October 1, 2013

Jewish essentials: For most American Jews, ancestry and culture matter more than religion

What does it mean to be Jewish? There are few more fundamental and difficult questions for Jews — indeed, figuring out one’s place within Judaism’s 3,000+ years of tradition, 620 commandments (plus a library’s worth of commentary), worldwide diaspora and multiple religious movements is itself key to many Jews’ self-identity.

Jews tend to be less religious than the U.S. public as a whole, with fewer saying they attend religious services weekly, believe in God with absolute certainty, or that religion is very important in their lives. The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews found that overall, about six-in-ten (62%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture, while just 15% say it’s mainly a matter of religion. (The rest cited some combination of religion, ancestry and/or culture.)

Those views varied considerably by religious movement, or lack thereof: While fully two-thirds of Reform Jews (and 80% of Jews who didn’t identify with any movement) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture, only 15% of Orthodox Jews do. Nearly half (46%) of Orthodox Jews say being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, while more than a third (38%) cite religion in combination with ancestry and/or culture. (In general, Orthodox Jews are the strictest about observing traditional Jewish law and Reform Jews are the least strict, with Conservative Jews in between.)

When we asked Jews about what is and is not essential to their own sense of Jewishness, 73% say remembering the Holocaust is essential (including 76% of Jews by religion and 60% of Jews of no religion). Almost as many Jews, 69%, say leading an ethical and moral life is essential, and 56% cite working for social justice and equality; only 19% say observing Jewish law is essential.

While the rank order of results for Jews by religion mostly tracks that for Jews of no religion, there’s one clear exception: Caring about Israel is cited by 49% of Jews by religion but only 23% of Jews of no religion.

WhoIsJewish_1In general, Jews express fairly broad views of what is and isn’t compatible with being Jewish — majorities across all age and educational subgroups and in all major religious groupings say people can be Jewish if they work on the Sabbath, are strongly critical of Israel and even if they don’t believe in God.

The only clear no-no, though, is believing Jesus was the Messiah, which clear majorities of most subgroups say is incompatible with being Jewish; even so, about a third (34%) of Jews say a person can be Jewish even if he or she believes Jesus was the Messiah. (Our researchers didn’t include so-called “Messianic Jews,” as part of the main survey population; they were considered people of Jewish background or Jewish affinity.)

Topics: Jews and Judaism

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center.

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42 Comments

  1. Christian Jew4 months ago

    Very informative blog. It provides good knowledge about Jews and their culture

    Reply
  2. Ilya5 months ago

    Many of my friends are secular Jews who have never cared to spend time on reading the Torah in its original plain text format. This is why I have created jsummary.com a site that provides Torah Summary & Analysis, with images on every page, making Torah learning simple and fun. My hope is that with time, this site will have an impact on the survey numbers above…

    Reply
    1. Ilya3 days ago

      The Torah Summary & Analysis page has moved to TorahSummary.org

      Reply
  3. keith goodman9 months ago

    I have a copy of the Oct. 2013 report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”. On page 16 it is stated that 70,000 screening interviews were conducted, and then 3,475 longer interviews were completed. What were the criteria used to select the 3,475 participants out of the original 70,000? Did you use weighted samples for the smaller sample size of particular population sub-groups? And was any consideration given to non participation sample survey bias?

    Reply
    1. Drew DeSilver9 months ago

      Hi, Mr. Goodman:
      We explain the methodology starting on p119 of the full report. Briefly, out of the 70,000 screening interviews, anyone who identified their religion as Jewish (alone or with something else), who identified themselves as Jewish or partly Jewish aside from religion, or who had a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish or partially Jewish were considered eligible for the full survey. All told, 5,191 respondents received the full questionnaire: 3,475 Jews (2,786 Jews by religion and 689 Jews of no religion) and 1,716 other respondents (1,190 people of Jewish background, 467 people of Jewish affinity, 38 people who did not fall into any of these analytical categories, and 21 people who indicated they resided outside the geographic area covered by the survey). The section on “Sample Design” starting on p124 goes into detail about how and why we devised our sampling plan the way we did.

