Home » Excerpts » The Phenomenon Of Jewish Buddhists

‘Is your essential nature
defined by your
gender, race, culture…
born into?’

The Pew Research Center’s (2013) ‘A Portrait of Jewish Americans’ revealed that the Jewish identity has undergone a significant transformation over the past century. The study showed a decline in Jews who identify Judaism as their religion and an uptick in Jews who describe themselves as having no religion. The Pew researchers labeled the former group ‘Jews by religion’ and the latter ‘Jews of no religion.’ Although Jews have a long history of secularism, this shift in Jewish self-identification seemed to reflect a broader trend among Americans to increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Rather than identifying with Judaism as their religion, ‘Jews of no religion’ identified as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity, or culture, and compared to ‘Jews by religion’, were much less connected to Jewish organizations (both religious and cultural), less likely to observe Jewish law and traditions, and less engaged in the Jewish community.

If the Pew researchers had interviewed the Jewish Buddhists in this chapter, they would have found that they resemble the ‘Jews of no religion.’ They identify as Jewish on the basis of heritage and ethnicity rather than religion. Few respondents believed in a single, all-powerful God who created the world of any Jewish eschatological ideas, and nearly all described themselves as atheistic, non-theistic or agnostic. They also observed few, if any, Jewish laws and traditions and rarely participated in Jewish communal life. Judaism did not serve as an ethical guidepost or a meaning-making system in these respondents’ lives. Yet these respondents did not imagine themselves as ‘Jews of no religion’; instead, they viewed themselves as ‘culturally Jewish,’ and used this term to describe and talk about their Jewish identities. ‘Culturally Jewish,’ in the way that these Jewish Buddhists used it, refers to how they orient themselves toward and embody a set of dispositions generated from social, religious, and historical experience of American Jews.

American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change
(Princeton University Press)
Emily Sigalow 

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