Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of himself giving his baby daughter a century-old family heirloom, a kiddush cup, which he said belonged to her great-great-grandfather, also named Max. Nearby is a marble kitchen counter topped with two lit Shabbat candles and challah under a white cover.
“For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years. Her great-great-grandfather Max got it after our family immigrated here and it has been passed down through our family ever since,” Zuckerberg wrote in the post. He felt strongly that he was following the tradition in his family. In this case, we have the observance of Jewish ritual with concern for the ideology, halakhah, or meaning. There is no concern whether one is technically Jewish, with God, or any concern about denominations. The observance itself is meaningful as traditional.
Zuckerberg’s approach has been documented is recently published study called Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers by Ari Y. Kelman, Tobin Belzer, Ilana Horwitz, Ziva Hassenfeld, Matt Williams. Jewish Social Studies, (Volume 23, Number 1, Fall 2017, pp. 134-167- requires subscription) I saw it because Matt Williams posted it on FB.
In the new study, they show that post-boomer Jews do not look at Judaism as a religion or as an ethnicity, rather as the pull of traditional practices, yet without any sense of being either voluntary or binding.
In 2000, Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, a demographer and a historian of modern Jewish religion respectively, wrote an important work called The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, which showed that for baby boomers, American religion is now individualistic, a market place, focusing on personal journeys, spiritual moments, self-help, and the inner self. Cohen and Eisen conclude that Jewish life is entering the era of a breakdown of a grand narrative of Jewish peoplehood. Their refrain for the last seventeen years has been to proclaim that the denomination identity through belonging to a shul has broken down. Therefore, the sky is falling. How do we put people back into the post-war era of belonging to a synagogue?
Their focus on identity through religious denomination obscured the role of the non-religious aspects of Jewish culture in Jewish life such as Jewish literature, politics, summer camp, social action, Federation work, Sephardic culture, Yiddish, art, and family connections. Hence, someone who did not believe in theism or have a synagogue membership, but spent their time professionally and socially in Jewish life would still be listed as a “none.”
In this new study on Jewish traditionalism, the authors of the article limit their scope to ritual without connecting it to all those other forms of Jewish life. Nevertheless, they show that even those who keep religious ritual, go to synagogue, or pray may still be among the “nones.” Those post-boomers whom they studied referred to themselves as not religious, even when performing mitzvot as a ritual.
These post-boomers reject religion and “described themselves explicitly as not religious typically associated religion with wisdom or expectations that came from a divine source manifested in legal formulations.” For them, “Religion, they held, existed “out there,” in the realm of the divine, the faithful, the biblical, the legal, institutional, and prescribed.” Those post-boomers whom they studied tended to offer a stricter definition of religious than those who identified as religious.
The important point of the study is they they are not weak forms of the 1950’s which are petering out but a full affirmation of the ritual reconfigured to work and be meaningful for the 21st century.
Both the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) and the 2013 Pew report on American Jews used religion as a key indicator for determining whether a possible interviewee might qualify for inclusion in the study. The Pew Research Center foregrounded distinctions between “Jews by religion” and “Jews not by religion,”
Despite the persistence of religion as a term that might describe them, on the whole American Jews do not actively or regularly participate in activities or institutions that look terribly religious. Just over one-quarter (26 percent) of American Jews say that religion is very important in their lives, whereas 56 percent of the general public makes that claim. American Jews also attend religious services with far less frequency than do other Americans; only 23 percent of Jews attend religious services once a month or more, whereas 62 percent of Americans in general claim to do so.
As incoming college students, Jews were among the least likely to score strongly on measures of both religious commitment and religious engagement, scoring in the single digits, alongside Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, and those incoming students who have no religious preference… Sociologist Nancy Ammerman found that Jews were also outliers in the use of theistic and spiritual discourse”, in which only 30% used theistic language. The next lowest group was at 60%
The majority of those they interviewed described themselves as not religious. They avoided God language and public worship, but still performed ritual. Notice how much of their findings could also apply to those who do actually belong to synagogues, even to Orthodox synagogues.
Here are some of the vignettes they present:
Sam, who was involved in Jewish youth groups through high school, explained, “I didn’t really believe in what most people would call God,” and “I still very much enjoy songs and prayers, the experience, and I still connect to the community, and I still feel connected to friends and family, especially [those] who are Jewish. That’s a part that wouldn’t be there without the religious aspect, but to me, it doesn’t feel religious anymore.”
Jacoba explained, “The religion itself means very little to me. I wouldn’t say that I’m a religious person at all; I would say that I practice certain observances, but the reason I do them is not out of belief in God or belief in halakhah [Jewish law], no. . . . It’s more out of being part of a community that’s very warm, and being part of a family that has some positive attributes in itself, like having a day to rest and hang out with your family. I think it’s great. And the holidays can be lovely because you spend them with family, so it’s really more about a family community for me, in terms of Judaism now.”
