Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Judaism by the Numbers

Baylor University recently published the results of its extensive survey of American religious life. (See What Americans Really Believe, Baylor University Press, 2008.) The numbers speak for themselves.

Let’s start with some easy issues like heaven and the devil. Ninety-two percent of Conservative Protestants believe heaven “absolutely exists” as do 66% of liberal Protestants and 69% of Catholics. And Jews? Only 27% believe there is a heaven. Eighty-eight percent of Conservative Protestants believe Satan “absolutely exits” as do 52% of liberal Protestants and 52% of Catholics. And Jews? Only 8% believe in Satan.

This is not really surprising, though the fact that 27% of Jews believe in heaven was much higher than I would have guessed. Heaven and Hell are just not hot button issues for the vast majority of Jews.

Weekly attendance at religious services was pretty much what one might expect. Fifty-four percent of Conservative Protestants attend church one a week, along with 36% of Liberal Protestants and 41% of Catholics. Jews? Only 13%. Hey, if we don’t believe in heaven and hell why sit through hours of boring liturgy and vapid sermons?

How about talking up your team? Jews are a proud people, maybe we share our love of our religion as much as other Americans? Nope. While forty-four percent of Conservative Protestants, 19% of Liberal Protestants, and 22% of Catholics talk about their faith at least once a month, only 3% of Jews do so. I’m not talking about proselytizing, how about just a positive word every week or two?

OK, I admit that so far I could have predicted the spread without spending a dime on a real survey. But the next item did throw me. When asked if their religion is in “high tension” with prevailing secular attitudes toward pornography, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, living together outside of marriage, gambling, and wearing revealing clothing, 53% of Conservative Protestants, 13% of Liberal Protestants and 37% of Catholics saw their respective faiths as offering an alternative to the rampant obscenity that passes for culture in secular America. And Jews? 0%. Zero. Nada. Not one. That is sad.

No less sad is the Jews’ relationship with spiritual or religious experiences. While 64% of Conservative Protestants, 40% of Liberal and 40% of Catholics claim that they have had a religious or mystical experience. Only 9% of Jews make that claim.

And yet when the Baylor team asked Americans about New Age ideas such as alternative medicine, generic spiritual development, unity with nature, etc. fully 30% of Jews said they are investigating such things while only 8% of Conservative Protestants, 18% of Liberal Protestants, and 12% of Catholics were doing so.

What shall we make of these numbers? To me it says that Judaism is largely irrelevant to Jews. With only 9% finding spiritually moving experiences within the faith, and 30% looking for answers outside of it, Jewish spirituality is moribund at best. And the fact that not a single percent saw Judaism at odds with the greed and grunge that is at the heart of American secular culture says to me that Judaism has abandoned its prophetic heritage, the one aspect of Judaism that, to my mind, makes being Jewish worthwhile.

If Judaism isn’t offering Jews either an alternative culture or a deep spirituality, what is it offering?


rabjeff said...

I agree with you about the lack of finding spirituallly meaningful stuff in Judaism, but not on the values thing. The list is just too mixed.

I have no problem with homosexuality, premarital sex, or living together without marriage. I think Judaism has things to say about abortion, but it should be legal. Porn as it exists often reflects terrible values, but sexually stimulating material can be positive. That leaves gambling and wearing revealing clothes. I certainly think the former is often destructive (though lots of shuls still live off Bingo), and what do you mean by revealing clothes? In ancient days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking...

vania said...

Unfortunately Rabbi Rami, this information does not surprise me. I too longed for validation of the "religion" of my ancestors, and eventually I did find it in the teachings of the most famous Jew who ever lived, Yeshua of Nazareth. In his teachings, I found what it truly means to be a daughter of Abraham and I'm thankful for this amazing Rabbi who walked this earth 2000 years ago and who lives on (according to some, literally) in those who truly follow him.

If a Jew wants a truly spiritual experience perhaps we as a people (collectively) should stop trying to shove Yeshua under a rug and embrace him as the full expression of a Torah observant Jew and son of Abraham that he was and still is.

This certainly doesn't mean we have to become Christians or Messianic Jews but let's be frank, it wasn't a "Christian" whose followers spread the truth of "One G-d, the G-d of Abraham, Itzak and Yakov" through out the entire world, it was the followers of a young Jew who died a painful (and as some believe atoning) death in defense of his faith.

Rabbi Rami said...

Judaism used to be a dynamic counterculture. The western world was shaped by Jews who were outsiders: Abraham, Jesus, Paul, Marx, Freud, Einstein to name the male pantheon. But today we are all about conformity. Conformity to some frozen notion of tradition and authentic Judaism, conformity to some knee-jerk liberalism. Where are our revolutionaries?

I agree that Jews should reclaim Jesus as a favorite son. I teach the historical Jesus at Middle Tenn State and I am saddened by how he has been tamed in the minds of my largely evangelic Christian students. His Jewishness is lost, and his radical teachings along with it. He is just another thing to which we are called to conform.

Read Marcus Borg and Bishop Spong and we can begin to reclaim the spiritual revolutionary that was Jesus and the spiritual revolution that was his Judaism.

Immanuel said...

"Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here
too many people have died in the name of christ for anyone to hear the call"

vania said...

Immanual, no one said you have to join a "church", and it is kind of ridiculous to blame "Christ" (which is just Greek for Messiah) for things done in his name. That's kind of like blaming G-d for purging New Orleans and backing that claim up with the statement "Katrina means purge".

Maybe before you say people died in the name of "Christ" you should investigate just who Yeshua was as a Jew and what his message truly was. Then you will see that those who killed in "his" name, did not follow his teachings and in truth, knew nothing about him at all.

Rabbi Rami, help us out here, we can't attend your class but I'd love to hear your input on our radical Rabbi.

Hana said...

Maybe we're seeing the lack of Jewish education. How many American Jews even know much about Judaism? How many have anything beyond the sketchiest knowledge? How many have ever read the classics- even in translation?
Maybe we're also seeing the impact of living in Galut?
Maybe it comes, primarily form ignorance, from measuring spiritual significance by non-Jewish measures?

Aron said...

If Jews lack education about the traditions of our ancestors, I think it's about a lack of passion in how it is usually taught, not out of a lack interest by most Jews. Personally, it took me rejecting Judaism in most ways before I went back to exploring it areas that spoke to me that make it relevant to my life.

I certainly don't fit most people's definitions of "observant". Now i take seriously many ideas of Judaism and the rabbis, questioning the worship of static idols and practicing your ideals in your everyday life and being alive in the presence of the moment, even if i don't concern myself much of whether i'm a 'real' Jew or not by the measures of others.