More Secular? Or More Spiritual?

There were a number of articles and comments on the Internet last week about a new report from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey to the effect that the number of American Jews who consider themselves religiously observant has declined by more than 20 percent over the last two decades while the number of Jews who consider themselves secular has risen. Where just 20 percent of Jewish adults described themselves as nonreligious or cultural Jews 19 years ago, that total has risen to about 35 percent. The report’s authors, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, reportedly attributed the increase in secularism in large part to high rates of intermarriage.

Kosmin and Keysar aren’t completely negative about intermarriage, however. As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, “Keysar said there was a benefit to intermarriage, as many more people were now connected to Jews in America and around the world. ‘If you maintain Jewish culture, you bring new people into the fold,’ she said. ‘We tend to look at [Judaism] as religion, but if you look at the other aspect of culture and history, there are many aspects of Judaism that are open.’ The emphasis on Jewish culture could help fight anti-Semitism, Keysar said.”

Nina Amir, who has frequently written for us in the past, disagrees in the San Jose Jewish Examiner that intermarriage leads to less religiosity. “We would not be practicing Jews at all – in fact, I wouldn’t be writing about Judaism and Jewish spirituality and mysticism – if my husband had not been a non-Jew who later decided to convert.”

The growth in secularism seems to be at odds with the recent Synagogue 3000 study by Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Larry Hoffman that found increased interest in spirituality among young adult Jews, including the Orthodox, and the non-Orthodox with one Jewish parent, in particular. We blogged about that study just four months ago. This may be a matter of definition – when Kosmin and Keysar talk about religiosity and religiously observant, they may not be talking about those who are spiritual but not interested in traditional forms of prayer. As Rabbi Brad Hirshfield of Clal is quoted in, the study “doesn’t say the Jewish people or Judaism is dying. What it is saying is the way religiously identified Jews are practicing their Judaism is not working for a lot of people. It’s an opportunity — the kind of opportunity that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.”

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.