Signs of religious engagement among American Jews have increased since the 2013 landmark Pew study of US Jewry, according to a poll released by the research center on Tuesday.
The report, which surveyed Jews, Christians and members of other faiths, also affirmed previous studies that showed American Jews tend to lean left politically.
Compared with the last time Pew surveyed Americans about religion, in 2007, the proportion of Jews who said religion is very important to them grew from 31 percent to 35%.
Similarly, the percentage who said they attend religious services weekly or more often grew from 16% to 19%.
The proportion of Jews who said they read “scripture” at least weekly grew from 14% to 17%, and the percentage of those who said they participate in prayer groups or religious study groups at least weekly grew from 11% to 16%.
However, it’s important to note that most of those increases are within the survey’s margin of error for Jewish respondents, which is 4.2 percentage points. On the question of the proportion of Jews who attend religious services weekly or more, for example, there is inconsistency between this survey’s finding of 19% and Pew’s 2013 finding of 14%. Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religion research, told JTA the numbers are within the two surveys’ combined margins of error, but that the questions were also asked slightly differently, so direct comparisons are tricky.
Only 847 of the 35,000 Americans in the Pew telephone survey were counted as Jewish respondents, as the study limited itself to those who identified themselves as Jews by religion, and not by birth.
Of these, as few as 11% agreed that the Bible is the literal word of God, about the same proportion as Orthodox Jews within the US Jewish population overall.
An additional 26% of Jews believe the Torah is the non-literal word of God and 55% believe the Torah was written by men. Compared to other religious groups in America, Jews have the lowest proportion of adherents who believe God wrote the Bible (except for Buddhists, who don’t believe in the Bible).
Jews also read the Bible less than other religious Americans. Among Jews, 17% of respondents said they read the Bible outside of services at least weekly, compared to 35% for all Americans, 52% of Protestants and 25% of Catholics.
Meanwhile, belief in God fell slightly among Jews, from 72% in 2007 to 64% in 2014 (37% said they were absolutely certain God exists, and 27% said they were fairly certain).
Among other findings of religious significance were that Jews do not seem overly concerned with the meaning of life, with 45% replying that they think about the subject.
This is relatively low compared to the 64% of Muslims, 61% of Protestants, 52% of Catholics and 59% of Buddhists who related that they ponder this.
Jews are also less likely to be at peace with themselves, Pew’s researchers reported.
While 59% of all Americans said they experience deep feelings of spiritual peace and well-being at least once a week (68% of Protestants, 57% of Catholics and 64% of Muslims), the figure for Jews was only 39%. But that was still more than agnostics and atheists, who experience those feelings weekly at rates of 37% and 31%, respectively.
Jews are also less likely to observe religious dietary restrictions, the survey found. While 90% of Muslims surveyed said they abjure pork and 67% of Hindus said they avoid beef, only 40% of Jews abstain from eating pork, while 57% affirmed they eat pork.
Moving beyond the individual to communal organizations, while nearly 90% of Jews said their houses of worship and other religious organizations bring people together and strengthen community bonds, only 63% said those institutions protect and strengthen morality in society.
By contrast, 83% of Christians and Muslims said their institutions protect and strengthen society’s morality.
According to 54% of Jews surveyed, religious institutions are too concerned with money and power (compared to 52% of all Americans), 59% said they focus too much on rules (51% among all Americans) and 59% said they’re too involved with politics (48% among all Americans).
The report also found that American Jews have continued their longtime affiliation with the Democratic Party and the political Left.
While between 2007 and 2014, the number of Jews affiliated with the Republican Party did grow by 2 points, the percentage of Jews who identify as liberal grew from 38% to 43% – mostly defectors from the “moderate” camp.
This liberalism can also be seen by the 81% acceptance rate of “homosexuality in society” among Jews.
While Jewish media was quick to jump on the report’s conclusions, researchers cautioned against deriving too many conclusions from the survey.
“The over-time differences are too small to draw strong conclusions,” said noted Jewish sociologist Dr. Steven Cohen, who pointed out that the survey lacked data on those who identified as “Jews of no religion” and who featured prominently in the Pew Center’s 2013 study.
He cautioned against drawing outsized conclusions from questions about spiritual satisfaction and other issues that have not been examined in depth over a period of time, saying that such queries were too vague and de-contextualized for their answers to provide much value.
“Single questions are hard to interpret.
You need to a see a big trend” that has a large literature behind it, such as American Jews’ political tenancies, he asserted.
“Probably the most important finding for Israelis to glean from this very impressive survey is the extent to which Jews are political and cultural liberals,” Cohen said. “As compared with Mainline Protestants – a major group in America that’s fairly well-educated and enjoys high social prestige – Jews are far more likely to identify as Democrats [64% vs 40%] and more than twice as likely to see themselves as liberals [43% vs 20%].
“And, along with their liberal identities come a number of positions that position Jews to the left of mainline Protestants and American society as a whole. Pew finds that Jews are substantially more liberal with respect to supporting bigger government, poverty programs, access to abortion, same-sex marriage, and protecting the environment.”
Cohen continued, “Also of note is that Jews are much less religious than other Americans. They report less belief in God, less importance of religion in their lives and less frequent attendance at religious services. In America as a whole, people who are secular liberals are those who are must unhappy with Israel’s policies.
Jews are the one group who depart from that pattern. But Jews’ liberalism and secularity are working to diminish Jews’ support for Israeli policies and even their historic attachment to Israel.”
Brandeis University researcher Dr.
Leonard Saxe also agreed that the conclusions needed to be taken with a grain of salt, telling The Jerusalem Post, “Small changes in the percentages aren’t very meaningful. Sampling error, as well as a bias as a result of low response rate, need to be taken into account. The questions about meaning, etcetera, all turn on how you ask the questions. A survey such as Pew’s is not a good vehicle for probing in depth.
“That said, we know that the number of Americans who are engaged in Jewish life is growing,” he added.
Some of the subtleties of American Jewish life tend to be ignored in such a survey, commented Rabbi Yosef Blau, a senior rabbinic administrator at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary and the president of the Religious Zionists of America.
“The Pew survey demonstrates the gap between a growing minority of observant Jews and a majority of Jews who are becoming more secular.
Comparing the attitudes of Jews with that of other religions treats all Jews as observers of Judaism, ignoring the reality that Jews define their Jewishness in a variety of ways.”
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