Tobin Belzer: Judaism Unbound Episode 145 - Studying Jews Differently

Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg are joined by Tobin Belzer, an applied sociologist, for a conversation about why it might be time to re-conceptualize the study of American Jews and their identities. [1]

(0:01 - 16:43): To begin the episode, Tobin Belzer explores the lens through which she does her work as an applied sociologist, citing the idea of “strong objectivity” (pioneered by Sandra Harding) [2] as an important influence. She also reflects on her own life experience, as a Jew and otherwise, emphasizing her enduring identification with being both an “insider” and an “outsider,” often simultaneously. Belzer contrasts quantitative and qualitative approaches to sociology, and she argues that in Jewish life, there has been a predisposition towards the quantitative, leaving a great deal of room for growth in the qualitative realm. [3] She then explores some of the historical phenomena that contribute to that emphasis on the quantitative, asserting both that the conception of “Jewish identity” was created by sociologists — it has only existed for a short time — and that the fashion in which it was constructed dovetails closely with anxieties about the “ever-dying” Jewish people. [4]

(16:44 - 27:34): Belzer explores how sociological ideas of Jewish identity have evolved over time. In this analysis, she offers a new framework of Jewish identity, based on the presumption that Jewish selves (and all selves!) exist only in relationship. She explains why this idea, though subtle in its distinctions from some others, actually could contribute to a drastic re-evaluation of how Jews understand themselves and the practice of Judaism. To further demonstrate the point, she cites her finding that often, people who aren’t Jewish play a huge role in the construction of Jewish identity-narratives for those who are.

(27:35 - 42:52): Through examining questions of intermarriage and Jewish authority, Belzer provides examples of how her ideas about the social self could have an impact on a variety of hot-button issues in contemporary Jewish life. She also spotlights the tendency of many participants in her studies to frame themselves with the pre-amble “I’m not religious but…” along with the strong pre-disposition of post-Baby-Boomers against religious triumphalism. [5] To close the episode, Belzer and Dan each explore moments in their own Jewish identity construction that, perhaps counter-intuitively, manifested through the rejection of Jewish labels, or honors, that were offered to them by well-meaning people, but which did not resonate with them.

[1] Learn more about Tobin Belzer by reading her bio, accessible here. For a short overview, written by Belzer, of her approach to studying American Jews, click here. We also recommend a 2013 piece by Belzer, entitled “Putting Aside the Study of Individualism.”

[2] Gain an understanding of Harding’s framework of strong objectivity by reading “‘Strong Objectivity’: A Response to the New Objectivity Question.”

[3] For more conversations looking in-depth at the role that quantitative data has played in American-Jewish life, see Episode 7: Numbers- Barak Richman and Episode 8: Numbers II.

[4] Belzer mentions her colleague and co-author Ari Kelman. Listen in to a conversation with him about Jewish identity in Episode 74: Beyond Jewish Identity - Ari Y. Kelman. For a podcast on the idea of being a “bad Jew” — a modifier Belzer applies tongue-in-cheek to herself — see Episode 97: “Bad Jews” - Jenna Reback.

[5] We highly recommend reading Belzer’s (and 4 co-authors’) essay, entitled “Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers,” as a follow-up to this podcast episode.