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An Inquiry Into What Really Matters Most To American Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2001

The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community In America  
by Steven N. Cohen and  
Arnold M. Eisen,  
Indiana University Press,  
242 Pages,  

The organized American Jewish community has issued various alarms in recent years about assimilation, intermarriage and diminishing population. Concern has been expressed about issues of Jewish identification and continuity. Programs have been adopted to address such questions and they have tended to stress a return to tradition and an increased identification with Israel. In many instances, the freedom and openness of the American society has been presented more as a “problem” than as a gift which provides all Americans, of whatever background, with the opportunity to seek their own individual identities.  

In this book, the authors, Steven N. Cohen, associate professor at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Arnold M. Eisen, professor of religious studies at Stanford University, probe beneath the surface to explore the foundations of belief and behavior among moderately affiliated American Jews, largely of the baby boom generation.  

Through a series of in-depth interviews they have considered the factors which shape, nourish and sustain Jewish commitment. They ask what leads some Jews to place Jewish commitment at the center of their lives, while others consign it to the margins. They seek to find what matters most to American Jews and why.  

Real Concerns  

What they have discovered is that the organized Jewish community’s concern about intermarriage, focus on Israel, stress on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, has little to do with the real concerns and interests of individual American Jews. In fact, the issues which dominate the organizational Jewish agenda have almost no resonance among those who participated in the survey. When one considers that those involved in their examination were all participants in Jewish life, usually through synagogue membership, which the majority of American Jews are not, the gap between what Jewish “leaders” say and what most American Jews believe is indeed a large one.  

The authors point out that, “American Jews at century’s end...have come to view their Jewishness in a very different way than either their parents or they themselves did only two or three decades ago. Today’s Jews, like their peers in other religious traditions, have turned inward in the search for meaning. They have moved away from organizations, institutions and causes that used to anchor identity and shape behavior...the discovery and construction of Jewish meaning in contemporary America (as of ultimate significance to life more generally) occur primarily in the private sphere. American Jews, we believe, enact and express their decisions about Judaism predominantly in the intimate spaces in which late 20th century American individuals-Jewish or Gentile, religious or secular-are in their own eyes ‘most themselves’ and least the creatures of roles and obligations imposed from the outside.”  

Spirituality and Meaning  

Seeking spirituality and meaning in their lives, those participating in this study rejected narrow, particularist readings of Jewish tradition and contemporary events, and rejected the notion of Judaism as an “ethnic” identity rather than a religious tradition: “...these Jews took pains...to play down particularist loyalties, insisting that Jews are no more obligated to other Jews than to the human family as a whole. They showed signs of far less ethnic commitment than was common a decade or so ago. This pattern is new; all three major pillars on which Jewish identity in the U.S. has rested in recent decades have been considerably undermined. The Jews we studied betrayed little interest in or knowledge of the organized Jewish community. They drew universalist lessons from the Holocaust far more than they related to it as a Jewish tragedy with consequences for the survival of the Jewish people; they exhibited far less attachment to the state of Israel than was the case only a few years ago.”  

More than ever before, the authors report, personal stories are basic to who American Jews are, as Jews and as human beings. Compared to predecessors a generation or two ago, they do not define themselves by denominational boundaries (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative) or institutional loyalties (Hadassah, Jewish community centers, synagogues). Instead, “Their Jewish identities are not constituted by organizational activity, do not center on concern for the state of Israel, and do not arise out of anxiety about anti-Semitism. The communal quest for ‘sacred survival’ that animated many American Jews a generation ago is simply not what motivates the Jews whom we studied.”  

