Thursday, October 03, 2013

What makes a Jew a Jew?

Everyone suddenly has their panties in a twist about the new Pew Research Center study that came out this week, A Portrait of Jewish America. You can read the study yourself here. One of the most prominently reported findings of this study is that one-fifth of Jews in America describe themselves "as having no religion," and instead "identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture."

Some argue that this is the end of the American Jewish community. Others view it as just the opposite. Still others think that this is not bad news or new goods, but shows where Jewish organizations and synagogues need to focus their work.

J.J. Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward comments:
The striking thing isn’t that they don’t identify with Judaism as a religion. What’s striking is that they still want to call themselves Jewish when you give them a chance—that is, when you conduct the survey in a way that makes them comfortable (which should be rule one in any survey, I’d think). What’s amazing 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.
I agree. These sounds like wonderful findings to me.

As often in these reports, there is a focus on intermarriage, and the typical tired assumption that Jews marrying non-Jews leads to children who aren't Jewish. In my personal experience, friends who have chosen to marry non-Jews are still working very hard to keep Judaism in their homes and their lives, and their kids are just as Jewish as any other Jewish kids that I know. I know this is not a representative sample by any means, but I still have the sense that intermarriage isn't going to be thing that ends Judaism in the U.S.  It may be that religion in general is becoming less important in the U.S.

I think what this survey describes that is fascinating is the phenomenon of Jews -- as well as many others in the U.S. of various faiths -- who identify in some way with their religion, but don't consider themselves religious per se. People in the U.S. are simply less religious these days, period. Or rather, they consider themselves less religious.

Which raises the question, what does it mean to be religious, anyway? In Judaism, there are certain behaviors that are typically considered religious behaviors: observing Shabbat (the Sabbath), keeping kosher, attending synagogue, involvement in Jewish organizations, schools, and social events. It may be that Jews who don't do these things regularly don't consider themselves religious.

I've often wondered: what exactly is the checklist that makes one religious or not? Is it lighting Shabbat candles? Fasting on Yom Kippur? Attending a Passover seder? If you do one of these things, but not all three, are you not religious?

Rabbi Leslie Gordon gave a wonderful sermon at our shul this winter in which she pushed us to reconsider what it means to be "religious." She proposed that if we are considering the world through a Jewish lens, and making decisions based on Jewish law and Jewish ideas, even if our choices of religious practice aren't typically Jewish, that we should still consider ourselves "religious."

So in the end, this may all have to do with definitions. Perhaps the questions in the Pew survey about being religious contained too narrow a definition. Or perhaps, as I proposed earlier, Americans are simply becoming less religious in general. However, I don't see this report as the death of the Jewish community in America. Rather, I see it as a success: Jews feel proud to be Jewish, part of the community, and being Jewish is important to them. Not too shabby at all.

No comments: