The Future of US Jewry

American Jews are “secure” but lack “self-confidence.” So Irving Kristol wrote in 1991. Right then; right now?

Young Jewish men and women dance in a circle, circa 1950. From the digital collection of the Center for Jewish History.

Young Jewish men and women dance in a circle, circa 1950. From the digital collection of the Center for Jewish History.

Oct. 1 2014
About the author

Irving Kristol (January 22, 1920 – September 18, 2009) was an American columnist, journalist, and writer who was dubbed the “godfather of neo-conservatism.” As the founder, editor, and contributor to various magazines, he played an influential role in the intellectual and political culture of the last half-century; after his death he was described by The Daily Telegraph as being “perhaps the most consequential public intellectual of the latter half of the 20th century.”

This week in Mosaic we are celebrating the release of our new ebook On Jews and Judaism, a collection of Irving Kristol’s essential writings on the Jews. “The Future of American Jewry” was originally published in Commentary in August 1991.

For no other American ethnic group has the immigrant experience, including the experience of “Americanization,” remained so vivid as for the Jews. Neither the Irish, the Italians, nor the Germans have produced a literature about this experience that is in any way comparable, in sheer bulk as in literary scope and scholarly depth. It is almost a century since the majority of Jews arrived on these shores, but the memories remain fresh—memories of economic hardship and economic success; of acculturation, assimilation, and the accompanying generational tensions; of triumphs and disappointments—sending your children to the nation’s best universities and then watching them marry non-Jews.

Even in Israel, where immigration is so much more recent and the experience so much more traumatic, the past does not seem to be so present, so alive, so much in need of constant attention. The reason, of course, is that Jews in Israel feel that what immigration has done is to bring them “home.” They do not doubt that they are where they ought to be, that the immigration experience is a narrative that comes to a proper—perhaps even a predestined—ending. American Jews have no such sense of an ending. For them, the immigration experience continues, and it continues because they cannot decide whether or not America is “home.” They think that it is wonderful to be here, have no intention whatsoever of leaving for Israel or anywhere else, foresee their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren as Americans—but somehow the idea of America as their “homeland” is one they find too slippery to cope with.

Not that they think they are in exile. An American Jew who goes to Israel, or who subscribes to the weekly edition of the Jerusalem Post, hears the status of American Jews described casually as “living in galut,” “residing in the Diaspora.” He hears those cant phrases but does not really listen to them. He has no sense whatsoever of living in galut or in something called the Diaspora—terms that American Jews under the age of twenty-five are not likely to comprehend. Indeed, it is probable that even among Israelis, those terms as applied to American Jews are by now empty of meaning, and are little more than linguistic survivals. Where, then, do American Jews live?

The answer, I would suggest, is that most American Jews see themselves as living in an imaginary country called “America.” It was this imaginary country to which they immigrated—in this respect they certainly differed from other immigrants—and their long “immigrant experience” is a narrative of how they coped with living in two countries at once: an ideal America and an all-too-real America. It is this extraordinary phenomenon that accounts for so many specific and unique features of America Jewry—the powerful inclination to liberal politics as well as the strident “alienation” visible, for a century now, of Jewish intellectuals, writers, and artists. There is a Yiddish expression that used to be in common usage, Amerikeh ganef, literally “America the thief,” but in context meaning something like: “This is a wonderful country that takes as it gives.” And so it does—as does life itself.

This dual life of American Jews was made possible by the fact that the ideal America and the actual America were in so many important respects convergent. The ideal America was (and is) indeed a homeland for American Jews, and the real America was sufficiently responsive to this ideal to encourage Jews to think of themselves as living in a homeland that existed in potentia if not yet in fact. The discrepancy between ideal and real, however, was always there, and existed to a degree that provoked Jews to a nervous and somewhat uneasy affirmation, as distinct from an easygoing and unequivocal one such as is to be found among other immigrant groups.

Most American Jews today are convinced—one should perhaps say they have persuaded themselves—that the trend toward convergence is stronger than ever. That is why they show signs of near-hysteria at any sign that suggests the contrary. The American Jewish community today is comfortable, secure, but lacking in self-confidence. It shows frequent symptoms of hypochondria and neurasthenia. It is a community very vulnerable to its own repressed anxieties and self-doubts.