Difference from Non-Jews  

Before the modern period, the authors argue, “Jews took for granted a conviction of essential Jewish difference from non-Jews. Both Jewish doctrine and Jewish ritual posited an axiomatic and dichotomous view of self and other, a distinction between ‘Israel’ and ‘the nations of the world’ as fundamental and self-evident as the difference between day and night. The Torah (in chapter 19 of Exodus) declares that the Israelites gathered at Sinai to be God’s ‘kingdom of priests and holy nation.’ God had redeemed them from Egyptian bondage in order to set them apart as a ‘peculiar treasure,’ thereby making them (and only them) a party to a unique covenant that, according to the Torah, would remain in force forever. Jews thanked God daily for not making them ‘like the nations of the world’ who bowed down to idols...At the blessing over wine which inaugurated the Sabbath each Friday night, Jews declared (addressing God), ‘You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations.’ After the blessing over wine, candle and spices that concluded the Sabbath, Jews blessed God for distinguishing sacred from profane, light from darkness, Israel from the nations, the Sabbath from the six days of work.”‘  

Jewish life in the past was characterized by “exclusivity,” and, the authors note, “The character of daily Jewish interaction with non-Jews (or the lack of interactions) confirmed a distinction as basic as the difference between Sabbath and weekday.” There was, in addition, the doctrine of “covenant,” in which “Jews were bound not only to fellow Jews but to God-and bound to each of these covenant partners by the tie binding them to the other. Religion was inseparable from nationhood. A Jew was born simultaneously into a people and a faith, both of which entailed a regimen of lifelong obligation...chosenness involved mission; the separation of Jews from Gentiles served a divine purpose that would one day bring the entire human race to the worship of the one true God. Jewish particularity, then, was meant for a universal end. Universalism and particularism stood in perpetual tension.”  

Jewish Emancipation  

With the modern era and the emancipation of Jews which led to their integration into Western society, the authors point to a “contractual quid pro quo, not always left unspoken, in which Jews agreed to sacrifice exclusivity in return for civil rights and economic opportunities. Sabbath observance, a bar to employment opportunities as well as to leisure activities, atrophied. Dietary laws, a barrier to social relations with non-Jews and to acceptance in their society, were relaxed or abandoned... Beginning with Moses Mendelssohn, arguments on behalf of Judaism itself had to be couched in the language-literal and figurative-of the non-Jewish culture which Jews had begun to internalize...How then could they make the case for chosenness? Jews could no longer deny that other peoples too, personal friends and neighbors now among them, possessed equal access to divine truth. Nor could Jews propound a distinctiveness at odds with their aspiration to civic equality.”  

For American Jews, living in a heterogeneous society in which religious freedom existed from the beginning, the authors argue, “The sociological dilemma was straightforward. Jews who were at home in America, or wished to be, could not affirm either to themselves or to others that they were essentially ‘strangers in a strange land,’ exiles awaiting a return to Palestine, or God’s one true chosen people. America was, after all, a society which, thanks to the Puritan legacy, conceived of itself as a ‘city on a hill,’ embarked on a providential mission involving all humanity. Zionism was for this reason embraced by American Jews only after Louis Brandeis and others had made it clear that the movement, in this country at least, aimed only at providing a home for Jews who lacked one-and no American Jew did.”  

Change from the Past  

The attitudes and quality of the lives lived by those who participated in this study represents a significant change from those of Jews in the past. The respondents count non-Jews among their closest friends. Indeed, only 10 percent of the survey respondents indicated that “all or almost all” their closest friends are Jews. American Jews marry non-Jews in ever greater numbers and, the authors point out, “even when they do marry Jews, they maintain that they might well have done otherwise but for the intervention of chance circumstance.” Few of those in the study related any experience with anti-Semitism, “Quite the contrary; they take for granted the opportunity for full participation in every aspect and arena of American society...The people we interviewed enjoy such thorough acceptance by Gentile friends, co-workers and in-laws that they have come to terms with the real possibility that their children may marry non-Jews. We noticed, too, that the language, literal and figurative, spoken by our subjects was almost entirely that of American culture.”  

