The Pew Survey of Jewish Americans: Panic or Perspective?

A few weeks ago the Jewish world — or those parts of it that pay attention to these kinds of things — was put on high alert by the announcements of the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of Jewish Americans (http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/).

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz summed up the results saying, “the findings show that American Jews are overwhelmingly proud to be Jewish, but that the definition and expression of their Judaism is increasingly fluid and consists of markedly weaker ties to faith and community.”

In other words, a lot more Jews are intermarrying and not raising Jewish children, and a lot more Jews are saying that they are Jews but have no religion.

Needless to say, a lot of Jewish professionals, rabbis and scholars have been giving their advice and prognosis in articles, social media and over many a Shabbat table discussion on what the Jewish community should do to avoid the disastrous implications of this survey.

I want to put in my two cents, but from a very broad perspective. While this is certainly a wake-up call, and there is a lot of work to be done, I don’t think the big picture is all bad. The Jewish world is weakening and losing the battle in a lot of the traditional measures of success, but in a rapidly shifting world, perhaps that means that we need to look at exactly how the world is shifting and what those shifts really mean for Judaism.

Let me take a step way back. Despite all the scary and negative things that are going on in the world, I see a positive trend in that the world has been shifting, sometimes under the radar, in our basic modes of thinking. For the past four centuries it has been the “modern” way to understand our world by breaking things down into their smallest component parts. We’ve been taught in science and economics, medicine and technology to look at the world as a machine that can be engineered and exploited for our purposes. But in recent years we’ve come to see the limits of this perspective. The environmental crisis has forced us to see the interrelated nature of our world. Resources cannot be simply “extracted” without affecting a whole network of relationships. The world is not unlimited and there is no “away” to dump our waste.

Doctors have started to see that killing bacteria isn’t the only way to help people become healthy. Medical science is starting to see that our environment, our family, our community, all directly relate to our health, not simply what we can see in a lab report. At the same time they are discovering the “Human Biome” – that bacteria are not simply our enemies which need to be killed, but that we live in a constant symbiotic relationship to millions of bacteria which live happily in our bodies and which are in fact essential to our health. We are an eco-system.

And it’s the same story in pretty much any field you name. There is a general shift away from thinking about the world as atomistic, isolated and mechanical and towards thinking about it in terms of complex systems, networks of relationships.

What does all this have to do with Judaism and the latest Pew Survey?  Everything.  Judaism has never quite fit in comfortably with the “modern” reductionist, atomistic, linear way of looking at the world. When the Talmud and Midrash and other writings of the rabbis reached the attention of Western intellectuals they looked at them as primitive, confused, lacking any coherence or order. Even the Jewish intellectuals trying to explain why they loved this stuff couldn’t come up with answers that made sense to their colleagues. “Yah,” they basically said, “I guess it does look a bit confused and disorderly.”

When historical, scientific biblical criticism came along it started looking at the Torah as a series of separate documents roughly stitched together. The grandeur and meaning of the whole was lost on the dissecting table of modern science.

When people looked at Jewish ritual, from shaking palm branches to wearing funny hats, it all looked primitive and pointless.

But, in fact, Judaism isn’t confused, incoherent or pointless. It is organic and organic is coming back into style. In the emerging culture of networks and complex systems, Judaism is starting to make more sense. The Bible is indeed a collection of various documents stitched together, but scholars are more recently coming to the understanding that even still, their order isn’t random, but follows an organic pattern. The Israelites were small farmers in a hilly, difficult ecosystem. They relied on intimate knowledge of the land and the intricate relationships between plants, animals, people and God. They were enmeshed in concentric circles of family, tribe, people and world. They told stories and enacted rituals that reflected their lives. Their organic thinking was recorded in the biblical texts. In our day, when we are returning to an awareness of the land, a consciousness of where our food comes from, the importance of networks of community, this mode of thinking is an important resource.

The secret to the unique longevity and power of the Talmud and other rabbinic writings that followed in the centuries after the Bible is that they managed to preserve the living, organic heart of the Torah. They packaged it and took it on the road in the human activities of learning, teaching, writing and living that became what we know of as Judaism. The Rabbinic writings are rigorous and sophisticated, but they are not linear. They are organized in cycles and networks. People have compared the Talmud to the internet, and it is true: the world is coming around to a very Talmudic way of thinking, an organic way.

And Jewish ritual isn’t modern and rational. It involves the body, the emotions and the community — the very things that our Western culture is waking up to today.

We are in fact positioned to be at the leading edge of an emerging new mode of thinking, but we need to wake up to our own strengths as an organic tradition. We still have a lot to do, but the organic nature of Judaism can be our guide on the path.

The Pew study is indeed a wake-up call. Not to pour on more of the same, but instead, to use the changes in the world to wake us up to our own unique strengths. Where can we see the movement of the world pulling us and challenging us to become more authentically ourselves?  Where can we see that our change and the world’s change are working together to bring us to a better and more lively, integrated and spiritually connected world? We need perspective, not panic.

3 replies
  1. bob levy says:

    When someone says that unlike others I will give a broad perspective, I hear unlike those of lesser understanding I will give the real deal. Sadly you analysis begins with the classic jewish mistake of putting down others and then proceeds to be worth reading but not all that exceptional. My take away is that that system continues even in a voice that claims newness. Check out Job’s 4th friend.

    Reply
    • nmargalit says:

      Hi Bob,
      On the contrary, when I said I was giving a broad perspective I meant it almost as an apology — that I’m not going to dive into the details of the present situation even though those details are important and need to be dealt with. Yes, I think that broad perspective is important, but I didn’t mean it to put down others.

      Reply
  2. Howard Apothaker, Ph.D. says:

    The thinning of the concentrate around the edges of what some might judge to be an identifiable idiosyncratic and even particularistic Jewish life and the fact that some traditional “outsiders” have been participating in those margins means that we have made an ideological [if not also occasionally a practical] impact on our “neighborhoods” – watered down as those thought patterns and practices might be from the standpoint of a “center.” That we have had influence is also helped by the porous borders since, as much as we have had outflow of those Jews for whom core matters in traditional Jewish life may be of a lesser consequence, some of those core issues have moved many non-Jews into our less concentrated outer borders. Some – for their own reasons – have developed their own admiration for, if not also their kind of stake in identifiable idiosyncratic Jewish practices and worldviews.

    Reply

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