You might not have noticed, but American Jews have been undergoing a modern-day exodus for the last several decades.
Unlike the first one, however, today’s separation is voluntary instead of compulsory, and rather than an oppressive pharaoh, it is Judaism itself with which significant numbers from the ancient tribe are parting ways.
In a comprehensive survey to gauge the strength and meaning of Judaism in 21st century America, the Pew Research Center found a community that is less religious, less observant, less traditional, more secular, more skeptical and more assimilating than ever before.
Among hundreds of other statistics, Pew reported that 62 percent of American Jews self-identify as such mostly on “ancestral” or “cultural” grounds, while only 15 percent view their Judaism predominantly as a “religious” matter.
As well, we find that 44 percent of American Jews are married to non-Jews, and that 37 percent of these couples are raising non-Jewish children.
Only 23 percent of American Jews said they attend religious services more than a few times per year, while an equal amount said they attend services not at all. Asked if “being part of a Jewish community” is an “essential part” of being Jewish, only 28 percent answered in the affirmative.
By all means, the diminished prominence of Judaism in the everyday lives of Jews is not a new phenomenon: It is something Jewish leaders have worried about for a very long time.
Nor, for that matter, is the specter of an increased aversion to one’s religion of birth limited to only one monotheism. To the contrary, a steady flowering of secularism has revealed itself among young people of all faiths in a manner that should alarm anyone who thinks devotion to the almighty is the only means of salvation.
Nonetheless, for traditional Judaism this presents as a uniquely frightening proposition. With but six million adherents to its name in the United States (and 14 million worldwide) and a long list of natural enemies, Judaism is all the time faced with the remote, but nonetheless feasible, prospect of vanishing from the face of the earth.
These are merely the facts. How we react to them is where the real drama lies.
And so the question comes: Can we imagine a world without Jews?
The short answer, of course, is that we can’t.
For starters: However few actual Jews there might be at a given moment, the contributions of the Jewish people to society and to history are not about to evaporate.
Just as the decline of fifth-century Athens did not prevent the spread of Aristotelian philosophy and the disappearance of the original Aztecs did not halt the manufacture of tacos and enchiladas, the legacy of the Twelve Tribes is in no immediate danger of disappearing into the ether. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may be ephemeral, but matzo ball soup is forever.
The long answer is considerably more complex, as the medium-term implications are legion and subject to wide-ranging interpretations.
In light of the current domestic squabble plaguing the United States, in which a gang of extremely right-wing Republicans has allowed the federal government to close because it opposes President Barack Obama’s healthcare program, allow me to pluck out one such implication that might strike one, at first blush, as counterintuitive.
The Pew Survey finds that, in the process of becoming less and less religious, American Jews are shifting allegiances from the more traditional sects to the more liberal ones: Many who were brought up in Conservative congregations now belong to Reform ones, and many who were raised Reform now belong to no congregation at all. Meanwhile, the proportion of Jews who have migrated in the opposite direction is so small, it is practically negligible.
Where this trend does not hold, however, is within the most traditional denomination, the Orthodox. While its membership is comparatively small, Orthodox Judaism has boasted notably high retention rates over time, including among the young.
What this suggests, ironically or not, is that the most stridently observant and hardcore of Jews are going to be the last ones standing. That their stringent, uncompromising views will come to define Judaism as a whole in the way that the “Tea Party” has come to define—or at least control—the GOP.
We Americans have come to agree that no organization—religious, political or whatever—should either be defined or controlled by its most extreme elements, because when that happens, all hell breaks loose.
As such, the case for Judaism’s survival is as much a secular cause as a religious one, which should give pause to atheists like me who tend to view any decline in religiousness as axiomatically good for society.