Friday, September 2, 2011

Interesting study on distinctiveness of Jewish attitudes in America

The study's findings, for the most part, weren't exactly a huge surprise for me. Seeing it organized in this way, however, prompted an "Aha!" moment.

It's becoming common in Orthodox Jewish circles to dismiss liberal values (such as equality and commitment to civil rights) held by non-Orthodox Jews as simply another symptom of their assimilation into the outside secular society. The image used is one of poor lost Jewish souls, adrift from their spiritual heritage, who didn't know any better and got led astray by the non-Jewish world.

I could give lots of examples of this thinking, but this blog post is a good illustration.

What the data shows, however, is that embracing liberal values is NOT something that American Jews do in order to assimilate into the mainstream. To the contrary, these values - while they may not be the current values of right-wing Orthodoxy - are actually a distinctive feature of the Jewish community in general. Ironically, the social values of right-wing Orthodoxy are actually a step closer to those of non-Jewish Americans.


MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

I'm going to do a post on this at some point but here's the difference:
When I rave about secular liberal values I'm not talking about those things like treating folks equally and with dignity. Rather it's a deeper philosophical issue. The current debate between left and right is, it seems to me, based on a debate between rights and responsibilities. The left preaches rights without responsibilities, the right the opposite. Taken to the extreme, both positions are dysfunctional but I think the main difference between non-religious and religious North American Jewry is this very debate.

JRKmommy said...

I'm not sure that I'd agree, but I'll wait for your post. In my personal experience, I've noticed it as a lawyer in a Chabad shul, and with some online Chabad and yeshivish cyber-buddies. I see the lines and positions of the Christian Right being adopted somewhat uncritically, with no understanding of why a committed Jew would be critical.

Separation of church and state would be a prime example - this was part of the sermon last week, but there was no acknowledgement of the major difference between this concept, and that of governments that adopt official public secularism (like France) or atheism (like the former Soviet Union).

Abortion would be another example. There's a populist appeal to the Christian-support pro-life position, but I've had ongoing arguments about the fact that groups like Focus on the Family don't have a concept of pikuach nefesh (requiring religious observance to be suspended in order to save a life) and that their activities limit access to those abortions that would be permitted or even mandatory under Jewish law.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The other thing to consider is that Jews always do things in extremes. What characterized the mainstream Jewish community in Weimar German is that they were "more German than the Germans". It's the same here. Jewish liberals, in order to prove their street cred, are more liberal than the liberals and so on.

JRKmommy said...

Street cred with whom, and for what purpose?

Are American Jews really trying to be more American than the (non-Jewish) Americans? Is so, getting involved with Communists during the 1950s would have been a freakishly odd way of doing it. Ditto with any sort of crticism of the government or protests. If you look at the objective data, you really can't say that it's all about blending in.

That said, there is a Jewish tendency, esp. outside of Orthodox circles, to avoid doing things which seem TOO narrowly Jewish. The irony is that this very tendency is stereotypically Jewish.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

> getting involved with Communists during the 1950s would have been a freakishly odd way of doing it.

Not at all! Traditionally the liberal left was a greater help to the Jewish community because of its various positions on things like immigration, integration and access to work while the right was more interested in exclusiveness and maintaining a class society based on wealth, religion and background. As a result there is a lingering sense of gratitude amongst Jews that keeps them on the left.
Communism, for example, promised emancipation from folks who persecuted Jews because of their religion and it promised a new world with equality for all. Why wouldn't Jews gravitate towards it?
The problem is that nowadays the positions have reversed and liberalism is a threat and conservatism an ally in many ways but many Jews haven't figured that out yet.

JRKmommy said...

I agree that the attractiveness of the political positions of the left vs. right for the Jewish community has changed in recent years. If I get a chance, I'll do a post on "Why a nice Jewish girl with a socialist bubby has a Conservative lawn sign".

We need to recognize why it was so attractive at one point, and why it isn't today.

I just think that's a difference rationale than mere assimilation.