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The Dissolution Of Jewish Identity

A big day for religion news around this blog. The Times publishes a fairly shocking piece of research:

The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish — resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.

The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.


“It’s very stark,” Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the Pew religion project, said in an interview. “Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion.”

The trend toward secularism is also happening in the American population in general, with increasing proportions of each generation claiming no religious affiliation.

But Jews without religion tend not to raise their children Jewish, so this secular trend has serious consequences for what Jewish leaders call “Jewish continuity.” Of the “Jews of no religion” who have children at home, two-thirds are not raising their children Jewish in any way. This is in contrast to the “Jews with religion,” of whom 93 percent said they are raising their children to have a Jewish identity.

And get this:

In a surprising finding, 34 percent said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

Is that not crazy? Read the whole thing. 

Though I, obviously, am not Jewish, I find this deeply troubling, though sadly predictable. Apart from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there is no way to hold onto Jewishness across the generations. Modernity is a harsh solvent; only the Orthodox Jews, who are committed to living religiously, and as a sign of contradiction to the modern world, are holding the line. The lesson here is that if you are only passively Jewish, your grandchildren will probably not be Jewish at all.

This is not a lesson for Jews alone, but for all religious believers in our country. Because this is a Christian culture, it will take much longer for this to happen among Christians, but as we know from recent social science research (e.g., rise of the Nones), it is happening. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if you don’t push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you, you are going to find yourself shoved to the margins. In the future, Jews will be Orthodox, or they won’t be at all. In the future, Christians will be some form of small-o orthodoxy — Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox — or they won’t be either. The pressures to assimilate are just too strong for a go-along-to-get-along faith.

Nobody wants to hear that, but it’s hard to argue with the trajectory of religious belief and identity across generations.

This brings up the Benedict Option again. If the only Jews who can hold onto Jewish identity in our time are the Orthodox, what does this tell the rest of us about the need for a restrictive community in which to disciple ourselves and our children?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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