Reform Judaism

A growing hole in the middle of American Jewry

There is a Yiddish saying about the mysteries of faith, family and fellowship that, loosely translated, proclaims: "You cannot make Shabbat by yourself." "The point is that you need the presence of other Jews around you to live out the dictates of your Jewish beliefs," said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, of the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College.

Shabbat creates that circle of support. Beginning minutes before sundown on Friday, it involves a day of rest, prayer, ritual feasting and ties that bind. Some of these traditions are defined by faith while others are rooted in ethnicity and culture. But the whole ancient package assumes that Shabbat brings Jews together.

So what does it mean when the first major study of American Jews in more than a decade shows that -- even among Jews who call themselves religious -- only 33 percent believe being part of a Jewish community is "essential to being Jewish"? Only 23 percent of these "Jews by religion" considered it essential to follow Jewish laws.

The results in this Pew Research Center study were, of course, even more sobering among the rising number of Jews -- one in five -- who said they had "no religion at all."

"In theory, Jews who answer 'none' when asked about their religion can still be part of the wider Jewish community. There's nothing new about that," said Cohen, in a telephone interview.

In practice, however, this "none" trend is viewed as negative by many Americans who consider the practice of Judaism to be a crucial part of Jewish identity, he said. Thus, the rising number of Jewish "nones" has many of the same serious implications as the much-discussed national rise in the number of the religiously unaffiliated among people in general.

This national survey of Jews, by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, is the first conducted by an institution outside the Jewish community. Jewish surveys in recent decades have consistently caused controversy because of fierce debates about how to define who is, and who is not, Jewish.

Among its headline-grabbing findings, this survey noted:

* The percentage of adults who are "Jews by religion" has declined by about half since the 1950s. While 93 percent of G.I. Generation Jews call themselves religious Jews, only 68 percent of young "Millennial" Jews make that claim.

* Only 15 percent of those surveyed said being Jewish is "mainly a matter of religion," as opposed to 62 percent who said Jewish identity is primarily about ancestry and culture. Two-thirds said it isn't necessary for Jews to believe in God.

*Among "Jews of no religion," 79 percent have a non-Jewish spouse, compared to 36 percent of religious Jews. This is crucial, since 96 percent of Jews married to Jews raise their children in the faith, while only 20 percent of intermarried Jews do so. And Orthodox Jews continue to have much higher birthrates than other Jews.

In addition to raising demographic questions about the future, the growing divide between secular and religious Jews can cause sparks in daily life, said Naomi Zeveloff, of the Jewish Daily Forward. In a recent article she noted that when Chabad-Lubavitch activists go "bageling" -- approaching New Yorkers to ask if they are Jewish -- they have an unusual way of verifying that they are on target.

One "surefire way" to know someone is Jewish, she wrote, is that "they react to your question with anger," like one subway rider who replied, "I'm not religious" when approached by Jews in typically Orthodox garb.

"If you are a secular Jew, anything goes," said Zeveloff, in a telephone interview. "Many secular Jews assume that religious Jews, especially the Orthodox, don't think they are Jewish enough and that their Judaism is somehow invalid or inferior."

Jewish community leaders, said Cohen, must face a growing hole in the middle of American Jewry as "nones" surge on one side, and the Orthodox hold firm on the other. However, they can take comfort in the fact that Jews have "invented new ways to be Jewish" through the ages.

"You can be Jewish by being religious, but you can also say that you are a Jew because your politics are liberal," he said. "We have Zionists. We have secular Zionists and we have religious Zionists, we have left-wing Zionists and we have right-wing Zionists. ... Judaism has always been a kind of cottage industry."

The fall and the strange rise of liberal religion

The most recent Jewish Community Study of New York held few surprises for those who have followed the sobering Jewish trends of recent decades. Yes, the 1.5 million or so Jews living in New York City and surrounding counties included a rising tide of people living in interfaith relationships and some had even begun calling themselves "partially Jewish." Participation in liberal Jewish congregations declined, again. Jews who said it was "very important" to affiliate with Jewish institutions fell to 44 percent.

But one number was genuinely startling -- that 74 percent of the region's Jewish children were found in the one-third of the Jewish households that identified as Orthodox.

No wonder leaders of the Reform movement and other liberal Jewish institutions have been asking sobering questions about theology, demographics and the future.

"The liberal approach to observance makes it impossible to set and maintain high expectations in terms of communal participation," argued Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, in a much-debated broadside in The Forward. "Without an omnipotent God who can compel believers to practice a prescribed pattern of behavior, religious consumerism becomes the movement's dominant ethos. ...

"In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off."

There is, however, an ironic cultural reality hiding in all the negative trends that have been nagging liberal Judeo-Christian institutions, noted historian John Turner, who teaches religious studies at George Mason University.

This ironic wrinkle is easiest to see in the influential denominations scholars call the "seven sisters" of Protestantism. These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life research found that, for the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations. This trend has affected a variety of churches, but the liberal mainline has been hit especially hard. Episcopal membership, for example, has fallen from 3.4 million in 1967 to 1.9 million in 2011. The United Church of Christ, President Barack Obama's denomination, has declined from more than 2 million members in 1962 to just over 1 million in 2011.

However, liberal religious groups "may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle," noted Turner, in an online First Things commentary. "Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas."

For example, liberal Protestants have -- backed by progressive elements in Catholicism and Judaism -- been victorious in their push to define religion's value in public life primarily in terms of social and economic justice, in contrast with more conservative groups that would stress both good works and evangelism.

Then there is religious liberalism's "much higher tolerance of pluralism," even on eternal issues tied to salvation, said Turner, in a telephone interview. Belief in "universalism" -- that all world religions lead to the same eternal ends -- remains "very divisive among evangelicals, but you would have to say that this belief has become the norm in Middle America."

Liberal religious leaders, he added, have been intensely committed to the "cultural prestige of science" in debates about life's big questions. They won that battle, too.

Religious liberals have also been much quicker to adapt to the looser moral standards of the Sexual Revolution, especially when changing ancient doctrines linked to hot-button topics such as sex outside of marriage, abortion and homosexuality.

"Actually, it's hard to know," said Turner, if mainline Protestants and other religious liberals "simply jumped on the bandwagon of the Sexual Revolution or if, in the end, they got run over by it."

The bottom line, he said, is that the religious left has the cultural momentum right now, even as its own institutions are wrestling with painful issues with demographics, membership totals and budgets.

However, stressed Turner, "it's hard to know what the future holds. ... I mean, Thomas Jefferson was absolutely sure that Unitarianism was the future of religion in America. That isn't how things turned out, at least not in terms of what's happened in America in the past."