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November 26, 2014 / 4 Kislev, 5775
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The State of the Jew According to Pew

Very few middle aged and older people consider themselves ultra-orthodox. It’s a youth movement.
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The last thing for now are the numbers on belief in God. 96% of ultra-orthodox Jews are certain that there is a God. Certain. That’s a very high number. I also wonder how they can all be so certain. The modern orthodox number is 77%. Also a very high number for certainty. 8% of ultra-orthodox Jews believe but are less certain and 19% of modern orthodox Jews fit that description. I think that both of those numbers are really higher. Most people don’t think about belief in God. They just do it. But the question wasn’t simply about belief. The question measured the certainty of the believer. I am skeptical that someone can be certain of something without being able to make a compelling argument in favor of that certainty. How many of us can make that argument? If we can’t, can we be certain? (Stay tuned for an essay on this issue sometime soon.)

Perhaps most interesting numbers in this section are the numbers of people who “do not believe.” Here the number for ultra-orthodox is 1% while it is 3% for modern orthodox. Practicing Judaism under a state of disbelief s not an easy proposition. If one doesn’t think the mitzvos and traditions have Divine meaning then they are bound to become a huge burden. However, orthopraxy – practicing Judaism despite disbelief is a growing trend. I wonder what these numbers will look like in a few years. It’s possible that more people who do not believe in God will feel comfortable in orthodox Judaism and they will grow as a public group. But it’s also possible that a rise in those numbers will inspire a thorough vetting of all orthodox Jews which would force all orthoprax Jews into a closet or out of orthodox Judaism altogether.

There are plenty of other interesting numbers to discuss. (97% of ultra-orthodox Jews have all or mostly Jewish friends. That’s insularity! How about only 57% of orthodox Jews are Republicans? And the support for Israel numbers need addressing as well.) Perhaps I will revisit the study and more of its social commentary in a future post. For now, these are the three things that jumped out at me.

Note: The orthodox people surveyed were all from Brooklyn, Monsey, and Lakewood. I think this might be significant.

Link: Pew Research

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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.


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4 Responses to “The State of the Jew According to Pew”

  1. Rabbi Fink
    I applaud your notion that Orthodox Jews must support non orthodox streams. It is rather pragmatic and unexpected from what I have come to expect from factions within our community. If we can encourage such support it would go a long way to bridge our communities. We are indeed one people and judging by the study’s result, we better start recognizing it quick.
    As to your point of Othopraxy – cute, by the way – you suggest that if that movement grows, orthodoxy may begin some kinds of witch hunt to identify them and “vet” people for true orthodoxy, and it would force orthopraxists into the closet. I would argue that they are already in closets. If they were not, they would not be counted among their Orthodox neighbors and community.
    That said, the study seems to have missed a segment of a population. You may define them as Orthopraxists, but indeed they are believers. There is a growing number of people who do not see Conservative Judaism or Reform (not reconstructionist, ethical cultural, etc,. either) as suitable to them. The people who grew up in religious homes, went to yeshiva, studied and understand, but do not have the ability or desire to practice every “restriction” for arguments sake. They daven in Orthodox shuls, keep kosher, send their kids to Jewish schools, and believe in God and Torah, but may not be so strict on the 39 malachot in the privacy of their homes.
    These people are Jewish, proud, Zionists, involved, but cut corners, not because they do not believe, but because they just don’t want to. It may be something simple as their wives wear “beg’ed Ish” (pants) and may not cover their hair. They may watch the ballgame after shul in their basements, or eat ice cream on a beach that may not have a certification label.
    I grew up in t he Bialystoker shul. My zaidy was the president in the sixties and seventies, and he set his shabbos clock to turn on the ballgame Saturday afternoons. My wife and I owned the bialy store on Grand Street until a month ago and we hired a rabbi and certified it kosher. Yet, growing up, “everyone” ate there (before we owned it) because it was flour, water, yeast, onions and salt. No one said it was treif – it just wasn’t “kosher”.
    In the fifties and sixties we ate Kraft cheese because rennet was considered a chemical by product and not a chunk of meat from an animal. And I have an actual letter that my wife’s grandfather wrote to Sholom Klass in the early seventies asking his advice on the new phenomenon of glatt kosher. Shalom Klass wrote back – and I have it – saying it was an unnecessary restriction and expense and “only a passing” phase for Judaism. How wrong he was. If we can embrace the harder and more expensive, we certainly did.
    These people today may feel religion has taken a sharp right turn to an uncomfortable and even unsettling point. The study should unsettle us all as it shows that those who stay Jewish longer are those more associated with it regularly – friends, neighborhood, school, etc.
    What does that mean? Being a practicing Jew has become expensive. Schools, kashrut, neighborhoods , etc. To pay for it all we had to be enlightened, find work and become business leaders. That enlightenment has in a way influenced today’s youth who never saw the struggle but now see a burden.
    Didn’t we do this to ourselves?

