Understanding American Jews

Posted on Jun 18, 2018

This is the keynote address delivered by Chancellor Eisen on June 12, 2018, at the Pew Research Center, Washington, DC, as the center prepares for a possible follow-up to its 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans” study

It’s an honor to be here this evening among colleagues and friends to say thank you to the Pew Research Center for a study that gave those of us who care deeply about the future of Judaism and the Jewish community in America a great deal to think about—and even more to do. We knew long before Pew’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” that a lot needed to change if our tradition and our people are to survive and thrive in conditions that are changing so rapidly and so dramatically that it is hard for any parent, leader, or institution to keep up. After the study, the extent of the communal transformation that is needed, and much of its direction and detail, have come more clearly into view.  

 I’m grateful to Alan Cooperman for his invitation to focus more on direction than detail in this address. I’ve been asked to go “beyond data points”—his words—and reflect on what he called “the primary question underlying the 2013 Pew study: What does it mean to be Jewish in America today?” That is, of course, a question I literally think about night and day as the chancellor of JTS.  I treasure this opportunity to think about it together with all of you.

I will approach our subject primarily as a scholar of modern Judaism: an intellectual historian by training, who continues to learn a great deal from sociology of religion, sociological theory, and one American Jewish sociologist in particular—the co-author of The Jew Within. But I will also draw on what I have learned from nearly 50 years of experience as an adult American Jew, and from 12 years of putting theory into practice as the leader of JTS.  At the conclusion of my remarks I will say a few words about where I think our community should be headed and how Pew’s research can help us get there. I retain a great deal of optimism about the future of my tradition and my community in this country, including the kind of Judaism to which I personally am devoted. Jews have survived many awful times in our long history. I believe we can and will survive, and more, amidst the unprecedented blessings of America.

Let me begin by explaining a bit about “where I am coming from,” as the saying goes, since my intellectual origins still shape the way I see Jews and Judaism in the modern world. My thinking about this subject began with undergraduate courses at Penn in religious studies and sociological theory, and continued with graduate study at Oxford in the sociology of religion that focused on issues of rationalization and secularization in the modern West. I then did doctoral work at Hebrew University on how Jewish thought in the modern period responded to the challenges that Max Weber and other theorists had identified. I have looked at modern, and especially American, Judaism ever since both from “the outside” and from “within.” That approach has convinced me that analysis such as Weber’s, as indispensable as it is, simply cannot account for much of what is most important in Jewish belief and Jewish practice, or in Jewish longings and Jewish lives. Sociology has remained utterly essential to my inquiries into American Jews and American Judaism, but for me it can never be sufficient. 

Four elements of my thinking, as it developed in the years that followed my dissertation work, bear directly on the way I approach the current state and future prospects of Jews and Judaism in 21st-century America.

The first is that the sort of binary view proposed by Max Weber to explain religion in the modern world—a simple yes or no to faith—does not fit the facts that we are trying to understand. Jewish thinkers since Moses Mendelssohn have assumed that Judaism must go forward in the age of Enlightenment and Emancipation reckoning with conditions of voluntarism, pluralism, and hyphenated identity. The twofold question they (and I) have sought to answer, therefore, is: 

(1) How have Jews wrestled with inherited ideas such as chosen-ness, exile, and mitzvah?  and

(2) How have Jews, both “elite and folk,” adapted these notions—and the practices and activities related to them—in and to changed circumstances?

In a word, the key concept for me is not secularization, though that process of declining belief and attenuated behavior is certainly to be reckoned with, but rather tradition, by definition a matter of continuity through change.

My reading of 20th-century American Jewish sermons and popular essays, along with more rigorous theological writings, revealed that rabbis and their congregants did not literally believe many of the words they uttered in prayer or the explanations officially attached to the rituals they performed—and nonetheless found great meaning, a great many meanings, in reciting those words and performing those rituals, alone or together. The complexity of the transaction with tradition defies yes or no answers and quantified figures of attendance or behavior. A rabbi once told me about a congregant who would not say kiddush at his Friday evening table because he did not believe in a God who had “created the fruit of the vine.” We agreed that was a category mistake of the first order, one that was made by a great many American Jews. Other Jews, however—and even that congregant himself—regularly engaged in Jewish behaviors not warranted by their “beliefs.” This is true for many Jews I know. It is true for me.   

