Monthly Archives: October 2013

Motti Inbari on Messianic Religious Zionism and other Fundamentalists

In the 1990’s the University of Chicago published a multi-volume set on the rise of Fundamentalist religion in the contemporary world. For those who remember the series, Gush Emunim, Merkaz Harav, and Centrist Orthodoxy were included in its survey. Most historians and sociologist reacted by distinguishing between the Fundamentalists, the true believers who lived with a complete sectarian zeal and the Evangelicals who were willing go out and engage the contemporary world through outreach, professional achievement, and social integration.

Motti Inbari has a Ph.D., from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is an assistant professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. His first book, Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount (SUNY, 2009) won the AICE best publication award in Israel Studies. His second book is Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises (Cambridge, 2012).is making a career of studying the Fundamentalists starting with Gush Emunim and moving his research now to Munkatch, Neturei Karta and Satmar.

Here is his work in interview form. He still uses the Fundamentalist category and analyzes the events using the famous 1956 book by Festinger, When Prophecy Fails to explain their behaviors. I found most interesting his discussion of how the Munkatcher traveled in 1930 to Jerusalem in order to crown Rabbi Eliezer Alfandri as king messiah, but the latter died in front of him.

Inbari’s virtue is writing in English and writing classroom ready overviews. In 1987, Gideon Aran wrote a Ph.D dissertation on the origins of Gush Emunim which he recently released as Kookism – The Roots of Gush Emunim, Jewish Settlers’ Sub-Culture, Zionist Theology, Contemporary Messianism, Jerusalem: Carmel, 2013. Journalist Gershom Gornberg published a study on the political aspect of the emergence of the settlement project: The Accidental Empire – Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books, 2006). His book focuses only on the first years post ‘67. Another book considered by many to be biased against the settlers is: Lords of the Land: the War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007(New York: Nation Books, 2007), by Idith Zertal, and journalist Akiva Eldar. This book attempts to psychoanalyze and explain the aberrations of the settlers.

Michael Feige published an anthropological study in English on the Gush Emunim movement, Settling in the Hearts: Jewish Fundamentalism in the Occupied Territories, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Inbari thinks that Feige limited his analysis on field research limiting the role of texts and the theology of the rabbis. Inbari wants to correct this and deal with their messianic theology. He places the responses to the actions of the secular state at the center of discussion contributed to changing religious ideology.

Comments should be on the analysis of religion in the contemporary world, not politics. As stated before, the blog takes as a given that you read academic works.

1) What is your thesis in your book?

The Six Day War in 1967 profoundly influenced how an increasing number of religious Zionists saw Israeli victory as the manifestation of God’s desire to redeem God’s people. Thousands of religious Israelis joined the Gush Emunim movement in 1974 to create settlements in territories occupied in the war. They also sanctified the State of Israel as part of the redemption process. Over time, however, the Israeli government decided to return territory to Palestinian or Arab control. This was perceived among religious Zionist circles as a violation of God’s order. The peak of this process came with the Disengagement Plan in 2005, in which Israel demolished all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank. This process raised difficult theological questions among religious Zionists: What supreme religious significance could be attributed to these events? Was the State of Israel no longer to be considered a divine tool for the redemption of the Jewish people? This book explores the internal mechanism applied by a group of religious Zionist rabbis in response to their profound disillusionment with the behavior of the state, reflected in an increase in religious radicalization because of the need to cope with the feelings of religious and messianic failure.

The book starts with a discussion over Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook’s theology and the creation of Gush Emunim. It then continues with an examination of Rabbi Kook’s followers’ responses to territorial compromises at crucial points: the withdrawal from Sinai as part of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty (1982), the Oslo Accords (1993-5) and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, and eventually with the Disengagement Plan (2005).

Since the book is studying the correlation between the growing strength of the settlers’ movement and the paradox that the actual situation on the ground has grown worse from their perspective, I decided to examine the relevance of the psychological model of cognitive dissonance in the context of the behavior of the movement.

2) Why do you use the categories of Festinger’s cognitive dissonance?

When Prophecy Fails (Festinger, Reiken & Schachter 1956) studied Mrs. Keech’s small UFO cult that believed in an imminent apocalypse and later developed cognitive mechanism to explain why the event did not occur. Festinger’s team came out with two conclusions: 1. beliefs that are clearly falsified will be held even more intensely after falsification; 2. and the group will increase active proselytization. The team used the term “Cognitive dissonance” to refer to the distress caused when two contradictory ideas, or cognitions, are held simultaneously. In the case of a messianic or millennial individual or group, cognitive dissonance is said to occur when a fervently held belief appears to be contradicted by empirical evidence. Since then, the cognitive dissonance theory became very dominant. However, the study of prophetic movements had much developed since Festinger et al. published their book, and today there is a much more comprehensive and multi-dimensional analysis of the topic.

Lorne Dawson showed three survival methods to cognitive dissonance: intensified proselytization, various rationalizations and acts of reaffirmation. Whereas Festinger and his team argued that proselytization is a key component for the movement’s survival, many newer case studies proved that proselytization seldom happens. However, in the messianic religious Zionist case I had noticed proselytization as an important mechanism for easing dissonance (“Settling in the Hearts” campaigns).

Rationalizing is the key tool for dealing with failure, and there are a few ways where it can develop. The use of mysticism to spiritualize prophecy is a major one: mystical interpretations can deny the failure and argue that prophecy has been maintained on divine or ethereal levels. Thus, mystical interpretation enables the rejection of reality as it appears externally, and acceptance instead as covert spiritual fulfillment. Another method of rationalization can claim that the prophecy was a test of faith, and that God is putting the believers in miseries in order to examine their strength. These reasoning were used by prominent settler rabbis, as Shlomo Aviner and Zvi Tau that argued that redemption continues in heaven, or that God is testing his followers. A third way or rationalization can be with blaming failure on human errors like miss interpretation, or blaming others for misunderstanding or interfering with the fulfillment of prophecy. Blaming the State of Israel or blaming “the left” is a common excuse by the more radical rabbis.

I argue that the messianic Religious Zionist’s response to failure of faith due to territorial compromises in certain circumstances may go in one of these ways: There may be a logical explanation to an acknowledged failure of prophecy, in which they admit that a religious mistake had been made, and thus they retreat from their expectant messianic perspective (like the case with Rabbis Yehuda Amital and Shmuel Tal); Alternately, they may have the opposite reaction in which followers reject the idea that the prophecy failed, instead arguing that messianic realization is indeed taking place, but in the unseen sphere. Therefore, they may argue that since messianic failure is definitely not certain, nothing should be changed in their theology and practice (Zvi Tau and Shlomo Aviner); Finally, they may acknowledge the failure of their original messianic prophecy, and yet still be strengthened in their religious zeal in order to prevent complete collapse. Since the end vision is political, with the establishment of a theocratic regime, they may be involved in political action, in order to fulfill prophecy (The Jewish Leadership Movement).

