The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on November 27, 2013
Jewish Demography

In its November 2013 issue Commentary magazine carried an article by Jonathan Tobin, “Loving us to Death: How America’s Embrace is Imperiling American Jewry”. The article takes off from the rather startling findings of A Portrait of Jewish Americans, a survey of the Pew Center for Research. The demographic decline in the number of Jews in the US has been going on for several decades, but the Pew study shows the extent of the decline. Some of this shows a pattern common to other groups that are mostly upper-middle-class and college-educated, who have fewer children than groups that are not. Also, strongly religious people have more children. But there is one factor that is specifically Jewish—intermarriage with non-Jewish spouses. 70% of American Jews marry non-Jewish spouses, 59% of these raise their children as Jews by religion, and 47% give their children a Jewish education. The demographic picture emerging from these figures suggests a shrinking number of Jews in America (even now about 2%), with a rapidly growing proportion of them being ultra-Orthodox or haredi. At present 22% of American Jews fall into the category of “nones”—individuals who say that they have “no religious affiliation” (the same percentage as the “nones” in the general population). Reform Judaism, the most liberal in the spectrum of Jewish denominations, has a declining membership (and correspondingly a decline in fertility and an increase in intermarriage).

Some years ago Irving Kristol (best known as the major “neoconservative” thinker) said this about American Jews (as I remember the comment; Tobin has a slightly different wording but the same message): “We used to worry that the Gentiles want to kill our children; now we worry because they want to marry them”. Of course the latter worry is greatly preferable. But the worry about the demographic decline is the other side of what is undeniably a very welcome fact: American society accepts Jews and Judaism in a way unprecedented in two millennia of history. Contrary to some disturbing trends in Europe (not to mention the Muslim world), anti-Semitism in the US has become a very marginal phenomenon. Another survey, which asked respondents which group other than their own they like best, came up with a startling result: Jews are number one on the list (Muslims and Mormons are least liked). Is this benign situation irreversible? Of course not. But those who (quite rightly) raise alarms about anti-Semitic incidents in America run smack into the empirical facts if they present such incidents as symptoms of an imminent great danger.

In the American situation of religious freedom and widespread friendliness toward Jews, being Jewish cannot be taken for granted (as it has been through much of history). Jewish identity must be chosen and, once chosen, deliberately maintained. Essentially, there are four ways by which this identity can be defined and embraced as an individual choice:

1. The most ancient and still most common one is religious: Judaism and ethnicity melded together in the idea of a chosen people. Of course this choice is closest to tradition among the Orthodox (who themselves range from “modern Orthodox” to haredim). But, in various versions, this definition is spread across the entire spectrum of Jewish denominations in America. Whatever one may think about this possibility, the survey data show that it is a minority option (though a growing one). Tobin quotes relevant survey data: 90% of American Jews do not adhere to Orthodox practice (though, curiously, 19% say that it is essential for Jewish identity to live in accordance with Jewish religious law—which suggests that 19% of American Jews must feel very guilty!). Still, Orthodoxy is growing, while Reform and Conservative Judaism has seen a decline in membership.

2. Jewish identity is understood in cultural terms—“Jewish values” and the like. This is real enough, but is even more brittle than any version of religious definition. After all, these “values” can be cherished and lived by without attending synagogue services or keeping a kosher kitchen. A telling statistic: 42% of American Jews think that a sense of humor is essential to being Jewish. Maybe so, but originally Jewish humor has become a widely shared cultural trait in this country (and Woody Allen has made people laugh from Brooklyn to Beijing). For reasons that I cannot go into here, “Jewish values” are commonly associated with left-liberal ideology (Norman Podhoretz, another “neoconservative” writer, has proposed in a recent book that political liberalism has replaced Judaism as the faith of many secular Jews in America).

3. 43% think that support of Israel is at the core of Jewish identity (interestingly, almost the same number as those whose spiritual gurus are Woody Allen or Mel Brooks!). There can be no doubt that Zionist loyalties are a strong reality in the Jewish community. The problem with this is that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, especially the proliferation of settlements in the West Bank, have tarnished the image of Israel for many American Jews. There is a growing tension here between liberal and Zionist propensities. It is noteworthy that, in some survey data, identification with Israel is slightly stronger among Evangelical Protestants than among Jews in America (though some of the reasons for the Evangelical sympathy make Jews uncomfortable—for example, the State of Israel as a sign that Jesus will soon return!).

