Judaism in Tran­si­tion: How Eco­nom­ic Choic­es Shape Reli­gious Tradition

Carmel Ull­man Chiswick
  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

Social sci­en­tists and gen­er­al read­ers alike will shake their heads and reread sen­tences and para­graphs of this shock­ing and illu­mi­nat­ing appli­ca­tion of an economist’s per­spec­tive on con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Jew­ish life. The ter­mi­nol­o­gy — old hat to econ­o­mists but fresh to most oth­ers — defines how we act when we can’t afford to have every­thing we want: scarci­ty. This book is about how scarci­ty affects the reli­gious behav­ior of ordi­nary Amer­i­can Jews and their fam­i­lies. Chiswick wants us to under­stand how eco­nom­ic incen­tives affect deci­sions about time and mon­ey, how prices and incomes influ­ence whether a law or cus­tom is gen­er­al­ly observed or bro­ken, whether it is viewed as cen­tral or periph­er­al, whether it is per­ceived as rel­e­vant or out­dat­ed, and there­fore whether it per­sists as part of the cul­ture. Rather than allud­ing to the pow­er of the giv­ing of the Torah at Mount Sinai, she urges the use of cost/​benefit analy­sis of obser­vance to explain its prac­tice. How much does a Jew­ish per­son have to give up to prac­tice dif­fer­ent aspects of Judaism? What are the direct and indi­rect aspects and con­se­quences of mak­ing com­mit­ments of time and mon­ey to reli­gious obser­vance? How do the costs affect Jews dif­fer­ent­ly who are in dif­fer­ent socioe­co­nom­ic groups? With­out con­sid­er­a­tion of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, Judaism in Tran­si­tion uti­lizes new con­cep­tu­al ter­mi­nol­o­gy to describe today’s Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence — a high­ly rec­om­mend­ed, short but com­pre­hen­sive vol­ume to all those who want to broad­en their under­stand­ing of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Judaism.

Relat­ed Content:

Rela Mintz Gef­fen, Ph.D., was the pres­i­dent of Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty from 2000 – 2007 where she is cur­rent­ly pro­fes­sor emeri­ta of soci­ol­o­gy. Dr. Gef­fen earned her under­grad­u­ate degrees at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary (where she was one of the first three women Tal­mud majors), her MA at Colum­bia and Ph.D. in soci­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da. She received an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from Gratz Col­lege in 2004 and was named alum­na of the year by JTS in 2004. Her book (coau­thored with the late Daniel J. Elazar),The Con­ser­v­a­tive Move­ment in Judaism, was pub­lished by SUNY Press in 2000.

Discussion Questions