Friday, October 04, 2002

Funny Numbers

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts and anyone bearing statistics. That’s the lesson to be learned from economists who confidently tell us what shall be in a future that clearly has yet to arrive and which they surely cannot know. For all of the confidence of these soothsayers, their track record isn’t much better than that of astrologers. It’s their good fortune that their errant predictions are usually quickly forgotten.

A similar lesson is being taught to us by our demographers, a small band of statisticians dressed up as sociologists who when they aren’t clawing at one another bequeath us widely divergent data on the state of American Jewish life. Their enterprise is conducted with a flair for publicity, as is evident in the front page story in this newspaper detailing the discovery by Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community Research - one of our growing number of think tanks where thinking tanks regularly - that there are many more Jews in these United States than other demographers have located.

Tobin’s announcement appears to be a pre-emptive strike against the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey whose first fruit is to be announced within several days. This is a low blow, but demography is not a gentlemanly sport.

Mr. Tobin arrives at his elevated figures essentially through the simple calculation that intermarriage adds to the number of Jews because there are many more Americans who are partly Jewish. If we include all those who say that they have some link to Jewishness, our ranks grow to 13.3 million Americans. With this kind of new math and as more Jews marry out and the children of the intermarried themselves intermarry, erelong there will be 25 million Americans who are somehow Jewish.

There is a phenomenon of hidden Jews, persons who are Jewish in one sense or another but who either do not know of their background or who deliberately hide the fact. I refer to this as the Madeleine Albright syndrome. It’s a subject that requires study, here and especially in Europe. But Tobin’s statistics are preposterous. Intermarriage weakens a group and reduces its numbers, as is evident from the experience of German Americans and Irish Americans, to mention two notable examples, and from the history of our people.

In addition to its conceptual flaws, Tobin’s study relies on methodological assumptions that are at least as dubious. His data is based on 250 telephone interviews with households that in the words of the article “expressed some relationship to Judaism.” Anyone who believes that a sample size of 250 is sufficient to support the extraordinary conclusions reached by Tobin is in fantasy land. Mr. Tobin has a good appetite for extrapolation, for inferences and guesswork, but he has stretched a questionable methodology past the breaking point.

As far back as 1970, our demographers extended the concept of a Jewish household to include non-Jews and others whose Jewishness was questionable. Social necessity became the mother to sociological invention. In addition to halachic Jews, we now have sociological Jews, ethnic Jews, cultural Jews and, thanks to Mr. Tobin, cardiac Jews, as well as non-Jewish Jews. His survey includes persons who simply feel “Jewish in their hearts.” In order to ensure Jewish survival, perhaps our community should invest more heavily in cardiologists rather than in Jewish education.

In an essay published in Tradition (Summer 2001), I suggested that American Jewry is evolving into a voluntary membership association. “We can stay in, pay dues, join in group activities and perhaps impart our sense of loyalty to the next generation. Or we can switch out, in much the same way that political party affiliation can be switched…. There are Americans who aren’t Jewish by anyone’s definition who are signing on as Jews – at least that’s what they think – usually because they’re in a relationship with someone who is Jewish.”

Mr. Tobin eagerly counts all of the joiners, yet he does not exclude the quitters, the large number who say that they no longer regard themselves as Jewish. If, as he claims in a Forward article, that his is a “sociological assessment” he ought to be consistent and not include those who have opted out of the Jewish community. He also ought to accept the customary and valid distinction between core and non-core Jews, something that he regards as “insulting.” It’s hard to figure out who is being insulted. NJPS and other surveys rely on this distinction and as undergraduate sociology majors know, it is a useful way of differentiating among group membership.

I believe that Mr. Tobin conducted his survey with a good idea of what he wanted to find. Not surprisingly, he found what he was looking for. Although his approach is absurd, it’s a good bet that he has hit pay dirt, and not primarily because of a developed instinct for self-promotion. His approach is in tune with what a majority of American Jews want to hear and believe. They want to believe that despite out-marriages and wholesale Judaic abandonment, our ranks our growing. More critically, they want to be assured that they remain in good Jewish standing no matter how far removed they are from our heritage.

They now have another psychological safetynet to go along with the massive communal investment to prop up a sociological reality that is alien to our history. Although it is ersatz, this brand of Judaism will be with us for a long while, given the backing it is receiving.

Mr. Tobin writes in the Forward that those who do “not like these figures” are peddling “fear and despair” and “are used to predicting disaster and destruction, and even the disappearance of American Jews.” I see Jewish life blossoming on these shores because of adherence to our traditions and not through statistical manipulation. We shall survive, not by abandoning Judaism but by being faithful to that which has ensured our survival for generations.