My book discusses the messianic stream of religious Zionism. I do not argue that all religious Zionists are messianic. Actually, for those who follow Israeli affairs, it is becoming very evident that the rift between the modernists and the conservatives is growing bigger, up to a point that it is doubtful if we can call them all “religious Zionists.”

3) Why do you still use the category of fundamentalism when even Martin Marty has abandoned it?

Fundamentalism is a useful term that comes to describe a trend of religious militancy that emerges as a response to the rise and dominance of secularity in society and politics. The term was used first in an American Christian context, but it was borrowed also to describe other movements in other faiths. This is a common term in research, but there are many critics against the use of it. I don’t think there is a better term for us to use. However, I can tell you that in my new research on radical ultra-Orthodoxy I am making a much more in-depth research into patterns of Jewish zealotry, and “zeal” is replacing “fundamentalism” in my analysis of religious radicals.

4) What is the topic of your next book?

The book I am currently working on is: Neturei Karta and Satmar: Radical Ultra-Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women’s Equality. This book reviews the history, ideology and gender relations of two leaders: Amram Blau, founder of the Jerusalem based anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, and Yoel Teitelbaum, leader of the Satmar Hasidic sect in New York.

I started this research in 2009 when I got tipped that Amram Blau’s personal archive was delivered to the US, and it located at the Boston University Archives. I discovered a very rich archive with fascinating and even amazing information about Neturei Karta: its formation, its modesty patrols, the campaigns against the State of Israel, and some information on Amram Blau’s personal life. After I wrote two articles based on the materials, I had found very interesting information regarding his biography, his dynamic relationship with Zionist activist, and more.

5) Can you say a few words about the Munkatcher’s attempt to appoint a messiah?

One of the chapters of this new research discusses messianic tension that developed in the Munkacz court in Hungary, under the leadership of Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira. The First World War caused considerable psychological shock to the rabbi. For Shapira, the war proved that the era was indeed one of the “pangs of messiah.” In 1930, Shapira traveled to Jerusalem in order to crown Rabbi Eliezer Alfandri as king messiah. Alfandri, known also by the title of “The holy grandfather,” was perceived by some of the mystics of the Old Yeshuv in Jerusalem as the “founding Tzadik of the world,” therefore a candidate for the title. The visit ended in a fiasco: Alfandri died in front of Shapira’s eyes. After his death, Shapira continued with additional activities to force the end.

6) How does Gush Emunim compare to contemporary movements?

In my book I did make a comparison of messianic religious Zionism with other religious movements in the spectrum, namely the American evangelical movement, and I studied the Christian response to Israeli territorial compromises, as a comparative case study.

Whereas Judaism and Islam share many similarities, Gush Emunim and the Muslim Brotherhood do not share much in common. Most of the radical Islamist movements are anti-secular and antigovernment. They propose a religious alternative to the secular state. Indeed, Gush Emunim has a religious ideal for a Jewish government, which is theocratic, like the Islamists; however, Gush Emunim is not an anti-statist movement, and this is a big difference. Islamic movements are revolutionary and violent, even if sometimes they will tactically moderate themselves. Gush Emunim, by contrast, sanctified the state, which is viewed as a holy institution. It is important to mention that the growing tension between the state and the movement over territorial compromises does push some activists into a radical response which is post-statist or even anti-statist, which is more inline with the Islamist response.

Both American fundamentalism and Gush Emunim share an admiration to the state (the US and Israel simultaneously), and they both see themselves as patriotic movements. They both try to forward their political agenda through the political institutions, while accepting the legitimacy of these institutions (unlike the Islamists). However, their messianic perspectives are different: Religious Zionism developed a natural messianic ideology, in which God is bringing the redemption through human effort in a mundane process. Therefore the State of Israel is viewed as a step toward redemption, but many more steps are required in order to achieve the final goal. Evangelical Christianity, in contrast, believes in the Dispensational theory, by which mankind is moving toward the last dispensation, but we still did not get to that point, and the events of the End of Days would be miraculous and supernatural.

This position also influences views on the question of land for peace. For messianic religious Zionism, messianic time has already begun, and accordingly no territorial compromises are possible. Christian Zionism believes that Jerusalem must be held by the State of Israel as a precondition for the eruption of the End of Days events. For Christian Zionism, Jerusalem constitutes a red line; on other issues, it is more flexible.

7) You treat Rav Amital as just a political reaction, what about his theology?

Rabbi Amital’s case is very interesting, because he had gone a long way from his original opinions. When Yoel Bib-Nun and Hanan Porat were looking for a leader for the newly established Gush Emunim, they approached Amital, because he was well know for his messianic beliefs. However, Amital’s views were different than those articulated in Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, headed by Zvi Yehuda Kook. For Amital, the sanctity of human life was more important than the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Therefore, when it came to the prospects of peace, he supported peace over territory. At a later stage he also rejected the linkage between the State and redemption. In the book, I explain the transformation of his views, which led him to publicly support the Oslo Accords.

8) What is the role of theology or piety in their thought? You seem to make everything cognitive dissonance without any internal theological development.

My book is focused on two questions: how did the settlers’ rabbis respond to territorial compromises, and to what extent it changed their theology. These are major questions that are being debated even today. The rabbis had to respond to a pressing issue that threatened to destroy not just their homes in case of the eviction of settlements but also their entire theological infrastructure. Territorial retreats were viewed as messianic retreats. Therefore I disagree with your statement that my research seems to make everything about cognitive dissonance without any internal theological development. I think that the urgent situation from their part forced them to respond, and you cannot ignore effects of the surrounding conditions on their decisions.

(AB- For a more Mahshevet Yisrael perspective read the articles of Dov Schwartz, Moshe Hellinger, Yoshke Achitov, or even my article on Rav Amital but only selects elements that fit into the political theology. Personally, I would like to see a good study of the settler journal Nekudah with its diverse elements of realism, apocalypticism, piety, and political theory.)

9) Are Jews on the Temple Mount a good thing?

Jews throughout the generations yearned for the rebuilding of the Temple. Actually, it is an essential component of our daily Amidah prayer. The rebuilding the Temple became an option after Israel conquered the site in 1967. However, until recently the rabbinical authorities, across all Orthodox lines, banned Jews to go up the Mount, due to complications relating to ritual purity. The Israeli government actually made the Temple Mount a de facto Muslin worship site, where Jews can only visit as tourists. Over the last 20 years, the attitude of the messianic religious Zionist authorities has changed over the question of Jews going up the Temple Mount. They came to believe that if Jews do not go up, they might lose their ownership of the site.

