Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Vanishing Jews

The recent release of the Pew Report on American Jewry has excited lots of comment.  Before jumping to any conclusions one would be wise to heed Samuel Clemens' famous observation: "There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics."  With any large study people will first jump to conclusions and then look at the data relevant to those conclusions.  The Pew Report will not be any different.
What fascinates me about the report is how it highlights the possibly irreconcilable divide between Torah-observant Jews and our non-observant brethren.  In short, it seems to imply that for the non-observant we're not really brethren at all.  While from an Orthodox perspective Judaism is a nationality with religious content and the definition of "Who is a Jew" is a legal one from the non-Orthodox perspective there seems to be no iron-clad definition at all.  Hence the categories in the survey called "Jew of no religion", "Jewish not by religion" and my personal favourite, "Not Jewish".  Apparently the latter includes folks who love what they think is Judaism and therefore consider themselves Jewish without any actual legal tie to the Jewish nation.
It all seems to boil down to the difference between American Jews and Jewish Americans.  For the former the "Jew" in the identity is the primary factor.  I am a Canadian Jew, therefore I am kin with English Jews, Russian Jews, etc. through our joint shared nationality.  He is a Jewish Canadian, therefore the main part of his identity is shared with other Canadians, not so much with other Jews.
The price of this lack of proper understanding of their Jewish heritage comes with a high price.  A scandalously high percentage of non-observant Jews don't fast on Yom Kippur which might not sound so out of place for a group of people who also don't keep Shabbos or kosher but fasting on Yom Kippur, outside of its strictly legal importance, has always been one of the last things a failing Jew does before giving up entirely on his connection to Am Yisrael.
Similarly the percentage of Jews who don't participate in a seder on Pesach raises alarms for the non-observant community for the same reason.  Interestingly I download a pdf of the report and searched the terms "circumcision" and "brit milah".  No results came back.  I'm happy with that because I don't want to know what percentage of Jews have abandoned our most ancient ritual.
Perhaps this is why the Chareidi sector of the Torah-observant community doesn't take the non-religious part seriously.  On our side being Jewish is the core of one's identity and comes with very specific requirements and responsibilities.  The idea that one could claim to be a proud Jew while also an atheist is laughable.  We are the people of God, banim laShem.  On the non-observant side, however, it's not a contradicition.  Being Jewish is like being Italian.  It comes with ethnic foods, ethnic slang and ethnic behaviours, nothing more.  A proud non-observant Jew would see no conflict between his feelings for Judaism (as he defines it) and marrying a non-Jewish spouse of either gender.
Another concerning statistic that seems to pop out of the survey is the Orthodox proportion in the total Jewish population.  Now one should take the number with a grain of salt.  After all, this is a study in which a percentage of people who were identified as "Orthodox" intermarried!  But on the other hand the overall number, 10%, bears looking at.  Over the last few decades there have been repeated studies on the American Jewish population and for some reason Orthodoxy always winds up at 10%.  Now the true number might be larger if one excludes from the study all those non-Jews who someone wound up in it but it still forces one to question the famous kiruv statement that Orthodoxy is the future of all Jews because the non-religious will assimilate out and disappear.  This line has been in currency for 50 years and during that time the 10% number hasn't budged.  This is the starkest warning of the size of the OTD crisis, in my opinion.  After all, even if assimilation rates for the Reformatives are overstated the sheer fecundity of the Orthodox population should have led it to dominance by now.
I am certain that many secular Jewish organizations will study this report and convene committees on "the Jewish future" and "Jewish continuity" because of the alarming numbers regarding assimilation and marrying out.  Like the last dozen times we'll hear about calls for more free trips to Israel, more Holocaust education, more social groups for Jewish youth as the cure to what ails us.  This will all happen despite a 50 year track record of producing no results.  The thought that education Jews to be Jewish through halachic observance and through a sense of connection to 3500 years of history all the way back to Matan Torah will simply not occur to them and, if suggested, will give them a feeling of revulsion.
Meanwhile we Orthodox will continue creating large families and educating them in Torah and mitzvos observance.
Many years ago I posted the following comment on the Cross Currents blog (back in the days before I was banned from it) and I think it's still relevant today: They have conferences, we have babies.  Let's see who wins.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You’re right. But those who leave, escape, ignore Judaism will be fine. They will not be subjected to the indoctrination, manipulation, deception that frum Jews rely on to keep people from using their minds. They will no longer have information from the outside world distorted, suppressed, or omitted in order to keep everyone ignorant and in some ways happy.

Everyone I know who has left it behind has accomplished a lot, have good values, have married well, and have healthy and moral kids. They have found something they value, and they sacrifice for it willingly.

No more Soviet style control of their minds. They’ll be just fine.

Tuvia

SJ said...

Nobody is vanishing. Everyone is just unaffiliating and perhaps trying other paths.