Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Charles Murray and the Rabbis

Earlier this year, sociologist Charles Murray published Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  For more than three decades Murray has written about the attributes of individual mind and character that determine the fates of nations.  His 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, argued that U.S. welfare programs of the 1960s and 1970s worsened the situation of the clients they were meant to help.  The book is widely credited with having played a significant role in the passage of the 1996 welfare reform act, which added time limits and work requirements to welfare programs.  Murray’s 1994 The Bell Curve, written with Richard Herrnstein, concluded that individual intelligence was a better predictor of economic and social success in America than factors like education and parents’ wealth.  The book warned that the differences between the “cognitive elite” and the rest of the country were growing dangerously.

Some critics said Losing Ground and The Bell Curve were racially motivated.  In this view, Murray was “really” saying, underneath the social science data, that African-Americans were less successful than white Americans because they were less intelligent and that government rules and programs could not and should not be expected to change this fact.  The subsequent debate came to include public statements on both sides of the issue by intelligence researchers, a special task force established by the American Psychological Association, entire books written with the aim of refuting Herrnstein and Murray, and a book-length counter-refutation by Murray himself.

The same criticism cannot be made of Coming Apart, in which African-Americans do not figure at all.  Coming Apart argues that in white America, the upper and lower classes increasingly live in different worlds.  In the top socio-economic layer, the disruptions of the counter-culture have faded: Divorce rates are down, satisfaction with marriage is up, and out-of-wedlock births are rare.  By contrast, poor and working-class whites—around 30 percent of the country’s white population—are increasingly indifferent to traditional American values like industriousness, law-abiding honesty, marriage, and religion. 

The white lower class, Murray notes, is four times less church-going than the white upper class.  Before the recent recession, unemployed white men aged 30-49 with high school diplomas were four times more likely than white men with college diplomas to have stopped looking for work.  The out-of-wedlock birth rate for college-educated white women is five percent; for high-school-educated white women, the rate is 40 percent.

As with Murray’s previous books, Coming Apart has engendered criticism—in particular, the criticism that it neglects the economic factors making it more difficult for today’s working-class Americans to find and keep jobs (though in fact Murray’s data cover 50 years of good economic times and bad).  But few have denied that the phenomena Murray lays out are real and consequential.

In one sense, Jews, with their high scores on intelligence tests and for large parts of the community economic success, would seem immune from the divisions that Murray analyzes.  Indeed, Murray once wrote at length about this type of Jewish “immunity,” in an April, 2007 Commentary article titled “Jewish Genius.”  But the immunity conferred by high IQs may be insignificant or illusory.  There is, in fact, a larger question: Is the American social landscape described in Coming Apart good for the Jews?

Jewish Ideas Daily’s Suzanne Garment recently sat with Charles Murray at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is W.H. Brady Scholar, and asked him the question in person.

What is missing in Coming Apart, he freely acknowledged, is something that preoccupied a whole generation of sociologists: ethnicity.  The residents of the white working-class and lower-class community that was studied in Coming Apart were mainly German in origin, “and they weren’t the immigrant generation any more.  I didn’t have the data to break them into ethnic groups—and there didn’t seem much point.”

Ethnicity, he said, “isn’t such a primal source of division any longer.”  In the small town in Virginia in which he lives, "race and ethnicity aren’t things that people notice any more"; in the casino where he goes to play the occasional game of poker, “the tables are incredibly variegated, and you just don’t hear derogatory remarks.”

On the other hand, “Robert Putnam has found that living in ethnically diverse communities reduces trust, not just between ethnic groups but within a single ethnic group.  That doesn’t bode well for the building of social capital among the immigrant components of those diverse communities.”

The absence of this kind of social capital is going to be an increasing problem, one that is not unrelated to the history of Jews in America:

Jews have been Americans squared—including the ambition and, therefore, the speed of their rise.  But at the time when they were establishing themselves in America, there was a particular American ethos to imbibe.  You didn’t look down on other Americans: It was un-American.  It was an ethos of equal dignity, a kind of absence of ostentation.

For newer immigrants, he said, American society no longer presents the same kind of model.  These newer immigrants may come from societies in which there are clear divisions between rich and poor, with no ethos of equal dignity.  They arrive in an America in which that ethos is increasingly weak and the differences between rich and poor are increasingly apparent.  Of the new immigrants, Murray said, “I’m not sure they’re going to integrate in the same way.”

