There are more Lutherans (5.5 million) in Tanzania than there are Jews (5.4 million) in the United States. There are more Southern Baptists in the United States than there are Jews in the whole world.
While religions are by no means to be valued on the basis of numbers, the loss of believers, adherents, participants and congregants in a faith community as large as Judaism’s is felt by those who remain in the “core.”

Jews in that “core” and non-Jews alike were startled by poll data – the most massive in a dozen years – from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project’s findings released last month.

Statistics in this case are summarized and analyzed in the references for which we provide links available here, here, here, here and here.

Many aspects of Jewish life survive. We learn that Jews value humor more than most; that those who remember that they are Jewish take pride in their identity as Jews; that they care much about Israel but much less about synagogue life in the United States; that they consider recall of the Holocaust as an important element in Jewish consciousness.

However, the polls also have to be disturbing to those who have classic views of the meaning of Judaism in the story of ancient tribes, the heritage of corporate life in the synagogue, and the heavy accent on communal worship, study and activity.

The Orthodox and more traditional folk in conservative Jewish settings value community very much.

At an evangelical conference recently I heard, as one so regularly does, the question of some schools of Christianity, “Have you found Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?”

Jews would have trouble with “finding” and “personal” before stumbling over the part about Jesus as Savior.

But what happens when Jews lack the pressure of anti-Semitism to bind and motivate them? How does marriage by Jews with non-Jews, which occurs with stunning regularity (according to the Pew Research), change things?

What happens as synagogues empty or at least go neglected? When the “millennials” leave behind the older stalwarts, who make up the core of “core Judaism” in America, and do not provide new generations of participants, then what?

The polls shows that Jews are still concerned with ethical action; they are more involved in political life than are most religionists; they care about historic Judaism and some of them retell the stories of Jews in public life – from back when anti-Semitism gave them extra motives to cohere.

Non-Jews may be startled to read that a large percentage of citizens of Jewish heritage do not see Judaism as a faith at all.

They respond to it as culture and in memory. As one sees concern over questions of the sustainability of story and activity among Catholics and many kinds of Protestantism, it is time to ask about Judaism as only a cultural feature of life today, not of “religion.”

The Pew findings do not spell the end of American Judaism, but they do point to the advance of secularity in one more prominent population sector. What is the future of faith itself in our emerging world?

Many of us who have close-up views of Jewish life, not only during the High Holy days, get many glimpses of vital, sacrificial movements, causes, publications and dedicated citizens.

It is hard to picture the future of religion in America or the future of Judaism here without the pulsing presence of this community as a religious community. 

The Pew findings may motivate some Jews to reimagine the scene.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

Share This