American Jews “With Religion” and “Without Religion” (PEW Research Report, 2013)

american judaism

Safely, one can assume the takeaway from the recent PEW Research’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” is going to be another wave of hysteria about assimilation and a triple down on religion, religion, religion. Because from the report it would seem that Jews “with religion” are less likely to “assimilate” than Jews “without religion.”  But what does assimilate even mean, and since when was “religion” the bell-weather of American Jewish identity?

What gets lost in the schrei is that the vast majority of Jews, both those “with” and those “without” religion, ascribe positive value to being Jewish (p.47). About this, see JJ Goldberg’s article in the Forward. And this one too. What’s worth noting is that “94% of those 6.7 million Jews are proud of being Jewish, 80% say it’s an important part of their lives and 75% have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

Also lost in the commotion is the degree to which religion does not seem to be at the top of the list of essential components constituting Jewish identity, even for those “with religion.”

Of nine essentials, the top 3 for both “the religious” and non-religious” are remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life, and working for and justice, (p.55). It would seem that American Jews may not be post-ethnic, not quite yet. Caring about Israel is there in middle of the list for both groups of Jews, and so is a sense of humor. Even those “with religion” rank observing Jewish law as low on the list of essentials.

As for God, 45% of Jews “without religion” believe in God or some form of universal spirit, while most Jews, those with and without religion, don’t think that non-belief in God is incompatible with being Jewish. Once again most Jews don’t believe in God, like the general public does, and yet 74 % of Jews (with and without religion) believe in God  (p.74).

What the Pew Report is going to obscure is the degree to which “religion” is a more or less useless category, and the degree to which what you might want to call “religion” constitutes a part of “culture,” not vice-versa. Instead of setting up a category opposition between groups of Jews “with” versus “without” religion, it would have been more useful to set up the opposition in terms of a sliding scale or continuum. The results would have proved less alarming, and lead to fewer of the pat conclusions that are almost sure to follow.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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