Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of himself giving his baby daughter a century-old family heirloom, a kiddush cup, which he said belonged to her great-great-grandfather, also named Max. Nearby is a marble kitchen counter topped with two lit Shabbat candles and challah under a white cover.

“For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years. Her great-great-grandfather Max got it after our family immigrated here and it has been passed down through our family ever since,” Zuckerberg wrote in the post. He felt strongly that he was following the tradition in his family. In this case, we have the observance of Jewish ritual with concern for the ideology, halakhah, or meaning. There is no concern whether one is technically Jewish, with God, or any concern about denominations. The observance itself is meaningful as traditional.

Zuckerberg’s approach has been documented is recently published study called Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers by Ari Y. Kelman, Tobin Belzer, Ilana Horwitz, Ziva Hassenfeld, Matt Williams.  Jewish Social Studies, (Volume 23, Number 1, Fall 2017, pp. 134-167- requires subscription) I saw it because Matt Williams posted it on FB.

zuckerberg

In the new study, they show that post-boomer Jews do not look at Judaism as a religion or as an ethnicity, rather as the pull of traditional practices, yet without any sense of being either voluntary or binding.

In 2000, Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, a demographer and a historian of modern Jewish religion respectively, wrote an important work called The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, which showed that for baby boomers, American religion is now individualistic, a market place, focusing on personal journeys, spiritual moments, self-help, and the inner self. Cohen and Eisen conclude that Jewish life is entering the era of a breakdown of a grand narrative of Jewish peoplehood. Their refrain for the last seventeen years has been to proclaim that the denomination identity through belonging to a shul has broken down. Therefore, the sky is falling. How do we put people back into the post-war era of belonging to a synagogue?

Their focus on identity through religious denomination obscured the role of the non-religious aspects of Jewish culture in Jewish life such as Jewish literature, politics, summer camp, social action, Federation work, Sephardic culture, Yiddish, art, and family connections. Hence, someone who did not believe in theism or have a synagogue membership, but spent their time professionally and socially in Jewish life would still be listed as a “none.”

In this new study on Jewish traditionalism, the authors of the article limit their scope to ritual without connecting it to all those other forms of Jewish life. Nevertheless, they show that even those who keep religious ritual, go to synagogue, or pray may still be among the “nones.” Those post-boomers whom they studied referred to themselves as not religious, even when performing mitzvot as a ritual.

These post-boomers reject religion and  “described themselves explicitly as not  religious  typically associated  religion with wisdom or  expectations that came  from  a divine source  manifested in legal formulations.” For them, “Religion,  they held,  existed  “out  there,”  in the  realm  of the  divine, the  faithful,  the  biblical,  the  legal,  institutional, and  prescribed.” Those post-boomers whom they studied tended to offer a stricter definition of religious than  those who identified as religious.

The important point of the study is they they are not weak forms of the 1950’s which are petering out but a full affirmation of the ritual reconfigured to work and be meaningful for the 21st century.

Both  the  1990  National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) and  the  2013 Pew report on American  Jews used  religion as a key indicator for determining whether a possible interviewee might  qualify for  inclusion in  the  study.   The  Pew Research  Center foregrounded distinctions between  “Jews by religion”  and  “Jews not  by religion,”

Despite  the  persistence of religion as a term  that  might  describe them,  on  the  whole American  Jews do  not  actively or regularly  participate  in  activities  or  institutions that  look  terribly  religious.  Just over one-quarter (26  percent) of American  Jews say that  religion is very important in their lives, whereas 56 percent of the general public makes that  claim.  American  Jews also attend religious  services with far less frequency than  do other Americans;  only 23 percent of Jews attend religious  services once  a month or more,  whereas  62 percent of Americans  in general claim to do so.