      Reply
  4. Elinor Newcorn10 months ago

    I saw a late night edition of the view-religious show- in which a Rabbi and ministers of other faiths were discussing what is a jew and cited a Pew report which made the point that in biblical times many jewish men married non-jewish womenwho then converted-but actually they didn’t have jewish blood. He then questioned why having a jewish mother should be a deciding factor in determining who is jewish. What was the title of the program? From which Pew report did he get his information?

    It was a fascinating show to which I unfortunately tuned in late. How can I access it
    to view on line?

    Reply
  5. Bob Turmell1 year ago

    ………..For me ,any religion is a worship of God.
    Does GOD care about 620 or 613 . We humans spend a lifetime trying to “define oueselves”.
    God defined himself in one book I read—“I AM WHO AM”
    Good enough for me.

    Reply
  6. Hera Reines1 year ago

    The question seems to be: what is the “religion” which is being rejected? As the Pew Study indicates, great numbers no longer identify with traditional religions. They are not familiar with the definition of Reform Judaism as a Polydoxy, postulated in the early 60s (by my late husband, Alvin Reines).
    A polydox religion, in contrast to an Orthodox religion, is a non-authoritarian religion where the individual has the right to make and implement decisions for herself or himself on all the great questions of existence.
    In a time when many of us view ourselves as specks in a vast universe, such religious freedom can be life affirming. Hera Reines, Cincinnati, polydoxinstitute.org.

    Reply
  7. Art Kane1 year ago

    Interesting that you did not address the “Jews with no religion” category except as a statistic when, to this observer at least, it’s the most existential category of all. Are Jews a race, a religion, a nationality; or or merely a culture? As commenter Robert Edelstein points out in an eccentric mix of tenses,” There are no men or women alive or dead who were in a position to judge who is a Jew and who is not.”

    Take me, for instance. A Catholic offspring of an Irish Catholic mother and a father who was what I would call a “secular Jew”, sprung from generations of the same who were once Sephardics but had — like my father — intermarried and laundered out their “jewishness”, while continuing to call themselves Jews.

    My father thought of himself as Jewish and I, a born. raised and practicing RC, sense that heritage within my core being; a Jew-lover, if you will. Can one be a Catholic and yet culturally Jewish at heart? Can one be a virtual Jew? …….Anybody? First one to answer the question wins a string of rosary beads and a dreidel.

    Reply
  8. Gabriele K. Libbey1 year ago

    I agree with the concept of a cultural identification, but whenever someone suggests that a person born into a family self-identified as being Jewish is not a member of a “race.” Those who suggest that Jews are members of a race are buying into a Hitlerian perspective.

    Reply
  9. Adam1 year ago

    613 commandments – even the link where you got the 620 number says 613. It really undermines the credibility of this study to get something so fundamental wrong.

    Here is the quote:
    “All the commandments of the Torah are alluded to in the Ten Commandments. Thus the Ten Commandments contain 620 letters, alluding to the 613 commandments of the Torah and the seven Rabbinic commandments.”

    Reply
  10. invisible israeli1 year ago

    the survey states that 2% of american jews were born in israel, which would mean about 120,000? however, according to other sources, the number of israelis in the u.s. might be more like 500,000 and possibly many more. what is it? and who’s counting who?

    Reply
  11. Philip Kruger1 year ago

    Strangely, while belief that Jesus is the messiah may make one a heretical Jew, perhaps even a bad Jew, it does not make one not a Jew. No, I am not a Jew for Jesus or a Messianic Jew or anything of the sort but it is simply wrong to say that beleif in Jesus as the Messiah makes one not Jewish. If belief in a false messiah disqualified one as a Jew, we would have to disqualify Rabbi Akiva, who belived that Bar Kochba was the Messiah. Sorry, but that simply is not the test. Jewish maternity is the only indicator of Jewish status according to halachah and even that is not a determiner if you reject traditional halachah.

