Believe it or not
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Believe it or not

Charles Liebman, the late great scholar of American-Jewish life, coined the term “secular Jewish maximalist.” SJMs might consider themselves agnostics or atheists, and scoff at the idea that the Torah was written by God. But come Saturday morning, you’ll find them in shul. As one SJM told me, “I may not believe in God, but I don’t want to disabuse my fellow worshipers of the notion.”

Without quizzing my friends and acquaintances, I suspect that I run in a crowd of SJMs. These are folks deeply engaged in synagogue life, first and foremost, and from there define their lives in terms of Israel (which they visit often), of federation or some other Jewish charity, of Jewish camps or day schools. Almost all keep kosher, or a version thereof. Many keep Shabbat. Table conversations and Facebook posts likely revolve around the latest communal scandal or Jewish political debate. But their attitude about God is similar to that of Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician who was asked by Napoleon why his Treatise on Celestial Mechanics doesn’t mention God. “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis,” Laplace is supposed to have replied.

The ur-text of secular Jewish maximalism is the old joke about the Great Jewish Atheist, who gets a visit from a would-be disciple on the eve of Shabbat. Before agreeing to discuss his views, the Atheist says his evening prayers, lights Shabbat candles, and recites the Kiddush. When the disciple looks puzzled, the Atheist responds: “I said I’m an atheist, not a goy.”

I thought about SJMs when I read the results of the important new study of American Jews by the Pew Research Center. The study made headlines by putting the Jewish population at 6.7 million – considerably larger than some had suspected. But it also deflated many observers in its findings on intermarriage and identity. According to the study, among Jews who have married since 2000, nearly 60 percent have a non-Jewish spouse. Worse, for proponents and opponents of the “outreach” model of engaging intermarried families, only 22 percent of intermarried Jews are sending their kids to a formal Jewish educational or youth program, compared with 82 percent of in-married Jews.

The stats on intermarriage seem to correlate with the study’s other headline-making finding: While an “overwhelming” majority of Jews have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, 22 percent describe themselves as having no religion – and among the Millennials, 32 percent say they have no religion. Compare that to the “Greatest Generation,” where 93 percent describe themselves as “Jews by religion.”

Some observers might find it a relief that these “Jews of no religion” identify with the Jewish community at all – after all, in a fluid society, where “nones” are the fastest growing religious group, that might demonstrate the continuing pull of Jewish identity. Or perhaps the “nones” affirm the myriad ways – ethnically, culturally, even gastronomically – Jews connect to other Jews. But without confirming causality, Pew finds a “strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage.” And as the Forward summarized the report, Jews of no religion “are far less likely to marry other Jews, raise their children Jewish, give to Jewish charities, belong to Jewish organizations, feel connected to the Jewish community, and care about Israel.”

The survey – perhaps the most extensive since the famous and notorious National Jewish Population Surveys of 1990 and 2000 – is bound to shape the current conversation about intermarriage and outreach. Already, outreach skeptics say the report confirms that communal resources are better spent on strengthening Jewish-Jewish families. Outreach proponents say the underwhelming results of engagement don’t justify abandoning the families who may respond to Jewish overtures.

A friend in Israel drew a much blunter conclusion from the study: “American Jewry is screwed,” he wrote. That’s too strong, but he’s right that, overall, we are a community in decline. The study confirms the “fewer and Jewer” prognostications of various sociologists – that is, American Jewry is moving toward a minority of maximalists with secure Jewish futures and a majority of minimalists perhaps a generation or two from disappearing.

For me the study hints at the impracticability of Jewish secularism in the diaspora, after a good 200-year run. In those two centuries, Jewish secularists put their energies into Zionism, the labor movement, Yiddish culture, Jewish literature, Jewish hospitals and universities. The results were glorious, and the political, cultural, and scientific contributions – within Judaism and without – are beyond measure. These “cultural Jews” and secularists were kept Jewish by the pull of these ideologies and creative endeavors, which expressed universal values in a distinct Jewish idiom. But they also remained bound to the Jewish community by a society that kept them out of the mainstream. Once that society opened up, the thick stew of Jewish connections – the languages, the proximity, the shared sense of pride and grievance that kept Jews Jewish – was diluted, like a landlocked lake submerged by a flooding river. Those best able to withstand the tide of assimilation were practitioners of religious Judaism – creators, in a sense, of their own counterculture.

The secularism that has a Jewish future – and perhaps the most difficult secularism to maintain – is one that garbs itself in Jewish tradition. God may not be necessary to this hypothesis, but the things tradition says God demands of us are: rituals, customs, Torah, and distinct ways of eating, speaking, and marking time. Outside of Israel, where secularism flourishes in the hothouse of nation-building, the Jewish future belongs to religion.

I’d say “unfortunately,” but who knows Who might be listening?

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