Answer This Question: Why Be Jewish?

Figuring Out What To Do About Pew Means Going To the Source of Identity


By Jay Michaelson

Published November 11, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
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Let’s call it a Pew-haha, these last few weeks of hand wringing, debate, and general brouhaha about the recent Pew survey on American Judaism. “Of making books there is no end,” Ecclesiastes reminds us. Op-eds, too.

Now that the dust is settling, perhaps it’s worth asking a seemingly obvious question: Who cares? And more importantly, why?

The answer to the first question is: Most Jews don’t. Pew is only the latest of many indications that a significant slice of the American Jewish population just doesn’t care that much about Judaism or Jewishness. Measure it however you like, these Jews are speaking by their silence, and voting with their fast-exiting feet.

And the equally obvious asterisk to that answer is: Some Jews do. Chances are, if you’re reading these words, you’re in that camp. If you are, what this simple juxtaposition — you care, but most other’s don’t — means is that your values are not generalizable to the unaffiliated, disaffiliated, disenchanted, and disappearing American Jewish population.

Nor is the fundamental assumption that Judaism is really worth saving, that there’s something about Jewish identity, culture, religion, or nationality that we must preserve. This assumption is so fundamental that it usually goes unstated in professional Jewish circles. We talk about how we’re going to save the Jews, not why.

Yet we can’t do the how without asking the why, because our target audience does not share our basic premise. Repeat: They don’t think like you do. They don’t care.

We all live in bubbles. Tea Partiers just cannot believe that a majority of Americans actually like the Affordable Care Act. Environmentalists just cannot believe that a significant number of Americans do not care about climate change. So we all go searching for the reasons why they are deluded: the liberal media, the conservative media, whatever.

They’re not deluded. They disagree.

The problem with Judaism is that lots of American Jews don’t have a use for it, and the ones who do take its value for granted. This doesn’t work. Those who do care about a Jewish future thus need to wipe their mental slates clean, and ask what Judaism offers, what it does, for them. Community, spirituality, psychological security, history or culture, mitigation of guilt — figure it out, and focus on it.


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