    Reply
  12. borrisbatanov1 year ago

    Why were the 34% who believe that Christ is the Messiah even included in this study? By definition they are not Jews, no matter who they think they are or who their mothers were. Their inclusion no doubt indicates Pew’s completely secular blindness to the most basic religious beliefs, as if practice and belief have nothing to do with religious identity. Instead, people are classified like puppies, by breed.

    Reply
    1. Philip Kruger1 year ago

      Surprisingly perhaps, belief in Jesus as the messiah may make one a heretical Jew, and perhaps in the eys of many, a bad Jew, but itdoes not make one not a Jew. I am not a Jew for Jesus nor a messianic Jew of any sort but Jesus as the Messiah is not a litmus test. If beleif in a false messiah disqualified one as a Jew, we would have to disqualify Rabbi Akiva, who believed that Bar Kochba was the messaih in 135CE. Strangely, the test is breeding and not theological — are you the child of a Jewish mother if you accept traditional Jewish law, and are you the child of a Jewish parent and were raised Jewish if you reject traditional Jewish law. Maimonides attempted to inject a credo with his thirteen principles of faith into the mix. He may have succeeded in a sense by making people think there was a test, but legally his credo remains a wish list.

      Reply
      1. Bob Singer1 year ago

        I would disagree with you . I have friends who are Messianic Jews here in town and while they claim to be culturally Jewish, ( one speaks English, Spanish, and Yiddish), they are, as believers in Christ Jesus, Christians. You cannot be a Christian Jew any more than you could be a Muslim Jew, or Hindu Jew (I like the rhyme there). If you are a Jew, you are a Jew. A bird cannot be a fish, even if he thinks he is. A flying fish may think he’s a bird, but he is a fish, and will find that out when the bird eats him.

        Reply
        1. Natalie Cremer12 months ago

          We really, really need to know more about the 35% of Jews who think one can believe in Jesus the Messiah and be considered a Jew, regardless of mother’s Jewishness. Are they getting this idea from their Jewish mothers, the Jewish community and/or rabbinate, or is it a product of Jewish liberalism, the desire to include all possible varieties in the mix, and never to pass judgement.
          Maybe it’s a statistical mistake.

          Reply
  13. borrisbatanov1 year ago

    The 34% who believe Jesus was the Messiah are by definition not Jews, but Christians, regardless of their maternal lineage or who they think they are. The most basic and important difference between Judaism & Christianity, of course, is that according to the former the Messiah is yet to come, while according to the latter, Christ was the Messiah. Why those people were included by Pew as Jews no doubt reflects a totally secular bias, completely blind to the most basic theological considerations, which invalidates this study for its being willfully ignorant and its inability to even identify a Jew. What a joke.

    Reply
  14. Mordechai1 year ago

    As a practicing Orthodox Jew I can confirm that although 620 is not “wrong” per se based on the explanation given. it is just unusual for us to refer to them as the combined number for various reasons.

    On the other hand, I never knew an Orthodox Jew that will consider someone born to a Jewish mother (or someone who has undergone conversion) as not Jewish because of a any sinful practice or any heretical belief.

    Reply
  15. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG1 year ago

    Subject: Pew poll: intermarriage now 71% for non-Orthodox

    nytimes.com/2013/10/01/us/poll-s…

    —–Original Message—–
    From: chaimdov
    To: chaimdov
    Sent: Tue, Oct 1, 2013 2:09 am
    Subject: intermarriage

    No real answer to intermarriage RABBI BERNHARD ROSENBERG

    I would like to add my thoughts to the debate Jack Wertheimer, professor of American-Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, has sparked regarding intermarriage and inmarriage and his assertion that welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community has been a failure (Editor’s note: Gary Rosenblatt guest column Sept. 19, full article Mosaic online magazine — mosaicmagazine.com). In a perfect world, I would agree that more Jewish education and creative positive Jewish experiences would stem the trend of intermarriage. Logically this sounds right, but I can tell you with 40 years’ experience in Conservative synagogues, that the reality is that even the children with positive experiences who excelled in Hebrew school, intermarry. Some come from traditional homes. Many intermarry simply because they attend college away from home, fall in love and believe love will conquer all. A rabbi can speak himself blue in the face about the non-Jewish partner converting, but usually it makes no difference. The non-Jewish partner does not wish to convert and the Jewish partner feels compromise and accommodation will work things out. The pain and anguish occurs when the intermarried couple has children and there is a baptism. This tears the hearts out of the grandparents who have no choice; they do not want to lose their children or grandchildren.