4. Jewish identity can be grounded in the memory of the Holocaust (though Tobin does not discuss this). Often this position is understood as one of “not giving Hitler a posthumous victory”, and it is usually linked to support of Israel. There is now a whole academic discipline of “Holocaust studies”, and the Holocaust is officially commemorated both in Israel and in the US, particularly in places like Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The murder of six million Jews by the Nazis is arguably the most horrendous crime in the history of Western civilization; its ongoing commemoration shows both respect for the victims and the determination that this horror should never be repeated. However, as a major grounding for Jewish identity it is not unproblematic. In America it contradicts the empirical reality of children growing up here today: They are told to see genocidal anti-Semitism as a perennial threat, which is outside their own experience of the world. Ruth Wisse (who teaches Yiddish literature at Harvard) has questioned the centrality of the Holocaust in much of Jewish education: Why focus primarily on the most horrendous chapter in Jewish history, rather than teaching children about the immense riches of this history? The same question can be asked about the grounding of Jewish identity in the Holocaust.

Tobin is critical of attempts to stop the tendency toward intermarriage by “outreach” to religiously mixed couples, as practiced by non-Orthodox rabbis; he claims that these programs have been very unsuccessful. He also dismisses the talk about “Jewish values”, distinct from Judaism. He does not discuss the Holocaust as a basis for Jewish identity. His strategic recommendations are a combination of religious education and fostering identification with Israel. The latter purpose, he claims, has been successfully realized in programs to bring young American Jews for longer or shorter visits to Israel.

The problem of Jewish demography is not new, though it has clearly intensified. On December 2, 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (a Reform umbrella organization), gave an address in which he urged American Judaism to do missionary work among all religiously unaffiliated people, whether they are of Jewish background or not. He used the term “outreach” for this program. He emphasized that he was not suggesting an attempt to convert church-going Christians to Judaism (as Evangelicals still tried to convert Jews to Christianity); his target were the “nones” (the term was not in use then). The governing board of Reform Judaism endorsed Schindler’s proposal—“to plan a special program to bring the message of Judaism to any and all who wish to examine or embrace it. Judaism is not an exclusive club of born Jews; it is a universal faith with an ancient tradition which has deep resonance for people alive today”.

Reading Tobin’s article made me recall something I had not thought about for over three decades: I published a reflection about Schindler’s proposal, coincidentally also in Commentary, in its May 1979 issue. I located his proposal in the empirical reality of American pluralism. I said that no outsider to the Jewish community could tell the latter how to define Jewish identity; that must come from the self-understanding of that community. But even an outsider can state that Schindler’s proposal must make sense sociologically: Jews too can play in the pluralistic field, to an extent emulating Christian missionary activity—non-affiliated individuals are fair game, but not those who are adherents of some other religious community. There is a “cognitive dynamics of pluralism”, whereby faith becomes a voluntary choice rather than simply the result of an accident of birth.

No one paid attention to my article. Fair enough. There was resistance within the Jewish community to Schindler’s proposal, especially from the Orthodox side. The idea of Jewish missionaries going after any non-churchgoing Presbyterians had little appeal. The “outreach” activity targeting ex-Presbyterians married to Jews did get off the ground, but according to Tobin with very little success in stopping the demographic hemorrhage caused by intermarriage. The Jewish reluctance toward proselytism is understandable: In the centuries of diaspora existence in Christian or Muslim states such activities could be very dangerous, and in any case the main concern had to be the defense of Jewish communities against campaigns to convert them to the majority faith. It was not always so. In the Hellenistic/Late Roman period there were indeed considerable numbers of Gentiles who converted to Judaism (without the “excuse” of marriage to a Jew). Not coincidentally, this was a period remarkably similar in its pluralism to our own situation. Mostly, however, becoming a Jew was a matter of “naturalization” rather than conversion, typically by a non-Jew marrying into a Jewish family. The prototypical case of this, of course, is the story of the Moabite woman in the Book of Ruth, the eloquent Biblical legitimation of such “naturalization”—as the widowed Ruth said to her Jewish mother-in-law: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God”. Legitimation indeed: Ruth married Boaz, her deceased husband’s brother (a “levirate” marriage in Jewish law)—their son Obed became the grandfather of King David—one of the most revered figures in the Hebrew Bible, with Moabite blood running in his veins!