  2. Rabbi Fink
    I applaud your notion that Orthodox Jews must support non orthodox streams. It is rather pragmatic and unexpected from what I have come to expect from factions within our community. If we can encourage such support it would go a long way to bridge our communities. We are indeed one people and judging by the study’s result, we better start recognizing it quick.
    As to your point of Othopraxy – cute, by the way – you suggest that if that movement grows, orthodoxy may begin some kinds of witch hunt to identify them and “vet” people for true orthodoxy, and it would force orthopraxists into the closet. I would argue that they are already in closets. If they were not, they would not be counted among their Orthodox neighbors and community.
    That said, the study seems to have missed a segment of a population. You may define them as Orthopraxists, but indeed they are believers. There is a growing number of people who do not see Conservative Judaism or Reform (not reconstructionist, ethical cultural, etc,. either) as suitable to them. The people who grew up in religious homes, went to yeshiva, studied and understand, but do not have the ability or desire to practice every “restriction” for arguments sake. They daven in Orthodox shuls, keep kosher, send their kids to Jewish schools, and believe in God and Torah, but may not be so strict on the 39 malachot in the privacy of their homes.
    These people are Jewish, proud, Zionists, involved, but cut corners, not because they do not believe, but because they just don’t want to. It may be something simple as their wives wear “beg’ed Ish” (pants) and may not cover their hair. They may watch the ballgame after shul in their basements, or eat ice cream on a beach that may not have a certification label.
    I grew up in t he Bialystoker shul. My zaidy was the president in the sixties and seventies, and he set his shabbos clock to turn on the ballgame Saturday afternoons. My wife and I owned the bialy store on Grand Street until a month ago and we hired a rabbi and certified it kosher. Yet, growing up, “everyone” ate there (before we owned it) because it was flour, water, yeast, onions and salt. No one said it was treif – it just wasn’t “kosher”.
    In the fifties and sixties we ate Kraft cheese because rennet was considered a chemical by product and not a chunk of meat from an animal. And I have an actual letter that my wife’s grandfather wrote to Sholom Klass in the early seventies asking his advice on the new phenomenon of glatt kosher. Shalom Klass wrote back – and I have it – saying it was an unnecessary restriction and expense and “only a passing” phase for Judaism. How wrong he was. If we can embrace the harder and more expensive, we certainly did.
    These people today may feel religion has taken a sharp right turn to an uncomfortable and even unsettling point. The study should unsettle us all as it shows that those who stay Jewish longer are those more associated with it regularly – friends, neighborhood, school, etc.
    What does that mean? Being a practicing Jew has become expensive. Schools, kashrut, neighborhoods , etc. To pay for it all we had to be enlightened, find work and become business leaders. That enlightenment has in a way influenced today’s youth who never saw the struggle but now see a burden.
    Didn’t we do this to ourselves?

  3. Sadly for non orthodox streams it would appear that there is no Judaism without Jewish law and tradition. It is clear that as young kids are born furthet from the source of jewish light, the less they affiliate. Whether or not you consider kashrut or shabbat to be archaic is less important than the facts that shoq without them we lose what it means to be who we are.

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