So yes, they should be allowed because I believe that if they are not allowed it will lead to greater tension. If there would be a third Intifada, the Temple Mount be a clashing point. Therefore, the radicalization of the Jewish approach to the Mount, blended with the mirror like radicalization of Muslims, is not a good sign.

The fact that Jews go up the Mount can be a pressure relief for those Jews who feel that their ownership rights are being taken away from them. It is better for the State of Israel to allow them to visit the site than to let them explode and who knows what would be the results. We must remember that in the past there were attempts by radical Jews to damage the site, as in case of the Jewish Underground (1984) and the Lifta Gang (1983).

[AB- for an alternative perspective of political science that thinks Jews and Muslim cannot share any sacred space, see Ron E. Hassner War on Sacred Grounds. Here is the website.]

Readers download Inbari’s articles and published chapters at his personal website:

The Milkman (Helban) Cometh

Back in Elul someone emailed to me a schedule of classes given by the new Mashgiah of RIETS, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger and the one that struck him was the class for smicha students on the writings of Rabbi Haim Cohen, nicknamed the “The Milkman (Helban).”

Back in 2005, he was described in a Haaretz article listing “The 10 leading kabbalists today are young, charismatic people who feel comfortable on the capitalist playing field. ‘Opium for the masses,’ the 21st-century version.”

Rabbi Haim CohenThe search for new attractions gives rise to a need for new names, more concealed tzaddikim, for those in the know. Rabbi Haim Cohen of Givatayim is such a new name, and he is gathering influence. He is an older man, a simple worker in a factory, without a beard, and he is known as “The Milk Man.” His believers speak of a unique quality in his blessings, and of his healing abilities. He organizes tikkunim and purifies himself in the mikveh (ritual bath). Pedigree: None.


In many aspects, he is the wonderworker for the Religious Zionist world. And from the pictures of his audience, he is attaching a wide range of them. His approach is to connect different verses to an esoteric sod. This verse is the secret of that sefirah and gives this power, this verse is the secret of creation from sefer yetzirah, and this verse shows our current task to build the land. He is able to draw forth imperative not explicit in the text such as the whole mission of Mordechai in the Esther story was to rebuild the Temple.

The Helban builds on the writings of his ancestry Rabbi Itamar Cohen of Smyrna’s Midrash Talpiot which offers the same associative method and the same ability to draw conclusions from these association. His thought should not be confused with the grand project of Lurianic exegesis and kavvanot, rather it is of a more popular variety. For his writings and those of his ancestors- see here. If you want to hear his shiur in person- here are the details. Here are weekly audio and visual recordings of his shiurim.

Some of his ideas capture the spirit of segulot. Such as his suggestion to eat Matzah on Rosh Hashanah because matzah has the power of redemption and we can use some of that when we are doing teshuvah. (This should not be confused with the Pri Megadim suggesting to eat matzah the first night of Sukkot because a hekesh).

The Helban receives prognostications, I assume not by tyromancy, that Netanyahu has to bomb Iran now and the Helban offers other unilateral political visions on a regular basis.


My question is not about the effect of this in Israel, but the effect on Centrist Orthodoxy. If this is the teaching for smicha students then we will start hearing this from the pulpits in about 10-12 years. I am expecting the biggest resistance is going to be from those educated in the 1990’s by Rav Schechter and his students. This world of blessings, inner voices, segulot, sodot, and kabbalah creates a new playing field little in harmony with the language of mesorah, practical halakhah, and polemics. The baby-boomer’s who knew Rav Soloveitchik still hear their teacher saying that Jewish thought has to be done by the trained mind, by the intellectual, by the dialectics of mind and heart, universal and particular, individual and community, grandeur and humility. They will not enter into this discussion. But will the late 30’s and early 40 somethings say this is not our mesorah?

I know many who like the new Haredi Neo-Hasidism and several who love it and were instrumental in bring it to RIETS. Will the new generation be one of Neo-Hasidut from the milkman and the authors discussed here? Blessed Are the Cheesemakers!

Here is some Passover Torah about redemption. There are several good pamphlets of his material online as well as some free volumes of his works. Here is his Yamim Noraim volume. Here are soem chapters of his Devarim volume.

Here is a nice 5 minute example of his shiurim from this past Elul.

Here he is cool enough to sign with Ehud Banai

Go watch and read some of his material and then come back.

Fulbright Senior Scholar Award in Varanasi

Greetings from Varanasi, India. An ancient town with continuous residence of the same people since the 6th century BCE and possibly continuous since the 13th century BCE. The town is also known as Kashi (its ancient name) and Benares (its Hindu name). This is the city that that you see in the pictures where thousands come out to bath in the Ganges and everyone waiting in line on the ghats (the staircases down to the river).


I am here as a Fulbright Senior Scholar for a while.

I am staying at the Benares Hindu University, the oldest and largest in Asia, a university founded in the colonial period by the Annie Besant. The campus is twice the size of Central Park and arranged as buildings set back among hibiscus and jasmine flowers. Picture the original vision of Givat Ram of the separate buildings behind the library. Now multiple it several fold. Most of the campus is for technology, agriculture, and medicine so the size of the Arts and Sciences section that I have to deal with is not that bad.

bhu campus

Below is the library.

BHU library

Now that I am settled, the blog will resume with its regular posts. I am nine and a half hours ahead of DST and will be ten and a half hours ahead of EST. Power in this part of the country is spotty. I arrived during the cyclone when everything was worse. All forms of internet and wifi are also spotty. Even in an internet café the power or wifi can go at any time; the locals take it in stride. I will only be checking email and monitoring comments once a day around 5-AM EST, if there is wifi. I may get there as early as 2 AM EST but don’t count on it. The University has blocked Facebook.

My project here in India is three-fold. First, to go back and add some clarity to the Jewish Hindu encounters of 2007, 2008, and 2009. Let’s see how much they understood of each other and how much the Hindu side, the Hindu Dhrarma Acharya Sabha led by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, was representative of broader opinions. Here is a full set of documents from the encounters. (The online were from the right wing Hidutva parties.)

Second, to explain what is Judaism. There is almost no knowledge of the Judaism here and not even basic Jewish books. In a future post, I will show how bad it is. They basically only know Jews from the New Testament, Shakespeare, Marx, and the Holocaust. In their reading of Abraham and Isaac, Judaism grew out of a human sacrifice cult. Or if you asked them to explain Judaism they will start with Judaism of pillars in high places, soothsaying, golden calves and battles against Baal, we just evolved from there. Conversations usually start, with my being asked if the Jews are like the Pareses and then concluding with a question if we are part of Christianity.

