The headlines (and subsequent prognostications about the decline and general corruption of American Jews) from this week’s Pew Study highlighted the number of people who identify as Jewish, but do not claim Judaism as their religion. The study demonstrated, pretty consistently, that Jews who do not claim Judaism as their religion are less likely to participate in institutional Jewish life in any capacity and hold, for the most part, less strong attachments to traditional signifiers of Jewish life.
Yet, the survey itself illuminates far more than the apparent gaps between those who claim Judaism as their religion and those Jews who do not. The really interesting stuff does not lie in percentage differentials or oversampling. It lies in the survey instrument itself.
The instrument revealed, however inadvertently, just how rich the vocabulary is for discussing Jewish religious life and how poor it is for understanding other expressions of Jewishness. It asked lots of questions about religion, and it demonstrated a finely-tuned ear for subtle distinctions of religious expression. But when it came to understanding the modes of Jewish engagement by those who claimed to be Jewish-not-by-religion, the survey frequently offered clumsy, ham-handed catch-all categories that tended to blunt any deep understanding of the ways in which Jews-not-by-religion understand and engage in Jewish life.
In short: a religious bias was written into the survey itself.
Here’s one example: (pg 60) The survey asks about membership. It asks about synagogues, specifically, and then lumps together all other memberships in “Jewish organizations other than a synagogue or temple.” There’s synagogue membership, and then there’s everything else (presumably that “everything” runs the gamut from JCC’s to museums, to advocacy organizations). But the survey instrument doesn’t ask about those other commitments, and how or why museum memberships are different than advocacy group memberships, and so on (let alone the questionable validity of “membership” as a measure meaningful engagement). Instead, it lumps all these “other” memberships together, reinforcing the hegemony of religion in American Jewish life.
Here’s another, different example that makes the point even more strongly: (pg 177). The question reads like this:
Thinking about Jewish religious denominations, do you consider yourself to be [RANDOMIZE: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform] something else, or no particular denomination?”
The list of choices is impressively long and includes “Kabbalah” “Moderate” “African Hebrew Israelite” “Jewish renewal” and “Pagan/wiccan.” But the funny thing about the reporting of the question is that it also reports the answers given by Jews of no religion. It seems that the survey asked Jews of no religion to offer a denominational affinity for themselves, even when denominationalism is really a way of distinguishing between religious choices.
It would be like asking someone who is lactose intolerant to choose her favorite kind of cheese.
Beyond the headlines and in between the data points, the survey revealed something more interesting and fundamentally more troubling than the apparent trends that fuel the fires of Jewish communal nay-sayers. It revealed the paucity of available language and theory to understand, deeply, the variety of ways in which people live Jewish lives. The sophisticated measures and descriptive language around religious differences and distinctions indicate just how finely attuned the American Jewish community has become to the particular formulations of Jewish as a religion, and how far it has to go to truly understand the variety of ways in which people articulate their versions and visions of Jewish culture.
My point here is not to blame Pew (whose research I think is consistently outstanding, and which I cite regularly in my own work), nor is it to point fingers at the panel of consultants (some of whom I’m proud to call my friends, teachers and mentors). My point is to highlight the unexamined assumptions of American Jewish life, and how our conceptions about Jewish life often end up shaping its realities, not the other way around.