Anyone who goes to an American synagogue of any denomination on a Shabbat morning in 2018 will see Jews praying aloud to God for the healing of family and friends, often with the greatest emotion exhibited at any point in the service. Survey questions will elicit the information that many of these Jews, perhaps the majority, do not believe in a God who hears prayer or cures illness, though they may well believe, as we’d expect from the recent Pew study on this subject, in a cosmic Force at work for good. From my observation, some of the Jews who stand up to say the healing prayer for loved ones are not synagogue regulars or members. Not all of them, I would wager, are in the 78 percent who identify themselves as what Pew calls Jews by religion. I want to understand them—as much as I want to know why Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan insisted on eliminating all references to Jewish chosen-ness from rituals and prayers but was content to leave in things like petitions to God for rain. We all allow ourselves metaphorical license in our religious lives, and in the rest of our lives too. The question is when and why we bring metaphor into play.

I agree with Robert Wuthnow’s argument—echoing Weber’s insistence on verstehen, and seconded by numerous respondents to the Pew Report on American Jews—that we need more than quantitative data to figure out what actors are doing and not doing, saying and not saying. But I think that this is so first of all because the actors themselves are often unaware of all that drives them. Whether or not they are “ambivalent” about God and Judaism, as Charles Liebman suggested, and many are, the notion of standing before the Creator or the Holy One or the depths of one’s own soul is always complex. On occasion it can be terrifying.

I believe that Jewish living cannot be freed of these depths even for the person most dismissive of their relevance. Too much history intrudes into Jewish consciousness, for one thing. There is the Holocaust to reckon with, and the State of Israel. Whenever Jews contemplate their Jewish identities, moreover, memories of parents and grandparents enter the equation. God is often in the picture too. Think of the not-untypical American Jew portrayed by the Coen brothers in A Serious Man, or the countless images of Jews we see on TV and film attending bar mitzvahs or saying kaddish.

If we are to understand these Jews, whether at prayer or at play, we need to get at the range of meanings they find or do not permit themselves to find, the associations summoned or avoided by their actions, the impact of parents, spouses, children, and friends.  

My second point draws on a lesson I first learned from the historian Roger Chartier’s work on the French Revolution: we should not see behavior only or primarily as the consequence or expression of belief. Sometimes belief follows behavior rather than the reverse. There is a beautiful paragraph in God in Search of Man where Heschel urges Jews to take a “leap of action”: to “do more than [we] understand in order to understand more than [we] do.” The Jew Within demonstrated that there is sometimes little or no correlation between belief and behavior, let alone a cause-effect relation in either direction. There may be no single meaning for what is done or believed, certainly not one universally shared by a community or consistent over time. 

The Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig argued perceptively that the vast majority of Jews over the centuries had not observed the mitzvot because of theological belief in Revelation at Sinai. They had observed dietary laws, the Sabbath, and all the rest because this was what Jews did in their communities. This was how Jews like them behaved. Suppose it is also the case that the decline or lack of observance in our time does not result from loss of belief. Perhaps the observance or other behaviors Jews discard, retain or adopt; the nature of that observance—and the meanings they find in it—demand a different understanding altogether than the ones regularly provided by rabbis, theologians, or the actors themselves.   

In the shorthand of my trade, I suggest that we focus not on Enlightenment—beliefs about God or science or history—but on Emancipation, another word for Alan Cooperman’s question to me:  What does it mean to be a Jew, to be the specific Jewish person that one is, or wants to be, or chooses to be, in the conditions in which one lives? I argued in Rethinking Modern Judaism that nostalgia—desire for a connection with ancestors—was a major motivation of Jewish activity in the 19th and 20th centuries, and in many cases a major source of obligation. It was still very much at work for the subjects of The Jew Within, who invoked memories of grandparents as a primary source of Jewish identity and meaning despite great ambivalence toward parents. Steve Cohen’s recent interviews with millennials confirm that family still matters enormously where Jewish identity is concerned.