Third, to explain back home the complexity of Hinduism(s). We are equally unaware of them. Unless you have a recent degree in the field, much of the Hinduism in the introductory American textbooks is based on the colonial era presentations, eclectic mixtures of ancient citations, 10th century texts, obscure cults, and ethnography of the populous. All of them having little to do with the current religion of your radiologist or IT specialist who is outsourcing your job, so please avoid the stereotypes or fragments of knowledge. I will be visiting Tirupati in the South where the shaitel hair comes from and other places around the country. If you have any specific research questions then email privately,

This town is not on the “Hummas-trail” of visiting Israelis since it is dedicated to education and ritual not to fun and freedom. I may post on the hummas trail in the future.

Varanasi is not the modernizing high tech part of India. It can take a half hour to go one km due to the sheer mass of people, with their bicycles and packages moving among the rickshaws, cows, dogs, 10 year olds on motorbikes, potholes, pushcarts, paupers, and holy men. Mark Twain say it all: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

I am not the only one around this year or doing this activity. I cannot attend it but there will be a conference of scholars from Brandeis and Tel Aviv University explaining contemporary Judaism next month in Delhi , they have been doing this for several years already.

From 2007-2009
Below are some earlier thoughts from 2009
In 2000, the World Council of Religious Leaders was formed at the Millennium World Peace Summit. The objective of this new Council was the offering of the collective wisdom of the faith traditions toward the resolution of global problems. The Council’s secretary general Bawa Jain has been very active fostering the Hindu-Jewish dialogue.

In 2007, the first Jewish Hindu Summit took place in Delhi, India where both sides affirmed that their “respective Traditions teach that there is One Supreme Being who is the Ultimate Reality, who has created this world in its blessed diversity and who has communicated Divine ways of action for humanity, for different peoples in different times and places.”

A second Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit took place in Jerusalem, February, 2008. In this meeting they went further in their declarations and deemed Hinduism and Judaism as a shared “Creator and Guide of the Cosmos.” The Jewish delegation also accepted that true Hindus accept One Supreme Being and do not think that the representations are idols.” Hindus do not worship ‘gods’ and idols.’ The Hindu relates to only the One Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.”

In 2009, The Hindu representatives all shared a common perception of Christians as engaged in aggressive mission and that Christians have a hidden conversionary agenda in interfaith activity with Hindus. Even now in the US, the Hindus complain that they face aggressive missionary campaigns. They felt that with Jews they can share non-proselyting discussions. In addition, the Hindu representatives pointed to the lost of life by over 5 million Hindus in persecution by Muslim invaders because they chose not to convert. And now face an Islamist Islamic force both within and without India. Analogies to Jews and Israel were tacitly a given. In 2000 years there has been no indigenous anti-Semitism in India, which received unanimous applause at the meeting.

As part of the new multifaith America, the Hindus representatives emphasized that they can learn from Jews about community building as a Diaspora minority in America. More importantly, they wanted to fight anti-Hinduism and change the derogatory descriptions of Hinduism in textbooks.
The two substantive interfaith themes, reiterated from the first two summits, was the Hindu understanding of God and the swastika. The Swamis reiterated that they worship a single supreme being and that they are not polytheistic. And that they earnestly wanted Jews to know that the Swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol of auspicious times, which originally had nothing to do with Nazis.
Some of the Hindu leaders were too religious to be in the same room as women, while others gladly shared the podium with female Hindu leaders. Some would only have the fresh fruit, since they would not eat anything cooked in our utensils.

Why now?
In the post 9/11 world India and Israel have had a rapid rapprochement, pushing aside the prior 50 years of tensions. And as stated above, this is intertwined with the recent political and military links between Israeli and Indian, consisting of arms sales, joint intelligence, and work toward trade agreements. It is curious to ponder that Swamis who do not eat any sentient being are creating a safe backdrop for arms sales.
For the Swamis and rabbis involved there is great excitement to engage in encountering another religion with which one does not have any negative historical baggage.
It is connected to the over 40, 000 Israeli youth who visit India each year. As these youth mature, they are conceptualizing their Jewish religion with their perceptions of Hinduism. In the US, it allows the Jewish community to have a sister Diaspora religion.

Reflections on the Pew Survey

When Rav Soloveitchik was teaching the beginning of Yoreh Deah, which excludes those who do not observe the mizvot or those who spitefully cede from the community, he told a story of how men who attended Yom Kippur balls and ate on Yom Kippur later in life become members of his Chevra Shas. He had a keen sense of reversals and surprise endings.

My post on the Pew survey was up five minutes after we were allowed to reveal its data, and consisted of a collection of the factoids, but it was not yet a piece of reflection. It turns out that even though the margin of error for the entire survey, was +/- 3%, the margin of error for the Orthodox data turns out to be +/- 12.4%, explaining the surprising and wildly outlying data. Yet, the overall directions and proportions remain correct. In addition, much of the data was descriptive as opposed to predictive because of the generational and terminological differences.

But what do I think the results mean?

I share the same reaction as Professor Jonathan Sarna which is that one does not have prophecy about the future. No one would have predicted that the Conservative movement would be the largest group in 1920 and likewise, no one could have predicted the return of Ultra-Orthodox in 1955. In 1960, modern Orthodoxy was the least educated and poorest of the three denominations not the most professional and with the most high incomes.

One of the few certainties in history is its unpredictability and the ever present reversals yet there are unexpected returns. Some who threw off all Judaism in 1880s were by the 1920s, integrated into the newly established Jewish community. In the 1930s, many who thought religion was going to die and that keeping ritual was old-fashioned, returned post-Korean War to the suburbs and affiliated with a house of worship. The Jewish community did this if for no other reason than because their Christian neighbors were affiliating. Assimilated Jews isolated in North Dakota and Arizona became aware of their Judaism as soldiers and used the GI Bill to settle in Jewish-dense Long Island and Los Angeles.

Two decades after Harvey Cox’s 1966 declaration of The Secular City, we were in the midst of a return to traditional religion that no one foresaw. Soviet Jewry has returned twice; first, when the secular Communist era Jews received a large influx of more traditional Polish Jews when Eastern Poland was absorbed by Russia and then again when the over-whelming majority immigrated to Israel and the US. Who would have dreamed of it?

Historians used to teach Hanson’s Law from the “The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant” in that we would say, “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.” If one generation seeks to integrate into the melting pot, the next one returns. It does not serve as a useful analytic tool anymore but when taught it at least gave you sense of reversals in Jewish history.

Jewish Identity

When do people assimilate to the point of forgetting the past? Usually, in the case of Judaism, the answer to that question lies in times of cultural and economic oppression as well as around a time that conversion offers a possibility of escape. For example, Ottoman Empire Jews converted to escape the oppressive poll tax during the period of decline. European Jewry converted during the time between 1780 and 1815 (and well into 1900) to escape the exclusion from the social, economic, and cultural worlds.

