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.

This article is locked

Subscribe now for immediate and unlimited access to Web + Print + App + Archive
  • Already a subscriber? Log in to continue reading.
  • Not quite ready to subscribe? Register now for your choice of 3 FREE articles per quarter.
  • Already a registered user? Log in here.

About the Author

Don Seeman is professor of religion and Jewish studies at Emory University. He currently holds a Social Science Research Council grant for an ethnographic study of contemporary Chabad.


cantorwolberg on November 17, 2013 at 7:39 am
I have studied carefully this article and the pew article and have come to the following conclusion: in fantasy, everyone has the answer. In reality, nobody has the answer. Is it possible that in 1000 years historians will write that people once believed in a supernatural deity? And as they gradually progressed from polytheism to monotheism, it took some time to finally progress to atheism. For orthodox Jews, it took until the year 6000, when their promised Messiah never arrived. Somehow, they could not overcome that hurdle. However, the Christians needed more time before they realized the Trinity was man-made. Bottom line: everyone "knows" the truth but nobody has the truth.

Want to post a comment? Please register or log in.
Copyright © 2018 Jewish Review of Books. All Rights Reserved. | Site by W&B