In this festive season, most Jews were no doubt heartened by the news, reported in the Jerusalem Post (http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=200841), that Judaism has been voted the “most popular religion” in America today. These were the findings of a survey conducted for a new book by Harvard’s Robert Putnam (and David Campbell), entitled “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” More than 3,000 respondents of all faiths voted Judaism the most popular, with Catholicism trailing slightly. We win !
Now, what exactly have we won ? And to what can we attribute our new-found popularity ?
Putnam ascribes our victory to both the dearth of Jew-hatred today and especially to its increasing unacceptability in public discourse and even private expression. Even mild cracks about Jews tend to evoke vitriolic reactions (Rick Sanchez, don’t call your office), and the Holocaust itself made Jew-hatred itself plain evil, and indicative of both an inferior intellect and substandard morality. Of course, the disappearance of official Jew-hatred in America, and the discrediting of even private Jew-hatred, has not stopped Jews from pumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually to combat ghosts and their equally elusive offspring. Every drop of paint sprayed in anti-Jewish graffiti and every nasty comment hollered at a Jew by some cretin is meticulously catalogued. Hundreds of Jews spend their working careers ruminating over the frightful possibility that somewhere across the fruited plain there might be a non-Jew or two who detests Jews, and blames us for everything from the collapse of Wall Street to the Yankees’ failure to sign Cliff Lee.
I have long held that that money is terribly wasted. It would be better spent educating Jews about why it is important and worthwhile to live Jews lives, do mitzvot and study Torah than terrifying Jews about why some people hate us and attempting to uproot irrational and hidden resentments. There has to be more to Jewish life than mere survival, which begs the question: for what reason do we survive ? We survive for better reasons than to show Hitler that he couldn’t murder us all. Would it not be better if we focused on Jewish life rather than on Jewish death ? And I refuse to hold non-Jews to higher standards than I hold Jews; not every Jew likes every other Jew, so how can I criticize non-Jews who don’t like every Jew ?
That being said, I think Putnam misses the point of his own survey, strange as that sounds. The question asked was not “which religious group is most popular?” but “which religion is most popular?” To suggest that Judaism is popular because Jews are liked better today than in the past is to misconstrue the survey and its results. Anyone Jewish knows that we should never confuse or conflate Jews and Judaism; not everything Judaism advocates is embraced by Jews, and not everything Jews do is reflective of Judaism. Jerry Seinfeld might be well-liked (and, of course, he should be) and that could contribute to the general acceptance of Jews in society. But that is not the same as saying that his popularity reflects a greater interest and appreciation of what Judaism stands for, insofar as he perceives himself as part of the Jewish people but not necessarily as a public representative of the Jewish religion.
Jews are more popular today in America, but so is every ethnic group. Americans – being a nation of immigrants and unprecedented diversity – have a hard time sustaining an aversion to any group. I can understand why Muslims today would be unpopular, but most Americans overwhelmingly reject the notion of group stereotype and will readily dislike Muslim terrorists or radicals but not Muslims generally. Hence the paucity of random attacks on American Muslims despite the fact that the recent terrorist attacks in America have all stemmed from members of that one group. Said another way (for those who defend Muslim terror by pointing to the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh), no other American terrorist was a member of a defined group with an ideology that preached murder and mayhem. Other terrorists were individuals acting more or less alone, and usually with a loose screw or two. Muslim terrorists emerge from a world view particular to a defined group – and even so, Americans recoil at the notion of blaming all Muslims for the acts of some of them.
At various points in American history, Jews, Catholics, blacks, Italians, Irishmen, Hispanics, Asians and others were not treated equally or fairly. But it is hard to deny that society has moved far beyond those days, and discrimination today is both legally and culturally scorned, notwithstanding that some of those groups still have huge infrastructures to combat such discrimination. Sometimes, good news is hard to accept. For another example of this trend, look at society’s treatment of homosexuals. I think it was Dennis Prager who noted how quickly homosexuality has traversed the road from condemnation to toleration and now adoration. Americans are not particularly good haters (witness how quickly Germans and Japanese were forgiven for the aggressions of World War II), itself a consequence of the religious sensibilities of this society. “Don’t tread on me” naturally begets “live and let live.”
So what would make Judaism “the most popular religion” ? On one level, I would hope it is the recognition that the major religions of the world all emerged from Judaism, and then diverged onto different paths. The founders of both Christianity and Islam all looked to the Jews’ Bible for inspiration and their provenance, and indeed resented the Jews’ loyalty to the Torah after those founders deviated from the Judaic message and were largely unsuccessful in co-opting the Jews to their new religions. In an America built on tolerance for various faiths and belief systems, the Jewish idea at the heart of Western civilization has been able to take root in America in an unthreatening and nurturing way. People see Judaism for what it is supposed to be: the framework of morality for man as transmitted to us by our Creator for the benefit of all mankind, with one message uniquely for Jews and a parallel message for non-Jews.
From a philosophical perspective, Judaism’s moral contributions have found fertile soil in America. The ideas that all men are created equal and in the image of G-d, of loving your neighbor as yourself, of an objective morality that transcends time and place but is uniquely suited to fostering man’s happiness, are all Jewish ideas, conceived in the Torah and explicated in the Talmud. The more parochial aspects of Judaism are designed to ensure that a core group always remains the repository of these ideas – but the principles themselves are ones that appeal and apply to all decent human beings, and are quite at home as part of the American ethos.
It is a sign of the maturation of the Jewish community and the acceptance of some form of the Jewish idea in America that any survey would yield such results. Frankly, I doubt that many of the Jews who participated in the survey would have voted Judaism the “most popular religion” in America and many of the same might not have even voted Judaism the most popular religion in their own homes. It is a relief that if, indeed, Judaism is popular and not just Jews, then we are no longer perceived as a people of comedians, entertainers and singers (with the occasional athlete thrown in), or doctors, lawyers, scientists and financiers, or as survivors of genocide – but as a people who bequeathed to the world the very secret to a happy, fulfilling, moral and G-d-centered life.
If that is why Judaism has become so popular in America, then we should be ever vigilant to strengthen the Torah and the people who cherish it, to study it, observe its laws, and preserve it from distortion and “modernization,” to attain and maintain the high standards it sets for us, and lead the world to an era of universal acknowledgement of the dignity of man and the kingdom of G-d. Now, let’s briefly celebrate, and get back to work.