The Jews often assimilated when they did not have enough Jewish markers in their lives. In his comparison of the Jews of China and India, Nathan Katz notes that the former assimilated away because they used Chinese cultural forms for their Judaism, while the latter kept to Jewish forms.

But in America, 94% of all Jews are proud of their Judaism! Jews are at a social, financial, and cultural peak and do not have significant restriction. Who would have thought fifty years ago that there would be more Jews in Congress and other establishment benchmarks than Episcopalians? That is a success

American Jewish identity has always had universal benchmarks and its own forms of “nones”. Currently, these Jews define themselves as being funny, smart, and wealthy. In the 1950s, bastions of secular anti-religious Jewish thought such as Commentary Magazine, made the hallmarks of being a Jew to be alienation, outsider pariah status, and to have universal social justice values. During the 1990s, the benchmarks were fighting Anti-Semitism, Holocaust commemoration and supporting Israel.

In a great blog post by Rokhl (whom I do not know), she pointed out that in AJC’s commissioned Lakeville study as the typical American Jewish suburb done in the early 1950’s by Marshall Sklare, et. al. . where they predicted the demise of Orthodoxy, the criteria for being a good Jew were, in order,

Lead an ethical and moral life,
Accept his being a Jew and try not to hide it
Support all humanitarian causes
Promote civic betterment and improvement in the community
Gain respect of Christian neighbors
Help the underprivileged improve their lot
Know the fundamentals of Judaism
Work for equality for Negroes

So do not blame this generation for stressing the universal. She also notes “Public opinion surveys some years ago indicated that hardly 18% of American Jews attended religious services at least once a month.” -Will Herberg, 1950

The biggest problem in the survey, as pointed out by the sociologist Ari Kelman, was that when discussing Jewish-not-by-religion, the survey did not show any “deep understanding of the ways in which Jews-not-by-religion understand and engage in Jewish life.” Kelman notes “that the survey asked Jews of no religion to offer a denominational affinity for themselves, even when denominationalism is really a way of distinguishing between religious choices…It would be like asking someone who is lactose intolerant to choose her favorite kind of cheese.”

The survey has a false religion and culture distinction. As noted by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, the survey shows the continuing truth of Mordechai Kaplan for American Jewry. “Jewish peoplehood, culture and civilization are the prime motivators of Jewish pride and connection.” However, in the past peoplehood and civilization were considered Judaism itself. In fact, the Conservative movement defined affiliation as peoplehood for decades. The survey had a funny meeting of a the Pew’s Protestant separation of peoplehood and religion, with the Jewish consultants Orthodox bias of stressing ritual observance.

If I would want to add one extra breakdown to the survey, I would add location. The sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who worked on the survey, notes on many occasions that zip code is destiny. In Bergen County, as the third lowest intermarriage rate in the country, a non-affiliated Jew is more likely to marry a Jew that an affiliated Jew in a zip code with few Jews. As shown by the noted Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, intermarriage is due to proximity close enough to fall in love not from a failing interest in religion.

And most important for the Orthodox statistics, Chabad should have been separated from Ultra-Orthodoxy because their eclectic mixture of practices has little in common with Satmar. Much of American Jewry of all denominations has a secondary affiliation with Chabad.

The most significant statistic is the high rate of marrying those of another faith. But even those Jews are proud of their Jewishness. There is a joke going around this year that the predominate religion among this year’s Harvard freshmen is “half-Jewish”. Rather than spinning the story as one of the loss of American Jewry, the challenge for everyone should be how to increase Jewish markers in this demographic.

The survey shows that the denominations are not as they used to be and people dont define in institutional terms. When the current configurations of the denominations came to be in late 1950s they had clear imagined lines of demarcation for their social constructions. If you lived in Newark you were Orthodox, uneducated, and poor or if you were acculturated, you moved to Caldwell or South Orange and choose a Conservative congregation to balance tradition and change. If you were wealthy you sought to become more Protestant in lifestyles in order to break the still prevalent glass ceiling for Jewish participation in American life, so you choose to move to Summit and affiliate Reform- think of Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. But now it does not sort out that way. To use an Orthodox example, modern Orthodoxy has the highest percentage of high income and the highest college rate. Or Orthodox progressives and Reform conservative have been out of place for a long time. (For a devastating treatment of all the movements- see Volokh)

In the 1950s everyone went to synagogue as part of suburbanization, the same way Methodists went to Church. Modern Orthodoxy did well in the 1970s and 1980s by emphasizing Shabbos table warmth, home life and study rather than synagogue. But everyone now needs to think about should be emphasized in an age that has little patience for institutional religion. During this religious recession, organized institutional synagogues have a bad reputation. As noted, even Orthodoxy has 22% that claims to have no affiliation.

The major change shown in the survey was that Jews have finally internalized the post Nostra Aetate change in Christianity and have lost their fear of Christian practices and sancta. American Jewry’s relationship with Christianity will become the same sort of symbiosis that Jews showed in Islamic land when Jews prayed in Mosques, went to dhikr, and became Sufis.

All Jewish movements and leaders have to address the issues of half-Jews, “nones,” and synagogue decline. There should be some serious listening and responding in new ways by rabbis. But more likely, we will repeat what we did in the past which is to copy the solutions of Protestants and Catholics use to reach out to their nones.

Judaism theology in its traditional form affirms the divine promise of the eternity of the Jewish people. Despite persecutions, assimilation, and upheavals we assume, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind” (I Samuel 15:29). We don’t know God’s thoughts on the cunning of history, its dialectics, and reverses.

The covenant of God with the Patriarchs (Brit Avot) has full expositions, in many thinkers including Yehudah Halevi, Marahal, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as well as by Nachman Krochmal and Leo Baeck. In 1962, the author Arthur A. Cohen wrote a profound work, The Natural and the Supernatural Jew which offered a theory describing the natural secular existence of the Jew has metaphysical elements of God’s providence and a promise of eternity. There are many aspects to debate in the book, especially from an Orthodox point of view, but when 94% of the Jews surveyed by Pew, including those intermarried are proud of their Judaism, it affirms Cohen’s point.

However, I find the response of some rabbis to the Pew survey as going against the Jewish idea of the Patriarchal covenant. Their commitment to the identity politics of their Orthodoxy is a denial of the mission of Israel. Their narrow sense of the Jewish community as limited to their provincial approach is closer to the approach of a Jehovah Witness, who thinks only their small group will be saved in the end of days. These Jews may have assimilated more due to the culture wars by denying a fundamental tenet of Judaism than those with Christmas Trees.