It is right to be anxious because there are clear portents that we may, in fact, be entering an age of divergence, one in which the ideal America of the Jews will become more distant from the real America. But to get an insight into the processes of convergence and divergence, one must have a clear understanding of the fundamental forces at work. That understanding, it seems to me, is lacking because analysts of American Jewry look at their subject with a European paradigm in mind. But the United States is an exceptional country, and Jewish history elsewhere throws very little light on the American Jewish experience in the 20th century.

What is it, precisely, that has defined this experience? Can one call it “assimilation”? The word itself seems so inappropriate that, while used freely to apply to German or French or British Jews, it is not used nearly so often to refer to their American counterparts. “Assimilation” suggests a strong, longstanding national culture, with a marked Christian complexion, into which Jews melt as they shed their distinctly Jewish characteristics. One of these characteristics, of course, is religion. That is why “assimilation” is generally associated with conversion to Christianity, either formal or informal (i.e., “passing” for a Christian without benefit of conversion). We have seen something like this happening in a relatively small percentage of the American Jewish population, but the overwhelming majority do not fit this mold. For “Americanization” is not at all the same thing as “assimilation.” Nor is it the same thing as “acculturation.” If American Jews, in the course of the 20th century, have been “acculturated,” so have all other Americans. American Jews have not changed more during this period than have American Catholics and American Protestants, of whatever ethnic group. Moreover, they have all moved, gradually but ineluctably, in the same direction.

What is this direction? Toward a far greater religious toleration, obviously, which has cheered all Jewish hearts. But what, more exactly, has been the basis for this extraordinary (by all historical standards) flowering of religious toleration? Here two explanations are commonly offered, one seemingly anachronistic, the other lacking in self-understanding.

The first explanation has to do with the historical origins of religious toleration in the United States. It is a matter of record that such toleration emerged out of the struggle of various Protestant sects for the freedom publicly to express their religious views and to have their constituents and their religious establishments free from official discrimination. This is what happened in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th. It is fair to say, along with Richard John Neuhaus, that religious tolerance in the United States originally derives from the tension among a multiplicity of religious allegiances.

But after the Civil War, and especially after 1900, a quite different climate of tolerance gradually developed. This had to do with a decline of religious intensity overall and with the growing popularity of the view that “religion is a private affair,” by which is meant a purely personal affair. Toleration became a matter of relations among persons, not among religious denominations. Indeed, individuals and communities that seemed “excessively” interested in their religious beliefs and allowed these beliefs to shape their lives in uncommon ways were (and still are) regarded as somewhat “deviant,” and sometimes even alien to “the American creed.” This “American creed,” now frequently referred to as our “civic religion,” is a superficial and syncretistic compound of Judeo-Christian moral traditions with as much religious specificity as possible washed out. It is what John Dewey, the quintessential American philosopher of our century, meant by his phrase, “a common faith,” an overriding, nondenominational faith to which all denominations are loyal and subservient. This common faith is what we have come to call “liberalism,” its exemplary institution being the American Civil Liberties Union. To the extent that such a common faith has prevailed, religious tolerance is not an issue worthy of debate. It simply makes no sense not to be tolerant.

Historians call this phase of our intellectual history, now more than a century old, “secularization,” and they point to analogous developments in other lands to sustain the thesis that secularization is an integral part of modernization. It is impossible to argue with this thesis, for which the evidence is overwhelming. But it is possible and legitimate to question the explanatory power of the concept of secularization. Something important happened, that is certain. Secularization is doubtless as good a shorthand term as any to describe what happened. It is not, however, a useful concept if one wishes to explain what happened. For what we call secularization is an idea that only makes sense from a point of view that regards traditional religions as survivals that can, at best, be adapted to a nonreligious society.

