A headline caught my attention the other day and caused a “here-we-go-again” sensation. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a poll (the US Religious Landscape Survey, at Pewforum.org) illustrating the beliefs and attitudes of adherents to various faiths, with one Jewish media report leading with this: “5% of Jews Believe that Jewish Religion is the One True Faith.” That would be a terrible indictment of Jewish life, a symptom of the eroding commitment of Jews to their faith, and a reflection of how the mushy moral milieu of the American melting pot has taken its toll on the Jewish people, again. Most religions assert that they are the “one true religion,” so how could Jews be so mealy-mouthed when compared to others? Only 5%? Surely this represents the abject failures of schools, shuls, temples, parents and families, right?
Not so fast. On closer look, the headline did not accurately represent the question being asked or answered, even though that, indeed, was Pew’s title, “Views of One’s Religion as the One, True Faith.” The choices offered in the question itself were: “My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life” (added emphasis is mine), or “Many religions can lead to eternal life.” That is a different question entirely, and whatever the answers were, it is then shocking – astonishing – that so many Jews could be on the same page when it comes to a basic principle of Jewish life, for 82% of Jews responded that “many religions can lead to eternal life.”
This, essentially, is a uniquely Jewish doctrine, notwithstanding that the poll revealed that a few religions and sects had slightly higher percentages of adherents who believes that “many religions can lead to eternal life” than did Jews. Most were lower, with the Mormons having the lowest such percentage (39%), and the religions that emerged from Judaism showing percentages ranging from 56% to 83%. The Jewish conclusion that “many religions can lead to eternal life” – odd in light of the fact that Judaism also claims exclusive truth – emerges from a Talmudic discussion (Sanhedrin 105a) and codified by the Rambam twice, most famously in Hilchot Melachim (The Laws of Kings) 8:11: “All who accept the seven Noachide laws and are careful to observe them are the pious one of the nations of the world and have a share in the world-to-come (i.e., eternal life)…” Those Noachide laws are the basic building blocks of civilization, prohibitions against homicide, robbery, idolatry, sexual misconduct, blasphemy, tearing a limb from a living animal and the positive commandment of maintaining a system of justice to enforce the other obligations.
Although Rambam does require that acceptance of the Noachide laws must be based on the Bible, the fundamental point established is that non-Jews need not become Jewish in order to merit eternal life, and not even to live moral and meaningful lives in which they relate to G-d. For that reason, Jews do not proselytize. Sadly, at least 5% of Jews are unaware of this, but even more sadly, it seems that many more Jews answered this question correctly but accidently, not knowing of the Rambam’s opinion but simply afraid or unwilling to opine that Judaism is the one, true faith.
This is borne out by other statistics uncover the state of Jewish belief (or better, the beliefs of Jews) today. Approximately 84% of Jews believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, far more than any other religious grouping, with an astounding 40% of those asserting that abortion should be legal “in all cases.” All cases? Ninth month?! Mother in labor?! No restrictions at all? Abortion on demand! Even people who described themselves as unaffiliated with any religion (!) approved of abortions less frequently than did Jews; apparently, worship of personal autonomy over one’s body has made abortion a sacrament for many Jews. Conversely, 5% of Jews believed that abortion should be illegal “in all cases,” a clear misstatement of Jewish law as well. I wonder if those are the same 5% as above; from where are they acquiring their knowledge of Torah.
Similarly, 79% of Jews believed that homosexuality should be “accepted by society,” a number that again far exceeded any other religion or denomination except for the Buddhists (82%) who must also be practicing Democrats as well. A scant 15% of Jews averred that homosexuality should be “discouraged by society,” itself an inelegant phrasing of the issue. How would society “discourage” homosexuality even if it could? “Acceptance” might be interpreted as legalization, or protection within the law, but then “discouragement” is not its antithesis. Pew may have meant to distinguish “acceptance” not from rejection or discouragement but from celebration, legitimization and/or adoration of homosexuality, which is where American society is heading today, and which would have generated among the Jewish respondents here the same lopsided answer. “Acceptance” rates of homosexuality among evangelical Christians, Mormons and Muslims all hovered in the 25% range – less than a third of the Jewish rate.
One flaw in the study, alluded to above, is that the respondents self-identify the religion of their choice. One of the anomalies of American-Jewish life is the large number of people who identify or perceive themselves as Jews when Jewish law deems otherwise, while many others – with the most non-Jewish sounding name – are actually Jews according to Jewish law. That is the price of intermarriage and assimilation, and those individuals number in the hundreds of thousands, a staggering figure given the undersized Jewish community. Pew calculated that 1.7% of Americans are Jews, but 4% identify as atheists or agnostics, but one can assume that those groups are disproportionately Jewish, at least by birth through one Jewish parent.
Tellingly, a scant 41% of Jews said they were absolutely certain of G-d’s existence, and 10% did not believe in G-d at all. Both figures were again surpassed only by Buddhists; Christians “absolutely certain” belief in G-d was almost double that of Jews.
As such, it is to be assumed that few Jewish respondents answered the questions by accessing their knowledge of Jewish law or philosophy, but rather by looking into themselves, or the repository of ideas and values they have accumulated over the years from mere living, and answered accordingly. Most Jews do not speak Jewish or think Jewish; many even claim – sincerely – that Judaism does not mandate any particular beliefs, values or deeds, but rather seeks goodness and kindness from its faithful. Of course, goodness and kindness are quite important to Judaism – as they are to most religions – but Judaism is ultimately defined by the divine revelation of 613 commandments, 13 fundamental principles of faith and a commitment to live a divinely-inspired life, part of a people of destiny and eternity.
We also have the highest median age (36) of any group, attributable to the low Jewish birthrate outside the Orthodox community. It would seem that the Jewish “religious landscape,” to use Pew’s expression, is quite barren, with lush pockets of verdancy and fruitfulness that literally keep the faith and welcome others to learn about real Judaism and to actually live it in real life. It may not be possible to completely stem the decline and disappearance of most Jews, but many are open, ready and willing to explore their heritage and discover their roots.
Let us strive to be good examples for them.
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- Great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Part 7: Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook [audio]
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- Great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Part 3: Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka [audio]