Rav Soloveitchik distinguished between the Sinai covenant that teaches what a Jew should do and the Patriarchal covenant (Brit Avot) – the “I’ awareness of the Jew. 94% of the Jews in the entire study had that awareness. Rabbi Soloveitchik clearly stated that precedence goes to the Patriarchal covenant. How do we learn about this covenant? Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that we learn through exemplarity; Abraham was kind to strangers and argued for justice.

(This is a first draft that may have changes in the next day or two)

An Interview with Dr. Shai Secunda about The Iranian Talmud

The contextual study of the Talmud has generally focused on the Greco-Roman historical context. Asher Gulak in the field of Mishpat Ivri compared Roman and Talmudic Law, Boaz Cohen as a Talmudist compared concepts, and historian Shaye Cohen of Harvard situates Rabbinic family law in Roman context. In contrast, Chief Rabbi Herzog rejected the very idea of comparison. However for many, there was a standoff for decades between Erwin R. Goodenough who saw Judaism entirely enculturated in pagan Greco-Roman culture and Saul Lieberman who limited the influence to legal terms. Now, with the turn to cultural studies, Daniel Boyarin and others return the field to situating Rabbinics as part of a Greco-cultural world.

But what of Babylonian influence on the Talmud? Technically, we are speaking of the Sasanian dynasty that took power from the Parthians in 226 CE. It was bureaucratically centered in Mesopotamia which had a majority of Aramaic speakers, including Jews, Christians, and Mandeans, but also a ruling Persian speaking population. Their religion was Zoroastrian. Most scholars of the Talmud only made brief note of the context, leaving the discussion mainly to those in the field of religion.

They either saw Zoroastrian religion as polluting the pure ethics of the prophets or a conduit of perennial wisdom. They attributed much of the worldview unique to the Babylonian Talmud to this influence, including Talmudic magic, sorcery, angelology, demons as well as menstruation and purity laws. They also noted that Adam and Eve in the Bavli reflect the Iranian Mashya (man) and Mashyana, the Iranian Adam (man) and Eve. R. C. Zaehner, a professor of Eastern religions, argues for Zoroastrianism’s direct influence on Jewish eschatological myths, especially the resurrection of the dead with rewards and punishments.

The Hungarian Alexander Kohut, who edited and vastly expanded the classic 11th-century talmudic dictionary, the Arukh, and filled it with Persian etymologies, and was fascinated by the world of Zoroastrian angelology and demonology, charted many correspondences between the Persian system and its Jewish counterpart. The Austrian talmudist Isaac Hirsch Weiss was drawn to parallels between Zoroastrianism and the Talmud; he listed a number of critical areas in which, he argued, the rabbis had adopted Persian practices. Just as interesting, in other places Weiss claimed to have found signs of resistance—instances in which rabbis established practices specifically as a means of precluding certain “Persianisms.”

A Galician scholar Joshua Heschel Schorr wanted to reform his religion radically by subjecting it to the rules of logic and a rationalistic approach. Schorr did not see in the ancient Iranian tradition an admirable “natural” religion or otherwise sagacious philosophical system. In Schorr’s orientalism, the Zoroastrian “Bible,” or Avesta, was filled with strange and preposterous superstitions. Any parallel he found between the Avesta and the Bible or Talmud was a sign of corruption in the latter and a reason for excision and reform.

In general, the Iranian element has been relatively slighted. Jacob Neusner began to frame some of his research in terms that encompassed the study of Sassanian Babylonia; in 1982, the late E.S. Rosenthal urged the mastery of Middle Persian, the Sassanian lingua franca, as a gateway to Talmud study. However recently Isaiah Gafni, the historian had a student Geoffrey Herman who is developing the Iranian historical context and Yaakov Elman, the Talmudist has a student Shai Secunda who is publishing a book giving an introduction to the Iranian situated Talmud, called appropriately The Iranian Talmud. (University of Pennsylvania Press)[go order it]

Shai Secunda is a scholar at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a graduate of Ner Yisrael and a PhD from BRGS. He wrote his dissertation on “Dashtana – ‘Ki derekh nashim li'” : a study of the Babylonian rabbinic law of menstruation in relation to corresponding Zoroastrian texts,” which will be the topic of his second book. This semester he is teaching at Hebrew University “Women, Ritual and Religion in Late Antique Judaism.” In his forthcoming article “Zoroastrian and Rabbinic ‘Genealogies’ of Menstruation: Medicine, Myth, and Misogyny” he writes

The gender politics of textual production dictate that for the most part, ancient religious works which have survived into modern times were produced by and for men. When women are the subject of these texts, it is always through the male gaze. Hence female physiological processes, like menstruation, are often interpreted via male physiognomy, and the normative body is usually the male body. When we look at the way menstruation is depicted in male-authored texts, we find that at the very least the phenomenon is a source of wonder, if not always revulsion and misogyny.

For Sasanian rabbis and Zorasterian dadwars, menstruation was a physiological phenomenon accompanied by a set of prohibitions and purification practices… This paper will attempt a “genealogy” of menstruation in Judaism and Zoroastrianism that will include hitherto neglected texts like the Zand ī fragard ī jud-dēw-dād. The picture that emerges is one of intersecting discourses, many of which betray interaction between the two communities, yet also differences in outlook that remained.

1) Why is what you do exciting and interesting? How is what you do different than the fictional source critic David Malter from Potok?

I am blessed to be able to get up each morning, sit down in an office lined with books and a up-to-date computer, and read the same texts that Jews have been obsessing over for so long, and yet think about the infinite new and (I hope) important things that remain to be said – from the level of what the actual text (or texts) is, to how the text was produced, how it relates to its historical context, how it continued to affect Jews in the middle ages, and what it still means to Jews – and non-Jews – today.

Talmudic Scholars such as “Malter” and Halivni are, ironically, very traditional scholars. They charted out a specific derekh ha-limud – no simply task – and stuck with it to the very end. It may be at variance with yeshivish views of the Talmud and mesorah, but you find that even when pure yeshiva bochurim start reading Meqorot u-Mesorot, they quickly find their way. Prior approaches were not really engaged in other disciplines beyond philology – such as literary theory, feminist criticism, history of religions, etc. I’m trying to do more integrating across the humanities – history of religions, literary theory, gender, etc. And I acknowledge that this desire for integration is one of the (many) things Neusner did for the field. Also, and this is no false modesty, Halivni and Lieberman were iluyim, while I am just someone who tries to work hard and hone a set of integrated methods for productively reading rabbinic literature.

shai-book cover

2) What does adding the Iranian context add?

However, the Iranian Talmud focuses on Zoroastrian texts written in Middle Persian (an ancestor of the Modern Persian spoken by Iranians today) because to my mind this to my mind is the most promising site of comparison. On the most basic level, the linguistic context of Iran undoubtedly influenced the Bavli. We have for example a few hundred Iranian – usually Middle Persian – loanwords in Babylonian Jewish Aramaic. Quite simply, knowing Iranian languages leads to a more accurate understanding of the Bavli when it uses these loanwords.

