An article in the New York Times (“Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews”, Laurie Goodstein, October 1, 2013) reported that religious observance in American Jews is declining at a precipitous rate. Regardless of how one defines a Jew, the numbers are plummeting. Fully one third of Jews identify themselves as Jewish on the basis of ancestry rather than religious practice and two thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.
Judaism, like Christianity, is not a monolithic movement. Rather it is divided into roughly three main groups: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, although there are a few other sub groupings. It turns out that both the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism are in decline while Orthodox Jews, the smallest of the three main branches, is the only one of the three to register growth.
This finding, as reported by the respected Pew Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, somewhat parallels the trends in the American Protestant Church, too. The mainline churches, which are the more moderate and even liberal congregations (United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, etc.) have been losing members for decades, some at alarming rates, while the more conservative and independent congregations in this country continue to show membership increases. The general American public, like Judaism, shows growing numbers of persons with “no religion.”
Is this a natural progression? Is a cooling of ardor simply inescapable? Is this a religious manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics whereby in the exchange of energy heat inevitable dissipates over time?
The book of Daniel describes a setting where the Jews, in captivity, were forced to assimilate into the culture of their captors, a setting that Jews have faced over the centuries in many nations and settings. It is a temptation for almost all religious groups; the United States, with its many freedoms seductively beckons every religious grouping to gravitate towards less faithfulness.
Christianity, barely breathing in Western Europe and struggling to remain vital in parts of this nation, is growing explosively in Africa. I do not know whether such trends are comparable for Judaism, which has not traditionally been an evangelical religion. Even in Israel the percentages of Jews who are faithful practitioners of their religious habits are declining.
Some of the findings of this survey: Older Jews are more religiously observant than younger Jews, the numbers of Jews who are marrying outside Judaism is on the rise, only 26 percent of Jews says religion is very important in their life compared with 56 percent of the general public; 23 percent of Jews live in the South. In terms of politics, Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but trends in Judaism mirror our country in that Orthodox Jews, the most conservative branch, tend to vote Republican.
Finally, even though 22 percent of American Jews identify as having no religion, American Jews are overwhelmingly proud to be Jewish.
Creede Hinshaw is a retired minister.