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)

17 responses to “Reflections on the Pew Survey

  1. Separating Chabad from ultra-orthodox misses the point. Yes, Chabad of Crown Heights is tangibly different from Satmar. But the phrasing of Pew’s questions covers up the secondary attachment that many Jews have to Chabad, despite their primary identification of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, None, or whatever. It would have been very interesting, for example, had Pew found a way to learn about common secondary associations like Chabad — perhaps youth organizations like NCSY, USY and NFTY also created some measurable secondary associations. I guess we’ll have to wait until the next survey to find out.

    • Correct, there should have been a question about secondary affiliation to Chabad.

      • It’s worse than that. How do we interpret the rise of the Nones? Chabad is encouraging “just Jewish” identity. If a large proportion of the Nones actually have a loose relationship to Chabad, Pew is completely missing the boat on where that big growth is going.

  2. I have long suspected that being the ‘other’ did us the ultimate favor. We were, in many ways, protected from assimilation and cultural annihilation by the very tools used to force change; the ghetto. It’s only once we emerge from behind the walls do we, as a people, face a real disappearing act. It should come as no surprise that the ultra-Orthodox create their own ghettos as much to keep their members inside their eruv as to keep out their idea of ‘other.’

    In many ways, we are a ‘new’ religion, just having stuck our heads out into the public square. We are pretty much untested in these public fora. It will be interesting to see if the welcoming the increasing numbers of Jews By Choice makes a discernable impact in the next generation, or if we will disappear into the fabric of amalgamous culture.

    Stay tuned.

  3. Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    With an always level head, Alan Brill responds to the PEW survey on American Jewish identity. —JPP

  4. Can you define “peoplehood” for me. It is a term often used by American writers, but almost unknown here in Europe. Do you use it to refer to national, racial, ethnic or religious identity? I only ask to better understand.

  5. 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.

    Frankly, I preferred that state. The last thirty years have seen the rise of a class of Jewish Neoconservatives, whose values, political positions and ideological orientation are at odds with everything I was brought up to perceive Judaism as representing. I find them odious. I have far more in common with a liberal Christian than I do with a Jewish Republican (“religious” or secular).

    I liked it better when we didn’t have the keys to the kingdom and, as a group, actually gave a crap about the poor and disenfranchised.

    As noted, even Orthodoxy has 22% that claims to have no affiliation.

    I would imagine those are the ones who deplore the Haredization of Modern Orthodoxy.

    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.

    Thanks for saying this, Alan, Unfortunately, it will fall upon deaf ears.

  6. “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”
    I wonder how you know this? Did the Pew survey show this, and if yes, is it statistically significant? My gut tells me that yes, they probably have a slightly higher in-marriage rate that is not statistically significant. .

  7. In your next to last paragraph you mention certain Rabbi’s and, at least in my mind, project certain attitudes and actions onto them. What would you like to see the average congregational Orthodox Rabbi do differently?

  8. Alan, there is much to commend in your post. Some of the tone for me evokes the Barditchever Rebbe, who would always seek that which is praiseworthy in an errant Jew. Here from a Pew report that generally has most traditionalists dismayed (for quite understandable reasons) you find the “Jewish pride” theme.

  9. Where does Rav Soloveitchik write about this distinction between the patriarchal convenant and the convenant enacted at Sinai?

  10. What is different in this generation, however, is the intermarriage rate which now approaches 60%, and which has increased with each successive ten year period. Many of the offspring from these marriages will not be halachic Jews, no matter how they self-identify, and with each succeeding generation of offspring, the chance of them even knowing that they are truly Jewish becomes less and less. For many of them, their only way back will be a rigorous conversion process if they choose to undertake it. What a tangled mess we are leaving for the Rabbis just a few generations hence! I don’t see any way to be optimistic about the Pew study. The sheer numerical loss of potential Jewish families in America is frightening. It may be irreversible (certainly the numbers look that way), but these statistics are something that we as a Jewish community, regardless of religious affiliation need to address together.

  11. “Mah ha’avodah hazos lachem” – it would seem that the problem is that the rasha wants to quantify the amount of avodah – “mah” – so he has been kofer be’ikar because he is of the opinion that life is not intrinsically meaningful and open-ended (which does not lend itself to a quantification of the amount of work required).

    In other words he has not included his “kol” in the klal (although he is prepared to put in some degree of effort) and therefore “u’lephi shehotzi es atzmo min haklal kaphar beikar”.

    The defintion of “kopher” does not depend on the words that come out of their mouth, and conversely the definition of a maamin does not depend on their sworn belief. Hence possibly the odd swirls that appear in the continuity (or lack thereof) of adherence to Judaism.

  12. lawrence kaplan

    Hi Alan,

    Great post which raised important issues for further reflection.

    Just a minor correction to your response to Reml. The main essay where Rav Soloveitchik discusses the two covenants is Kol Dodi Dofek. He also touches on this idea in “Brit Avot” (in Hamaesh Derashot) and in “‘Iyyunim be-Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, ve-Shofrot” (in Yemei Zikkaron). There are English translations available of the first two articles. He does not discuss this theme in Al Ahavat ha-Torah. I discuss Rav Soloveitchik’s view at some length in my essay “Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Dr. Isaac Breuer on Jewish Identity and the Jewish National Revival” On Jewish Identity in the Post -Modern Age, edited by Charles Selengut.

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