Back to the various options for maintaining or revitalizing Jewish identity: Other than asserting that “outreach” to non-Jewish spouses has not succeeded, Tobin does not even allude to a Schindler-like missionary approach to non-affiliated  (but “matrimonially innocent”) Gentiles. I think this is rather a pity. Some Jewish spokespersons expressed outrage when the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed its policy of trying to convert Jews to Christianity. The policy makes sense within an Evangelical belief on salvation only in the name of Jesus—arguably a theologically dubious belief—but hardly, as some Jewish critics claimed, an expression of anti-Semitism. On the contrary: If Baptists were to exclude Jews from the possibility of salvation, that would be anti-Semitic! Rather than being upset by Baptists’ very provincial notions about the scope of salvation, let Jews return the compliment, but in a more civilized manner: Seeking to invite non-active Baptists into the family of Judaism—not by threatening God’s anger if they should turn down the invitation, but by enticing with the riches of the Jewish tradition! I would not be surprised if such an “outreach” would have some success. There is no reason why Judaism could not play aggressively in the pluralist arena, by the rules of that game, at least in America.

If I were Evangelical (which I’m definitely not), I would say that, “providentially”,  I saw on television an old film that I saw when it first came out and that is very relevant to the topic of this post. Since I am incurably Lutheran, I will just say that it’s a funny coincidence. The film is “A Stranger among Us”. It was released in 1992. It starred Melanie Griffith as a New York City police detective, sent to investigate the murder of a member of a closely-knit Hasidic community. Luckily it turns out that the murder was committed by a non-Jew. That is not relevant here. What is relevant is how the NYPD detective, presumably Irish-American, experiences the Hasidic community, comes to admire its culture and religious way of life, and is even influenced by it. Movies are movies, so there is also a (very muted) romantic subtext, a mutual attraction between her and Ariel, the oldest son of the rebbe of the community (who is meant to succeed his father in that role). Ariel is drawn to her, but resists the attraction and decides the woman chosen for him by his father (an improbably elegant young woman, daughter of a rebbe in France, of all places). The detective accepts this turn of events and even attends Ariel’s wedding, which is celebrated with Hasidic exuberance. This ending is perfectly plausible, as a more typical Hollywood ending of love conquering everything would not have been. But I felt a bit sorry. Here a hard-bitten NYPD cop could have spoken those moving words of Ruth the Moabite—“your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

  • TommyTwo

    All well and good. But I’d be more convinced about the viability of “outreach” by the Reform among the Gentiles if they were only capable of hanging on to their own.

  • teapartydoc

    In a genetics class in college the professor was pointing out differences in IQ between ethnic groups (yes, this was post-Bell Curve. This particular professor was more interested in facts than in political correctness.), and came to the higher IQ’s of Asians and Jews (right now I can’t remember which was higher). The Mennonite fellow sitting next to me looked at me and said, “Well, we’re spiritual Jews, aren’t we?”. I said I guessed we were, and so our IQ’s must be pretty high, too. He was already married, and I ended up going Asian, just in case my Jewish IQ needed a little boost (I’ll have to look that one up some day).

  • ljgude

    As a goy born in 1942 I encountered many Jewish classmates at Columbia deeply affected by the Holocaust. For our generation the Holocaust was in the foreground. It still clearly effected lives in an everyday way. As I realized more fully what had happened my reaction as an American was simple: I like these guys and anyone who wants to do that again is my enemy. Yet I notice that no Jewish person has ever tried to explain their faith to me, much less tried to convert me. I would not be adverse at all to having Judaism explained from a Jewish point of view and even to hear why I might want to convert.

  • MRD1037

    There are a lot of ultra-orthodox immigrants from France in Jerusalem right now, and he women are in fact quite elegant.

    Surely it’s possible to feel a Jewish identity as a connection to a history, culture (and religion) and maybe even a country (Israel) without having to support the policies of every Israeli government, without having to follow all Orthodox tenants and without focusing solely on the the Holocaust.

    There are some people around the world who claim to be descendants of Spanish Maranos, and others who claim to belong to the ten lost tribes, Maybe American Jews should reach out to them. Conversely, maybe they should reach out to small European Jewish communities who feel nervous about increased antisemitism.

  • David Tiffany

    5. “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”