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Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition

Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition

by Carmel U. Chiswick

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At the core of Judaism stands a body of traditions that have remained consistent over millennia. Yet, the practice of these rituals has varied widely across historical and cultural contexts. In Judaism in Transition, Carmel U. Chiswick draws on her Jewish upbringing, her journey as a Jewish parent, and her perspective as an economist to consider how incentives affect the ways that mainstream American Jews have navigated and continue to manage the conflicting demands of everyday life and religious observance. Arguing that economics is a blind spot in our understanding of religion, Chiswick blends her personal experiences with economic analysis to illustrate the cost of Jewish participation—financially and, more importantly, in terms of time and effort.

The history of American Jews is almost always told as a success story in the secular world. Chiswick recasts this story as one of innovation in order to maintain a distinctive Jewish culture while keeping pace with the steady march of American life. She shows how tradeoffs, often made on an individual and deeply personal level, produce the brand of Judaism which predominates in America today. Along the way, Chiswick explores salient and controversial topics—from intermarriage to immigration and from egalitarianism to connections with Israel.

At once a portrait of American Jewish culture and a work that outlines how economic decisions affect religion, Judaism in Transition shows how changes in our economic environment will affect the Jewish community for decades to come.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804776059
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 06/04/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Carmel U. Chiswick is Research Professor of Economics at George Washington University. A founding member of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture and a former officer of the Association for the Social-Scientific Study of Jewry, she has written extensively on the economics of religion and has been a consultant to organizations in the United States and Israel.

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Judaism in Transition

How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition

By Carmel U. Chiswick


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9141-0



I GREW UP IN A TIME AND PLACE WHERE Americans looked askance at anyone who was "different." Never mind that everyone around us might be considered "different" by others; our family belonged to a very small Jewish minority in a sea of middle-American Christians. We did not attend the nearby Methodist church; we did not decorate our house with colored lights at Christmastime; and we stayed home from work and school during our religious holidays in the fall. Our neighbors were polite, and I never saw anything like outright anti-Semitism, but there was a clear social distance between us. My parents countered this by developing friendships with other Jewish families, enrolling me in a Jewish after-school program, celebrating Jewish holidays at home, and instilling in me a strong pride in our Jewish heritage. They believed, and I believe with them, that America's diversity makes it great, and that even people who practice a small minority religion like ours can be equal participants in every other aspect of American life.

Judaism is one of the world's great religions, enduring and evolving for thousands of years. It spun off two other great religions, Christianity after the first 1,200 years (approximately) of Judaism and Islam more than half a millennium later. Yet the people practicing this ancient religion have always been a minuscule fraction of the world's population. Today's Jewish population numbers only about 13 million in a world of over 7 billion people, fewer than two Jews for every thousand people in the world. The only country in which Jews are numerically important today is Israel, where about 40 percent of the world's Jews constitute about 80 percent of the population. About the same number live in the United States, a bit less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. The remaining 20 percent of world Jewry is scattered among many countries in small communities, each a tiny fraction of the total population in their respective countries.

In part because they are such a small minority, Jews typically prefer to live in places where they can join other Jews to form a community. The chart in Figure 1.1 indicates that nearly two-thirds of the American Jewish population live in and around nine large cities, mostly in the Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington (40 percent), in Florida and California (20 percent), and in Chicago (4 percent). Within the urban Northeast, three-fourths of all Jews live in the New York metropolitan area or nearby New Jersey. Yet because Jews are such a small proportion of the U.S. population, not even the largest Jewish community makes up more than a small fraction of the local population.

Jews share with other small religious minorities a concern with preserving their way of life amid the seductions of a very attractive larger society. No wonder, then, that American Jews have pioneered new forms of Jewish observance, clearly influenced by the democracy and religious pluralism that lie at the foundation of the American experience. Despite their minority status in the United States, however, American Jews are one of the two largest Jewish communities in the world, rivaled only by Israel itself. This means that Americans play a dominant role within world Jewry, especially in the Diaspora (that is, outside of Israel). The religious observance of Jews in the United States is thus an important factor in the evolution of modern Judaism, and American Judaism is a crucial determinant of the shape in which Jewish civilization will be passed on to future generations.

Economics, Religion, and American Judaism

Economics is one of the social sciences, all of which are disciplines that use the scientific method—involving observation, theorizing, and empirical testing of hypotheses—to study some aspect of human behavior. The aspect of human behavior that is the subject of economic inquiry is how we act when we can't afford to have everything that we want. The technical term for this is scarcity. Some people are so wealthy that they seem to be able to buy anything, but most of us are not, and we have to learn to live within our income. We can raise that income by working longer or harder, by investing wisely, or by receiving a lucky windfall, but for the most part we are limited in these opportunities. Our income is an important determinant of our lifestyle, and our lifestyle choices affect our spending patterns, behavior that is at the heart of the study of economics.

