A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

By Michele Dillon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
A Journey of the “Straight Way” or the
“Roundabout Path”

Jewish Identity in the United States and Israel
Arnold Dashefsky, Bernard Lazerwitz, and Ephraim Tabory

Jewish identity has not remained the same throughout the four millennia, which span the development of Jewish civilization. Nor is Jewish identity identical in all of the societies of the contemporary world in which Jews find themselves. It therefore may be useful to conceive of Jewish identity as a journey, which for some has been a “straight way” (figuratively the traditional trajectory embodied in Jewish religious law or “halakhah”), and for others a “roundabout path, ”1 embodying a more circuitous byway to being Jewish (whose entry points do not necessarily follow the traditional road traveled but, rather, individual choices). This distinction highlights the difference between the historic approach in Jewish civilization giving greater weight to communal responsibility vis-à-vis individual rights as compared to the reverse emphasis in modern American and European civilizations.

In this chapter, we will focus on understanding Jewish identity as it dawns in the twenty-first century by focusing on the two largest concentrations of Jewry in the world: The United States with approximately six million Jews, who represent only about 2 percent of the total population,2 and Israel with approximately five million Jews, where they represent about 80 percent of the population. Most of the remaining more than two million Jews worldwide are scattered in various countries in Europe

____________________
1
This phrase first appeared in Hebrew Scriptures in Judges 5:6 “… caravans ceased and wayfarers went by roundabout paths” (Heb: orahot akalkalot) although it applies to a different context.
2
According to Schwartz and Scheckner in the American Jewish Yearbook (1999), the official estimate is 6,041,000 million or 2.3 percent of the American population, an increase from the 5.5 million (or 2.2 percent of the population) reported in the 1990 National Population Survey (NJPS), a nationwide probability sample. Some scholars would dispute this increase; but the results of NJPS 2000, which will be available in 2002, will clarify the matter.

This is an equally coauthored chapter. A few paragraphs from pages 4 to 8 of Dashefsky and Shapiro (1993/1974) have been condensed and adapted for this chapter and are used with permission of the publisher and coauthor. An abbreviated version was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago, August 2002. Thanks are due to Mira Levine and Rebekah Shapiro Raz for their research assistance and to Jeanne Monty for her technical assistance in the preparation of this manuscript. We also would like to thank Stuart S. Miller, Dianne Tillman, and J. Alan Winter for their very helpful comments on previous drafts. Finally, special thanks are extended to Howard M. Shapiro, who helped nurture an initial interest in this topic.

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