Today’s moderately affiliated Jews “do not meet the previous notion of what it is to be a Jew,” write the authors. “Their connection to Israel, for one thing, is weak, as is the connection they feel to the organized Jewish community in America. They take for granted the compatibility of being both Jewish and American; this is simply not an issue anymore. And they are even less interested in denominational differences than their parents’ generation was, insisting from first to last on the right-and fact-of individual autonomy when it comes to deciding the details of Jewish practice. On the other hand, theology is far from irrelevant to these Jews. God...is often quite important to them; spirituality is a felt concern: ritual and texts resonate with religious meaning that they view positively...They want to be Jewish because of what it means to them personally-not because of obligation to the Jewish group...or the historical destiny of the Jewish group. Jewish survival is not in and of itself sacred in their eyes. Jewish life in the private spaces of self and family, is held sacred-it is that which they most deeply value.”  

“Generation of Seekers”  

Those in the study, mostly members of the baby boom generation, are full fledged members of what sociologist Wade Clark Roof has termed the “generation of seekers,” their credentials recertified, as it were, with each successive stage of the journey. Life is fluid in other senses as well. “The boundaries dividing Jews from non-Jews have come to seem less essential,” the authors note, “because they have been, in the experience of our subjects, less fixed and of less consequence. Fully two-thirds of our survey participants agreed that ‘my being Jewish doesn’t make me any different from other Americans.’ Inter- marriage, interdating and close friendships with non-Jews have left their mark. The self is more and more composed of multiple parts. One does not demand they hang together neatly...Jews...seem content with a piecemeal approach to selfhood as to life; an interior ‘bricolage’ to match the cultural diversity of the surroundings.”  

The contrast between survey participants and their parents’ generation is a wide one: “Virtually none of our respondents articulated an unambiguous commitment to endogamy. That had been their parents’ Jewish way, one which they have decisively rejected. Our respondents’ range of views regarding intermarriage stands in contrast with their parents’ largely unequivocal opposition to dating and marrying non-Jews...” Even here, they point out, “because we intentionally limited our sample almost entirely to moderately affiliated Jews, the spectrum of views on this matter is somewhat narrower than we would observe in a study of American Jewry as a whole.”  

Universalism and Particularism  

In 1990, Charles Liebman observed that conceptions of Judaism may be arrayed on a continuum ranging from a pole that combines universalism and moralism to one that combines particularism with ritualism. In this context, universalism refers to the tendency to see Judaism as advocating lessons shared by the larger society and rejecting any notions of giving special preference to fellow Jews. Particularism refers to the opposite of these notions. The lesser known distinction between moralism and ritualism refers to the degree of emphasis in religious life and practice placed upon the ethical values, generally shared by all religions, as against the customs and ceremonies that are particular to the religious system, in this case Judaism. Liebman views traditional Judaism as inclined to the particularism-ritualism pole, as against the stance of most American Jews, which is far more universalist and moralist.  

The authors declare: “Our own findings support Liebman’s observation.” One of the respondents, Stuart, echoed this theme: “What is my hope for my kids? That they will be kind, sensitive, honest, giving. That they’ll get lots out of life, lots of joy.” In the authors’ view, “Except for their failure to include specifically Christian theological beliefs, these responses can hardly be distinguished from those one would expect from well-educated, liberal American Protestants.”  

When it comes to observance, they found an “unprecedented exercise of autonomy” and declare that, “For today’s Jews, Jewish practice is not an all-or-nothing matter. Three quarters of the Jews who participated in the national survey agreed that ‘I have the right to reject those Jewish observances that I don’t find meaningful.’ Moderately affiliated Jews are not committed to a package of detailed behaviors that is set out in a code sustained by communal pressures...they choose what to observe and what not to observe; they also decide, and take it for granted that they have the right to decide, with no one able to tell them any decision is wrong, when to observe, how to observe, and how much to observe... The question of what is ‘correct’ according to a particular movement within Judaism has been supplanted in their minds by the question of what is meaningful to the individual or family performing the observance. Eclecticism is now the rule when it comes to practice. Consistency is no longer prized. Theology is virtually irrelevant.”  