As incoming college  students, Jews were among  the  least  likely to score  strongly on  measures   of  both  religious  commitment and  religious  engagement,   scoring  in  the  single  digits,  alongside Buddhists,   Unitarian Universalists,  and  those  incoming students who  have  no  religious preference… Sociologist Nancy Ammerman found that Jews were also outliers in the use of theistic  and  spiritual  discourse”, in which only 30% used theistic language. The next lowest group was at 60%

The majority of those they interviewed described themselves as not religious. They avoided God language and public worship, but still performed ritual. Notice how much of their findings could also apply to those who do actually belong to synagogues, even to Orthodox synagogues.

Here are some of the vignettes they present:

Sam, who was involved  in  Jewish youth  groups through high  school,  explained, “I didn’t  really believe in what most people would call God,”  and  “I still very much  enjoy songs and prayers, the experience, and I still connect  to the  community, and  I still feel connected to friends  and  family, especially [those] who are  Jewish. That’s  a part  that  wouldn’t  be there without the religious  aspect, but to me, it doesn’t  feel religious  anymore.”

Jacoba  explained, “The religion itself means  very little to me. I wouldn’t  say that I’m a religious person at all; I would say that  I practice certain  observances,  but the  reason  I do them  is not  out  of belief  in God or belief  in halakhah [Jewish law], no. . . . It’s more  out  of being  part  of a community that’s very warm, and  being  part  of a family that  has some  positive attributes in itself, like having a day to rest and  hang  out with your family. I think it’s great.  And the  holidays can be lovely because  you spend  them  with family, so it’s really more  about  a family community for me, in terms of Judaism now.”

For Diana,  “Judaism  offers a lot of tools for us to discuss important things,  and  you were born into a family where this is the language that they have and these are the tools that you were born  into that you have that we can use to help talk about the universe, ethics, culture, identity, and let’s find out what this culture says about  those  things  and  how we can look at them,  and  then you can decide  what your place is in that and if you want to continue.

So how do these post-boomers explain what they do? They don’t. But they don’t like the expectations of established denominations.

Regardless  of whether our  interviewees  described themselves  as religious  or not  religious,  they all generally  rejected the  notion of a meaningful framework  emerging from their  understandings of faith, law, the  Bible, and  direct  divine intervention.

[T]hey referred to religion as something abstract,  judgmental, and irrational. They shared  a common sense that religion had limited authority over  their  lives, regardless of how  personally  meaningful they found it. To be not religious was to reject  the authority of rabbis and Bible, liturgy, Hebrew,  obligatory  laws, empty rituals, and unrealistic expectations of prayer and the like. Yet rejecting religion did not require them  to abandon Jewish rituals,  holidays,  or other practices that they called tradition.

Traditional Judaism

But they do like ritual. The performance of ritual is up. Once upon a time, when Marshall Sklare did his Lakeview studies of the 1940’s, he found that only 6% thought ritual was important to be a Jew. Now, ritual is seen as an important part of religion and for many the most meaningful part. This was already noted in Tom Beaudoin,Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (1998), that compared to the Boomers, post-boomers like ritual. The trends documented in the article help account for the success of methods of Chabad offering discrete ritual without asking for belief or commitment such as giving shumarah matzah to a non-kosher seder, or encouraging lighting candles without asking further question.

The point of the article is that their informants called what they do- “tradition” to describe  the  elements of Jewishness that  they incorporated into their lives. They themselves use that word “tradition.”

Michelle explained how she and her  fiancée  were “figuring  out”  how to incorporate Jewish ritual  in their  lives… [Lighting Shabbat  candles] would have meaning for me, I guess, not necessarily because it’s this religious thing. . . . We do want it. We are both into tradition and  sentiment and  family, and  that comes in hand with all this religious  stuff. You know what I’m saying? We’ll take it because  that’s the tradition, and we care more  about  it as a tradition, I guess.

Yair  offered  a similar  description of his observance of Yom  Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which for him included fasting but not attending synagogue.  “I don’t fast on Yom Kippur because of religious reasons  . . . I view it as a tradition.” With perfect  ambiguity.