    The children of a non-Jewish mother are not Jewish. We have now lost them forever. I have heard it suggested that Conservative Judaism accept patrilineal descent with provisions encouraging Jewish education. I believe this will happen in the future, but I have problems accepting this solution.

    I do not have the answer, and I believe no one does, but I do know that if one does not believe they are halachicly Jewish, they will not seek Judaism but will follow the non-Jewish mother’s religion.

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

    Reply
    1. Surak1 year ago

      Actually, this very Pew report contains the answer to the problem of intermarriage. See Chapter 2. Among married Jews, the percentage married to non-Jews is 69 among Jews of no denomination, 50 among Reform Jews, 27 among Conservative Jews, and 2 among Orthodox Jews. The effect is dramatic and undeniable. The more you understand that Torah came from God at Mount Sinai, the more likely you are to obey its laws, since they are God’s laws.

      It isn’t possible to have this both ways. If you believe that religion-spirituality is a subjective, personal, creative exercise to live according to your own ethical code, you thereby unravel the cohesive fabric of society and doom your own future. The thrice-daily Aleinu prayer, in its original, calls for all Jews to accept the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven. The alternative is chaos and disintegration.

      Reply
  16. Robert Edelstein1 year ago

    I was born into and from jewish parents in Pgh PA (go pirates tonite beat the reds!) who were by every account secular humanists country club tribal jews and I sought the truth of the G-d of Israel and am a Jew that even this study discounted as a Jew: a Jew who knows Jesus as Messiah….

    there are no men or women alive or dead who were ever in any position to judge who is a Jew and who is not. I rejected secular humanism and atheism and found myself to be the Jew G-d had planned for me to be when Jesus made me Kosher. Any fleshy human who tries to judge me an apostate as no Jew no more will suffer a double judgement.

    Reply
    1. Surak1 year ago

      Mr. Edelstein, there is absolutely no doubt that you were born Jewish, you are Jewish, and you will die Jewish. There is also no doubt that you are an apostate. Words have meaning and we are not free to re-define them for the sake of convenience.

      Your parents did not give you a full Jewish education. It’s never too late, however. I started learning Judaism as an adult myself.

      The best place to start, in my opinion, is at your local Chabad House: chabad.org
      They welcome all Jews warmly and are guaranteed to answer your most difficult questions.

      You can also learn why Jews are bound in their original covenant directly with God from two other organizations:
      Jews for Judaism – jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge
      Outreach Judaism – outreachjudaism.org/Default.aspx

      We don’t require any human intermediary to “make us Kosher” or to intercede on our behalf with God. Good luck.

      Reply
      1. Robert Edelstein1 year ago

        the local chabad house in my community supported the conservative synagogue’s marriage of lesbians very recently and support the state amendment for gay marriage and also do not consider homosexual and lesbian sex as sexual sin… as you judge me an apostate so shall you be judged, you are in absolutely no position to judge anyone about anything… your words have no meaning to me but only for you and your philosophy and world view…. our Creator and Father in Heaven has judged me a completed Jew…His Son Lord Jesus did that for me, no human interceded.

        Reply
        1. Surak1 year ago

          Well, Mr. Edelstein, you seem to have found some Jews who do not follow God’s commandments in the Torah. I’m shocked! Did you know that there are also some Christians who do not follow God’s law either? Your comment is illogical. There are both Jewish and Christian hypocrites. In what way does that discovery result in a person leaving Judaism in favor of Christianity?

          I simply do not believe your claim about Chabad endorsing same-sex marriage, which violates Torah. You make an abstract claim with no evidence to support it. Please provide a link if you can.

