What the Pew Study Didn't Ask About Jewish Identity

by Baila Olidort - Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters

November 1, 2013

The recent Pew survey on Jewish identity, flaws and all, has sparked an important discussion about the state of things Jewish. The vast majority of Jews are proud to identify as Jews, says the study, and this should be good news for all of us. But when we see what those polled mean when they talk about “Jewish identity,” there’s nothing to sing about.  

According to the study, the majority see themselves as culturally, not religiously Jewish. Asked what they feel is essential to Jewish identity, respondents mentioned having a sense of humor and eating Jewish foods. Once a defining term for shared assumptions about faith, practice and particular traditions, “Jewish identity” has become a shallow term that means anything anyone would like it to mean.

When we can no longer recognize as particular to Judaism the notions by which people are defining their Jewish identity, when these are limited to an affinity for Jewish humor or Jewish foods, or to values of ethics and social justice that are universal, common to most faiths and to most people, it’s time for a reality check.

In one of the most quoted sections of the study, those surveyed were asked to rate how essential they felt each of nine attributes—chosen by the researchers—are to Jewish identity. The list of nine items included: Remembering the Holocaust; Leading an ethical and moral life; Working for justice/equality; Being intellectually curious; Caring about Israel; Having a good sense of humor; Being part of a Jewish community; Observing Jewish law; Eating traditional Jewish foods. 

How the numbers stacked up here may be less interesting than why the researchers chose these particular attributes/activities. What subjective notions about Jewish identity did they bring to the study? More importantly why would they not include the single most important question of all? Why didn’t Jewish education make it on this list of items essential to Jewish identity? 

Jewish continuity has been a concern for our people since time immemorial. (It may be one of the motivations for this study in the first place.) Small in number, vulnerable in so many ways, we have gone to great lengths to ensure that the next generation will carry the torch and pass it on. The Shema, recited daily for thousands of years, reminds us of the responsibility placed upon each generation to transmit Judaism to the next generation.

“You shall teach them to your children and speak unto them, when you are sitting at home, when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you awake . . . . . .

Surely then, it might be reasonable to expect any study about Jewish identity to ask respondents to rank Jewish education in terms of its importance. This one did not, but it did look at their college education in analyzing some of their responses. 

“Jewish college graduates are nearly unanimous in saying a person can be Jewish even if they work on the Sabbath,” said the study. But since when does a college education inform Jewish identity? More relevant here would be to know how many of those who were unanimous in this response graduated Jewish high school?

By omission—and there were more surprising omissions—the poll underscores that unless we cultivate a love for Jewish classical texts, there can be no real knowledge, no understanding of why we do what we do. Absent a strong Jewish education, eating matzah ball soup on Shabbat is as Jewish a practice as eating matzah on Passover.

The poll reminds us—if we needed reminding—that collectively, we aren’t doing enough to nurture a passion for Jewish knowledge, for the study of Torah and traditional Jewish engagement. It also shows us the painful consequences of a threadbare Judaism, and how far afield Jews may wander without the anchor of authentic yiddishkeit. 

But things look different from the perspective of Jewish leaders and teachers out in the field. It’s been noted that the majority of Jews from every denomination have secondary affiliation with Chabad. And that’s not counting those with no other affiliation besides Chabad. What makes these people who are oftentimes so removed from Jewish life, want to connect through Chabad?

Maybe people come to a place in their lives where they feel a hunger for coherent values that provide the substance and the gravitas of honest Judaism, worthy of a commitment. They want to learn the sources—biblical and Talmudic, esoteric and halakhic—of an ancient tradition that contextualizes life, and makes it possible to transcend the smallness of our existence and participate in something much greater.

Jewish leaders who keep their fingers on the pulse of Jewish life should not have to depend on studies for guidance. Chabad representatives who know the terrain by direct experience will tell you that they share with others what they want for themselves and their children: a defining Jewish identity, joyful and purposeful, with respect for what came before us and regard for what we hope follows us.  

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