Generational Connection

The  generational-connection trope  allowed  interviewees  to connect their  actions  and  beliefs to a past and to an envisioned future, as in the case of Zuckerberg above.

Sarah,   “Religion  is not  a way I connect to Judaism,  but  tradition is. So it’s the  sense of pride  for me to do things  that  are part  of tradition that has been  happening for generations. I feel like they’re  part  of carrying that  on to the  next  generation.”

I just  don’t  give any  thoughts to  things  like  biblical  stories,  [or] the [dietary] laws of kashrut. . . . I don’t  want to know what [Hebrew prayers] mean.  I hate  when  we translate them  into  English  ’cause  I don’t  like talking about  the “Almighty God” and all of that. But I really like lighting candles.  I really like celebrating Jewish holidays. I like those traditions. I like the idea that  people all over the world, for thousands of years, have done  these  traditions, that’s what they mean  to me. They don’t  mean  to me like whatever they’re supposed to mean  about  God.

Brian shared  one of the most illustrative stories of someone whose commitment to tradition rests not on religion but on his connection to the future.

To give you an  example, my girlfriend’s  not  Jewish. The  other day for Hanukkah, I decided to light the  candles.  She asked me, “Why are you lighting  the  candles?”  I said, “Well, it’s Hanukkah.” She’s like, “I know it’s Hanukkah, but you’re not really religious.” I said, “I want to do it for myself. I just want to know that I know the tradition, the ritual.  I want to do it for myself just to reinforce it.” I’m not  doing  it because  I want to make  sure that  God is listening,  that  He knows that  I care. I’m doing  it because  I want to be able to tell my kids, “This is how you light the candles on Hanukkah.” I guess that’s kind of how I look at it.

Despite the good-natured teasing of his girlfriend, Brian lit Hanukkah candles with all of the religious overtones and content intact, provided… that  he made  sense of his performance as tradition and  did not take the formulaic blessing or its theological content to heart.

Getting Together

Besides tradition, they also identified ritual with contemporary social and  familial  networks.

For Elizabeth,  the ritual  of a Friday night  dinner proved  especially appealing. Friday night  marks  the  onset  of the  Jewish Sabbath,  and Elizabeth  approached the  ceremonial dinner as an  opportunity for socializing and education but not for religion.

For us [her and  her  husband], a lot of it is educating our  friends,  both Jewish friends and our non-Jewish friends.  We are sort of that couple  that always has like people over for like Shabbat  dinners and  holidays,  and like I said, Jewish and  non-Jewish. It’s not  meant to be like an outreach kind of thing or try to make people religious because we’re not religious. It’s just like a way to sort of make  everybody stop for a second  and  put down their  phones and  like have a proper dinner and  have like proper conversation.

Penelope and  Sally pointed to their  affinity for synagogues  as important sites for connecting to Jewishness, though not necessarily  with religion. Both  women  described themselves  as not religious,  yet both  explained that they seek out synagogues  and  their communities when  traveling  for work. Penelope enjoys the  “cultural traditions” of Jewish life, “but  not  necessary  the  organized religion aspects of it.” Still, “when I go to places where I don’t  know anyone,” she said, “I still go to the Jewish community. That’s my way of meeting people.” Likewise, Sally, who used to travel for work a great deal, made a habit of going to synagogue  on Saturday mornings no matter where she  was.

I did continue to go to synagogue  in every city. I found some  beautiful temples. I still am close to people I met for one Shabbat  in the middle of the  country.  It really kept  me grounded. I was really grateful  for it. Just the feeling  of prayer,  not religious. . . . Not being  religious  but a celebration  with food  and  with music…

Penelope and  Sally approached synagogues  as centers for socialization,  for  grounding, and  for  finding   community while  away from home.  The  traditional elements and  established space  and  time  of synagogue  practice helped them  locate  Jewish connections in unfamiliar places.