So, if a kind of coming apart is taking place in American society as a whole, what are the implications for American Jews, who became integrated into an older, less divided model of America?  What should the Jewish reaction be? 

On these questions, Murray himself is not the last word.  Earlier this summer, the Tikvah Fund, together with Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, convened a dozen Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbis for three days of study and conversation.  One of the purposes of the conference was to encourage talented rabbis to consider the great cultural issues of our time and bring Jewish perspectives to bear on those issues.

The rabbis were asked to arrive at the conference having read Coming Apart and written responses that addressed the moral questions raised by Murray’s argument, considered through a Jewish lens.  Here, edited for length, are some of their responses. —The Editors 


Trouble in Eden by Yaakov Y. Kermaier

The Bible, say the sages, has seventy faces.  Her beauty is complex and subtle, appreciated differently in each era and place.  But, while every believer finds self-affirmation in the Bible, it is more difficult to discern and accept the Bible’s rebuke.  We want to see her smile; we also need to see her frown.

Let us begin searching for the Bible’s 21st-century American face “in the beginning.”  The opening chapters of Genesis describe the creation of the world, man in the Garden of Eden, and man’s expulsion.  These passages speak fundamental truths about not only the world created then but the world we seek to fashion now.  What went wrong in Eden?  Why does it matter to 2012 America?  Read on . . .


Religion, Happiness, and the American Dream by N. Daniel Korobkin

America as we know it is dead.  At least that is what Charles Murray would have us believe in his latest book, Coming Apart.

The “American project” is Murray’s term to describe what America has stood for since its founding, and how it has succeeded in emerging as the greatest country in the world with the greatest global influence.  America has preserved traditional values and emphasis on the four necessary ingredients for this project: family, vocation, community, and faith.  The values and nature of each one of these parts of American society has seriously eroded over the past four decades, and that is why our society is crumbling.  Read on . . .


Preaching in the Post-Sermon Age by Yosie Levine

For anyone interested in understanding the trajectory of American values and culture, Charles Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart, is an important text.  Murray argues that over the past 50 years, two utterly disparate classes have emerged from the once-uniform American landscape.  Members of the upper class overwhelmingly attend certain colleges, marry one another, and live in enclaves far removed from people who are different from them.  Meanwhile, the core values that form the backbone of this upper class—marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religion—are eroding precipitously among the lower class.  Read on . . .


Can the Doctrine of Shared Responsibility Put Us Back Together Again? by Ari Perl

Examining sociologist Charles Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart, against the backdrop of our American Orthodox Jewish community, produces deeply conflicting feelings.  On the one hand, there’s a dismal realization that certain aspects of Murray’s characterization of broader American society are reflected in our own demographics; on the other hand, a hope that time-honored values of that same community have the potential to save itself, and maybe even the broader American project.  Read on . . .


Universal Service? by Benjamin J. Samuels

Each year on Memorial Day, the superzip—upper-income ZIP code—city of Newton, Massachusetts, a city comprised of 13 villages, holds its annual Memorial Day parade.  Despite the fact that Newton City Hall resides in tony Newton Centre, the parade routes through Newton’s middle class Nonantum neighborhood, literally and somewhat figuratively located on the other side of the Pike.  Having just read Charles Murray’s new study of so-called “White America” since 1963, I quizzically thought about the geographical placement of the parade in light of Murray’s critique of contemporary values held by two increasingly distant classes of Americans: elites and workers. Read on . . .

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Dan Ab on August 15, 2012 at 10:22 am (Reply)
The critics of Murray merely accused him of being racially motivated?! How about they accused him of shoddy research and interpretations that go way beyond what his data show? Instead of just saying books were written rebutting his claims, how about writing anything about the accepted scholarly critiques of Murray's work?

Only one of the five responding rabbis had anything critical to say about the book and, even there, Rabbi Samuels just mentioned a contradictory anecdote and some thoughts on different future directions.
Jacob Silver on August 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm (Reply)
The United States is coming apart. At the national level we see it in the behavior and interaction of the two political parties. The Republican Party is for favoring and supporting the richest echelons of the country, and they favor eliminating social services for the poor and middle class. The Democrats want to tax the richest echelon, and they support national health care and social services. In terms of interaction there is practically none between the parties. And if we look at our society we see a very large gap between those who own more than one house, who also own a yacht, and fly in their own private jet, and the rest of us. There is practically no interaction between us. And, because of the challenges of China and global warming, jobs for the middle class and the poor depend on federal stimulation, the economy of the United States is stymied in a severe recession because the Republicans, which is to say the highest .01 percent of our people, do not want the government to play a significant role in the economy.

