Jewish survival must depend upon something more than vague sentimentalism

While many Jews live a nostalgically religious life, at least an equally large number have become ambivalent about their religious heritage. Consequently, a substantial number of Jewish young people have left their religious roots and have gone to other faiths, while over two million Jews no longer identify— even superficially—as Jews.

Appealing to ethnicity and “Tradition” (whatever that means) and “Jewish survival” fall short of the mark. “Survive for what?” No, the cardiac or gastronomical experience is not going to cut it.  As religious leaders, we ought to be seriously concerned. The 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed similar patterns to those documented over the last thirty years. The survey looks at major U.S. religious denominations: evangelicals, mainline Protestants, historic black churches, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Buddhist and Hindus, noting their beliefs and demographic patterns. When compared to other religious groups, the study revealed that Jews struggle mightily with the notion of a “personal God,” which only 25% subscribe to, compared to the 72% of the greater Protestant community. With respect to the category entitled, “Religious Beliefs and Practices,” only 41 percent of Jews are absolutely certain there is a God. Nevertheless, 31 percent of Jews say that religion is very important in their lives. The only groups that have lower rankings in any of these categories are Buddhists, the unaffiliated and atheists (some say that Jews also comprise a large share of the unaffiliated and atheists).

On the other hand, according to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, approximately 59 percent of Jews fast on Yom Kippur. This would certainly suggest that the Jewish connection to its ancestral faith is deeper than one might think. Beyond the mere statistics, it is obvious that Jews wrestle with their faith—especially when it pertains to the nature of belief. This in itself is not necessarily problematical, but Jewish leaders need to understand the nature of the problem if it is to continue as a religion. Finally, little more than 40% of American Jewish households attend or affiliate with synagogues—and of these, most attend synagogue services only twice a year. If nothing else, the demographic studies cited reveal that the Jewish community has done a woefully inadequate job in articulating its spiritual message to its members.

The following anecdote sardonically captures the complexity of the dilemma:

Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish woman from New York, goes to her travel agent. “I vant to go to India,” she asks the agent in her thick accent. “Mrs. Cohen, why India? It’s filthy, much hotter than NewYork; it’s full of poor people.” “Sweetheart, I vant to go to India!”
The travel agent advises her, “But it’s a long journey, you’ll get sick: the plague, hepatitis, cholera, typhoid, malaria, God only knows. What will you do? Can you imagine the hospital, no Jewish doctors?”
“I vant to go to India . . .”
The necessary arrangements are made, and off she goes. After she arrives in India, she joins the endless line of people waiting for an audience with a guru. An aide tells her that it will take at least six hours of standing in line to see the guru.
“Dotz OK.”
Eventually she reaches the hallowed portals. There she is told firmly that due to the long lines she can only say SIX words to the guru.
“Fine,” she says.
She is ushered into the inner sanctum where the wise guru is seated, ready to bestow spiritual blessings upon his eager initiates. Just before she reaches the holy of holiest she is once again reminded: “Remember, just SIX words.”
Unlike the other devotees, she does not prostrate herself at his feet. Instead, she stands directly in front of him, crosses her arms over her chest, fixes her gaze on his, and says: “Sheldon, it’s your mother. Come home.”

Psychologist Jean Huston in her book, “A Mythic Tale,” tells the story that illustrates the ubiquity of our problem.

A rabbi once bemoaned to me the fact that so many people born Jewish were not attending synagogue except on High Holy Days. He feared that they were losing their spiritual life. As I thought about this, I saw before my inner eye people I had met with names like Shakuntala Schwartz, Sri Devi Epstein, and Thomas Cloud Tanzman. Then I understood. “Why, Rabbi,” I said, “I think the Jews are probably the most religious people on Earth.” “How can you possibly say that?” he asked in astonishment. “Easily,” I replied. “It’s self-evident. In America, Jews make up the greatest number of Sufis, Hare Krishna’s, Tibetan and Zen Buddhists, and most certainly Native American style shamans.”

Huston is correct. Jews are among the most spiritual people on the face of the earth.

Yet, why have so many of these Jewish young people, gone so far away from their faith? Maybe it’s because young people have a way of discerning our Achilles’ heel. Perhaps at its deepest level the real reason why they no longer identify is because we have abdicated as Jewish role models—either through ignorance, apathy, or cowardice—to serve as spiritual guides to our children.

Too many of us have sold out our traditions and spiritual values for wealth, status and a need to feel accepted. It’s no wonder that so many young Jews find this trade-off a turn-off. Our children must find within Judaism a moral compass for how to find their way in the world. As parents, we cannot expect our children to value and love Judaism if we ourselves treat it as if it were trivial and unimportant.

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  1. Yochanan Lavie  February 2, 2010

    Most rabbis talk about social justice, politics, halacha, anything but God. No wonder young Jews get turned off. Fortunately, the rabbi at my shul always reminds us that God is real and that He loves us. More shul rabbis should do the same.


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