter how you are raised. If you decide to attend synagogue you need not convert, even if you had previously gone to church with your Christian father. So, there is the concept of bloodline, not present in Christianity. In order to be a member of a particular Christian denomination, one may need to go through certain rituals, baptism for example, but it has nothing to do with parentage. If you decide to leave the Catholic church, you can attend a Lutheran or Anglican church with no fuss. (Baptists, who do not accept infant baptism, would encourage you to be re-baptised.) A Protestant (or non-Christian) who wishes to become Catholic generally has to undergo conversion instruction. I also think Jews tend to define the word “religous” differently from the way Christians do. “Religous” to a Jew usually means Orthodox, often Ultra-Orthodox. Even if a Reform Jew attends synagogue regularly, he generally will not define himself as “religous.” He is, however, Jewish. Christians of any denomination, even the most liberal, think of themselves as religous as long as they pray, read the bible occasionally and belong to a church. Someone who no longer does these things at all will often no longer even define himself a Christian. Ultimately, you can’t be a secular Christian in the same way you can be a secular Jew.

  • Nathan

    Robert – From my perspective, Buddhism would be paganism and contrary to my belief in God to practice it. Whereas I do not feel that way about Christianity. I don’t know if you’ve read the New Testament, but it’s quite firm in its insistence that it is a continuation of the worship of Adonai, and not a Roman or pagan religion. The irony is I think, in spite of worshipping from the same scriptures and singing the same psalms, a Buddhist Jew would be more accepted into a synagogue than a Christian.
    Larry – Looking back now, I can’t say with certainty whether the message from Jewish authorities in my life (i.e., rabbis and Hebrew school teachers) I received was flawed, or I was personally not receptive.
    Scott – If that’s completely true, that to be Jewish requires practicing Judaism and not its rejection, then an atheist and a Christian are BOTH no longer Jews. To try and carve out an exception for people who REJECT Adonai, and people who don’t reject him but, at least from a Jewish perspective, may incorrectly be worshipping him, is hypocrisy.
    Trust me, I understand why you have such a strong reaction to my stance. I too grew up with the stories of the pogroms, the inquisition and the Holocaust. It’s a very emotional issue, but the response you give isn’t, I think, a well thought-out rational one.

  • Scott R.

    Worshiping JC is idolatry for a Jew (and maybe a Xian, but we won’t debate that here). It doesn’t matter what the “new” testament insists on, it is incorrect. Xianity has been the enemy of the Jewish people for 2,000 years. It is immoral and traitorous (IMNSHO) for a Jew to join up with them. Do as you wish, but you can no longer read from our Torah in a synagogue, you can not marry our children, and you can not be buried with us – you are out of your people.

  • Heretic_for_Christ

    As one who is neither Christian nor Jewish, I find this research interesting but not troubling. As far as “Who is Jewish?” goes, there are intrinsic complexities because the term seems to have many meanings–someone whose birth mother was Jewish; someone who practices Judaism as a religion; someone who tries to follow the Jewish law except in terms of actual religious practice; someone who feels a cultural identification with the Jewish people.
    Adding to the complexity is the tendency for hard-liners to appoint themselves guardians of the label–people who declare, “You are NOT a Jew if you do this or fail to do that.” The same kind of dogmatism can be found among Christian fundamentalists and hard-core atheists (the latter defining the label “rational”).
    From my knowledge about Judaism and direct experience with Christianity (before giving up on it), these religions are NOT the same thing except for a disagreement over the purported divinity of Jesus; to me, these faiths are wildly different, Christianity being a soteriological religion focusing on salvation in the next world, and Judaism being a non-soteriological religion focusing on living in a just manner in this world.
    This distinction is the key. Christianity is defined by its dogma and doctrines; if those disappear, there is no more Christianity. Judaism is defined by… Well, that seems to depend on who is asking and answering the question. But the point is that the quest for living in a just manner does not depend on dogma and doctrine. So if the proverbial ancient role of the Jewish people–to be a light unto the world–were fulfilled, would it matter if the specific details of how Judaism is defined were lost? Its mission would have been accomplished. In a sense, that mission has already been accomplished in part, in the sense that the many of the most important precepts of justice outlined in the Jewish law are now widely accepted among people of other faiths and people of no faith.
    I certainly cannot tell a Jewish person how to feel about a decline in religious observance in the Jewish population; but to an outsider, it does not seem as if it should be as alarming as a corresponding decline would be interpreted within the Christian church, which is defined entirely by its religiosity.

  • Netta

    I have had an opportunity to learn about the Jewish values and beliefs. My son converted to the Judaism giving me an opportunity to be interested in the religion enough to learn about its values and beliefs. I have been very surprised how my true beliefs match those of the Jewish religion.
    For a long time I have given-up on religion because of my shaming experiences growing up as a catholic child. I can remember “having” to go to confession before mass and having to create committing a sin to tell the priest. I remember the confusing feelings of guilt associated with my cath experiences. It seemed to me that the priests and nuns focused on adapting my life to the religion with little reguard for my values or beliefs. And OH MY GOD never question priests and/or nuns about feeling confused about the cath religion.
    I am grateful for having the opportunity to learn Jewish values and beliefs.
    And yes, my son and his wife do celebrate Christmas with my side of the family. Now, I have another reason which motivates my interest in Judaism—my grand daughter! Its wonderful!

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