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.

For example, what function does it serve to sit in a building for three hours on Saturday morning? How is life enriched by reading Jewish books or newspapers? Why do you do it?

The runaway success of the book “I Am Jewish,” published in 2005 and featuring dozens of Jewish notables writing short essays about what their Jewishness means to them, is, I think, attributable to this very basic set of questions. “I Am Jewish” answers them, in multiple ways. Reading it, and similar volumes, you can get why someone would care about the Jewish thing, and why they want to preserve it. Then you can explore which, if any, rationales resonate with you.

Obviously, some will fit, and others will not. If someone is Jewish because she believes that God will punish her if she violates Jewish law, that rationale will not resonate with someone who doesn’t believe that God exists. If someone is Jewish because he simply loves the flavors of corned beef and the cadences of Yiddish, that rationale will not resonate with someone raised in a 21st century family (or Sephardic family) where those old forms have no meaning whatsoever.

But taking the value of Judaism for granted is not going to work, particularly because many of the iterations of that value just don’t matter to a whole lot of people. They don’t want a particularist identity in a multicultural age. They don’t agree that there’s merit in ghettoization, endogamy, or us versus them thinking. They may be inspired by Jewish history, but not enough to change their lives. And they certainly don’t want a religion that sets down rules.

For better or for worse, those are the clean slates from which we must begin. Square one. Why do you do what you do? What product or service — to use the language of the marketplace — does Judaism deliver for you? And how might Jewish institutions focus on it in a way that makes it appealing to the unconverted, trimming away the extraneous parts, while not diluting the authenticity of the core?

One of my mentors, a spiritual teacher named Harry Faddis, once told me that “people are interested in what they’re interested in.” A simple tautology, but better than all the Pew-haha. Lots of Jews are not interested in the things affiliated Jews are interested in. If we have a desire to preserve or grow liberal Judaism, we might start by asking why that desire exists, rather than wringing our hands that not enough people share it yet.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor at the Forward.


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