How Big Is The Phenomenon Of Secular Jews And Is It Unique To Judaism?


(ANALYSIS) Just a quick note for anyone looking for some data analysis about what’s happening in the Middle East right now — you aren’t going to get it from me. For a bunch of reasons.

One is that the situation is so recent that I wouldn’t have access to any survey data about this specific conflict. Another reason is that I just don’t trust polling about this topic. It’s incredibly complicated even for highly politically engaged folks — let alone the average American who consumes almost no news. That means that any survey results are really sensitive to question wording and response option choices.

Natalie Jackson wrote a nice piece for the National Journal entitled, “Most Americans don’t know what to think about the Israel-Palestine conflict” about this, by the way. I strongly recommend reading it.

But I can take a larger step back from the immediate conflict and talk about Judaism in the United States in a broader way. This is what reporters call “talking on background.” I do these kinds of calls with the media on a regular basis. Just trying to help them get a lay of the land. They aren’t looking for a pithy quote, they are just seeking to understand the topic in a more nuanced and empirically accurate way.

So, the post today actually arose from a conversation I had with a journalist who asked me about the concept of secular Judaism. I’m sure most of the readers of this website understand the concept, but here’s just a brief primer.

Judaism is both an ethnic identity and a religious tradition. People who are ethnically Jewish trace their ancestry back to the Israelites from the First Testament. This genealogy flows through the mother — not the father. In other words, if your mother is Jewish, then you are a Jewish, regardless of the ethnicity of your father. Wikipedia has a nice discussion of how that happened, for those seeking more information.

Then, there is Judaism as a religion. These are people who attend religious gatherings at synagogue. They read the Torah. They observe Sabbath. They participate in religious festivals like Passover and Yom Kippur. Some keep kosher, but not all.

Thus, secular Judaism is understood to be a group of people who can trace their ethnicity back to Jews from the Bible, but they do not practice the religion of Judaism in any meaningful way. They may have gone through a bar/bat mitzvah, but that was done more for familial reasons than any strong theological attachment to the religion of Judaism.

Before we get into trying to figure out how many secular Jews there are in the United States, let’s ask the broader question: How many people in the United States self-identify as Jewish?

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