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2016 Annual Assessment

“What is Judaism?” is the underlying question for those seeking to explain what “Jewishness” means to a variety of Jews from different backgrounds and armed with different beliefs. In this chapter it is not our ambition to definitively answer such a complex and loaded question. Rather, our goal is to shed some light on what some Jews say about the meaning of Judaism and their definition of it.1 This chapter is a section from JPPI’s report on the 2016 World Jewish Structured Dialogue that considered: Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity.

This is the third year JPPI has conducted a global Dialogue process. Last year (2015), the topic was “Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict.”2 The year before (2014) focused on Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State.3 In both cases, JPPI’s concluding reports were recognized as significant achievements in advancing the Israel-Diaspora discourse.4 This chapter, taken from the Dialogue’s final report to the communities, is based on research carried out by JPPI during the Dialogue, and also on JPPI’s  research carried out for its Pluralism Index, which included a large survey of Israeli Jews. In both the Dialogue survey and JPPI’s Pluralism in Israel survey we asked respondents to rank the importance of four definitions that could explain what Judaism means to them. The exact question in the Dialogue survey was: “To what extent is each of the following aspects of Judaism a primary component of Jewishness: Religion; Culture; Genealogy; and Nationality\Peoplehood? (1 = “not at all” a primary component of Jewishness, and 5 = “very much so” a primary component of Jewishness.)5

A word of caution: Because when we asked about “religion” or “culture,” we did not define the terms but rather relied on the personal meaning each participant attaches to these terms, we must take into account the subjectivity involved in understanding terms such as “nationality,” “religion” and “culture.”

That said, we still believe that how Dialogue participants ranked these four terms is telling: “culture” and “nationality\peoplehood” ranked highest. The more traditional definitions – religion and genealogy – lagged behind. So a first impression clearly points to the possibility that Jews today feel more comfortable with definitions of their Jewishness that are compatible with non-religious, non-traditional lives.6 And this is the case, as a Dialogue participant in Philadelphia noted, even when the criteria of belonging to Judaism they follow is religious in nature: “We are using religious definitions to be a part of a nation of a people. Yet many are part of this people, who have no feeling of religion.”7

Similar examinations of Jewish ranking of these categories are available to us in studies of Israeli and North American Jews, the two communities that together constitute the vast majority of Jews.8 JPPI’s Pluralism in Israel survey of early 2016 included a question very similar to one of the Dialogue survey questions.9 The two Pew Research Center studies of Israel (2016) and of US Jews (2013) included a different question on the same topic.10

What we clearly see in all these reports is that:

  1. Nationality is by far the most important identity component to Jewish Israelis.
    Eighty-one percent ranked Le’om (nationality) as being either “highly significant” or “somewhat significant” (56 and 25 percent respectively); Culture ranked second (76 percent, 42 and 34 percent respectively); Religion was ranked third (68 percent, 45 and 23 respectively); and Motza (ancestry\genealogy) was ranked last (42 percent, 19 and 23 percent respectively).
  2. Religion is not the main component of Judaism: A minority of both Jewish Americans and Israelis consider religion to be the main component of Jewishness. The two Pew studies showed that only 22 percent of Israeli Jews regard Judaism mainly as a religion; the number drops to 15 percent for Jewish Americans. An attempt to interpret Judaism solely as a religion (to make it compatible with modern realities in which Diaspora Jews live) would not resonate with the current generation of Jews.
  3. Orthodox put more emphasis on religion: Orthodox respondents thought religion to be the main feature of Jewishness, ranking it higher than the other identity components.11 This is seen in the Pew studies, and also in JPPI’s Pluralism in Israel survey in which “totally secular” Israeli Jews rated Religion 2.15 (on a 1-4 scale of importance); 3.05 for “secular somewhat traditional.” For religious Israeli Jews Religion rated a 3.75 by National Religious (Dati-Leumi) respondents, and 3.88 by Haredi respondents).

It is important to mention that “totally secular” Israeli Jews tended to rank all options lower than other Jews overall, both in Israel and elsewhere. “Totally secular” Israeli Jews constitute approximately a third of Israel’s total Jewish population – 32 percent according to JPPI’s Pluralism in Israel survey. This is probably due to a generally lower enthusiasm about Judaism on the part of this group.

