Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously argued that the Jewish people can be characterized in two different, perhaps contrasting, ways – as “community of fate” (not to be confused with communities of faith) and as a “community of destiny.” Soloveitchik’s argument was, of course, philosophical and theological. We would like to take the “community of fate” concept and employ it in a more sociological framework. According to this understanding being Jewish is a “given” – something that is imposed upon you or about which you have no choice – like skin color. One accepts that one is Jewish as part of the “natural order” and the taken for granted state of affairs. A central part of this conception is that one as a Jew naturally belongs to a community of similar individuals, and these communities are important for self-defense and advancing group interests (which are also the interests of the individual). This model of Jewish identity is, of course, the received, historical format of Jewish identity. Until modern times, in both Christian and Muslim lands, Jews formed corporate communities with distinct rights and obligations vis-a-vis both the non-Jewish state and society. Membership in a Jewish community was involuntary; one was born into it. Until modern times, the only way one could exit the community was by conversion, either to Christianity or to Islam.

Though from a formal point of view, separate corporate communities were abolished with the advent of the modern nation state, the Emancipation (1791 in France), the accession of Jews to modern national citizenship, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere, the habits of thought and sentiment that accompanied the traditional format continued, in many cases, for decades and even centuries. Thus, in America, especially with the wave of East European immigration starting in 1880, Jews continued (along with other white European immigrant ethnic groups) to congregate in distinctive neighborhoods and overwhelmingly to marry each other, despite a precipitous fall off in religious behavior, especially among the second generation. They also joined synagogues. Even though in America, being Jewish is legitimately only a religious identity, synagogue membership then, and largely today, expresses ethnic belonging. Thus, though American Jews are formally emancipated and fully-fledged citizens, they tended to think of themselves as a separate, given primordial group whose social existence had corporate characteristics, until the mid-20th century.

This, we suggest, was reflected in the method of synagogue funding. Originally, American synagogues sold pews in order to fund themselves, an arrangement appropriated from Protestant churches. However, as this method began to be criticized – both in church and Jewish circles – synagogues turned to raising dues. It appears this method was acceptable because individual East European Jews identified paying synagogue dues with paying the communal taxes they, or their parents and grandparents had paid in Europe. Synagogue membership became the prime vehicle and expression of one’s Jewish communal identity. As Steven M. Cohen and Lauren Blitzer argued in the 2008 paper, “Belonging without Believing,”39 Jews belong to religious organizations (synagogues) to a degree that is reminiscent of Christian evangelicals, yet they ascribe less to religious beliefs than non-Jewish atheists. In sum, being Jewish was mainly a matter of Jewish communal belonging and entailed a sense of mutual responsibility for all Jews and endogamy. Since synagogues divided themselves along denominational lines (as did the Protestant churches), one’s individual Jewish identity had a “flavor,” it was either Reform or Conservative or Orthodox.

From the mid-20th century, and especially in the last third of that century, this format of Jewish identity began to change. As the result of World War II and the GI Bill (Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944) separate white ethnic identities began to erode and disappear. Americans of Polish, Italian, Jewish and other ethnic ancestries became part of the white majority. Together with this, interfaith and interethnic marriages started to become the norm, even the cultural ideal. Thus, starting in the 1970s, Jewish intermarriage rates began to shoot up. Together with all this, Jewish identity as belonging to a primordial, given community of fate started to weaken. Instead, Judaism became one of the myriad ways that individual Jewish Americans started to add or realize fulfillment and meaning in their lives. Jewish prayer, study, meditation, activism etc. became one of the countless meaning-giving activities Americans participate in voluntarily and consume. In other words, Jewish identity in America began to move from a primordial, communal identity to an individualist consumer one.40 This process in regard to (white) ethnic identity in general was summarized by Herbert Gans in his landmark article on Symbolic Ethnicity, which he described as a way of expressing ethnic identity that is “easy and intermittent,” “voluntary,” and “diverse and individualistic,” and which does not require “arduous or time-consuming commitment” or “demand active membership” in an organization or community.41

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