When we look at secularization without an ideological parti pris, we can fairly—and, I would suggest, more accurately—describe it as the victory of a new, emergent religious impulse over the traditional biblical religions that formed the framework of Western civilization. Nor is there any mystery as to the identity of this new religious impulse. It is named, fairly and accurately, secular humanism. Merely because it incorporates the word “secular” in its self-identification does not mean that it cannot be seriously viewed as a competitive religion—though its adherents resent and resist any such ascription. Such resentment and resistance are, of course, a natural consequence of seeing the human world through “secularist” spectacles. Because secular humanism has, from the very beginning, incorporated the modern scientific view of the universe, it has always felt itself—and today still feels itself—“liberated” from any kind of religious perspective. But secular humanism is more than science, because it proceeds to make all kinds of inferences about the human condition and human possibilities that are not, in any authentic sense, scientific. Those inferences are metaphysical, and in the end theological.

There really is such a thing as secular humanism. The fact that many fundamentalist Protestants attack it in a mindless way, making it a kind of shibboleth, does not mean that it is, as some have been blandly saying, a straw man. It is not a straw man. As any respectable text in European intellectual history relates, “humanism,” in the form of “Christian humanism,” was born in the Renaissance, as a major shift occurred from an other-worldly to a this-worldly focus, and as a revived interest in Greco-Roman thought shouldered aside the narrow Christian-Aristotelian rationalism endorsed by the Church. At the same time, the Protestant Reformation weakened the Church as a religious institution and therewith undermined religious, intellectual, and moral authority in general. Christian humanism, moreover, did not long survive the near-simultaneous emergence of modern scientific modes of thinking about natural phenomena. By 1600, secular humanism as a coherent outlook was well-defined—Francis Bacon exemplifies it perfectly—though it was careful not to expose itself too candidly, lest it attract hostility from still-powerful religious establishments, Protestant as well as Catholic.

What, specifically, were (and are) the teachings of this new philosophical-spiritual impulse? They can be summed up in one phrase: “Man makes himself.” That is to say, the universe is bereft of transcendental meaning, it has no inherent teleology, and it is within the power of humanity to comprehend natural phenomena and to control and manipulate them so as to improve the human estate. Creativity, once a divine prerogative, becomes a distinctly human one. It is in this context that the modern idea of progress is born, and the modern reality of “progressive” societies takes shape. These are societies dominated, not by tradition, but by a spirit of what F. A. Hayek calls “constructivism”—the self-confident application of rationality to all human problems, individual and social alike.

What is “secular” about this movement is the fact that, though many people still go to church or synagogue for psychological reasons (consolation, hope, fear), very few educated people actually think that their immortal souls are at stake as a result of their beliefs or actions. Man’s immortal soul has been a victim of progress, replaced by the temporal “self”—which he explores in such sciences as psychology and neurology, as well as in the modern novel, modern poetry, and modern psychology, all of which proceed without benefit of what, in traditional terms, was regarded as a religious dimension.

It is secular humanism that is the orthodox metaphysical-theological basis of the two modern political philosophies, socialism and liberalism. The two are continuous across the secular-humanist spectrum, with socialism being an atheistic, messianic extreme while liberalism is an agnostic, melioristic version. (This continuity explains why modern liberalism cannot help viewing its disagreement with socialism—with the “Left”—as a kind of family quarrel.) Nor is it only modern politics that has been so shaped. Christianity and Judaism have been infiltrated and profoundly influenced by the spirit of secular humanism. There are moments when, listening to the sermons of bishops, priests, and rabbis, one has the distinct impression that Christianity and Judaism today are, for the most part, different traditional vehicles for conveying, in varying accents, the same (or at least very similar) sentiments and world views. Of other-worldly views there is very little expression, except among the minority who are discredited (and dismissed) as “fundamentalist” or “ultra-Orthodox.”

The impact of secular humanism on European Jews was far more striking than among Christians. It was the secular-humanist Left, after all, that agitated for (and won) Jewish emancipation and Jewish civic equality. Moreover, emancipation unleashed within the Jewish community latent messianic passions that pointed to a new era of fraternal “universalism” of belief for mankind. What is now called “prophetic Judaism” gradually edged out “rabbinic Judaism”—the distinction itself being a derivative of the secular-humanist impulse. By the time the mass of Jews, mostly Central and East European, came to the United States, they were already secular-humanist in their politics, i.e., somewhere left of Center—if not in other respects. And, in time, as American Christianity and American culture also absorbed this secular-humanist impulse, Jews were encouraged to become more secular-humanist in other respects as well. They located themselves on the cutting edge of American acculturation to secular humanism as an integral part of their own Americanization.