For Diana, “Judaism offers a lot of tools for us to discuss important things, and you were born into a family where this is the language that they have and these are the tools that you were born into that you have that we can use to help talk about the universe, ethics, culture, identity, and let’s find out what this culture says about those things and how we can look at them, and then you can decide what your place is in that and if you want to continue.
So how do these post-boomers explain what they do? They don’t. But they don’t like the expectations of established denominations.
Regardless of whether our interviewees described themselves as religious or not religious, they all generally rejected the notion of a meaningful framework emerging from their understandings of faith, law, the Bible, and direct divine intervention.
[T]hey referred to religion as something abstract, judgmental, and irrational. They shared a common sense that religion had limited authority over their lives, regardless of how personally meaningful they found it. To be not religious was to reject the authority of rabbis and Bible, liturgy, Hebrew, obligatory laws, empty rituals, and unrealistic expectations of prayer and the like. Yet rejecting religion did not require them to abandon Jewish rituals, holidays, or other practices that they called tradition.
But they do like ritual. The performance of ritual is up. Once upon a time, when Marshall Sklare did his Lakeview studies of the 1940’s, he found that only 6% thought ritual was important to be a Jew. Now, ritual is seen as an important part of religion and for many the most meaningful part. This was already noted in Tom Beaudoin,Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (1998), that compared to the Boomers, post-boomers like ritual. The trends documented in the article help account for the success of methods of Chabad offering discrete ritual without asking for belief or commitment such as giving shumarah matzah to a non-kosher seder, or encouraging lighting candles without asking further question.
The point of the article is that their informants called what they do- “tradition” to describe the elements of Jewishness that they incorporated into their lives. They themselves use that word “tradition.”
Michelle explained how she and her fiancée were “figuring out” how to incorporate Jewish ritual in their lives… [Lighting Shabbat candles] would have meaning for me, I guess, not necessarily because it’s this religious thing. . . . We do want it. We are both into tradition and sentiment and family, and that comes in hand with all this religious stuff. You know what I’m saying? We’ll take it because that’s the tradition, and we care more about it as a tradition, I guess.
Yair offered a similar description of his observance of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which for him included fasting but not attending synagogue. “I don’t fast on Yom Kippur because of religious reasons . . . I view it as a tradition.” With perfect ambiguity.
The generational-connection trope allowed interviewees to connect their actions and beliefs to a past and to an envisioned future, as in the case of Zuckerberg above.
Sarah, “Religion is not a way I connect to Judaism, but tradition is. So it’s the sense of pride for me to do things that are part of tradition that has been happening for generations. I feel like they’re part of carrying that on to the next generation.”
I just don’t give any thoughts to things like biblical stories, [or] the [dietary] laws of kashrut. . . . I don’t want to know what [Hebrew prayers] mean. I hate when we translate them into English ’cause I don’t like talking about the “Almighty God” and all of that. But I really like lighting candles. I really like celebrating Jewish holidays. I like those traditions. I like the idea that people all over the world, for thousands of years, have done these traditions, that’s what they mean to me. They don’t mean to me like whatever they’re supposed to mean about God.
Brian shared one of the most illustrative stories of someone whose commitment to tradition rests not on religion but on his connection to the future.
To give you an example, my girlfriend’s not Jewish. The other day for Hanukkah, I decided to light the candles. She asked me, “Why are you lighting the candles?” I said, “Well, it’s Hanukkah.” She’s like, “I know it’s Hanukkah, but you’re not really religious.” I said, “I want to do it for myself. I just want to know that I know the tradition, the ritual. I want to do it for myself just to reinforce it.” I’m not doing it because I want to make sure that God is listening, that He knows that I care. I’m doing it because I want to be able to tell my kids, “This is how you light the candles on Hanukkah.” I guess that’s kind of how I look at it.
Despite the good-natured teasing of his girlfriend, Brian lit Hanukkah candles with all of the religious overtones and content intact, provided… that he made sense of his performance as tradition and did not take the formulaic blessing or its theological content to heart.
Besides tradition, they also identified ritual with contemporary social and familial networks.
For Elizabeth, the ritual of a Friday night dinner proved especially appealing. Friday night marks the onset of the Jewish Sabbath, and Elizabeth approached the ceremonial dinner as an opportunity for socializing and education but not for religion.
For us [her and her husband], a lot of it is educating our friends, both Jewish friends and our non-Jewish friends. We are sort of that couple that always has like people over for like Shabbat dinners and holidays, and like I said, Jewish and non-Jewish. It’s not meant to be like an outreach kind of thing or try to make people religious because we’re not religious. It’s just like a way to sort of make everybody stop for a second and put down their phones and like have a proper dinner and have like proper conversation.