Pew Surveys: Percent of Jews in U.S. and in Israel who say being Jewish, to them

personally,
is mainly a matter of…

Religion

Ancestry/Culture

Both

U.S. Jews

15%

62%

23%

Orthodox

46%

15%

38%

Non-Orthodox

11%

68%

21%

Religion

Nationality/Culture

Both

Israeli Jews

22%

55%

23%

Orthodox

60%

10%

30%

Non-Orthodox

11%

68%

20%

JPPI’s 2016 Dialogue Survey (U.S. participants): To what extent is each of

the following aspects of Judaism a primary component of Jewishness? Mean response on a scale of 1-4, 1 = not at all important, 4 = very

important:

Religion

Nationality/Peoplehood

Culture

Genealogy

U.S. Jews

3.07

3.2

3.06

2.8

Orthodox

3.32

2.9

2.51

3.32

Non-Orthodox

3.02

3.26

3.13

2.71

JPPI’s 2016 Pluralism in Israel survey: To what extent is each of the following aspects of Judaism a primary

component of Jewishness? Mean response on a scale of 1-4:

Religion

Nationality

Culture

Ethnicity

Israeli Jews

2.99

3.32

3.12

2.99

Dati/Haredi

3.72

3.56

2.95

2.27

Secular/Masorti

2.74

3.24

3.18

2.30



In addition to the relative value of four main components of Judaism, JPPI asked all Dialogue participants to identify the actions they consider “essential for being Jewish.” Five actions were offered in broad terms without elaboration. That is to say, participants were not asked about particular deeds that often appear in surveys, such as “lighting Shabbat candles” or “attending services” or “going to a Jewish day school.” They were, instead, asked to rank five broad fields of Jewish expression:

  1. Keeping the laws of the Torah
  2. Working to better the world
  3. Studying Jewish texts, history, and culture
  4. Taking care of other Jews and Israel
  5. Being a part of a Jewishly inspired group

In ranking these five fields of activity, Dialogue participants gave us another layer with which to understand what Jewishness means to them. Here is how they ranked these fields and how their ranking of the five fields in this question corresponds with their ranking of the four components of Judaism in the earlier question:


The comparatively low ranking of “keeping the laws of the Torah”12 (except for the Orthodox) clearly corresponds with the tendency of Jews to consider the “religious” component of Judaism as less important than other components. Interestingly, not even among the Orthodox was “keeping the laws of the Torah” overwhelmingly predominant as an essential to being Jewish.13 In fact, Orthodox respondents more highly rated “studying Jewish texts.” And their ranking of “taking care of other Jews” was even higher; more than 40 percent of them gave it the highest possible ranking.

The relatively high ranking of “taking care of other Jews and Israel” should not come as a surprise: if Jews, as we have seen, value “nationality\peoplehood” more than “religion” (and Israeli Jews value it more than any other component of Judaism), then it follows that they would rank “taking care of Jews” above “keeping the laws of the Torah.” A Dialogue participant in Pittsburgh put it this way: “The Jews are first and foremost a people and they need to take care of whom they consider other members of the people, and this does not mean that their worry for the rest of the world is less valued. You can be a caring person, a loving person, and still care for your family more than you care for other people.”14

Caring for other people – other than Jews – is indeed important for many Jews. “Working to better the world” was the second most important Jewish activity for Dialogue participants. It was somewhat more important for Diaspora Jews than to Israelis (for Brazilians it was the most important),15 as other surveys, including Pew’s two surveys of Jews in the United States and Israel, have arguably shown.

According to Pew: “U.S. Jews are more likely than Israeli Jews to say leading an ethical and moral life is essential to their Jewish identity (69 vs. 47 percent); the same is true of working for justice and equality (56 vs. 27 percent).”16 Although not an exact match to JPPI’s phraseology “working to better the world,” all three correspond with the notion of Tikkun Olam familiar to most Jews. That in JPPI’s Dialogue survey “caring for other Jews and Israel” tops Tikkun Olam, even among most non-Israeli Jews, while the Pew survey shows that North-American Jews prioritize “leading a moral life” and “working for justice” over “caring about Israel” is due to both survey language differences (caring for Jews vs. specific focus on Israel) and the differences in sample composition. Dialogue participants are much more likely to give high priority to Israel than the “average” Jew polled by Pew.17

At least for some of the Dialogue participants there was hardly any tension between the tribal notion of caring-for-Jews and the more universal caring-for-the-world notions. Participants in several Dialogue sessions explicitly expressed a desire for partnership between all Jews to “better the world” – as a participant in Washington put it: “What if instead of looking for artificial ways for connection we connect by doing Tikkun Olam together as a group?”18 So for these participants what might be seen as a challenge becomes, in fact, an opportunity.

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