I believe as well that in this time of “heretical imperative”—when most Jews choose repeatedly whether or not to engage in traditional behaviors such as giving their kids a Jewish education or celebrating Passover or joining a JCC or synagogue—one important question these Jews are asking, whether or not they are aware of it, is how distinctive that behavior would make them in the eyes of Gentile neighbors, friends, spouses, or their own self-image; how distinctive they want to be, and how much distinctiveness they think can be tolerated without sacrifice of the rights, privileges, and way of life they hold dear. This is the question brilliantly explored by Philip Roth (z”l) in “Eli the Fanatic.” None of the characters in the story can account satisfactorily for their own behavior. Roth himself was unable to imagine his protagonist turning Hasid without going crazy. Jews like me appear nowhere in Roth’s fiction, even though we, and like-minded Christians, are all over the Pew studies. You and I need to find ways of getting at what makes these people, including us, tick.

The third major element of my thinking, learned from Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Peter Berger’s synthesis of the two, is that what many Jews are seeking, in manifold ways and to various degrees, and what Jewish institutions and ideas are providing, or trying to provide, is best understood as a combination of what I call Capital C Community and Capital M Meaning.   

Interest in these two Capital G Goods is not shared by everyone, certainly not to the same degree. Remember Weber’s insight that not every person is “religiously musical” or “equally qualified” in the realm of faith. Some Jews, like Americans of whatever tradition, hunger for deeper connection with others than life in 21st-century urban or suburban America generally provides. Jews like these value their synagogue, JCC, or Federation for the interpersonal connections it validates and makes possible. Other individuals, however—and they too are many—run away from all such communities, perhaps because they were raised in an especially intrusive group or family. They are quite happy with “lifestyle enclaves” and loose networks. Still other Jews enter the doors of community from time to time but always tread carefully, preserving options and autonomy as they go. 

The same complexity holds true for Meaning. Some Jews I know crave contact with God, the divine, the ground of Being, or what Berger called “signals of transcendence.” Others—admittedly mysterious to me—are utterly indifferent to this realm of Meaning, reckoning with the big questions only at boundary moments of birth or death. Some Jews who do seek Capital M Meaning find it in the task of carrying forward their age-old tradition; in the connection to personal ancestors and descendants; in leadership of a Jewish organization, active support for Israel, or protest of Israeli policy; in work to increase social justice, decrease poverty, or protect the environment; in the arts. Jewish Meaning can and does emerge from spiritual experience in a Jewish setting or vernacular. For many Jews of my generation, whether they define themselves as religious or not, the faith held most dear is the “civil religion” of the Jewish people in our day: Am Yisrael Chai. The Jewish people must live, and American Jews must do all they can to ensure that happens.   

In short: the sources of Capital M Meaning are many, and much of what Jewish institutions do today, in an effort to attract or retain the allegiance and affiliation of members and potential members, is aimed at linking Jewish tradition to Meaning, thereby making Judaism and Jewish life the opposite of what Heschel memorably labeled “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”  

It is frustrating for Jewish leaders and institutions to recognize that some Jews—apparently an increasing number—want nothing to do with any sort of Capital C Community or Capital M Meaning. They are quite content with small letters, as it were: proud to be Jews, as the Pew study showed, but, as the study also showed, bearing no sense of obligation to think or behave in a particular fashion because one or both of their parents happens to be Jewish. They are uncomfortable with the degree of distinctiveness or even exclusivity that Judaism seems to entail, and disturbed or repelled by the two iconic forms of Jewishness in the world today—Israel and Orthodoxy. They do not want to join or commit to any group, or identify themselves with any “ism.” They much prefer the loose and fluid connotations of an “ish.” The fact that Orthodox Jews and the State of Israel seem to guarantee the future of Judaism may serve to get such American Jews off the hook of any lingering guilt about “breaking the chain of generations.”