          Jesus can not do anything for anyone, according to the Hebrew Bible. Let’s set aside, for the time-being, the well-known Torah passages about God’s oneness (Deut. 6:4), God’s incorporeality (Num. 23:19), and so on. See Deut. 24:16: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. God abhors human sacrifice (Gen. 22).

          Needless to say, I am not required to live according to the principle “Judge not lest ye be judged”, because that comes from a religion foreign to my own. You, however, are in an eternal covenant directly with the Creator of the universe, and must obey His laws. I look forward to your return.

          Reply
      2. Robert Edelstein1 year ago

        yes words do have meaning and i am not free to re-define Isaiah 53 for the sake of convenience.

        I am a Bible-believing Jew, I had ears to hear unlike the millions of Jews in the US who reject the G-d of the Bible and chose to be lord of their lives… so that now the young generation have no ears to hear. Thats what this Pew poll makes clear.
        US Jews chose comfort when the G-d of Israel isnt interested in comfort but in character.

        There is no better Jewish education than to study G-d’s Word while you have eyes to see and ears to hear….apostasy?… youve got millions of US Jews who reject and are totally ignorant of the Bible….they do so freely and proudly while mocking those who are serious about G-d’s Word.

        Reply
        1. Surak1 year ago

          Again, I say what I pointed out in my reply to your other comment – many Jews do not live according to the Bible, and many gentiles do not live according to the Bible. According to you, that makes Christianity more desirable. That is illogical.

          Please accept your destiny as the Creator of the universe commanded you and your ancestors 3500+ years ago at Mount Sinai. It is a beautiful life. I know because I tried the alternative.

          I have befriended several former Messianic Jews. They are angry about having been misled for so many years by people trying to convert them to Christianity. They are upset about the time they wasted not living as a truly complete Jew, according to God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people – the Torah. “The Torah (teaching) that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.” (Deut. 33:4) That includes you!

          Reply
        2. Surak1 year ago

          If I may offer a bit more information – there is an outstanding essay on Isaiah 53 by a very erudite former messianic Jew here: jewishisaiah53.com/Isaiah%2053%2…

          The general website jewishisaiah53.com offers essays by numerous scholars which should be of great interest to our confused messianic brethren. Please come home!

          Reply
        3. Simcha9 months ago

          Robert – I feel sorry for you. You are clearly a fundamentalist who can’t see beyond your narrow, limited interpretation of the bible. Open your mind and see beyond to study all of the Jewish and Christian religion, and then make up your mind as to who is really following their faith.

          You arrogantly proclaim that you are the one who is correctly following the Bible, and yet that no man has the right to judge you. Yet you sit in judgment of others. You clearly are using your religion as an emotional crutch.

          Reply
  17. borrisbatanov1 year ago

    Sample size and make-up not indicated. Missing, for instance, is info about who was polled (what was the distribution of ages, educational levels, socioeconomic levels, geographic locations, etc.), where were they polled, & how were they selected (i.e., what were the selection biases). Margin of error not indicated. Article is worthless, without validity. One is reminded of how worthless and wrong polls were in predicting the last presidential election.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Drake1 year ago

      You can find some of these details here: pewrsr.ch/19UIPms

      Reply
    2. A Concerned Conservative Jew1 year ago

      Thanks, Bruce – Boris, it sounds like your argument is more against Pew itself than the study discussed here. Appreciate you bringing this up, though – I’d love to dive into the details myself.

      Reply
  18. Steven Winicker1 year ago

    Does the study note that with Reform and Conservative’s over 70% intermarriage rate, they are a fast disappearing demographic?

    Reply
  19. An Orthodox Jew1 year ago

    1. There are only 613 commandments. Ask any Orthodox Rabbi.

    2. Your survey shows a basic misconception of Jewish identity resulting in a very poorly phrased question. A Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother or who has gone through an conversion process. The person “can be Jewish” and still meet all of your question subparts about working on Saturday or believing or not in God because a person cannot change the fact of his or her birth/ conversion. A far better question would have been whether these actions or beliefs would be inconsistent with the person’s understanding of, or practice in, Judaism. This explains the oddity of the Orthodox responses to the above question and essentially invalidates the findings-Orthodox Jews are taught from an early age to carefully parse out questions. Yours had no logical response other than “yes.”