A favorite loanword of mine, the word פיקאר (dispute), shows up in the best textual witnesses to a story in Taanit 24b. The printed edition and less reliable manuscripts have the rather bland עסק דברים (dealings), which probably originated as a late gloss on the rare Iranian term. In the story, King Shapur II’s mother, Ifra Hormiz, is actually telling her son to avoid disputing the Jews, not simply having dealings with them.

Crucially, the linguistic connections can act as a gateway to appreciating more profound interactions between the Bavli and other Iranian texts from the same period, offering the Bavli’s literary context. In terms of my example from Taanit, an Iranian text that may have been part of the Sasanian “Book of Kings” describes Shapur II’s efforts to engage all of his subjects in disputes (pahikārišn). The talmudic storyteller was apparently tapping into the same literary tradition. I have other examples in the book that show that the amoraim and/or talmudic redactors were aware of Iranian (probably oral) texts and participated in the production of Sasanian “literature.”

While these textual intersections are interesting, usually when the public learns about people like me working on the Bavli’s Iranian context, they want to hear about sexy, direct, and unassailable evidence of Zoroastrian influence on halakha or core theological concepts. The truth is rarely that simple, but awareness of the Iranian context does help us appreciate the protracted development of certain, sometimes central Jewish institutions. I discuss at length some talmudic beliefs about hell in the book. My friend Yishai Kiel has suggested, in a Festschrift in honor of Yaakov Elman, that the Bavli’s insistence on wearing a ‘tallit qatan’ even when one would not otherwise be obligated to do so may have been influenced by the similar Zoroastrian requirement to tie the kustig- a ritual belt. These are nice explanations that account for some of the Bavli’s novel beliefs and requirements, although the mechanics about how this sort of influence might have operated needs to be worked out.

3) How does your approach relate to traditional Gemara learning and halakhah
There are traditionalists who see the Bavli as virtually God-given. As the old wort goes, אמר מר stands for אמר משה רבנו. My book The Iranian Talmud is an academic book and not specifically directed at this community, though I did try to write it in a relatively accessible manner.

Anyone that understands how halakha actually works knows that it doesn’t stand or fall by demonstrating that a halakhic institution is based on a misinterpretation of a gemara, a printing error, or possible evidence of foreign influence. The real challenges to halakha for modern Jews do not come from philology or history of religions, rather from profound shifts in our cultural assumptions, for example the equality of women.

Historical context leads to a much fuller experience of Talmud Torah. As for those who think that Talmud cannot have a cultural context because it is the mesorah, I’m not sure my theology would work for them. Nevertheless, I think most yeshivaleit have a notion of “the hashgacha made it develop that way.” Which means you can still study how the “hashgacha” made it develop.

4) How is this different than the work done on Greco-Roman influence on the Talmud by Boaz Cohen, Shaya J. D. Cohen, and others?
Well for one, Classics is a far more developed field, and Talmudists have been engaged with it on a high level for longer. So the Cohens and their colleagues are able to build scholarship on a much stronger foundation. But more importantly, the centrality of ritual in everyday Zoroastrian life and the discursiveness of Middle Persian legal and exegetical literature is profoundly different from the vast majority of Greco-Roman literature. Many of the surviving Middle Persian texts simply “feel” more rabbinic. They deal with subjects like impurity and more specifically the transmission of impurity in three-dimensional space. After learning Ohalot, you can really appreciate what they are trying to do. And this is just one example among manny. Also, Middle Persian literature contains disputes that are at times structured kind of like basic talmudic sugyot. Plus, they have a complex exegetical relationship with “Scripture,” namely, the Avesta.
Academics have also expressed some skepticism, and are weary of terms like “influence” and what they represent. Indeed, so am I. In the last chapter of the book I try to develop some methods of reading that focus on the texts themselves, and which show how we must first chart the internal development of rabbinic (and Zoroastrian) texts before considering how they might have interacted with relevant Iranian parallels.

5) How is the Talmud closer to Sasanian law than Roman law?
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of law in Iran. While relatively early on in the history of Roman law, civil law was no longer the domain of the priests, in Sasanian law many of the jurists that show up in ritual discussions are also ruling in what we would call purely civil contexts. Legal systems that have two-way traffic between ritual and civil domains develop in interesting ways. I actually think it’s one of the things that make halakha what it is and so fascinating. It’s because of this two way traffic that, for example, property rights invade the ritual sphere in halakha – think the mitzvah of taking arba minim which must be, legally, owned. Similarly, the role that ‘intention’ comes to play in non-ritual halakha, I believe, is at least partially indebted to the ritual side of rabbinic law. We find some of the same features in Zoroastrian / Sasanian law.

6) In your article in Nashim, you show that the du-partzufim of the Talmud refers to an Iranian story and not the Greek story? Why is that important?

I respond there to Daniel Boyarin’s suggestion in his influential book, Carnal Israel, that the midrash about Adam and Eve being created as a kind of two-sided androgyne was a rabbinic response to Neo-platonic ideas. By comparing the midrash not just with Classical sources, but also with texts from across the Indo-European spectrum – including Iranian – I argue that in fact, the rabbis weren’t explicitly, polemically rejecting Neo-platonic ideas by describing a physical Adam-Eve creature in Eden, but participating in a version of the Indo-European myth. This is clear since other versions of the myth show up in, for example, late antique Zoroastrian texts that were not at all Neo-Platonic. Practically speaking, this awareness means that we need to stop thinking of classical Judaism (up until Judaism today)as something that emerged from an encounter between Jerusalem and Athens. There also is Pumbedita and the Sasanian winter capital, Ctesiphon. (see article)

7) What are the best things to come out in the field in the 30 years since the early work of Shamma Friedman?
There’s so much that has happened beyond Talmudic source-criticism. Some of the developments that I appreciate the most include the rabbinic literature + literary/folk theory school, which in Israel took off with the late Dov Noy and Yonah Frankel, and was advanced in Israel especially by Galit Hasan-Rokem and Josh Levinson and in the US by Jeffrey Rubenstein and others too. The new generation of law and narrative people is quite exciting, such as Barry Wimpfheimer and Moshe Simon-Shoshan, and Hasan-Rokem’s student, Dina Stein, who is the best practitioner of Talmud and Theory out there.

Gender also comes to mind. We have, apart from Boyarin, scholars such as Tal Ilan who has devoted enormous resources to feminist history and commentary, and Ishay Rosen-Zvi who has melded philology and gender criticism in fascinating ways. It’s great to see how along with more awareness of feminist critiques in the broader community, academic talmudists are hard at work thinking about how to use feminist concerns to read rabbinic texts more productively. I hope that more of the academic work on gender will make its way into the broader community, and also that vice versa, the community’s concerns and interest will encourage and dialog with scholarship. This is already happening to an extent.

