Facts rarely shape or change our opinions. We prefer to select the facts that mirror and justify that which we already hold. The release of the recent Pew survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” with its treasury of facts and figures, has caused a tsunami among Jewish leadership and social media as we all scramble to locate the facts that can serve our preexisting individual or institutional purposes and cherished “truths.”
This process has a celebratory and self-congratulatory feature. For example, many Israeli voices find in the survey the proof that they have been searching for to justify the Zionist claim of the unviability and unsustainability of Diaspora Jewish life. Some within Orthodoxy find evidence to the unviability and unsustainability of a liberal Judaism. Many voices within other denominations find evidence proving the superiority of their approach. The discourse around the survey invariably takes on a form of “I told you so.” When one frees oneself from one’s ideological and institutional loyalties, however, the survey provides important information and insight into the nature of our people and future directions that may warrant consideration.
One interesting fact exposed by the survey is the scarcity of movement from less to more observance. People leave their denominations to become increasingly Jewish without religion, but rarely increase their commitment to tradition with its consequent faith and required practices. The fundamental lesson to be learned is that we all have to get over ourselves. Whether our denomination or belief “fares better” in the commitment of its adherents to Judaism, to raising children Jewishly, and to the State of Israel, it is simply irrelevant. The less or differently observant are not going to change, if change means accepting religious presuppositions and categories that are at present alien or absent in their lives.
Diversity is not the product of failed education or the lack of exposure of one group to the truth and beauty of the other. We differ Jewishly because as people we have different notions regarding the essence of our tradition, and different approaches to what makes a life a life of value. The plurality of Judaisms that are evident are the result of an ideological gap — not a lack of knowledge.
The fundamental challenge we face regarding the future vitality of our people’s Jewish identity and commitment is how to create ideas and experiences internal to each conceptual and ideological framework that are capable of garnering greater excitement and depth of commitment. In the end, “victory” will not be achieved through the withering away of those who disagree with me nor through the proven sustainability of my approach. As I said above, we have to get over ourselves. Victory will be attained when ever-increasing numbers of Jews, regardless of their affiliation or lack thereof, will feel more deeply connected and committed to their Judaism.
In this process, it is critical to distinguish between that which is a core and essential feature or reality of a particular Jewish ideology, denomination, or sociological classification and that which is a current manifestation and expression alone. The facts that shed light on the latter provide insight for educational responses and new programmatic possibilities; the facts that shed light on the former obligate us to reshape our definitions of ourselves as a people.
Thus, for example, even if living in Israel, being Orthodox, or not intermarrying increases the chances of one’s children being Jewish, this is merely a statistical fact as to the new reality of contemporary Jewish life, and not one with educational or programmatic significance. North American Jews on the whole are not going to move to Israel, abandon their liberal sensibilities, nor stop marrying fellow Americans who embrace them and want to marry them. These are not current manifestations of 21st-century Jewish life, but ongoing and core features of this reality.
The key question for the future of Jewish life is not whether one can change this reality, but what one must do to change the seemingly detrimental consequences of this reality for the future of Jewish identity. Accepting this is one of the greatest challenges of leaders and ideologues — to work within a given reality to improve it instead of fantasizing about shaping it in one’s image.
An interesting, important, and as yet open question is whether the move away from institutions and denominations, as identified in the survey, is a new reality or merely a current manifestation. That Jews see Judaism and Jewish identity increasingly in terms that are less religious, I suspect, is a reality. Here, paradoxically, North American and Israeli Jewry are becoming similar. The religious-secular divide of Israel is increasingly an appropriate lens with which to view North American Jewry. But as we have been learning here in Israel over the last decade or so, the categories of both religious and secular are neither monolithic nor one-dimensional.
For example, secular does not mean less Jewish, but differently Jewish. While most secular Israeli Jews believe in God, the essence of their secularity is not determined by their faith but by the fact that they do not see in the worship of God, and the rituals it entails, an essential part of their Judaism. Jewish secular Israelis can have a robust Jewish life that entails commitment to Jewish values, observance of the Jewish calendar and lifecycles, participation in Jewish culture and learning, and loyalty to the Jewish people and their well-being. Many of these features are or can be defining aspects of a future, vibrant, “less religious” North American Jewry.
The open question is whether Jewish institutions and denominations can adapt and continue to serve as important vehicles for deepening Jewish identity and connections. It is my hope that what we are seeing is merely a contemporary manifestation and not a new reality. Our institutions will require new thinking as they reimagine their roles, but I believe we will do a huge disservice to our future if we believe we will be better served without them.
The human being is still a social animal in need of community, particularity, and individual connections. We are still in need of partners, friends, services, assistance, guidance, and leadership at different moments of our lives. We still experience moments when a connection to our past is a source of strength and inspiration. An innovative and courageous educational, religious, and lay leadership are capable of providing the above, so long as we are open to rethinking the way we approach our tasks and define our goals.
One of the important features of our tradition’s understanding of Jewish identity is that it is a national one and not merely a religious one. One becomes Jewish through birth, conversion, or marriage and remains so regardless of faith and practice. Consequently, sociological data about the Jews are not merely descriptive, but definitive as to who we are. Modernity and, in particular, life in Israel and North America have changed the rules of the game. The question is how we are going to play.