Not Nones

The article argues that these younger Jews might be considered as religious “nones,” or excluded from demographic of Jewish life since they claim to be not religious, not synagogue members, and not theists. These Jews claim an affinity for religious tradition, but avoid religion as they define it. This opens up the bigger question of the very possibility of a Jewish “none.” The idea of faith and synagogue membership as defining belonging is very Protestant, but does not work for Jews (as well as Muslims, and Hindus). The article cites those who seek to differentiate Judaism from Protestant categories, but without the broader historical sense of historians or global sociologists who would show how much of this would apply in other ritual based faiths.

The study offers as a conclusion.

First, the  preference for the  language of tradition suggests that the  sociological  distinction between  Jews by religion and  Jews of no religion emphasized in studies  like the  1990 NJPS and  the  2013 Pew report creates  a sharp  distinction between  groups  that  are,  in reality,  more  fluid.

This argument against  the  use of religion as a meaningful way to understand distinctions among  American  Jews should  not  be taken as a case for the rise of secularism.  What appealed to so many of our interviewees  was not  an explicitly or independently secular  realm  of Jewish life but  a way of making  Jewish life enjoyable  and  meaningful. Casting such occasions  as traditional instead  of religious  allowed our interviewees to activate those associations  while disregarding any theological overtones or  moral  finger-wagging.

Similarly, their  almost total avoidance  of the term  ethnicity suggested  that  it had  even less significance  in their  conceptualization of Jewishness, insofar as they did not offer it as a meaningful or useful term  to describe  their  Jewishness.

Eisen & Cohen understands this quality of tradition to be problematic because it is a breakdown from the 1950’s-1960’s..  Eisen framing  it in between  “the way of being Jewish as determined by God and by age- old  authorities” and  that  epitomized by more  “fragmentary, variable,  and  individualized” engagements.”

Yet this study shows that despite Eisen’s imagined future, the tenacity  of tradition that  holds  a kind  of authority, albeit one  rather distant  from  the  external and  eternal kind  that  he seems to  both  imagine  and  prefer.

For post-boomers, tradition may offer  a way of conceptualizing “the  only authentic response to the past,” but it should  not be mistaken  for a weak version of a strong central  Jewish religious  authority. Instead, it should  be understood as a mechanism for retaining connections to Jews and  Jewishness over time, within which change is a reasonable expectation and adherence is flexible.

Our  interviewees  revealed  no  such  deal  and  expressed no  such tension. They  seemed  largely uninterested in “elites of the  center” and were quite willing to engage  with the authority of tradition, even when  it did  not  make  immediate sense  to  them…  The  inconsistencies that  so bothered Eisen,… did  not  seem  to plague  our interviewees, who were well aware of the contradictions and tensions inherent in almost any commitment—ideological, interpersonal, cultural,  or otherwise.  Tradition, in their  view, offers a way to accept  an authority that one already understands has no power to enforce itself.

Paradoxically, as Jews beyond ethnicity, ritual allow them to open up Judiasm beyond the tight bonds of organized religion. For example, Zuckerberg’s Shabbat candles, challah, and kiddish with his daughter and wife.

Our  interviewees, many of whom have non-Jewish parents, peers,  and  partners, offer no  such  connection between  the  traditions that  they embrace and their sense of a normative, ethnonational identity. Instead, tradition affords  a way of opening up the  exclusivity of ethnicity  and  easing the  limitations of religious  obligation. Rather  than  reinforcing a boundary, tradition offers a kind of cultural resource that  could  be shared  with everyone  in their  social circles, Jewish or not. Tradition offers  all  of  the  positive  valences—occasions  for  gathering, and structures for  socializing  that  are  often  associated  with religion— without  any of its prescriptive obligations or its limitations on who can participate. It is neither as commanding as their  notion of religion nor  as exclusive as associations  with ethnicity.

One final point, the authors note that this is not the traditionalism of Israeli mesorati who have a  ‘thick’ sense of ethno-national (Jewish)  identification.” Here they can be non-traditional and without the ethno-national identity.

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