Penelope and Sally pointed to their affinity for synagogues as important sites for connecting to Jewishness, though not necessarily with religion. Both women described themselves as not religious, yet both explained that they seek out synagogues and their communities when traveling for work. Penelope enjoys the “cultural traditions” of Jewish life, “but not necessary the organized religion aspects of it.” Still, “when I go to places where I don’t know anyone,” she said, “I still go to the Jewish community. That’s my way of meeting people.” Likewise, Sally, who used to travel for work a great deal, made a habit of going to synagogue on Saturday mornings no matter where she was.
I did continue to go to synagogue in every city. I found some beautiful temples. I still am close to people I met for one Shabbat in the middle of the country. It really kept me grounded. I was really grateful for it. Just the feeling of prayer, not religious. . . . Not being religious but a celebration with food and with music…
Penelope and Sally approached synagogues as centers for socialization, for grounding, and for finding community while away from home. The traditional elements and established space and time of synagogue practice helped them locate Jewish connections in unfamiliar places.
The article argues that these younger Jews might be considered as religious “nones,” or excluded from demographic of Jewish life since they claim to be not religious, not synagogue members, and not theists. These Jews claim an affinity for religious tradition, but avoid religion as they define it. This opens up the bigger question of the very possibility of a Jewish “none.” The idea of faith and synagogue membership as defining belonging is very Protestant, but does not work for Jews (as well as Muslims, and Hindus). The article cites those who seek to differentiate Judaism from Protestant categories, but without the broader historical sense of historians or global sociologists who would show how much of this would apply in other ritual based faiths.
The study offers as a conclusion.
First, the preference for the language of tradition suggests that the sociological distinction between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion emphasized in studies like the 1990 NJPS and the 2013 Pew report creates a sharp distinction between groups that are, in reality, more fluid.
This argument against the use of religion as a meaningful way to understand distinctions among American Jews should not be taken as a case for the rise of secularism. What appealed to so many of our interviewees was not an explicitly or independently secular realm of Jewish life but a way of making Jewish life enjoyable and meaningful. Casting such occasions as traditional instead of religious allowed our interviewees to activate those associations while disregarding any theological overtones or moral finger-wagging.
Similarly, their almost total avoidance of the term ethnicity suggested that it had even less significance in their conceptualization of Jewishness, insofar as they did not offer it as a meaningful or useful term to describe their Jewishness.
Eisen & Cohen understands this quality of tradition to be problematic because it is a breakdown from the 1950’s-1960’s.. Eisen framing it in between “the way of being Jewish as determined by God and by age- old authorities” and that epitomized by more “fragmentary, variable, and individualized” engagements.”
Yet this study shows that despite Eisen’s imagined future, the tenacity of tradition that holds a kind of authority, albeit one rather distant from the external and eternal kind that he seems to both imagine and prefer.
For post-boomers, tradition may offer a way of conceptualizing “the only authentic response to the past,” but it should not be mistaken for a weak version of a strong central Jewish religious authority. Instead, it should be understood as a mechanism for retaining connections to Jews and Jewishness over time, within which change is a reasonable expectation and adherence is flexible.
Our interviewees revealed no such deal and expressed no such tension. They seemed largely uninterested in “elites of the center” and were quite willing to engage with the authority of tradition, even when it did not make immediate sense to them… The inconsistencies that so bothered Eisen,… did not seem to plague our interviewees, who were well aware of the contradictions and tensions inherent in almost any commitment—ideological, interpersonal, cultural, or otherwise. Tradition, in their view, offers a way to accept an authority that one already understands has no power to enforce itself.
Paradoxically, as Jews beyond ethnicity, ritual allow them to open up Judiasm beyond the tight bonds of organized religion. For example, Zuckerberg’s Shabbat candles, challah, and kiddish with his daughter and wife.
Our interviewees, many of whom have non-Jewish parents, peers, and partners, offer no such connection between the traditions that they embrace and their sense of a normative, ethnonational identity. Instead, tradition affords a way of opening up the exclusivity of ethnicity and easing the limitations of religious obligation. Rather than reinforcing a boundary, tradition offers a kind of cultural resource that could be shared with everyone in their social circles, Jewish or not. Tradition offers all of the positive valences—occasions for gathering, and structures for socializing that are often associated with religion— without any of its prescriptive obligations or its limitations on who can participate. It is neither as commanding as their notion of religion nor as exclusive as associations with ethnicity.
One final point, the authors note that this is not the traditionalism of Israeli mesorati who have a ‘thick’ sense of ethno-national (Jewish) identification.” Here they can be non-traditional and without the ethno-national identity.