Is there a solution short of extra-constitutional action? I am not sure.
    Kenny Pa on August 31, 2012 at 4:44 pm (Reply)
    Only problem is that you do not know squat about our political situation in this country. You are a brain washed parrot of the left. Here is my take. Both political parties are selling our future down the drain. All lies all of them. Gary Johnson for president.
IH on August 15, 2012 at 1:48 pm (Reply)
A cogent critique of Murray's latest book can be read at:
martin on August 15, 2012 at 2:05 pm (Reply)
It is fine, to quote Rabbi Korokin: to emphasize the ” preserved traditional values…[of]… family, vocation, community, and faith. “ These values focus on the superstructure of a society.
But what seems to be missed by the Rabbi and others is the fact it is Free Market Capitalism, the engine that drives the society, that has made for: ” …the greatest country in the world with the greatest global influence.” The critical problem no one seems to notice is the gradual increase of the percentage of GNP that has been increasing over time for “social concerns” explaining the fault lines we see in the superstructure.
Orlando Hernandez-Soto on August 15, 2012 at 3:26 pm (Reply)
The United States of America is not coming apart, because since the very beginning it has never been compounded. Since the beginning, the leading class has subjected, oppress and omit minorities; even though they were once minorities in these native lands.
    Lea on August 16, 2012 at 2:05 am (Reply)
GG on August 15, 2012 at 6:36 pm (Reply)
Yes, they are totally incapable of critically evaluating anything. Their answers show how they are not self-reflexive. They have little knowledge of the current scholarly world and do not regularly read social science. They are happy if they can quote Weber and Bellah and an occasional article from the web.
Jerry Blaz on August 15, 2012 at 6:49 pm (Reply)
While the article doesn't provide any actual numbers, one is given the impression that these are inferences from valid statistical information. However, in the end of the article, he seems to offer as proof his anecdotal information drawn from his own experiences where he lives. Were I to do that, I would look at the music listened to by certain age cohorts, where, my experience teaches me, I would find differences not based on socio-economic reasons, but the cultural influences of media, much of it from electronic sources like cellphones and computers.
Tom B on August 16, 2012 at 8:06 am (Reply)
If Martin thinks he lives in a society dominated by Free Market Capitalism, he must be from somewhere else. The United States has something closer to Italy's old fascist state, where you get rich by deals through your cronies in the government and basic government services simultaneously cost much more and deteriorate more quickly. This is a system where the poor can't get rich because the ladder into the higher social strata has been pulled up. The result is a demoralized lower and middle class.

In 1930, in the city of Richmond, Virginia alone, there were six banks owned and operated by African-Americans. Today there is one. In 1960, 85% of all African-American children lived in a household with both a mother and a father. Today, 90% of them have a single parent. White liberal reformers are responsible for those changes and they should feel ashamed of themselves.
martin on August 16, 2012 at 12:50 pm (Reply)
Just a brief reply to Tom B;

If Tom took my class on Comparative Economic Systems he would have be informed that there are several forms of capitalism. Italy, and Germany as well, developed into "state" Capitalism. In the United State our form of capitalism is known as "free market" capitalism. It is not that there is no government involved in markets at all, it's just less, hence we say "free".
Tom B on August 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm (Reply)
That's a fair point, Martin, and as you point out, the increase of GDP spent on "social concerns" causes fractures in the existing system. Perhaps some of the current trends I find so disturbing are related in some way to those very fractures. Wish I had taken your course. When I majored in Econ at the University of Wisconsin back in the 1970s, the primary lesson drilled into us was that if you set the right tax and spending rates, your GDP growth would take care of itself. We have gotten a lot more sophisticated since then.
Joel Abramovitz on September 27, 2012 at 3:06 pm (Reply)
Rabbi Samuels, I've spent twenty years in Newton. I don't think Nonantum contradicts Murray; rather, it is a illustrating example. Nonantum has remained ethnically homogeneous and religious, thus somewhat immunized to the de-moralizing of the non-elite.
As for your thoughts on the draft, this Army retiree is fully in accord.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham