Sigalow on Rebhun, 'Jews and the American Religious Landscape'

Author: 
Uzi Rebhun
Reviewer: 
Emily Sigalow

Uzi Rebhun. Jews and the American Religious Landscape. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 248 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-54149-7.

Reviewed by Emily Sigalow (Brandeis University) Published on H-Judaic (September, 2017) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow

How do American Jews compare socio-demographically and politically with other religious groups in the United States? In what ways are they unique? And in what ways are Jews, as the proverbial saying goes, just like everybody else, only more so? In answering these questions, Uzi Rebhun’s new book, Jews and the American Religious Landscape, both surprises us with new findings about the socio-demographic profile of American Jews and confirms patterns about American Jewry that historians and social scientists have long established as true.  

For nearly a half-century, Rebhun—who holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations at the Abraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—­­­has focused on the demography and sociology of Jews, particularly American Jews. Unlike much of the other social scientific research on American Jewry, Rebhun’s work, both past and present, studies Jews in a comparative light, specifically within the context of broader patterns within American society. By culling data from the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Study, Jews and the American Religious Landscape advances Rebhun’s comparative program by analyzing Jews in relationship to other religious groups in the US in terms of population size, geographic location, socioeconomic stratification, intermarriage, religious identification, and political orientation.

This comparative perspective makes Jews and the American Religious Landscape an important contribution to our understanding about the character and relative position of Jews in America vis-à-vis other religious groups. Rebhun’s research also measures how various subgroups of American Jewry, including immigrants vs. American-born Jews, intermarried vs. in-married, and Jews by religion vs. ethnic Jews, fare differently across the different socio-demographic indicators, nuancing our understanding of the American Jewish landscape.

Both in terms of methodology and findings, this book has echoes of Tom Smith’s Jewish Distinctiveness in America (2005), though it has a closer focus on the differences among religious groups and distinctions within American Jewry than does Smith’s work. Jews and the American Religious Landscape and Jewish Distinctiveness in America constitute an exciting new family of go-to books for statistical evidence about the comparative location of Jews in the contemporary United States.

Rebhun is at his finest in conveying the findings from his multivariate analysis. His analysis reveals some fascinating patterns. He demonstrates, for example, that Jews and Muslims, two groups that have a politically fraught relationship with each other in the Middle East, share a similar social position in the United States with regards to geographic distribution, educational attainment, intermarriage patterns, and political orientation. On page 63, he makes the astute observation that “the educational attainments of Jews and Muslims in the U.S. create opportunities for strong interaction between them, with the possibility of broader implications for Jewish-Arab relations in the U.S and elsewhere, including the Middle East.” Rebhun’s analyses also remind us how important region is to American Jewish life. He demonstrates that the region in which a Jew lives (Northeast, Midwest, South, or West) is correlated with education level, religious identification, patterns of intermarriage, and so on.

Most of Rebhun’s findings reinforce the well-known socio-demographic profile of American Jewry. Rebhun shows that American Jews are concentrated in the Northeast. They have the highest educational attainment and income level of any American religious group. They also are much less likely than non-Jews to believe in God, view God as a person, read scripture, pray, believe in life after death, and believe in heaven. And, though not surprisingly, Jews by religion exhibit stronger religious commitments than ethnic Jews, and Jews tilt towards liberalism. All these findings confirm that American Jews occupy a distinctive social and religious position in the United States.

While this book provides fresh and precise statistical comparisons between Jews and other religious groups, its synthetic review of the American religious landscape would have benefited from a more nuanced approach to the metanarratives and theoretical perspectives common to the study of American religion. By way of example: Rebhun draws on the motif of Protestant triumphalism to describe the history of religion in the US (p. 2). This narrative had considerable purchase throughout the 1970s and 80s, but has been challenged by reams of new scholarship demonstrating that religions do not just adapt to the US by imitating liberal Protestantism; they also actively re-create themselves through negotiations with the US legal and political systems, other religious and racial minority groups, American expectations about sexuality and gender, and even now with social media. Rebhun also does not draw a distinction between religious pluralism—the ideology of acceptance and encouragement of religious diversity—and contemporary forms of individual religious bricolage. And, he frequently leans on rational-choice perspectives in explaining various outcomes, including intermarriage, religious switching, and political behavior, even though a long line of scholarship has contested the degree to which costs and rewards actually structure religious and political action.  

Rather than consistently accepting the patterns that he identifies as neither good nor bad, Rebhun makes normative judgments at various points in the book, implicitly evoking the question: “is it good for the Jews?”  He describes intermarriage as “the ultimate expression of the unraveling of a Jewish lifestyle” (p. 14), and suggests that people have a “natural inclination” to maintain links to their own ethnic, national, or religious groups (p. 81). In terms of interreligious mixing among Jews and Asians, Rebhun writes that Asians’ high educational and economic attainments make them “appropriate marriage partners for Jews” and cause “Judaism to mingle with nonmonotheistic religious patterns” (p. 171).  While no social scientist would contest that people who are similar in socio-demographic characteristics are more likely to interact and mix with each other than with people who are dissimilar, the question of “appropriate” marriage and the reductive description of Asian religions as “nonmonotheistic religious patterns” are concerning. Also concerning was Rebhun’s claim that “some minorities, specifically African Americans and Muslims, hold rather strong anti-Jewish prejudices and sentiments; a large concentration of them in a given state may encourage different types of anti-Jewish manifestations” (p. 182). These are very politically charged claims to make, and at the very least, Rebhun needs to provide evidence that supports both the initial assertion and the conclusion drawn from it. These issues aside, Jews and the American Religious Landscape makes an important empirical contribution to our understanding of the distinctive socio-demographic profile of American Jewry.   

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49943

Citation: Emily Sigalow. Review of Rebhun, Uzi, Jews and the American Religious Landscape. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49943

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