Search for Values  

In fact, the authors believe, the Jewish quest for spiritual values and meaning is part of the larger American search participated in by men and women of a variety of religious backgrounds and traditions: “Seeing oneself as an explorer, valuing the journey more than the arrival-common features of identity among the current generation of Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, reinforce the refusal to submit to the authority of tradition when it comes to observance. So does the American (and modern) credo, voiced with stunning clarity by Sam, that it is the individual’s right to decide what is right for him or her in terms of religion. There is no right or wrong way for Sam to behave. There is only his way!”  

During the era of Jewish “tribalism,” the authors show, “Jews...generally held rather unflattering images of non-Jews and correspondingly positive images of themselves. Jews saw Gentiles as, among other things, intellectually limited, prone to violence (both toward their own family members and to Jews), boorish, dishonest, sexually promiscuous and easily inebriated. These images made up a view so central to the Jewish collective consciousness that it barely requires elaboration. Along with them was the presumption that most Gentiles inherently hate Jews. Passover, Purim and Hanukkah, as well as the more recently established Holocaust Remembrance Day, constitute only the most prominent examples in the ritual calendar of the focus upon Gentile antagonism to Jews. (A recent joke that made the rounds on the Internet asks how one might best sum up the lesson taught by the major Jewish holidays. The answer: ‘They tried to kill us. God made sure we won. Let’s eat.’) The classic rabbinic view held that ‘Esau hates Jacob’-wherein Jacob represented the Jewish people and Esau embodied all manner of non-Jews...”  

Tribal Approach  

This negative view of the larger world persists among those who continue to promote a narrow, ethnic, and tribal approach to Judaism and Jewish identity: “Notwithstanding recent demonstrations by contemporary historians that Jews lived during much of their history with relative stability and security, the Jewish collective memory still emphasizes forced expulsions and violent waves of persecution against a backdrop of ever-present social and cultural anti-Semitism. This picture persists even in America, and even among Jews who have not themselves personally experienced anti-Semitism...Holidays still carry a subtext, never far from consciousness, that insists: ‘They tried many times in the past to kill us, and almost succeeded. They will try again. Be careful.’”  

For Jews in the modern world laying claim to equal rights, the continued practice of apartness, let alone claims to superiority, had to be abandoned. “Nor did it make logical or political sense to presume, let alone proclaim, that the Gentiles whose society they sought to join were ineluctably anti-Semitic,” write the authors. “Over time, Jews internalized universalist and personalist conceptions that left no room for inherited notions of Jewish chosenness. Prayers and rituals that emphasized the elect status of ‘Israel’ were interpreted or excised, part of a larger effort to... proclaim the appropriate measure of Jewish distinctiveness.”  

Inward Turn  

In recent days, the authors show, the organized Jewish community has started to turn its back on the universalist cast of Jewish concern and have “turned inwards” toward “continuity,” pursuing such programs as the Birthright Israel enterprise, seeking to tie young American Jews to Israel. A new Reform statement of principles goes so far as to encourage American Jews to emigrate to Israel. In doing so, this survey suggests, they are ignoring the real needs and values of the constituency in whose name they presume to speak: “We asked our subjects whether they ‘react differently towards the persecution of Jews than towards the persecution of people in general?’ Gita’s response represented a widely held point of view: ‘It’s very upsetting to me to see any people being oppressed by another people and to see genocide happening in another place. The ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia was very upsetting to me, and it didn’t matter whether the victims were Croatians or Muslims or Jews.” Three-quarters of the respondents agreed with the statement, “I feel as moved by the oppression of non-Jews as by the comparable oppression of Jews.”  

