Losing Their ‘Religion’

One finding of the recent Pew survey—that the younger generation are often Jews of “no religion”—leads to questions about the usefulness or meaning of the word “religion” in relationship to Jews. As is the case with many other segments of the wider American culture Jews seem to find the word “religion” unappealing.

This isn’t new. For much of history, “religion” in America has meant Christianity, and until the latter half of the 20th century the most salient part of Christianity, for most Jews, was its anti-semitism.

And yet, at times—partly out of a love for America—Jews in this country have made a real effort to “do religion.” It’s been a complicated three–way relationship: Jews love America and America loves religion, so Jews have said, “Okay we can do religion!” And, in fact, the religious content has always been there; Jews just aren’t accustomed to thinking of Judaism as solely a religion. So, the Jewish love affair with America played a part—although it wasn’t the only factor—in encouraging Jews in this country to think about and approach Judaism as a religion.

But it’s been an on-again, off-again kind of thing. (Three-ways usually have an expiration date.) I see American Jewish history as the history of Jewish grappling with the American (and Protestant) category of religion, and we’re at a stage, now, when it’s not working out so well for segments of the younger generation. 

Yet, the fact that Jews are choosing to identify as Jewish—even when they assert no interest in religion—does suggest a paradigm shift in American Jewish identity. For most of American history, being Jewish was a handicap. It used to be that if you could “pass” you probably would. In 1923, Harvard Professor Harry Wolfson wrote a book (pamphlet, really) called Escaping Judaism that described this thinking among young Jews. Mordecai Kaplan, one of the most influential 20th century thinkers, also began his 1934 magnum opus with this reality: that young Jews wish they weren’t Jewish. Kaplan wrote a big book about how to revitalize Jewish life in America, but his staring point was that young, educated Jews would love to find the nearest exit. As it turned out, Kaplan’s ideas had enormous impact on American Jewish life.

So, it’s hard not think: here we are, eighty years later, with signs of much greater self-esteem among Jews. With that starting point, what kinds of possibilities for Jewish life in America await us?

*Read more from “Pew and the Jews: ‘So What?'”, an RD special feature on the Pew survey. 

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