Jewish unbelief in contemporary britain

PI: Dr Ruth Sheldon, Sociology, Birkbeck College, University of London

Project team

Dr Ruth Sheldon, Sociology, Birkbeck College, University of London

Dates: 15 September 2018- 14 December 2018

Award: £16,087.00

Within the social scientific study of religion and secularism, research on Judaism has long occupied an ambiguous position. In recent years scholars of Jewish life have begun to critically interrogate this marginalization and to forge connections with post-colonial perspectives on secularism and Orientalism. More specifically, drawing on ground-breaking deconstructions of the category of religion, these scholars have highlighted how Judaism does not fit the definition of ‘religion’ as individual belief, or the separation of ‘chosen’ religion from ‘ascribed’ categories of ethnicity and race, and have thus drawn attention to the belief / unbelief distinction as a key source of Jewish othering. However, while these interventions have contributed important critical and theoretical advances in the study of Judaism, such issues have not, until now, been the subject of social scientific empirical investigation.

Drawing on an existing ethnographic study of pluralities of Jewish life in a London borough, this project will address this gap, offering an empirical analysis of formations of Jewish unbelief within what has been termed a ‘super-diverse’ urban location. We will ask: what different forms of Jewish unbelief can be identified amongst the various Jewish inhabitants of Hackney, London? How do discursive expressions of non-belief in God amongst self-identifying Jews relate to engagement with Jewish practices, institutions, communal activities and material cultures, and to the inhabitation of a particular urban landscape? The research will explore the hypothesis that the phenomenon of ‘unbelief’ operates differently for Jews who identify with modern Orthodox, strictly Orthodox and Liberal traditions and institutions, for members of assertively countercultural and politically active Jewish movements as well as for attenuated non-practising Jews. In the process, it will offer an innovative comparative analysis of internal variations of unbelief within ‘one’ tradition, and will add empirical nuance to more abstract debates around the interrelations of secularism, religion and Judaism.