Although the behavior of the very rich may seem to be free of the problems of scarcity, this applies only to their ability to purchase goods and services in the market. Like the rest of us, their time is limited to twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year (mostly), and a finite life span. In addition, they share with us a desire for the many things that money can't buy, love being the most popular example. Other examples are family life and religious faith. These are what economists call self-produced (or sometimes home-produced) goods because each individual has to direct his or her own time and effort into the process of "making" such a good. Money can be used to buy things that enrich this process or make it easier, but love, family relationships, and religious expression cannot be bought with money alone, no matter how much they are desired.

This book on the economics of Judaism is about how scarcity affects the religious behavior of ordinary American Jews and their families. By "ordinary," I mean the majority of Jews who view religion as one aspect of life but not necessarily their main interest. My primary concern is with people whose lifestyle choices do not make religion a central focus and who choose occupations outside of the religious community, effectively excluding the clergy and members of various ultra-Orthodox sectlike groups. Most of us "ordinary" Americans spend both money and time on our religious observance, but many of us also wish we had more time and/or money to spend. By viewing religion as one of the self-produced goods that must compete with other items in a larger consumption pattern, economics provides important insights into many aspects of religious observance at the grassroots level.

My own research on the economics of religious observance has focused on American Judaism, in part because it is the religious community to which I belong and with which I am most familiar. Understanding the economic context for decision making has helped me understand myself, my family, and my community. Although Judaism is well studied by many historians and other social scientists, it has rarely been studied by economists and almost never with the modern approaches developed by economists in the last half-century. The present book is intended to fill this void in studies of American Judaism.

This book also begins to fill a void in the literature on the Economics of Religion, where references to Judaism are few in number, typically perfunctory, and often misinformed. Just as economic studies of other religious groups give us insights into Jewish behaviors, Judaism provides comparisons and contrasts that broaden the context for looking at the religious behaviors of non-Jews. By bringing the Economics of Religion to Judaism, and Judaism to the Economics of Religion, I hope to explain some of the puzzles raised by others regardless of their own religion (or lack thereof) and professional background.

Individuals as Agents of Social Change

When it comes to religion—any religion—it is probably safe to say that nobody is perfect. Each religion prescribes certain behaviors and proscribes others, providing adherents with guidelines to distinguish between right and wrong, moral and immoral, appropriate and inappropriate attitudes and actions. Judaism is no exception, with rules of observance that run the gamut from very broad (for example, "love God") to very specific (such as, "eat meat only from certain parts of certain animals slaughtered in a certain way and never in the same meal as milk or dairy products"). Although one might wish to follow every rule in order to be a "good" Jew, people often have difficulty doing so. Some observances seem more important than others, and some are difficult to fit into a contemporary lifestyle. Because people make choices during the course of their everyday lives that are not always consistent with the teachings of their religion, religious leaders always seem to be exhorting them to mend their ways.

This book is about economics, so it will not delve into the substance of Jewish law, nor will it question its validity as a guide to good behavior. What interests us here is how economic incentives affect decisions about time and money—how prices and incomes influence whether a law or custom is generally observed or broken, whether it is viewed as central or peripheral, whether it is perceived to be relevant or outdated, and therefore whether it persists as part of the culture. We can approach this problem by thinking of costs and benefits associated with each religious observance or each group of religious observances. Costs can be direct or indirect. Direct costs include the time and money spent on an observance, as well as any psychological discomfort that may be entailed. For example, the direct cost of following the Jewish dietary laws includes not only the extra cost of kosher meat but also the inconvenience of limiting food preparation to kosher kitchens, thereby ruling out nearly all time-saving restaurants and fast-food establishments. Indirect costs occur when religious observance makes it more difficult to acquire an education, to succeed in business, or to live in peace with one's neighbors. Observant Jews incur such costs when they forgo professional meetings that are scheduled on Saturday or on Jewish holy days, for example, or when business is conducted informally over lunch in a nonkosher restaurant. Our expectation (hypothesis) would be that expensive rules would be obeyed only if the benefits were seen to be large, while low-benefit rules might be obeyed only if their cost is low. Much of what follows in this book will be directed at better understanding how the full cost of Jewish observance affects the religious behavior of American Jews.

There is a famous cartoon that depicts a large crowd of people racing off to one side of the frame with a politician running anxiously behind them. Its caption has the politician saying, "I have to catch up with them—I am their leader." Although the cartoon is intended as a wry comment on the workings of democracy, it is more generally applicable to many kinds of fundamental social change. The combined actions of individuals, each making decisions perceived as being in their own best interest, can lead to changes in social norms that may or may not conform to those espoused by their designated leaders. As is well known, true sovereignty requires the consent of the governed.