That Jews should be liberal-to-Left in American politics is not surprising: they always have been so, and were ready to be so from the moment they set foot on these shores. What scholars and analysts take to be more interesting is that they remain so, even as they have prospered and achieved socioeconomic levels that, according to the socioeconomic determinism of contemporary sociology, should have made them more conservative. Aside from the fact that such determinism is always intellectually flawed to begin with, this overlooks the far more interesting phenomenon that American Jews have not only refused to become more conservative but have actually become more liberal-Left in their thinking about nonpolitical issues—what we today call “social” issues.

Take the question of abortion. The American people are divided on this issue, with 20 percent or so on the permissive “Left,” another 20 percent on the restrictive “Right,” and the majority flopping about in between these extremes. Jews, over the years, have moved disproportionately close to the permissive pole. Why? Why on earth should Hadassah or the National Council of Jewish Women be so passionately in favor of a woman’s “freedom to choose”? There is absolutely nothing in the Jewish tradition that favors such a radical inclination. Nor is there anything in the experience of most American Jewish women that would explain it. (Out-of-wedlock births among American Jews are among the lowest in the nation, and married Jewish women are expert at birth control.) It is purely an ideological phenomenon, a reflection of the power of secular humanism within the Jewish community. After all, if “man makes himself,” why should he (or she) not have the authority to unmake himself, if it is convenient to do so? Abortion (except in cases of endangerment to the life of the mother) was long forbidden to Jews for religious reasons. Today, it is taken to be permitted to Jews (always excepting the Orthodox) for religious reasons—but not Jewish religious reasons. Jews in America may belong to Jewish institutions, send their children to Sunday schools for Jewish instruction, proudly identify themselves as Jews—but their religion, for the most part, is Jewish only in its externals. At the core it is secular humanist.

Dedication to secular humanism is so congenial to American Jews because it has assured them of an unparalleled degree of comfort and security. It has done so because Christians in America have been moving in exactly the same direction, if more tardily. A secular-humanist America is “good for Jews” since it makes nonsense of anti-Semitism, and permits individual Jews a civic equality and equality of opportunity undreamed of by previous Jewish generations. It is natural, therefore, for American Jews to be, not only accepting of secular-humanist doctrines, but enthusiastic exponents. That explains why American Jews are so vigilant about removing all the signs and symbols of traditional religions from the “public square,” so insistent that religion be merely a “private affair,” so determined that separation of church and state be interpreted to mean the separation of all institutions from any signs of a connection with traditional religions. The spread of secular humanism throughout American life has been “good for Jews,” no question about it. So the more, the better.

Well, perhaps this is a time for questioning whether more is better, and even whether what has been “good for Jews” will continue to be so. After all, the greatest single threat to the Jewish community today is not anti-Semitism but intermarriage, at a 30-40 percent rate. The Reform and Conservative rabbinates confront this problem with strong talk about the importance of Jewish survival. But it is absurd to think that young Jews, as individuals, are going to make their marital decisions on the basis of ancestral piety—a theme that modern rationalism cannot take seriously. Even if these young Jews approve of Jewish survival, as many do, they find it easy to assign this particular task to others. And, of course, there are an awful lot of Jews, young and not-so-young, who are less interested in Jewish survival than in the universal sovereignty of secular humanism, under which sovereignty Jews and Christians can live in fraternal peace, even though some may persist in older religious rituals which they find to have a therapeutic value as they cope with the stresses of secular modernity. One sees many such Jews in Reform and Conservative synagogues during the High Holidays.

But it is becoming ever more clear that what we are witnessing is not the advent of a brave new world in which religious orientation, like sexual orientation, will be largely a matter of taste. We are seeing, rather, the end of a major phase of American Jewish history, and of the history of Western civilization itself. American Jews, living in their suburban cocoons, are likely to be the last to know what is happening to them.

