How Jews Change (and the 5 Ways We Don’t)
An examination of how societal pressure to conform makes Jews change, except in these five ways.
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Jewish Peoplehood began with Abraham who, according to the Bible, was the first Jew. He married Sarah and they had a son, Isaac, who married Rebecca — and they had two sons, Jacob and Esau.
Jacob married both Leah and Rachel, who gave birth to twelve sons, and they made up the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, wound up in Egypt as an advisor to the Pharaoh, eventually followed by all of the Israelites because of a famine in ancient Israel. While in Egypt, the Israelites multiplied and grew wealthy, until a new Pharaoh came to power and, because he didn’t know Joseph, enslaved them.
Then, Moses was born, and the Pharaoh commanded that all male Israelite children born would be drowned in the river Nile, so Moses’ mother placed him in an ark and concealed it in the bulrushes by the riverbank. Moses the baby was discovered and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, and raised as an Egyptian.
After freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, Moses brought them to Mount Sinai, where they received the Ten Commandments from God, and spent 40 years wandering in the desert. Eventually, Moses led them back to Israel, though he himself was unable to lead them into Israel; his successor, Joshua, did.
Following 300 years in the Holy Land, the Holy Temple was built in the tenth century BCE. But in 586 BCE, the Temple was destroyed, only to be rebuilt some 70 years later. Then, the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, and the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem by the Romans. Next came what author Zack Bodner calls “the Judaism of the Diaspora.”1 We were scattered among the nations of the earth.
“This is why for thousand of years every Jew understood inherently that our role in life was to keep ourselves distinct as a People, which was why Jews lived in ghettos,” the great Jewish educator Avraham Infeld wrote. “It was there that we could more easily keep God’s commandments. It was there that we hoped and prayed that God would forgive us and bring us to back to the land of Israel.”2
The term “ghetto” originated from the name of the Jewish quarter in Venice, Italy, where authorities urged the city’s Jews to live, starting from 1516. In the 16th and 17th centuries, officials ordered the creation of ghettos for Jews in Frankfurt, Rome, Prague, and other cities.3
Then, around 250 years ago, along came modern nationalism, and with it, modern liberalism. Suddenly, Jews had the opportunity to leave the ghetto, and many of them changed their understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. Some simply stopped being Jewish, and the Orthodox became more ghettoized.
The majority of Jews, though, progressively became more assimilated — more American, more Argentinian, more German, et cetera — often at the expense of becoming less Jewish, at least in ghetto terms.
Even Theodor Herzl, before transforming into the father of modern-day Zionism in the late 1800s, was an ardent Germanophile who saw the Germans as the best cultured people in Central Europe. He believed Hungarian Jews such as himself could shake off their “shameful Jewish characteristics” — caused by long centuries of impoverishment and oppression — and become civilized Central Europeans, a true cultured person along German lines.4
“The Enlightenment and emancipation of the Jew in the modern world brought great and wonderful opportunities, facilitating the gradual integration of the Jew into an increasingly open society,” according to Rabbi David Rosen. “However at the same time, it exposed him to arguably more insidious dangers. If it was not he whose way of life would be undermined by these, there was a good chance that he would lose his grandchildren to them … The blessings of modernity have sometimes proved to be curses.”5
Jews and the Pressure to Conform
To understand why pressure to conform makes keeping our own Jewish counsel so difficult, let’s look at what sociologists call “social norms” — a society’s unwritten rules, without the legal standing.
In every society, norms exert a great deal of social control and help regulate conduct. They are the foundation of everything from language to social interaction, underlying seemingly natural interactions. And they even influence personal preferences, such as the books we read, the music we like, and the policies we support.
In one of the most influential studies about the neuroscience behind group conformity, scientist Gregory Burns and his team of researchers at Emory University examined the physiological effects of deviation from a norm. By using fMRI to scan participants’ brains, the researchers were interested in understanding brain activity when the participants were under pressure to not conform to group majority.6
The amygdala, which is associated with negative emotions, was activated, suggesting that resisting normative social influence, even when the majority is clearly wrong, can lead to negative physiological consequences. We are cognitively hardwired to conform to groupthink, no matter how erroneous it may be.
In truth, it’s difficult to see how human society could operate without social norms. We need them to guide our behavior, to provide order and predictability in social relationships, and to make sense of one another’s actions. The concept of social norms is key to understanding what researchers call “normative social influence” — our tendency toward conformity, based on our need to be accepted, belong to a group, and develop strong social bonds. This means we tend to act and think like the people around us.
How powerful is normative social influence? In 1951, Solomon Asch investigated the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform, in what is now considered a classic experiment in social psychology.7
Using a visual judgment task, Asch put a naive participant in a room with seven accomplices, who agreed in advance about what their responses would be when presented with the task. Meanwhile, the real participant was led to believe that the other seven people were also real participants. Each person in the room stated aloud their answer to the task, and the answer was always obvious. The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave their answers last.
