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Blumner: What being Jewish means

I grew up in New York with grandmothers who could speak Yiddish to one another even though both were born in the United States. • One grandmother was president of the local Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization, and I believe single-handedly forested the state of Israel with her tree-planting generosity. • My other grandmother kept a kosher house. The apartment she and my grandfather lived in had lights on timers and an elevator that would automatically stop on every floor during the Sabbath to save residents from having to "work" by pressing a button.

My family, my mishpocheh, is Jewish, my mother is Jewish and that makes me Jewish. But I'm also an atheist, an apikoros, in Yiddish. While I grew up practicing the Jewish faith and even attended Hebrew school for a time, it didn't stick. Almost as soon as I could fathom nature's physical laws, I abandoned any belief in the supernatural.

But there is a funny thing about being a Jew. You can reject the religious component entirely and still be one.

A fascinating survey by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project finds that American Jews are generally less religious than their fellow Americans yet still identify as Jewish, often for reasons that have nothing to do with belief or ritual. (Read the full Pew study at tinyurl.com/jewishamerican.) Just 26 percent of Jews say religion is important in their lives, compared with 56 percent of the American populace. But 46 percent of Jews say being Jewish is very important to them.

It's the Jewish conundrum.

The secularization of American Jews tracks a trend in the greater population. About 20 percent of Americans are "nones" who say they have no religion. Jews are just a little ahead of the curve.

Twenty-two percent of the country's 5.3 million Jewish adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion. That percentage jumps to 32 percent of Jewish millennials, adults between the ages of 18 and 29.

This uptick in rationalism is not a problem for Jews. Unlike so many other faiths, we Jews give each other space to be apostates. Fully 68 percent said you can still be a Jew and not believe in God.

As a teen, I had that very conversation with the rabbi of the Conservative congregation where my family belonged. In Judaism, he said, identity matters more than belief. Then, in a brave moment of candor, he expressed his own doubts about God's existence.

Sure, the survey will freak out some people in organized American Jewry. They will worry that with so many Jews disconnecting from the formal religion and with six in 10 now marrying outside it, the faith will disappear.

On the other hand, assimilation is a positive sign that persecution is not an issue in the United States.

And ever since Maimonides sought to reconcile faith with science in the 12th century there have been strong intellectual currents in Judaism that questioned the divine. Being Jewish is connected to ancestry, culture, humanism and one's genes more than any particular form of worship.

This was crystallized in one illuminating Pew survey question: "What does it mean to be Jewish?" Sixty-nine percent of American Jews said it meant "leading a moral/ethical life." Fifty-six percent said "being intellectually curious."

Only 28 percent said it was "being part of a Jewish community" and a smaller 19 percent said "observing Jewish law." Those last two were tromped by the 42 percent of Jews who said being Jewish means "having a good sense of humor."

Mel Brooks beats out Rabbi Shmuley.

A religion that dictates what you eat or whether you can turn on a light Friday night is not going to last among a people who primarily want it to reflect ethics, worldliness and intellectual engagement. But Judaism has changed since my grandparents' day. Jews who don't believe in God are embraced, and compassion and smarts are put at a higher value than piety. That keeps Jews like me identifying as a people.

Blumner: What being Jewish means 10/03/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 4, 2013 4:38pm]

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