Interestingly, also during this time the philologists have finally published important editions of classical rabbinic texts. Menahem Kahana’s dream edition of Sifrei Bamidbar was produced and finally published. It will set the standard for the foreseeable future. It is based on decades of running after every scrap of manuscript evidence in the world – from the great British libraries to the former Soviet houses of learning – and then writing an extensive commentary (which is not fully published yet) that takes into account every relevant parallel. When you pick up the edition you can see that the manuscript variants and parallel texts make an enormous difference in understanding the basic meaning of the midrash. Most importantly, Kahana has devoted years of thinking about how to make an edition that is both exacting, accurate, and accessible.

And after a decades-long delay, virtually every scrap of parchment on which Talmudic literature is written is classified in a three volume catalog. This was a project that dates back to the beginnings of Talmud scholarship at the Hebrew University, which survived years when only Israeli soldiers were stationed on Mount Scopus, and which was the life’s work of one of the century’s greatest Talmudists – Yaakov Sussman. The catalog is briefly discussed on the Talmud blog (

And the biggest thing that happened in the last thirty years? One word – digitization. It changed everything: How we conduct research using multi-variable searches, how we read and manipulate the talmudic text, etc etc. Along with Elli Fischer I hope to write a book, that began as a review of the Artscroll Talmud app at the Jewish Review of Books, that will look at digitization and Jewish learning. (link:

8) Have you taken up an interest in Zoroastrianism? Do you have a desire to visit Iran or know more about its culture?
I am very interested in Zoroastrianism, and publish in Iranian studies journals, sometimes without direct mention of Jewish studies. I am also interested in the modern day religion which is struggling to survive. I also am interested in modern day Iran and have been lucky enough to have some – very limited – contact with Iranists working in Iran today. And I have literally dreamed about walking around Tehran. I fervently hope that I one day will be able to do so while awake. The rich world of Iranian Jewish cultural production fascinated me as well, especially the great Judeo-Persian poets. All that said, I am professionally only engaged with rabbinic lit on the one hand, and pre-Islamic Iranian studies on the other.

Pew Report on American Jewry- Some Observations

The Pew Research Center just released a major 200 page study of American Jewry including both demography and affiliation. If the Jewish community could not afford or agree on a major study, then the Pew foundation picked up the slack. Here are some of the statistic that I found interesting. The Forward has a nice general article that shows thought and has comments from professionals.

Pew estimates that there are 6.7 million American Jews overall, including 5.3 million adults.

Jews make up a smaller percentage of America due to Hispanic immigration, and the percentage of Jews by religion among Hispanics is even lower than in the general public. On the other hand, there have been two major waves of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in recent decades, and as a result,the share of Jewish adults who are foreign-born today (14%) is only a little lower than the share of all U.S.

Despite the changes in Jewish identity in America, 94% of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. Three-quarters of U.S. Jews also say they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

The survey tolls the end of the triumphalist sense of an Orthodox return. The losses from Orthodoxy are several times larger than the gains. The survey finds that approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, Just 7% of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4% of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox. This was despite the millions spent on an army of kiruv workers during those years.

The big news is that 17% of the 20-somethings have left Orthodoxy but a whopping 43% left Orthodoxy from the millennial and gen x generations, and these younger generations were raised after the triumphal rise of a more committed Orthodoxy. Old news was that 59% of the baby boomers raised Orthodox left, but that was a different era when many were non-observant Orthodox to start.

drop-out rate

Rates of intermarriage among Jews are perhaps most directly comparable to rates of intermarriage among other relatively small U.S. religious groups, such as Mormons and Muslims. Same basic statistics no more or less just proportional to our numbers.

One-in-ten Jews identify with Orthodox Judaism (10%), including 6% who belong to Ultra-Orthodox groups and 3% who are Modern Orthodox. This would yield 670, 000 Orthodox Jews. 202, 000 Modern Orthodox, 403, 000 Ultra-Orthodox. (From other studies we have a percentage of over 75% of this Hasidim and less than 25% yeshivish, maybe as low as 16%. The yeshiva world makes much noise for its size.). and we have 101, 000 of other including Sfardim, Edot Hamizrah, Israelis, immigrants from Latin America and the Former Soviet Union who self-identify as Orthodox but not as Modern Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox.

Here is a shocker. When asked: Can you be Jewish and not believe in God? The following numbers said yes. Notice that Modern Orthodoxy has the least concern for God. (Hashem Yirachem!)
Ultra-Orthodox 50 Modern Orthodox 70 Conservative 56 Reform 66
When asked about their own belief in God as yes, somewhat/unsure, or no, we have 19% of Modern Orthodox as unsure and 3 % as outright deniers.
Ultra-Orthodox 96 , 2, 1,
Modern 77 19 3
Conservative 41, 46, 9
Reform 29, 47, 20

Here is a little tidbit- only 76% of Ultra-Orthodox avoid handling money on Sabbath

Here is another good tidbit when asked whether they attend a non-Jewish religious services at least few times a year, both Modern and ultra Orthodox have 15% that do, but with note that it is negligible in high density area like Brooklyn. So it is much higher than 15 % in small towns.

Should Homosexuality be accepted? Ultra-Orthodox 20% Modern Orthodox 50%. On one hand, this is a divide between the two groups but at the same time a dividing point in the modern camp.

How many went to college? Ultra-Orthodox 25 Modern 65 Conservative 62 Reform 61. Modern Orthodoxy is the highest but in line with the other denominations.

But the biggest and most significant question is do you have household income of $150,000+, placing you in the top 8%. Ultra-Orthodox 24, Modern 37, Conservative 23, Reform 2 9. Modern Orthodoxy is the wealthiest and living in a disproportionate bubble that is wealthier than Reform.

The demographic of Ultra-Orthodox yields only a 4.1 live birth number and if you remove those who leave Orthodoxy and those who die or never produce children, then we have a rough statistic that a statistical couple would only produce three ultra-Orthodox offspring. A far cry from the false numbers in the kiruv literature.

Finally, the Reform movement is growing and the Conservative movement is shrinking rapidly. But the Forward received a wise email from Prof. Sarna.

For Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandies University who also advised the Pew study, the grim statistics facing the Conservative movement could be good for its members. Comparing the movement’s situation to that of the Orthodox movement in the 1950s and the Reform movement in the ’30s, relative lulls preceding large growth, Sarna said that the apparent collapse could force the movement into creative reinvention. It would be “wise to hedge all predictions,”

Go read the report.