SEPTEMBER 15, 2003
Martin E. Marty
Go to www.jewishdatabank.org to consult the National Jewish Population's latest, much-publicized survey and you will have access to the same data Sightings has. The United Jewish Communities people, who count many Jewish federations under their umbrella, made the decennial assessment. The 1990 survey revealed trends that surprised and shocked Jews and non-Jews alike; the 2000 measuring, since it reports only moderate change, evokes less consternation, but the trends remain clear. Each time the pollsters measure there are: fewer Jews (down five percent in a decade); older Jews (by five years for a current average of 42); fewer practicing where national population growth spurts most (the 22 percent of all American Jews who live in the Western U.S. are most relaxed about their Judaism); more marrying later and having fewer children; more "intermarrying" -- up four percent to 47 percent. Where Jews marry non-Jews, only one-third bring up their children as Jews, while 96 percent of Jewish couples raise their children Jewish. And Jews remain denominationalized: four out of ten belong to Reform congregations, one out of three adheres to Conservatism, and one in five observes within Orthodoxy.
There has to be some good news for Jews in such a survey, and there is. While most Orthodox children were long sent to yeshivas, more non-Orthodox are patronizing Jewish day schools -- though after-school and weekend-schooling numbers are declining. Clearly, the best news is that those who identify with Judaism and Jewish institutions evidently care more about being Jewish than before. The big question: can this caring be passed on to thinning generations?
One problem in all the measuring is: who is a Jew? The religious and ethnic tie is stronger in Judaism than in most other groups, so the definition has to be a bit fuzzy, but the Survey people have found ways to use the same standard decade by decade, so comparisons are valid across time.
Sightings pays attention to religion in public life, which means that Jews loom large in all scoping of the religious scene. Draw a pie-chart to graph American preferences and allegiances and Jews show up in only a sliver, slightly over two percent of the total. I like to remind those who do not understand Jewish concern with numerical decline -- never mind the decline in theology, tradition, history, community, sentiment, and affection -- that there are fewer Jews in the whole world than there are Southern Baptists in the U.S. alone.
Non-Jews, who care intrinsically about Jews and Judaism, also have extrinsic reasons to be concerned about loss of numbers, identity, meaning, and purpose in the Jewish community. Civic-mindedness and philanthropy directed to general-public causes is high: check the membership of boards of and donors to your art museum, symphony, opera, human welfare organizations, higher academies, and more, and you will see how influential beyond numbers Jews are. (A Lutheran, I like to point out that there are far more Lutherans than Jews in the U.S. If you are not Lutheran or close to a Lutheran: name one!)
Again, the good news: Jews who care about Judaism, care more.
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by Thomas J. Curry, a colonial historian and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The essay is entitled "Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement."
Our modern problem arises from the fact that government -- the Supreme Court especially -- has determined that the free exercise of religion is something guaranteed by government, that courts are to define and protect. As a result, understanding of the First Amendment is in utter disarray. Because judges assume themselves to be the protectors of religious liberty -- rather than a threat to it, as the Amendment proclaims -- they assume that they are the judges of what comprises that religious liberty. Thus they read the Amendment as containing substantive theological statements.
Invited responses to Bishop Curry's essay from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and W. Clark Gilpin, both of the University of Chicago Divinity School, may be found on the forum's public discussion board. We invite you to engage the materials and offer your own thoughts on the same discussion board throughout the month of September. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive.
Coming up in October, look for a web forum commentary from Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "Humanity Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective." The essay anticipates issues that will be addressed at the upcoming Divinity School conference "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics," October 21-23, 2003.