Lessons of Holocaust  

When it comes to the Holocaust, “Many did not see it as a particularly Jewish tragedy at all. When asked what lessons she derived from the Holocaust, Amy responded: ‘The lesson is don’t trust your own government without fully questioning it. You have to speak out for what you believe in at all costs. There’s not enough effort looking to help outside of the Jewish community, for example places like Bosnia...’ No one placed the Holocaust in the context of Jewish history or linked it to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution. None spoke, as Israelis do with regularity, of the need for Jewish military and diplomatic power to thwart those who might embark upon another attempt to visit mass destruction on a Jewish population...Instead, the Holocaust was consistently presented to us as a human tragedy, albeit one that is personally very painful because it touches ones own extended family. Most interviewees readily drew critical universal lessons that aim at preventing similar tragedies from befalling other minority groups, who were often seen as more vulnerable than today’s Jews. The heart of our respondents’ Jewish concern clearly lies elsewhere.”  

When it comes to Israel, there was little feeling that it constituted an important element of one’s Jewish identity. In two focus groups conducted by Steven Cohen with parents of Hebrew school youngsters in a suburban synagogue in New England, “None of the participants in either focus group so much as mentioned Israel during these initial conversations...For these focus group participants, at least, Israel carriedlittle real importance in the private sphere of Jewish identity, the part that is closest to their inner core.”  

Attachment to Israel  

When asked about their emotional attachment to Israel, just 9 percent of respondents answered “extremely attached” (as opposed to 13 percent in a similar survey in 1988), and only another 18 percent said “very attached” (versus 24 percent in 1988). A total of just over a quarter (27 percent in 1997 versus 37 percent in 1988) defined themselves as at least very attached to Israel. Only 20 percent in the survey thought it was essential for a good Jew to support Israel and even fewer (18 percent) had similar views with regard to visiting Israel in the course of one’s life.  

Israel’s conduct with regard to the Palestinians and its refusal to permit non-Orthodox forms of Judaism to be freely practiced have alienated many American Jews. One respondent, Joy, said: “I think there are many different cultures that can lay claim to Israel’s soil as their own, I think the Palestinians have been displaced. I think that is terribly unfortunate and I don’t think it should happen. I think that some kind of home for the Palestinians is correct.” For David, it is the perceived prominence of right-wing political forces, especially when associated with what he regards as the “Orthodox lunatic fringe,” that drives him to distance himself from Israel: “Frankly, even being vaguely associated with the Orthodox lunatic fringe in Israel, the (far right) Kach groups, and (Ariel) Sharon, I have to say when Israel does something like that, that’s not my Israel. I’m not responsible for that.”  

The authors stress that, “It is no longer uncommon to find lukewarm-to-cool attitudes to Israel coexisting with warm-to-passionate feelings about being Jewish...Israel is not central to who American Jews are as Jews-and so the need to visit it, or learn about it, or wrestle with its importance to the Jewish people, is far from pressing.”  

Attachment to Institutions  

Survey respondents were asked to assess the extent of their attachment to several institutions. Just 11 percent said they felt very or extremely attached to a local Jewish Federation/UJA, and just 18 percent felt that degree of attachment to any other Jewish organization (other than the synagogue or Jewish Community Center). In addition, somewhat over 40 percent of respondents agreed with each of these survey items:  

* “Many Jews in synagogues or Jewish organizational life are hypocrites.”  

* “The organized Jewish community gives too much recognition to the wealthiest Jews.”  

* “I find Jewish organizations largely remote and irrelevant to me.”  

Universal God  

The God in whom the subjects believe, state the authors, “is...not a particularly Jewish God-or at least not a particularist Jewish God. Moderately affiliated Jews in America have rather embraced universalist and personalist elements of the tradition and of modern culture. They have left aside or rejected those parts of Judaism that claim a special relation between God and the Jewish people. The particularist opening of the Aleinu prayer, we might say, which praises God ‘who has not made us (Jews) like the nations of the earth,’ does not resonate at all for our interviewees. They prefer the prayer’s universalist conclusion, which looks forward to the day when God will be ruler of all the earth.”  

