We talked before here about the Pew survey of American Jews that revealed dramatic levels of assimilation and a loss of Jewish identity, but I want to draw attention to Jonathan Tobin’s comprehensive remarks on the study, in Commentary. Here’s the gist:
But the stunning finding of Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the most comprehensive portrait of the community in 20 years and, in the richness of its detail, perhaps of all time—is the degree to which American Jews are now choosing not to live as Jews in any real sense. Secularism has always been a potent tradition in American Jewry, but the study’s analysis of what being Jewish means to its respondents reveals just how much irreligion has taken center stage in American Jewish life.
Tobin cites numbers from the Pew survey showing that American Jews have given up Jewish religion and practice in massive numbers. The things most of them see as being markers of Jewishness are moral qualities that could apply to just about any group. Tobin:
This is what happens after several generations of the most highly educated minority group in the United States have allowed themselves and their children to become functionally illiterate about Judaism itself, its belief system, its history, and the obligations of Jewish peoplehood. The Pew data make it abundantly clear that the cultural values of secular Jews have proved to be perfectly portable—they can carry their liberal political and cultural beliefs everywhere without having to carry the Jewish trappings that go with them.
The increasing Jewish desire to give up what is distinctive about Jewish faith and practice while maintaining mushy positive attitudes about their colorful backgrounds and the social-justice aspect of the tradition is more than a recipe for self-extinction. The ingredients have been assembled and mixed, and the dough has begun to rise. American Jewry is on the brink of a demographic catastrophe. And yet here is the paradox: This catastrophe is also a triumph—a triumph both for American Jews and for the American experiment.
Why a triumph? Because anti-Semitism has been largely defeated in American life. A nation that used to hold its Jewish members in contempt no longer does. What’s not to like? Tobin isn’t complaining about this, it should be obvious, but is pointing out that absent religious belief internally, or external pressures that keep group identification stronger than it would otherwise be, Jewishness evaporates. As Tobin puts it (emphasis his):
America is not insisting in any way that Jews assimilate, give up religious practice, or do anything differently. It is Jews themselves who are choosing this path.
Tobin goes on to point out that more people who identify as Christians are moving away from practicing the Christian faith, but they can still rely on a culture that is recognizably Christian. Not so the Jews, at only two percent of the US population. If they don’t have a firm rock to stand on, they are going to be swallowed up by the larger culture through intermarriage and forgetting. If given a choice on whether or not to be Jewish, by the historical norms of the concept, most American Jews are choosing the path of extinction, though they don’t want to admit it. Math does not lie, though.
Here’s the most interesting part of Tobin’s take. He says that the overwhelming cultural liberalism of American Jews turns out to be a main factor in the community’s self-deconstruction:
Increasingly, secular Jews have come to see any effort to define group identity in ways that include some but exclude others as distasteful and even hateful. This helps explain the most shocking of the Pew findings: More than a third of those Jews polled said belief in Jesus—the one point that all Jews had once been able to agree was something that put you outside the Jewish tent—should not be deemed a disqualifier. How can this be? Simple: It is just an extreme manifestation of the logic governing the inclusion doctrine. The very idea that Jewish identity involves drawing lines—lines as seemingly insignificant as who may be a voting member of a synagogue and who may receive honors during services—is itself the problem for many Jews. The non-observant American Jewish mind-set is increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of drawing any boundaries around Jewish identity. And that mind-set has been ironically justified by the organized Jewish community’s breathless pursuit of those who have already chosen to place themselves outside the lines. [N.B.: He’s talking about the failed attempt to convince intermarried families to identify as Jewish. — RD]
Read the whole thing. There’s a lot more to it than what I’ve written about here. The main lessons, it seems to me, are as follows:
1. Without belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in the absence of anti-Semitism, there’s no binding reason to be Jewish.
2. Unless the Jewish community is willing to police its boundaries, to draw sharp lines between who is and who isn’t in the tribe, it will dissipate.
What are the lessons for Christians? While we certainly have incomparably more cultural cushion, as Tobin notes, our people are being assimilated too by secularism, via religious indifferentism. Fifty years ago, there was a lot more cultural pressure to affiliate with a church. You felt that you should, that it was the right thing to do. That’s long gone. In a free society in which there is no serious penalty, social or otherwise, for not being Christian, you have to give people a reason to want to be a Christian. As we’ve observed in this space, no church has found the solution to waning Christianity (see Pew’s study on the “Rise Of The Nones”), though the Jewish experience seems to confirm the idea that a religion that does not offer something meaningfully distinctive from the mainstream will not endure. If you fling open the windows of the Church to the world as it is today, you run the real risk of the winds blowing your house down.