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  • Reaching Out to the Fringe:Insiders, Outsiders, and the Morality of Social Science
  • Jennifer A. Thompson (bio)


Since at least the 1920s, Jewish community leaders have used social science to help persuade lay people to adopt practices and attitudes that leaders have regarded as necessary for what they now call Jewish continuity. Rabbis in the 1920s used sociology to support their claims about the responsibilities of Jews to marry other Jews and raise Jewish children.1 Jewish community leaders, anxious about the future of Judaism, encouraged Jewish couples to procreate, and by the mid-twentieth century also advised couples to involve their children in institutional programs such as Jewish summer camps that could shape them into good Jews, a project that leaders were unwilling to leave up to Jewish families themselves.2 By the mid-to-late twentieth century, Jewish leaders relied on social science such as the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). They did so not only to provide data for planning Jewish communal services that federations would deliver but to identify and establish American Jewish norms in their public pronouncements.3

Historian Lila Corwin Berman has discussed at length the development of a close relationship between Jewish organizational leaders and sociologists over the twentieth century. This paper seeks to extend her work by discussing the ethical issues that this entanglement raises for the American Jewish community as a whole. This paper analyzes the use of social scientific study of American Jewry—specifically, the NJPS—in American Jewish media to establish the moral rightness of certain groups of Jews and the moral wrongness of others. Further, it explores the limits of social science in analyzing moral issues.

Social scientists and communal leaders in Jewish media from 1973 to 2014 portrayed the practices and interests of a minority of American Jews as normative. This portrayal cast Jews who affiliated with and donated money to synagogues and other Jewish organizations, and married Jews, as morally upright. Their moral rightness is located in social-scientific assessments of the propensity of these behaviors to form Jewish children and eventually future generations of Jews. Rarely, if ever, are other aspects of Jewish moral tradition—for example, the high value placed on human dignity4—mentioned in such discussions. Jewish continuity in the sense of the existence of successive [End Page 179] generations of Jews who identify with and belong to Jewish institutions in their current forms is portrayed as an ultimate value in and of itself, outside the context of other Jewish values. In Jewish media discourse about social scientific study of American Jewry, those who contribute in scientifically approved ways to Jewish continuity are deemed morally good insiders, and those who do not are deemed outsiders, perhaps capable of rehabilitation, but perhaps out of reach entirely.

Establishing such a moral hierarchy of American Jews on the basis of social-scientific data raises several ethical questions. Judaism has rich moral traditions, and yet Jewish media discourse about American Jewish morality relies heavily on social science rather than these traditions. Do insider/outsider distinctions based on social-scientific claims undercut these moral traditions? Should the goodness of individual Jews be judged primarily according to their utility for Jewish continuity? What other values and potential creative developments are foreclosed by this emphasis on individuals’ utility?

Population Surveys, Intermarriage, and Continuity

Jewish media—that is, publications and web sites created by Jews, for consumption by other Jews, concerning Jewish topics—devoted a great deal of space to studies of American Jewry such as the National Jewish Population Surveys. From 1973 to 2014, at least 886 news articles mentioned one of these surveys. These articles paid disproportionate attention to intermarriage: of these 886 articles, 432 mentioned intermarriage.5 Although intermarriage was indeed one of the topics addressed in the NJPS, it also addressed many other topics that did not receive media attention. Through content analysis of Jewish media from 1973 to 2014, I found that Jewish news and magazine articles concerned with intermarriage placed special emphasis on insider/outsider distinctions.6 They also relied on social science to give authority to these distinctions.

This content analysis was performed in two stages. To begin, I sampled twenty-one...


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