Dox populi

Vox populi vox dei – “the voice of the people is the voice of god.”

Unfortunately, the way we study Judaism hasn’t quite caught onto that. Or at least, so it appears from this article on The Forward’s website. To make a long story short: a conference at Tel Aviv University that discussed global Jewish practice largely disregarded Jewish practice among half of the world’s Jews–those here in the U.S.

From the author’s report, it sounds like the conference was very focused on “Old World” practice. And she takes the conference–and academic Jewish studies–to task for this.

I’m not sure that this assessment is completely true–I’ve been exposed to many scholars, at least here in the United States, that focus on the American Jewish experience. And, historically speaking, there’s a lot more water under the historical bridge in “Old World” Judaism than in American Judaism.

But to the extent it is true, I wonder to how much it has to do with a selection bias that exists in some respects among scholars of Jewish studies. Many–most?–come to Jewish studies as a discipline because they are already sufficiently engaged in Jewish religious life that there is a bias toward acceptance of traditional sources of religious authority. But as the recent Pew study (there it is again!) confirmed, American Jews don’t largely accept, for practical purposes, those sources of authority as binding upon their spiritual lives.

So I wonder if there’s a sort of impedance mismatch between what scholars are interested in and predisposed to study on the one hand, and what America’s Jews are doing and thinking on the other. And this is troubling if you’re concerned about continued Jewish engagement, because the results of scholarship (as much as we might want to draw on it to develop Jewish identity) may not engage the concerns of the “Jew on the street.”

Perhaps scholarship needs to remember that “vox populi vox dei” principle–or, perhaps we should recalibrate to examine “dox populi”: the belief of the people. Full stop.

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