We have, in recent years, observed two major events that represent turning points in the history of the 20th century. The first is the death of socialism, both as an ideal and a political program, a death that has been duly recorded in our consciousness. The second is the collapse of secular humanism—the religious basis of socialism—as an ideal, but not yet as an ideological program, a way of life. The emphasis is on “not yet,” for as the ideal is withering away, the real will sooner or later follow suit.

If one looks back at the intellectual history of this century, one sees the rationalist religion of secular humanism gradually losing its credibility even as it marches triumphantly through the institutions of our society—through the schools, the courts, the churches, the media. This loss of credibility flows from two fundamental flaws in secular humanism.

First, the philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver any such code itself. Moral codes evolve from the moral experience of communities, and can claim authority over behavior only to the degree that individuals are reared to look respectfully, even reverentially, on the moral traditions of their forefathers. It is the function of religion to instill such respect and reverence. Morality does not belong to a scientific mode of thought, or to a philosophical mode, or even to a theological mode, but to a practical-juridical mode. One accepts a moral code on faith—not on blind faith but on the faith that one’s ancestors, over the generations, were not fools and that we have much to learn from them and their experience. Pure reason can offer a critique of moral beliefs but it cannot engender them.

For a long time now, the Western world has been leading a kind of schizophrenic existence, with a prevailing moral code inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition and a set of secular-humanist beliefs about the nature and destiny of man to which that code is logically irrelevant. Inevitably, belief in the moral code has become more and more attenuated over time, as we have found ourselves baffled by the Nietzschean challenge: if God is really dead, by what authority do we say any particular practice is prohibited or permitted? Pure reason alone cannot tell us that incest is wrong (so long as there are no offspring), and one has had the opportunity to see a network TV program called Incest: The Last Taboo. Pure reason cannot tell us that bestiality is wrong; indeed, the only argument against bestiality these days is that, since we cannot know whether animals enjoy it or not, it is a violation of “animal rights.” The biblical prohibition, which is unequivocal, is no longer powerful enough to withstand the “why not?” of secular-humanist inquiry.

The consequence of such moral disarray is confusion about the single most important questions that adults face: “How shall we raise our children? What kind of moral example should we set? What moral instruction should we convey?” A society that is impotent before such questions will breed restless, turbulent generations that, confronting their own children, will seek and find authoritative answers somewhere—somewhere, of some kind.

A second flaw in secular humanism is even more fundamental, since it is the source of a spiritual disarray that is at the root of moral chaos. If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded—or even if it suspects—that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe. Ever since the beginnings of the Romantic movement, the history of Western thought for over a century and a half now—in its philosophy, its poetry, its arts—has been a reaction to the implication of secular humanism that such is indeed the case. In fairness to secular humanism, it has to be said that it recognizes this challenge and encourages individuals to subdue it through self-mastery and mastery over nature. Human “autonomy” and human “creativity” are the prescription—but this only makes the doctors feel smug while helping the patient not at all. None of the powerful, interesting, and influential thinkers of the 20th century has remained loyal to secular humanism. The three dominant philosophers of our age are Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre—a nihilist, a neopagan, an “anguished” existentialist. The main currents of thought in American universities today—postmodernism, deconstruction, varieties of structuralism—are all contemptuous of the universities’ humanist heritage, which is dismissed as the accursed legacy of an “elite” of “dead white males.” Secular humanism is brain dead even as its heart continues to pump energy into all of our institutions.

What does this portend for the future of American society? And for the future of Jews in this society?

The situation of American Jews is complicated by the fact that Israel, so crucial to the self-definition of American Jews, is facing exactly the same kind of crisis in secular humanism. Israel, after all, was founded by Jewish socialists for whom Judaism was but a “cultural heritage.” Most Israelis still regard themselves as secular—but their secularism turns out to be different from, and more vulnerable than, American Jewish secularism. The very fact that their language is Hebrew and that their children read the Bible in school makes a significant difference. Orthodoxy in Israel is not a “saving remnant”; it is moving toward being the established religion of Israeli society, if not of the Israeli state, which remains technically secular. One out of every twenty eighteen-year-olds in Israel is studying in a yeshiva—i.e., is by American standards “ultra-Orthodox.” These give an indication of which way the winds are blowing.

