The recent Pew Research Center survey of American Jews has ignited discussions extending from gloomy predictions of the inevitable demise of Diaspora Jewry by assimilation to optimism over the finding that the number of Jews has risen from the 5.5 million estimated in the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey to 6.7 million.
The survey results are complex and lend themselves to endless interpretation. But what they undeniably show is a wide-ranging definition of Jewish identity, increased polarization of the American Jewish religious experience, a changing connection to the state of Israel, and above all, a mushrooming demographic crisis.
The most dramatic Pew Research survey finding is an alarming increase in the rate of intermarriage. Amongst all married Jews who participated in the survey, 44% had a non-Jewish spouse. Of those who married in 2000 or later, the figure dramatically increased to 58% – an increase of 41% from 1970, when the rate of intermarriage was 17%.
This substantial escalation in the rate of intermarriage in just one generation represents nothing short of a hemorrhage of the American Jewish community, and a level of assimilation unprecedented in Jewish history. Rabbi Adin Steinsalz has aptly described the process as assimilation as “a self-inflicted Holocaust”. It is, he says, “like a person getting into his bath, cutting his veins, and peacefully bleeding to death.” The survey also highlights the absurdity of the notion that intermarriage augments Jewish numbers and confirms that only a small proportion of children of intermarried couples retain a Jewish connection.
The Pew survey notes that the Conservative Movement has been in dramatic decline whilst the Reform Movement has expanded and absorbed large numbers of intermarried families. However, the ascendant Orthodox community has, to some extent, offset these numbers. Intermarriage is practically nonexistent amongst American Orthodox Jews: fully 98% of the married Orthodox respondents have a Jewish spouse. The number of Orthodox Jews is likely to expand beyond its current 15% of the Jewish community, because of their high fertility rate (the survey found that the Orthodox have an average of 4.1 children, compared with the 1.9 average of American Jewish adults overall). In addition, the study maintains that more Orthodox Jews today retain their religious commitment throughout their lives than was the case in the past.
The survey highlights the fact that cultural identification is replacing religious identification among many American Jews. In stark contrast to 10 years ago, when 93% of American Jews identified themselves as Jews by religion, increasing numbers of Jews now define themselves as “Jews of no religion.” Two-thirds do not belong to any synagogue; 42% maintain that having “a good sense of humor” is more essential to their Jewish identities than observing Jewish law; Most describe liberalism and a commitment to Tikkun Olam as the defining characteristics of their Jewishness.
Many Jews are delighted with this “universalist Judaism”, and characterize its adherents as “proud Jews” who are contributing enormously to American culture. One commentator satirically remarked that for every Jew who keeps a Christmas tree, there are 100 non-Jews who like bagels. Oy!
Another highly disturbing survey finding is the extent to which Judaism and Christianity have become blurred in the minds of many American Jews.
The criteria for qualifying as being Jewish have been broadened to a level of absurdity. For example, 34% of the respondents stated that a belief in Jesus as the Messiah was compatible with being Jewish. 30% of the “Jewish” families surveyed have Christmas trees. As Hebrew Union College professor Sara Benor observed, “More people than in the past believe that you can be both Christian and Jewish.”
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, predicts that a new religious category will soon emerge for those who consider themselves Jewish, but accept Christian doctrines regarding Jesus. This confused state of affairs is both a reflection and consequence of an appalling meltdown of Jewish values in America.
However, the survey does confirm that Israel remains a principal factor in American Jewish identity. 70% of respondents said that they are somewhat attached, attached, or very attached to the Jewish state, and a significant 40% said that they had visited Israel. But only 38% believe that the Israeli government is genuinely pursuing peace with the Palestinians. This is not surprising, given that the primary Jewish values of a substantial proportion of respondents are liberalism and a “good sense of humor,” rather than dedication to the Jewish people or Judaism.
The Pew findings held few surprises for me. In my analysis entitled “The Israel-Diaspora Crisis: A Looming Disaster,” published in 1994 by the World Jewish Congress, I predicted a gloomy outcome for Diaspora Jewry. I noted that in open societies with escalating levels of racial religious and ethnic intermarriage and increasing numbers of Gentiles willing to marry Jews, Jewish intermarriage would inevitably increase.
While I foresaw an increase in the numbers of religiously observant Jews who would consume more kosher food, buy more Jewish books, and provide their children with Jewish education, I predicted that the vast majority would be swept up by assimilation and would distance themselves from their Jewishness. I said that, regrettably, no Diaspora Jew could confidently state that his grandchildren would remain Jewish. Television and the internet have only accelerated these trends.
I was certainly not alone in my gloomy predictions. Arthur Koestler, for example, a proponent of assimilation, prophesied doom for the Diaspora as far back as the 1950s, and suggested that those who wished to remain Jewish should move to Israel.
But doomsday scenarios fail to take into account the ebbs and flows of Jewish history. As the late Professor Simon Rawidowic wrote, Jews are an “ever-dying people”…whose “incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, and beginning anew…He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora period which did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain.” Jewish history has always been propelled by a minority that has retained its identity and traditions, and thus furthered Jewish religious, cultural, and political life.
Despite the alarming statistics of intermarriage which demonstrate that as many as 71% of non-orthodox Jews are marrying non-Jewish spouses, we must never write off any Jewish community. Although the indicators suggest that Diaspora Jews in open societies are in danger of being reduced to orthodox enclaves, we must stimulate all avenues likely to enhance Jewish identity. Each community – and certainly America’s – holds potential for Jewish continuity and contribution. Each carries with it the hope of the late Professor Emil Fackenheim, that Jews must add a 614th Jewish precept to deny a posthumous victory to Hitler by ensuring the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people.
But we should not be under any illusions. Diaspora Jewish life is under greater threat today from loss of identity than from anti-Semitism. But whatever the outcome, Jewish continuity is assured now that Israel exists as a politically independent entity and has become the center of gravity for Jewish spiritual life.
As Diaspora Jewry seeks to define itself and its role within the global Jewish arena, Israel remains the only place in the world which today provides an environment in which religiously observant and non-observant Jews alike can fully express their identity whilst satisfying the existential requirements of peoplehood.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom