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?