There’s a major problem in any survey of Jews: deciding who is really Jewish, and who gets to decide. Orthodox Jews demand that the mother be Jewish, while more liberal Jewish groups are willing to accept those with a Gentile mother if the father is Jewish.
Jews stopped the practice of converting Gentiles in the fourth century C.E. for a very persuasive reason. At that time, the Roman Empire, having adopted Christianity as the state religion, made conversion to Judaism a criminal offense punishable by death of both the proselytizing Jews and their converts. Such conversions are no longer crimes, but Orthodox Rabbis discourage conversion and many reject would-be converts three times; if they remain adamant in their desire to convert, they are then allowed to begin the conversion process. Different branches of Judaism are more welcoming to those who wish to become Jews, but Orthodox Jews don’t recognize converts to Judaism by other branches.
And then there are Jews with adjectives. I know some Unitarian Jews, Buddhist Jews, and Quaker Jews. Most Jews don’t see such “Judaism plus” as a problem for Jews. I have an adjective, myself: atheist Jew, so some Jews might think of me as a “Jew minus.” However, I’m not such a minority. The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews found that 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion. Jews are considerably less religious than the U.S. public as a whole, with 23 percent of Jewish Americans saying they don’t believe in God, compared to only seven percent in the general public.
Even religious Jews are generally not very concerned about the existence of atheist Jews. They reserve their antagonism for Jews with a different adjective: Messianic Jews (Jews for Jesus). Much to the surprise of many Jews, the Pew Survey showed that 34 percent of American Jews think that a person can be Jewish if he or she believes that Jesus is the Messiah. Had I been surveyed, I would have been among those 34 percent. In fact, I think the percentage should be much higher. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have more beliefs in common with Jews for Jesus than with Jews like me. Both sects believe that a Messiah is coming. They differ only on whether it will be his first or second trip to Earth. When my Orthodox uncle died, his family flew his body to Jerusalem for burial because he and a number of other Jews believe that those buried in Jerusalem will be resurrected first when the Messiah comes.
There have been dozens of Jewish Messiah claimants over the centuries. Most recently, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson died in 1994, many Jews in his Lubavitcher Chassidic sect believed that he would soon return as the Messiah. Some are still expecting his imminent return, just as Christians for the past 2000 years have been expecting Jesus’ imminent return. After all, Jesus purportedly said he would return before his own generation passed.
However, most Jews are wary of Jews for Jesus, believing them to be Christians with ulterior motives. Many Jews were upset when former president George W. Bush spoke at a fundraising event for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, an organization that promotes the second coming of the Messiah by converting Jews to Christianity. Most Jews don’t want family members to become Christian, but they also fear a new wave of anti-Semitism if Jews resist conversion, which might “delay” the return of the Christian Messiah.
According to the Pew Survey, only 28 percent of Jews thought an important component of being Jewish meant being part of a Jewish community, and an even smaller 19 percent said observing Jewish law was important. What I find particularly amusing is that these two criteria were trumped by the 42 percent of Jews who said being Jewish means having a good sense of humor.
So American Jews are fine with Jews who don’t believe in God, but are concerned and embarrassed by Jews who believe that God has a son. Since Jews of all traditions appreciate what I define as “Humoristic Judaism,” I’ll tell you a story that illustrates the discomfort of Jews with Messianic Jews and other proselytizing Christians.
When a Jewish atheist heard that the best school in town happened to be Catholic, he enrolled his son. Things were going very well until one day the boy came home and said he had learned all about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. His father, barely able to control his rage, seized his son by the shoulders and said: “David, this is very important, so listen carefully. There is only one God—and we don’t believe in Him!”
Some days, it’s just fun to be a Jew, with or without an adjective.
Image courtesy of Jrwooley6.