Charles Murray and the Rabbis

By Yaakov Y. Kermaier, N. Daniel Korobkin, Yosie Levine, Ari Perl, and Benjamin J. Samuels
Wednesday, August 15, 2012

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 . . .

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2023 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.