We are currently in the midst of an experiment in respect to small and capital Cs and Ms, I think. It began with the onset of modernity and has reached a new stage in this post-modern, post-ethnic, post-denominational age. I don’t think we know as yet if “friending,” online dating, and shifting, informal social networks will satisfy the desire for capital or small C community. Will family and friends, career, political or social causes, and the fragments of significance every one of us selects from the larger culture supply enough capital or small M meaning to go on? Americans are so alone these days. As we learned from the news once more in recent days, the rates of depression and suicide are extremely high, and this is so among young adults in particular. Will young Jews choose either community or meaning, in capital or small letters, and will either or both suffice to convince them to choose Judaism or stay Jew-ish?  

That question brings us to my fourth point: the vexing matter of the Jews by Religion and the Jews of No Religion.  We know, thanks to various Pew studies, that the phenomenon captured by these categories, like so much else Jews do and believe, is by no means limited to Jews—a valuable lesson indeed. I would argue, however, that the JBR/JNR categories are especially problematic in the case of Jews, for reasons that go to the very heart of the modern Jewish situation.

Let’s recall that, according to the Torah’s account of Jewish origins, both a people and a religion were founded in the covenant ceremony at Sinai. Nearly a century ago Mordecai Kaplan—appealing to that narrative, and to the millennia of Jewish history that it shaped—argued cogently that it was a historical mistake to think of Judaism as a religion along the lines of Christianity or Buddhism. Judaism was rather the civilization, the culture of a people. As such it includes religion as one constituent part alongside language, literature, history, social structure, and homeland. Jews had made the synagogue their principal institution in the United States, Kaplan contended, because in a Protestant country no other definition had a chance of securing Jewish or Gentile acceptance. It would have been better to build community centers, with rooms set aside for worship by each denomination. 

Kaplan recognized the difficulties inherent in his proposal. Jews in America would live in two civilizations, not one. American culture would always be “dominant” and Judaism “subordinate.” The sociologist Marshall Sklare, following Kaplan, called Judaism in America, particularly Conservative Judaism, an “ethnic church.” He argued that the tension between religion and ethnicity was built into the community’s very self-definition. I shall stipulate that Sklare was correct then, and remains so today.

American Jews hear all the time from Israelis that the Jewish bargain with America will not work. Ethnic and religious identity, if strong, will lead to anti-Semitism, and, if weak, to assimilation. The Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua has argued trenchantly that American Jews are hopelessly “neurotic” because of the attempt to be both ethnic group and religious group at the same time, stressing one and then the other when it suits us. I think Yehoshua is onto something, except for the diagnosis of American Jewish neurosis. There are of course multiple causes for that, not just one. 

It is no surprise, then, that 78 percent of American Jews self-defined as JBRs by telling the Pew interviewer they have a religion and that it is Judaism. Nor is it a surprise that that group is far more active on a host of measures than the 22 percent who say they are Jewish but have no religion—or that those who self-identify in religious terms then explain that for the most part their Jewishness does not center on religion. I verified this in numerous Conservative synagogues on Saturday mornings in 2013–14, as we reckoned with the findings of the Pew report. Nearly three-quarters of the Jews in the room always said that religion was not the primary element in their Judaism. It was rather tradition, community, history, ancestors—in other words, culture and ethnicity. Kaplan and Sklare got that right. Jews are not Protestants. Belief has always figured differently in our tradition; I would even make the case, as Buber did, that the word “faith”—as a translation for emunah—has less to do with belief than it does with trust: in God, in history, and in the world.

I would suggest that the identity question Pew asked Jews in 2013,  and the answers Jews gave to that question, do not teach us about adherence to religion. They rather express agreement to go along at that moment with an inherited, imposed, understanding of what Jewishness entails—and express as well a willingness to take on some aspects of their inherited tradition. This willingness declines with each successive generational cohort. Pew found that 32 percent of millennials self-identified as Jews of no religion—a significant increase over previous cohorts.  Steve Cohen and I believe, on the basis of several dozen interviews with millennials, that fewer and fewer Jews will accept membership in an ethnic group they find limiting and exclusive, preferring to understand Judaism as a religion—and adding,  in many cases,  that they themselves are “not religious.” They are, perhaps, “spiritual,” a descriptor that is personal and universal rather than particularist.  

