Jewish left leaving behind religion?

A religious “commitment gap” between liberal and conservative Jews is increasingly defined by politics and raising questions about the future of the Jewish left, write political scientist Samuel Abrams and historian Jack Wertheimer in Tablet magazine (June 24). The authors cite recent research suggesting that politics is driving religious identity more than religious beliefs are influencing political commitments, with conservatives showing higher rates of religiosity than liberals on measures like belief in God and weekly religious service attendance. While Abrams and Wertheimer note that the influence of politics on Jewish identity may be more complicated, since being Jewish is not only about identification with a religious tradition but also an ethnic identity and the Jewish State of Israel, they point out that, like politically conservative Christians, Jewish conservatives also tend to have stronger religious beliefs and participation in institutional religion than liberals. Political ideology tends to correlate with how Jews think about the role of faith in society, with 69 percent of politically liberal Jews believing religion is more problematic than helpful, compared to just 15 percent of Jewish conservatives and 54 percent of moderates.

Abrams and Wertheimer are careful to add that the data do not suggest a causal order to this trend. “We do not know if liberals become more distant from Judaism and the Jewish people, or whether those who are Jewishly distant migrated to the liberal camp.” While not writing off liberal Jews and their influence in Judaism, the authors see such trends as the valorizing of social justice and universalism over Jewish particularism, including support for Israel, as intensifying the commitment gap. They argue that the growth of identity politics and “wokeness” among liberal Jews has exacerbated this tendency, as features such as sexual orientation, gender and disability get more attention than ancestral culture and ethnic and religious solidarity. While observing that the Jewish left’s legacy of “neo-Hasidism,” Havurah fellowships, Jewish feminism, significant settlement in Israel, and mass demonstrations in support of Jewish causes has been largely eclipsed by the indifference of Jewish liberals today, Abrams and Wertheimer do not rule out the possibility that such indifference could give way to a return to religion and particularism, perhaps driven by the growth of antisemitism.


Jews protest the Trump travel ban at San Francisco International Airport, January 29, 2016 (source: Kenneth Lu – Flickr)