10/09/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

Answering the Pew

A year ago, on Oct. 1, 2013, the Pew Research Center released its infamous "Portrait of Jewish Americans." Since then, we Jews in America have done a great deal of thinking about the answers that our coreligionists gave to Pew's mixed multitude of questions: 22 percent percent of us identify as "Jews of no religion;" 58 percent percent are intermarried and 94 percent are proud to be Jewish. And so on.

Last week, in a nice alignment of calendars secular and sacred, the first anniversary of the study's publication fell right in between the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during the Ten Days of Teshuvah. In this context, the Hebrew word teshuvah is usually translated as "repentance," as the essential reflective process we undergo in preparation for the awesome gravity of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But an alternative translation of teshuvah -- and one that is prescient given the conversations that have taken place in the wake of the Pew study -- is "answer."

What is the answer to the "alarming" state of Jews in America?

My answer: we don't know what we want the answers to be.

We never asked ourselves how we want Jews in America to respond to a battery of questions about their Jewishness. If our Jewish community is in an "alarming" state, then what would an encouraging state look like? How would the answers have to change? If the intermarriage rate suddenly dropped to zero, would that be the sign of an increasingly healthy or an increasingly isolationist (or isolated) Jewish America? If Jews of no religion stopped identifying as Jews altogether would our remaining, greater percentage of Jews by religion have shed fat or muscle?

Or, more fundamentally, are those even the figures that actually matter? Perhaps they are -- if the purpose of our people is simply our own perpetuation. But if we aspire to something higher, then the study surfaced facts that are far more curious -- and potentially problematic.

Pew noted that a "key aim" of the study was to explore Jewish identity. In order to do this, one of the items in the survey asked respondents "what being Jewish means to [them]," and then gave a list of nine behaviors to rate as essential, important, or neither. Topping the final tally, with 73 percent of respondents saying that it "is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them," was "remembering the Holocaust." The next three were 69 percent saying "leading an ethical and moral life," 56 percent saying "working for justice/equality," and 49 percent saying "being intellectually curious."

Not a bad list. But notice that of the top four responses, only the first concerns a uniquely Jewish matter, the Holocaust. As for the next three, we Jews certainly cannot claim to hold a monopoly on the desire to lead a moral life, to work for justice, or to be curious.

Are these laudable pursuits? Of course. But are these the answers that we are looking for when we ask Jews what is essential to them about being Jewish -- answers that are not essentially Jewish?

This is the most important question that we Jews in America need to ask ourselves a year after the Pew study. Our current data is of course limited by survey's methods, which were good at collecting the information that we thought we wanted, like intermarriage rates and the ascendance of "Jews of no religion."

But the particularism at the heart of our desire for those pieces of information -- the goal of simply proliferating people who identify themselves as Jews -- is fundamentally undermined by the lack of particularism in the responses that those people give when asked what being a Jew actually means to them. We can't expect to perpetuate a particular people without giving ourselves a particular purpose.

Thus the best answer to the challenges identified by the Pew study is a compelling, thoughtful, and robust answer to a different question: how do we want people to answer when asked what being Jewish means to them?