    Reply
    1. A Concerned Conservative Jew1 year ago

      And if Orthodox Jews weren’t so exclusive and dismissive of other Jews, perhaps the religion wouldn’t be dying. Never have I felt more ostracized by my own people than when reading thoughts from or in the presence of Orthodox Jews.

      Love and a Cupcake,

      A Conservative Jew

      Reply
      1. Surak1 year ago

        Not surprisingly, A Concerned Conservative Jew’s comment completely controverts reality on its two assertions.

        1) The only exclusion and dismissing I experience is at the hands of non-Orthodox Jews who feel threatened by someone wearing a kipah, observing the kosher laws, and observing the Sabbath. I have been told the most vile libels about Orthodox Jews by non-Orthodox Jews – statements that belong in the worst kinds of propaganda and that I know are false. In contrast, the Orthodox outreach groups I spend time with are extremely warm, welcoming, non-judgmental, and eager to share their knowledge of Judaism. They refuse to change God’s immutable law to suit convenience, however.

        2) Judaism is not dying. To the contrary – a recent survey in New York shows more than 60% of Jewish children are Orthodox. My own demographic model (based on the National Jewish Population Survey data as well as the more recent New York survey) shows Orthodox Jews becoming a plurality of American Jews in one generation, and an outright majority in two generations. The only segments that are dying are those that reject the Divine nature of Torah, and the prohibitions against intermarriage, same-sex marriage, and abortion on demand. Whatever your position on these issues, it should be objectively clear that a group that violates these prohibitions will indeed die off, but that a group that observes these prohibitions will multiply.

        Reply
    2. Drew DeSilver1 year ago

      The 620 figure includes the 613 mitzvot in the Torah plus the 7 rabbinic commandments, as explained here (and in our embedded link):
      askmoses.com/en/article/411,429/…

      Reply
      1. A Concerned+Jew1 year ago

        Seriously? You do a google search and find some random website to determine how many commandments Judaism has?

        Reply
        1. A Concerned Conservative Jew1 year ago

          I’m sure these dudes are thorough and asked appropriate authority figures – it just helps for the sake of simplicity in this discussion thread to backup facts with a link as opposed to a quote from a Rabbi.

          Remember, there are other people learning from our conversation, too…and most likely, they’re not Jewish.

          Reply
    3. Surak1 year ago

      I must agree with part 2 of An Orthodox Jew’s comment. Those questions were poorly phrased. Questions of that sort make the results meaningless. If a Jewish person converts to Catholicism and becomes Pope, he is still Jewish. Various activities are prohibited by the Torah, but you don’t lose your Jewish identity as a result. These questions should have been reviewed by experts before undertaking this massive project.

      Reply
      1. HUMOR IS BEST1 year ago

        I hear the not so faint echo of the Nazi’s in Surak’s comments. One “Master Race” facing off against another? How many more of us have to die for this garbage? If there was a God, he/she/it would never stop laughing at comments like Surak’s and others.

        Reply
        1. Surak1 year ago

          God’s sages did say that an ignorant person can never be pious; and that one should not argue with a fool according to his folly. Indeed there is nothing whatsoever in my comment supporting the above complaint, but when one has an axe to grind (Jew = Nazi) then facts are irrelevant.

          I am not interested in master races. That is the obsession of the political left. It is an objective fact that Judaism considers a person to be Jewish, once s/he is born Jewish or converts to Judaism. The same, incidentally, may be said of Islam, and perhaps Hinduism. There is nothing of Nazism in either religion’s view of this matter. It is a simple definition. Every religion has the right to determine its criteria for membership.

          Nazism, on the other hand, is National Socialism, the second most murderous political ideology after its cousin international socialism, otherwise known as communism. They, too, laughed uproariously at the notion of a God who would hold them responsible for murder. For them, perhaps, humor was best – just not so for their tens of millions of victims.

          Reply