In these circumstances, given this complexity, it is distressing to Jews like me, but not at all surprising to scholars of the Jews like me, that so many American Jews choose to marry non-Jews. It has often been pointed out that these terms themselves have a ring of absurdity that highlights the issue at hand. Less than 2 percent of the American population, a tiny, tiny fraction of 1 percent of the world’s population, defines the rest of creation as the negative of itself! Absent effective plausibility structures, there is no reason a Jew should take seriously the claim of our minority community and culture that Judaism ultimately matters, or that it matters enough to be a factor in deciding personally whether or whom to marry.

I accept the notion that many Jews who marry non-Jews today are not making a decision against Judaism, their own parents, or the claims of history, though I believe that some are doing so. I also recognize from personal experience that in some mixed-marriage families, Judaism will play a larger role than in many families composed entirely of born Jews. However, it seems unlikely to me, given the trends and pressures discussed above, that the Jewish outcomes of mixed marriage going forward will be radically different than they have been in the recent past. For this reason and others, Jewish numbers will decline, and Jewish attachments decrease, except among the Orthodox and among strongly connected Reform and Conservative Jews. Identification with the Jewish people in terms other than “symbolic ethnicity” is less and less likely. So is strong attachment to Israel. Belief in a God who commands particular mitzvot of Jews, thereby distinguishing them from others, including from non-Jewish spouses and children, will more and more be eschewed. The Jewish Nones will continue to rise. Faith will remain “in flux.”   

If we want to persuade young Jews, whether one of their parents is a Jew or both are, to cast their lot with the Jewish people and its traditions, we need to offer them repeated experiences of Capital M Meaning and Capital C Community—or small letter versions of these—that are so attractive, and so powerful, that they want Judaism for themselves and their children, even at the price of limiting their choice of marriage partners or encouraging non-Jewish partners to convert to Judaism. JTS trains future professional and lay leaders in how to provide such meaning and community, and assists in offering these directly to synagogues and other Jewish groups. We equip Jewish leaders and institutions to offer pastoral care, experiences of spirituality, and programs in ethics and social justice, because we are convinced these will impact the choices made for Judaism, now and in the future Let us not discount the importance of non-Orthodox Jews of Judaism, please, as we contemplate that future, or fail to distinguish among the varieties and diverse outcomes of that population. I myself regularly witness the impact of strong Conservative synagogues, schools, and summer camps upon multiple generations of Jews. The future course of American Jewry depends upon the imagination, resources, and leadership that we devote to such efforts.

That is my plea as we go forward, as scholars and as Jewish communal leaders. Let me stress that I do not look to Pew studies to predict the future course of American Jewish history. Prophecy is a particularly risky enterprise right now. The technology experts tell us that the next 10 years will bring changes to our lives even greater than those that came in the past 10 years from the introduction of smartphones. We do now know what it will be like to live in a world of driverless vehicles, gene-editing, artificial intelligence, and climate change. I am not one who believes that Jewish numbers are decisive in any case, so long as the community does not lose the critical mass needed to defend its rights and support its institutions. Quality is far more important. What communities will Jews build and maintain? What meanings will Jews provide and experience?

The effort to supply these requires nuanced data that serve as a gateway to fuller understanding of what makes Jewish Americans do, feel, and think as they do—in all their American-ness, their hyphenated-ness, their status as both an ethnic group at a time of severely weakened white ethnicity, and a religious group when “religion” carries images that make a lot of Jews uncomfortable. The 2013 Pew data, in its original presentation and when reanalyzed by others, lent support to the contention that Jewish institutions can do a great deal to alter the course of the Jewish story in America. “Plausibility structures” such as summer camps, day schools, revitalized synagogues, youth groups, Israel trips, social justice activism, spirituality, and Jewish cultural programming can and do make a great impact on the choices Jews make. Jewish leaders, lay and professional, play a truly crucial role.  All such leaders continue to be indebted to Pew for bringing us face to face with the challenges that confront us and for helping us understand the opportunities that go along with those challenges.

Max Weber called upon the audience to whom he addressed “Science as a Vocation” 100 years ago to “meet the demands of the day, in human relations as well as in our vocation.”  I hope that we will do the same: thoughtfully, boldly, and with confidence in our success.

Thank you.