How will American Jews relate to this Israel? The answer, obviously, will depend on what happens to American society and to the place of Jews in it.

As the spirit of secular humanism loses its momentum, it is reasonable to anticipate that religion will play a more central role in American life. In theory, this religion need not be Christian. We see today all sorts of neopagan impulses bubbling up from below, filling an aching spiritual void. On our last Mother’s Day in New York, a few dozen people gathered in Central Park and uttered prayers to “Mother Earth” and her associated goddesses. The New York Times, in an editorial, thought this a perfectly appropriate way to mark the occasion. In general, what is loosely called “New Age” thinking—our bookshops now have special sections to cope with “New Age” literature—represent versions of neopaganism, in which radical-feminist metaphysics plays an especially prominent role.

Still, it is more reasonable to anticipate that the overwhelming majority of Americans, as they turn to religion, will turn to some version (perhaps in modified form) of Christianity. There is little point in speculating about the specific implications of any such development, but one general implication is unavoidable: as American society becomes more Christian, less secular, the “wall of separation between church and state” will become more porous. In all probability, we shall see a turning back of the clock, with the place of religion in the American “public square” more like that which prevailed in the 19th century, as against the 20th.

How will Jews react? In two ways, no doubt. The major Jewish organizations—including the majority of the rabbinate—will dig in their heels in defense of what we call a “liberal” society and “liberal” politics, by which is meant a society inclined to favor secular-humanist ideals and a corresponding set of official policies. At the same time, inevitably, Jews will perforce become “more Jewish,” which at the very least will mean a firmer integration into the Jewish community, as well as becoming more observant, though not necessarily going all the way to strict Orthodoxy.

Is this picture of 21st-century America good or bad? Specifically, is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? The instinctive response of most Jews, committed to their secular liberalism at least as fervently as to their Judaism, will be that it is not merely bad but desperately bleak. One does get the impression that many American Jews would rather see Judaism vanish through intermarriage than hear the President say something nice about Jesus Christ. But this instinctive response is likely to be irrelevant. If America is going to become more Christian, Jews will have to adapt. That adaptation may involve changes in Jewish attitudes toward such matters as school prayer and the like; it would also surely imply a greater sensitivity to Christian feelings than has been evident in certain Jewish organizations in recent years.

In historical perspective, none of this is of major importance. After all, in the decades prior to World War II, American Jews were a lot less militant in their insistence on a secularist society, were indeed quite prudent in their approach to issues that crossed Christian sensibilities. Such prudence can be relearned.

The key question, inevitably, is whether a less secular, more religious society will mean an increase in anti-Semitism. Not official anti-Semitism, of course, which has always been alien to American democracy, but the kind of economic and social discrimination that was common before World War II. It may be noted in passing that such discrimination did not prevent Jews from acquiring wealth, education, and influence. It created hurdles, but not impossible barriers. In any case, while there may be a revival of such discrimination, it is unlikely. In our increasingly multiethnic society, it is hard to see why hostility to Jews should be a ruling passion for large numbers of Americans, especially since Jews are now so firmly established in the mainstream of American life. Insofar as opinion polls can be trusted, Americans display little paranoid distrust of Jews, and in fact are less interested in them than most Jews imagine.

So it is reasonable to believe that Jews will continue to be nervously “at home” in America, though in ways congenial to the 21st century rather than to the 20th. The real danger is not from a revived Christianity, which American Jews (if they are sensible) can cope with, but from an upsurge of anti-biblical barbarism that will challenge Christianity, Judaism, and Western civilization altogether. The passing of secular humanism is already pointing to such a “shaking of the foundations.” American Jews, alert to Christian anti-Semitism, are in danger of forgetting that it was the pagans—the Babylonians and the Romans—who destroyed the temples and twice imposed exile on the Jewish people.

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Irving Kristol (1920–2009) was one of the great essayists, editors, and public intellectuals of the twentieth century.

More about: American Jews, Irving Kristol, Liberalism, Nietzsche, Secularism