There were 18 trials in total, and the accomplices gave the wrong answer in 12 of them. Asch’s experiment also had a control condition, in which there were no accomplices, only a “real participant.” During the 12 “wrong answer” trials, approximately three out of four participants gave the wrong answer, meaning they conformed to the majority. In the control group, with no pressure to conform to others, less than one-percent of participants gave the wrong answer.
When interviewed after the trials about why they gave a clearly wrong answer, most of the real participants said they went along with the group for fear of being perceived as peculiar; they were seeking acceptance and avoiding disapproval. This is the power of normative social influence.
When we laugh at a joke that isn’t funny, give an obviously wrong answer to show solidarity with a group, or decide that vegan is the right way to eat — even though we love hamburgers — do we recognize how much of our behavior is due to social influence, and how much is due to our own choices, to our own free will? Study after study shows that many of us are clueless about why we so readily conform.
This is what pits normative social influence possibly at war with our attempts to be and do Jewish, including Jewish late blooming and Deep Judaism. To add insult to injury, normative social influence has the advantage, because it’s invisible; it’s a force we don’t see, can’t feel, and don’t want to believe in, yet it influences so much of our behaviors, choices, and opinions.
Social norms also have an extraordinary influence on the expectations for ourselves, convincing many of us that there’s only one single way to learn, grow, achieve, and succeed. Perhaps this is why so many of us Jews are so quick to condemn others’ Judaism and Jewishness, as if our versions are somehow superior. We are so seduced by our intoxicating echo chambers that we become blinded to and uninterested in other modes and other truths.
Psychologists call this “normative cognition” — the idea that human minds contain a norm system of some kind, a set of psychological mechanisms dedicated to handling information and producing behaviors relevant to norms. This oftentimes automatic and involuntary capacity is characterized by a broad but distinctive pattern of behavior: When faced with norm-relevant stimuli, typically centered on other peoples’ actions or their own, along with other cues concerning the context of those actions and the roles of the actors, individuals exhibit a robust and multifaceted type of response that is centered on conformity and punishment (i.e. punishing others who violate norms).8
To be sure, normative cognition has its benefits; in one study it increased towel reuse in hotels by almost 30-percent, and in another it decreased heavy drinking among college students. But normative cognition also produces a variety of challenges, because there is no single right pathway for virtually any type of development, hence the fallacy of universalism.
“When two propositions conflict, it is not necessarily because one is true and the other is false,” the late, great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote. “It may be, and often is, that each represents a different perspective on reality.”9
For instance, normative cognition creates social barriers that segregate us, such as, in the Jewish world: ultra-orthodox orthodox, conservative, reform, and reconstructionist. These barriers play on our normal fear of exclusion, which is why so many Jews nowadays describe themselves as “just Jewish” because they do not click with the rigidity of such segregations. To feel comfortable, you need to understand the right cues or signals, know the proper people, and share the same convictions. If not, the message is essentially: You’re not one of us. You don’t fit in.
The second drawback is that normative cognition leads to a seemingly endless and destructive process of comparison. We compare the progressions of our lives against what our surroundings view as normal milestones and benchmarks, which is why treatment professionals often tell recovering addicts to not compare their “inside” to another recovering addicts “outside.”
Yet, whether for ourselves or for our children and grandchildren, we measure our growth and success by these milestones and benchmarks, such as, in the Jewish world: circumcision, Bar/Bar Mitzvah, observing certain holidays and practicing certain rituals, dating and marrying a Jewish partner, having a Jewish wedding, raising our kids Jewish, et cetera. When we miss milestones and benchmarks, we get anxiety or feel like outcasts. And deviation from the norm makes us feel insecure, a self-defeating cycle.
This is why so many Jews — especially young Jews — “check out” from Judaism. We make friends and spend more time with non-Jews so we don’t need to measure ourselves by Jewish milestones and benchmarks. Then we get married and raise our children as such. Hence why it’s no surprise that 72-percent of non-Orthodox, non-Israeli Jews marry non-Jews.10 And, among intermarried couples, only 28-percent raise their kids with a Jewish religious identity.11
“Society prepares crime,” Adolphe Quetelet, an influential figure in 18th-century criminology, “and the guilty are only the instruments by which it is executed.”
5 Ways Jews Don’t Change
“Leadership is about change,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote in Harvard Business Review. “Change makes life exciting,” according to life coach Elyssa Desai. There is even a discipline called “change management” — to prepare, equip, and support individuals to successfully adopt change within organizations, the premise of the international bestselling book, Who Moved My Cheese?
In many cases, change is chicken soup for the soul. However, there is also much to be celebrated about continuity, about stubbornly holding onto our past and proudly carrying it with us into our future.
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner said in the play, Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even the past.”12
If we are always aiming to change, to adapt, to evolve, we might very well lose sight of the sameness that has benefitted past generations, overlooking how it can also benefit us. This is why I believe we, the Jewish People, ought to take serious pride in the ways Jews haven’t changed, even as normative social influence and normative cognition dramatically push us in opposite directions.
While there are many ways in which Jews don’t change, here are five of the most compelling ones: