How lucky we are that Judaism is not a religion

August 25, 2016

There are new numbers and articles out there that you ought to think about, if you are one of those people who take interest in the future of Judaism in America.


A new study from Pew reveals how people choose their house of prayer and their religious congregation. It does not include a large enough number of Jews, but assuming that American Jews in many ways are, well, Americans, there is still much to learn from any study about religion in America, even for Jews. From this one specifically – the importance of “convenience.” Americans are not passionate enough about their religion to tolerate it in cases when it is inconvenient. They want their community to be conveniently located. Americans also care about the “quality of educational programs available for children.” 56% of adults who have looked for a new congregation say the quality of such programs “was an important factor in their decision.”

But the most interesting part of the new study deals with the “nones” – people with no religion – and their motivations. “About half of current religious “nones” who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion.” Lack of belief is something the Jews are quite familiar with, as they are a religious group with notably low levels of belief. Nones have a high percentage of people who mistrust organized religion (sound familiar?). Nones also have a high percentage of “undecided” people. Pew also have wonderful quotes which show what people are saying, such as: “I am open minded and I don’t think there is one particular religion that is right or wrong” (sound familiar?).

What does this tell us, Jews, about our future? That competition is fierce, that we, more than many other groups, are exposed to the trends of religious erosion.


You should also read the article by Daniel Cox. It proposes a provocative thesis according to which religious pluralism – the pride of many Americans and even more Jewish Americans – is “undermining the vitality of America’s religious communities.” And I must say, the thesis is quite convincing. “There are a number of different ways diversity might erode commitment. The practical effect of rising religious diversity is to expose Americans to ideas and views that could challenge their religious beliefs,” Cox writes. Again, he writes about Americans in general, but it is not difficult to see how everything he says is relevant to Jewish Americans.

For example: “Diversity within our immediate social networks may also serve to weaken our ties to a religious community or strengthen our resolve to remain unattached.” Jews have wide social networks, and many of them no longer report a preponderance of Jewish friendships over other friendships. Another point: “Religiously mixed marriages are more common than ever, and Americans raised by parents of different faiths report much lower levels of religious activity in childhood than those raised in religiously unified households.” Yes – that is also very relevant for Jews. And another one: “there is far less social pressure to conform to religious norms”. Relevant indeed.

What does this tell us, Jews, about our future? That we, more than many other religious groups, are exposed to the trends of religious erosion.


As Emma Greeen wrote in the Atlantic, the new studies and numbers prove that “Fifty or 60 years ago, churches, in particular, were a center of social and cultural life in America. For many people, that’s still the case, but the survey suggests that many people may be creating their social lives outside of a religious context—or perhaps forgoing that kind of social connection altogether.”

What does this tell us, Jews? That the synagogue is in trouble (not that we didn’t know this) and that revitalizing it is not going to be easy. It is not going to be easy because it is not just the synagogue that is in trouble – it is the American place of worship that’s in trouble. Americans, in growing numbers – and again, Jewish Americans are first and foremost Americans – no longer create their social lives in a religious context.

So what ought we do about this? Judaism has one great advantage that most other religions do not have: it is not a religion. Yes, there is a religious component to Judaism, but, clearly, amid this trends that the numbers expose, in the current atmosphere, it makes sense to emphasize and creatively utilize the non-religious components of Judaism.

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