Test question: Define "Jewish" and give three examples

Let me jump in here quickly to respond to Doug's post on the issue of Jewish Christians, Buddhist Jews and other hard to define, emerging niche spiritualities. For journalists, this is a case in which it is almost impossible to write anything without starting linguistic warfare.

But journalists are not alone in this struggle, as I learned last year when I waded into the details of the long-delayed National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01, which was based on interviews with 4,500 Jews. It was sponsored by the United Jewish Communities -- which covers 550 groups -- and its supporters bravely tried to call it the most detailed statistical portrait of American Jews ever done.

As always, the marriage and family statistics made headlines. But what I found most interesting was -- here we go -- the attempt by the researchers to answer that hot-button question: "Who is Jewish (and who is not Jewish)?" Here is that crucial definition: A Jew is someone whose "religion is Jewish, OR, whose religion is Jewish and something else, OR, who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, OR, who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing."

This was a wide, wide net strung together with "or," "or" and "or." This is where things got interesting.

. . . (All) definitions include some and exclude others, said research director Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz. This survey, for example, was clear to include Jewish Buddhists. But its "non-monotheistic religion" clause excluded two people who had converted from Judaism to Islam. The "whose religion is Jewish and something else" clause created another problem.

"We included people who said they were both Jewish and Catholic or Jewish and something else," he said. "But if they identified themselves as Jewish Christians or we found some evidence that they were Messianic Jews, then we excluded them from the study. We had to draw that line."

I pressed for details. Someone could be Jewish and active in the United Church of Christ, but not Jewish and Southern Baptist. Or Jewish and liberal Episcopalian, but not Jewish and an Episcopalian who attended an evangelical congregation that was active in ministry to Jewish people. Jewish and United Methodist? Probably. Jewish and Eastern Orthodox? No. Jewish and Presbyterian? That would depend.

Jewish and Roman Catholic? The researchers said yes, in light of the changes of Vatican II.

In other words, the key issue is "universalism," the belief that salvation is found through all faiths or through no faith at all. One can be Jewish and Christian at the same time, so long as one does not claim to be a "Jewish Christian" or to believe that the Christian part of that equation has anything to do with salvation. The best of all possible worlds is Jewish and Buddhist, since this, in the American incarnation of Buddhism, implies few specific beliefs of any kind. whatsoever

Now, try to work with that definition in your standard Associated Press-style news story. Good luck.

But please let me hasten to add that even some of the pioneers in this new interfaith world have some worries about these trends. For example, note this quotation from poet Rodger Kamenetz, the celebrated author of The Jew in the Lotus.

"Let's face it, one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content. You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?"

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