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Do Statistics Tell The Real Story? Reflections on U.S. Jewry

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Similarly, a Jew who drives to an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat might very well describe himself as Modern Orthodox, but so might a Jew who attends synagogue morning and evening daily and studies Daf Yomi but who considers himself a religious Zionist and attended a secular university.

This confusion of categories can vitiate, or at least call into question, many if not most of the conclusions of the survey.

I can report from my own experience that at a conference in which one of the principal researchers explained the results of the survey, I was seated next to another senior Orthodox Union professional. At one point, we found ourselves asking each other how we would identify ourselves if asked to which category we belonged. Both of us wear dark suits, white shirts, and black hats. Both of us devote many hours a day to serious Torah study and are very stringent about the meat we eat and the milk we drink. But we both believe in the religious significance of the state of Israel, we both have advanced secular degrees, and he, at least, is clean-shaven. Are we Modern or are we Ultra?

He laughed when I told him a reporter once asked me this very question, and when I did not answer, decided to describe me in the article she wrote as “Modern Ultra-Orthodox.”

* * * * *

I also find the survey objectionable on theological grounds and questionable as a tool to better understand human behavior in all of its complexity.

My theological objections first became clear to me when I read an article on the Torah Musings blog written by my dear friend and respected colleague Rabbi Basil Herring.

The article, “The Pew, the Few, and the Many: Rav Soloveitchik on Jewish Numbers,” begins with Rabbi Herring’s translation of a lecture delivered in Yiddish by the Rav in the 1950s. The Rav’s theme can be summarized with these two quotations from his lecture: “God chose us precisely because we were the smallest nation” and “The more there is a numerical strength, the more there is a danger of distortion and falsehood.”

The success of our people depends upon its spirituality, not upon measures of quantity. As Rabbi Herring puts it, “the very emphasis on numbers and size is fundamentally un-Jewish, fully reflect[ing] the Bible’s own antipathy toward census taking.”

We Orthodox Jews dare not take our growth in numbers as evidence of the correctness of our cause or as an excuse for avoiding self-criticism and constructive introspection.

* * * * *

Finally, the survey did not sit well with me because of a perspective on social-science research I learned when I was a graduate student in psychology many years ago. Gordon Allport, a psychological theorist who was popular then, distinguished between two approaches in researching human behavior: nomothetic versus idiographic. Simply put, the former approach studies human beings in terms of statistics. The latter approach attempts to study human beings in terms of their unique individuality.

When we lump Jews into categories, whether those categories are denomination, age, cultural background, or geographic locale, we lose the opportunity to understand the humanity of each and every Jew. We become blind to the uniqueness, complexity, and paradoxes of his or her life.

To illustrate this, I point to some of the findings of the survey that are nothing less than bizarre. For example, the study found that 1 percent of Ultra-Orthodox Jews had a Christmas tree last year and that 4 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews had one. Even more puzzling is the finding that 15 percent of each Orthodox group attends non-Jewish religious services at least a few times a year. I am sure we all find these statistics hard to believe.

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