On the eve of a Jewish holiday that celebrates one Jewish woman’s contribution to Jewish survival, a major study this week offered some intriguing insights into the religious practices of Jewish women — and of a few billion Christian and Muslim women.
The Pew Research Center study, “The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World,” which concentrated on the world’s two largest monotheistic faiths, found that Christian women, as commonly believed, are, by many measures, more “religious” than Christian men, while the same disparity largely does not hold in the Muslim community.
And among Jews?
The findings are mixed.
According to the study, which was released on Tuesday — a day before the start of Purim, which centers around Queen Esther’s life-saving role in ancient Persia — Jewish men in Israel attend worship services more regularly and consider religion more important than do Jewish women.
“Only in Israel … does a higher percentage of men than women report engaging in daily prayer,” the report states. “Only in Israel and Mozambique [a southern African nation whose residents are a mixture of Christians and Muslims] are men more likely than women to consider religion very important to them personally.”
But in another category, religious self-affiliation, Jewish women come out slightly ahead of Jewish men.
The Pew study, which covers 192 countries and is based on several research surveys conducted over the last several years, does not offer definitive explanations for the apparently contradictory figures in Jewish circles, and often raises more questions than it answers, said Conrad Hackett, a Pew demographer. “There’s something different going on among Jews than among Christians and Muslims.”
One possible explanation for the higher prayer figure in Israel for Jewish men is that Israel, compared to the United States, has a higher percentage of Orthodox Jews, who consider daily prayer, especially in a synagogue, more binding on men than on women. But this fact does not explain why Jewish men in Israel are more likely than Jewish women to consider religion important.
“In the United States, the pattern of Jewish women being more likely than men to say religion is very important to them is similar to the same pattern seen among the general population of the country,” Hackett told The Jewish Week. “Among Orthodox Jews, women are 22 points more likely to say religion is very important [94 percent to 72 percent] and among Reform Jews there is a 10 point gap (22 percent to 12 percent].”
“The fact that women do not attend as frequently or participate as fully as men in some countries does not necessarily mean they are less pious,” the study cautions.
The Pew report’s Jewish statistics refer “to Jews who identify as Jewish by religion, as opposed to those who identify as Jewish only by culture or ancestry and not by religion,” the study states; it did not deal with people who consider themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious.”
“In the United States,” the study notes, “Jewish women are 8 percentage points more likely than men to say religion is very important to them.”
In other words, Jews in this country and Israel practice and view religion in different ways, which is not exactly news.
Interpretation of the Jewish statistics awaits further study, Hackett said. “Jews are complicated.”