The findings of this study resemble those in recent studies of American churches and their congregants. Roof and McKinney examined “American Mainline Religion” and found that the churches they studied were characterized by individualism and pluralism in belief, consistent with the contemporary culture that the churches for the most part affirm. Roof, focusing on the baby boomers in a second study, finds them even more committed than Americans generally to autonomy and the fulfillment of individual potential, in religion as in all other areas of life. Asked whether they prefer to explore the teachings of many traditions or to stick to the tenets of one faith, exploration received 60 percent of the approval, constancy 28 percent. Majorities said one should arrive at one’s religious beliefs independently of any church, and that one can be a good Christian without attending church at all.  

Personally Meaningful  

The authors conclude that, “More and more, the meaning of Judaism in America transpires within the self...today’s American Jews in their thirties, forties and early fifties are finding less meaning in mass organizations, political activity, philanthropic endeavor, and attachment to the state of Israel...that which is personally meaningful has gained at the expense of that which is peoplehood-oriented. American Jews today are relatively more individualist and less collectivist...Jewishness for them is an absolute. It cannot be increased or lessened by observance, in-marriage, communal affiliation or any other normative behavior...Judaism is rather an ‘inner thing,’ a point of origin, a feature of experience, an object of reflection...They are uncomfortable, to say the least, with the traditional concept of Jewish chosenness. Many explicitly reject giving needy Jews priority over others in equal need...many expressed only a mild preference for in-marriage of their children, even those who vigorously endorsed in-marriage did so more on the basis of the anticipated happiness of their children than in terms of traditional survivalist ideology or obligation to God or tradition...Almost all numbered non-Jews among their closest friends...Neither anti-Semitism in general or the Holocaust evoked strong expression of emotion in our conversation. Neither is at the center of our respondents’ Jewish activity or meaning. That is all the more true of Israel...The young to middle-aged Jews we interviewed have clearly retreated from a passionate engagement with Israel.  

Adjustment to Postmodernity  

How should these findings be assessed? The authors note that, “One way to regard these developments is to see them as a very welcome adjustment to American postmodernity. All religious life has become more privatized. The larger society and culture sanction growth, experimentation, and fluidity in shaping personal identity. They militate against primordial ethnic attachment, especially among upper middle class whites of European origin. Contemporary attitudes view organized collectivities or collectivist organizations based on ethnic affiliation, with great suspicion. The Jews we met seem to conform exactly to what one historian has termed the most common features of cultural pluralism in America: ‘private celebration of cultural difference, public assimilation to putatively American behavioral norms, the presumption of every cultural group’s shared commitment to tolerance, democracy, and human equality, the recognition of the unique contributions of various cultural groups to American life and history, and some degree of cultural relativism.”‘  

What of the future? What are the prospects for a Jewish community whose rabbis and organizational leaders launch militant campaigns in behalf of Israel, against intermarriage, and raise funds by promoting fear of anti-Semitism-but whose members meet little prejudice or discrimination, are largely unconcerned about intermarriage, and view themselves as fully American with little interest in the Zionist idea? There is a disconnect between what most American Jews believe and what is done and said in their name by those who attempt, without any mandate to do so, to represent them.  

Opportunities for the Future  

Professors Cohen and Eisen believe that “the current moment presents Jewish individuals and institutions with opportunities that might yet, if seized, radically transform Jewish selves and communities. The future hinges on whether the professional practice of rabbis, educators, social workers and other communal activists can and will change in ways that take account of the increased sovereignty of self and the centrality of the search for personal meaning; whether they can find ways of overcoming the decreased appeal of institutions and the attenuated sense of Jewish peoplehood that these institutions have conveyed; whether Jews bent on the sovereign pursuit of fulfillment can be persuaded to seek and find fulfillment inside revitalized communal frameworks and institutions.”  

The authors have raised important questions for all those concerned with the meaning and future of Judaism in American life, and have shown us the trends which are transforming all religious life in today’s American society. Those who concern themselves with the future will be traveling without a compass if they fail to consider the portrait painted in this book.  

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