It is ultimately the individual Jew who decides how much Judaism contributes to his or her well-being, how much time and effort to devote to Jewish observance, and how important this is when selecting a marriage partner. It is the individual family that decides whether to attend the synagogue service, how to celebrate each holiday, and how much Jewish education to seek for its children. Although synagogue officials may worry about budgets, and communal institutions may scurry to raise funds, they know that participation is affected not only by the income of their community members but also by the costs—direct and indirect, both time and money—of the services that they offer relative to the benefits they provide. Focusing on how economic incentives affect the everyday decisions of ordinary American Jews provides insights into both the nature of American Jewish religious observance and the nature of Judaism as an evolving part of American culture.

Persistence and Change in Religious Judaism

To say that Judaism is an ancient religion is to imply that modern Judaism is somehow the same as the religion of our ancestors in antiquity. Yet Judaism is far from static, changing with the times and socioeconomic environment almost from its inception more than 3,000 years ago. This apparent paradox is possible because religious Judaism combines a Great Tradition, common to all Jews everywhere, with Small Traditions specific to a particular time and place. The Great Tradition comes from antiquity and effectively defines a religious group as Jewish. A Small Tradition is Jewish in the sense that it implements the Great Tradition in ways that resonate to Jews living in a specific cultural context. Whereas the Great Tradition determines the substance and content of religious Judaism, a Small Tradition implements it and complements it with music, visual art, custom, and cuisine. It is "small" only in the sense that it need not be shared by Jews living elsewhere, but some—like the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi traditions that are part of today's American Jewish heritage—extend over large geographical areas and last for centuries.

Economic forces have little effect on Judaism's Great Tradition, which remains fairly stable as it has for millennia. In contrast, economic forces are a very important influence for a Small Tradition, especially one that is new and in a state of flux. The Small Tradition most familiar to Americans is Ashkenazi Judaism, the religious culture of Jews in most of Western and Eastern Europe since about the tenth century, from the Middle Ages until the present. The second most important in the United States is Sephardi Judaism, the religious culture developed by the Jews of medieval Spain and spread with their exile in 1492 throughout the rest of the Mediterranean basin, to the Moslem world, and to the Americas. American Jewish immigrants came primarily from the Sephardi tradition until the middle of the nineteenth century, but the overwhelming majority of today's American Jews are the descendents of more recent immigrations of Jews with Ashkenazi traditions.

American economic conditions in the twentieth century were very different from those of the medieval Muslim world in which Sephardi Judaism flourished and from the medieval European world that gave rise to Ashkenazi Judaism. It should be no surprise, then, that we are witnessing the emergence of a new American Small Tradition, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, although clearly influenced by both. Students of Jewish history and geography typically attribute Small Tradition differences in matters of observance to cultural differences in the societies where Jews are found, but differences in the economic environment are rarely considered as a separate influence on behavior. By examining various ways in which the American economic environment has shaped the religious observance and communal institutions of American Jewry, we gain insights into our history as well as the processes that affect our own lives today. The American Jewish experience can also provide useful insights for other religions, in the United States and elsewhere, whose members are facing similar economic incentives.

Persistent: Judaism's Great Tradition in America

The Great Tradition of Judaism is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. Especially fundamental are the first five books of Scripture, known in Hebrew as Torah, in English as the Five Books of Moses, and in Greek as the Pentateuch, the first five books of Christianity's Old Testament. The Torah contains stories of Creation and the early history of the Jewish people, it designates the most important religious holidays, and it prescribes laws pertaining to religious ritual, social organization, and everyday life. Conceptually, the Torah is a gift from God to the Jewish People as a whole, and its original Hebrew language can never be altered. Physically, the Torah is a parchment scroll onto which the original Hebrew words have been hand copied by a scribe specialized in this task. The Torah has been translated into many languages, but it is sacred only in its original Hebrew. It is read aloud on an annual cycle as a central part of the synagogue service, especially on the Sabbath and on Festivals.

Although the Torah's laws are timeless, the social setting in which they are followed is constantly changing. The challenge has always been, as it is today, to understand the eternal essence of the Torah so that it will not be lost in the course of changing circumstances. Over the millennia a very large body of literature has been amassed for this purpose. In antiquity, this took the form of an oral tradition preserved among sages who gathered for that purpose, probably beginning as early as the second century BCE but codified in written form as the Mishna in about 200 CE. The oral tradition continued with newer commentaries and interpretations, a selection of which (called the Gemara) were codified in the sixth century to augment the Mishna. The Mishna and the Gemara together are known as the Talmud. In subsequent centuries the written word came to displace oral traditions, but Torah laws continued to require new explanations whenever Jews tried to implement them in a new social or economic environment. Some of the most influential of these later commentaries typically appear as marginal notes on each page of Talmud while others, written from medieval times up until the present day, are published as separate codes of Jewish law. The Talmud itself is now part of Judaism's Great Tradition, although some of its passages reflect the various Small Traditions in which they arose and no longer resonate today.


Excerpted from Judaism in Transition by Carmel U. Chiswick. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Economic Context
3. The Cost of Being Jewish in America
4. Jewish Education and Human Capital
5. Jewish Families in America
6. American Jewish Immigrants
7. Israel and American Judaism
8. Whither American Judaism?

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