This week, Jews around the world will read Megillat Esther, the story of an assimilated Jewish queen who saves her people. While chock-full of glamour and intrigue, perhaps the most remarkable feature of this tale is what is missing: It is the only text in the Jewish Bible that does not mention the word “God.”
Yet, despite what might seem a startling omission, this text is central to how American Jews tell the story of our people’s continued survival against all odds. The inclusion of Megillat Esther in the Jewish canon challenges us to consider the place for “godless” Jewish stories in our community today.
One of the most publicized elements of the 2013 Pew Research Center’s study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, was the introduction of a new category of Jewishness: “Jew of No Religion.” Indeed, much of Pew’s preliminary analysis centered on comparing Jews of No Religion to their “Jewish by Religion” counterparts.
Jew of No Religion is a heuristic device that allows researchers to identify patterns in social life. As such, the category Jew of No Religion is an immensely useful tool. But there are also hazards in relying on this category as arbiter of social reality, because, of course, there is no such thing as Jew of No Religion. No one would introduce herself that way.
So what does it illuminate — and obscure — about those sorted into this category? How well does a label like Jew of No Religion help us to grapple with new developments in Jewish life, as well as in American society writ large?
Jews are not the only Americans with a seemingly contested relationship with religion. The 2012 Pew report, Nones on the Rise, provides insight into “Religious Nones” in the American population. Religious Nones are people who, when prompted in a survey, do not profess affiliation to any religion. And their numbers are increasing: the Pew study found that Nones rose from 15 percent of Americans in 2007 to close to 20 percent in 2012.
It is important to note that Religious Nones are not necessarily without religious beliefs; rather, they are without religious affiliation. Among Americans as a whole, close to 70 percent of Religious Nones believe in God or a “higher spirit.” The number is notably lower among American Jews of No Religion, but still substantial: Close to half — 46 percent — of Jews of No Religion believe in God or a Universal Spirit.
No doubt many Jews of No Religion are inheritors of a rich and storied Jewish secular past. However, can we assume that all Jews of No Religion are ardent secularists looking for film festivals but not faith? What, for example, are we to make of this curious group of Jews of No Religion who believe in God? Are they secular, spiritual-but-not-religious, or something else?
Without a doubt, the Pew study and its preliminary analysis reveal important differences in patterns of beliefs, belonging and behavior. In no way can we deny the utility of this kind of analysis or suggest that it is the job of one survey to elucidate all complexities and contradictions inherent in human culture.
But the term Jew of No Religion is based on a deficit model, an old trope in social science. It looks at social actors as problems to be solved, heathens to be brought to the light. The categorical terms adopted by the Pew report and the subsequent discussion have set up markers for good and bad Jewish subjects.
Are Jews of No Religion poorly socialized Jews by Religion? It’s unlikely that all Jews of No Religion define their Jewishness by what they don’t have. Setting up criteria for Jewishness and then defining people based on their failure to meet those criteria is the happy work of Jewish social science, but it does not always allow for an understanding of the phenomena that lie beneath the labels.
What do Jews of No Religion believe — about God, religion, the good or the value of identifying as Jewish? How did they form these beliefs and how do they share them with others? While Jews of No Religion profess very low rates of membership in synagogues (4 percent) and Jewish communal groups (4 percent), they are not alone. They are part. consciously or not, of an evolving conversation about religion, spirituality and ethnicity in contemporary life.
The plot of Megillat Esther suggests that there was nothing recognizably Jewish about Mordechai and Esther from the Persian point of view. The dénouement is dependent upon Esther’s true identity being well hidden by external markers that were ultimately poor measures of her underlying Jewishness.
So as we hear the Megillah read this week, remember to listen for what isn’t there, what lies beneath, and consider making room for other godless tales in our ongoing story of what it means to be a Jewish American today.
Arielle Levites is a doctoral candidate at New York University in education and Jewish studies.