Pew’s Jews: Religion Is (Still) the Key
A tasteless but revealing old joke goes something like this: Dr. and Mrs. Shapiro of East 78th Street don’t care much for religion, but they are eager to give their daughter Rebecca the best possible education. So they send her to the finest local private school, which happens to be St. Anne’s. All goes well until one day Becky comes home and proudly recites her catechism at the kitchen table, whereupon the normally reserved Dr. Shapiro jumps up red-faced and bangs his fist on the table: “Rebecca,” he cries, “there is only one God, and we don’t believe in Him!”
One of the most provocative findings of the recent Pew Research Center study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” is that a growing minority of self-identified American Jews—22 percent overall and 32 percent among those born since 1980—define themselves as “Jews of no religion.” This means that they declined to specify Judaism when asked about their religion but did say that they identified as Jews in some other way. But what are we to make of poor Dr. Shapiro? Would it be proper to consider him a “Jew of no religion” despite his commitment to the exclusivity of a God in which he no longer believes? Or would he be among the 78 percent of American Jews described as “Jews by religion,” because historical Judaism is still the religion he actively rejects? Being a Jewish atheist may after all be a different sort of thing than being a (formerly) Christian one. And what about the catechism-reciting Rebecca? These are not trivial questions. They get at the deep structure of Jewish life in modernity and the inadequacy of many of the sociological measures we use to describe “Jewish identity.”
The distinction between “religious” and ethnic or cultural—in Israel they would say “national”—Jewishness can prove particularly difficult. Is the proper frame of comparison for American Jews “Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims” or “Irish, Italians, and Koreans”? The truth, of course, is that one cannot answer that question in the abstract because it depends on what you are looking for. But the deeper answer is that the distinction between religion and ethnicity was not native to Judaism at the dawn of modernity, was never uniformly welcomed or accepted, and is still relatively alien to many non-Ashkenazi communities. Perhaps more surprisingly, this distinction apparently fails even today to adequately describe American Jews.