The new American Religious Identity Survey (see my post “Becoming a None,” March 8, 2009) reports that the number of Americans identifying as Jews has fallen from a mere 1.8% to a miniscule 1.2%. We are joining the ranks of the Nones, the Spiritual But Not Religious who find little value in organized Jewish religious life.
Those Jewish leaders concerned that the drop in numbers will translate into a drop in political influence will be quick to challenge the survey, arguing (correctly in my view) that many Jews continue to identify as Jews while not identifying with the religion of Judaism (so don’t count the Israel lobby out just yet). But this is beside the point of the survey.
As a rabbi myself these numbers are hardly comforting. Playing with the numbers, rounding up the high and rounding down the low, we could say that almost half of American Jews no longer see themselves as religiously Jewish. That is huge. And there is only one group to blame—us rabbis.
Of course you could blame God, arguing that if God had made the religion more attractive more people would identify with it, but this is a dodge. Most Jews don’t believe in the God of the their religion—the God that chose the Jews, dictated the Torah, restricted our diet, and threatened us with death for picking up sticks on a Saturday— which is why they feel comfortable abandoning that religion even as they stay members of the tribe for familial and cultural reasons.
Nope, it is rabbis who are to blame. Since the invention of rabbis by rabbis over two thousand years ago, rabbis have quietly reshaped Judaism in their own image, claiming that this is really what God intended all along. Change, not continuity, is at the heart of the rabbinic experiment, but over the past few decades religious change has been anything but progressive.
Sure we have opened our ranks to women and homosexuals, but this is a social change not a theological one. We still rise to praise the God Most Of Us Don’t Believe In. We still read responsively words that, when read in English, make no sense to most of us. We still read Torah and try to excuse the brutality it sanctions in the name of an Iron Age God of War. We still ask our congregants to engage in a moment of silence that lasts no longer than the time it takes for us to take a breath and say, “Now please turn to page…” We still promote a vicarious religiosity that seeks to find meaning in history rather than in the eternal present.
What we need is a 21st century Mordecai Kaplan. Someone who has the courage to reinvent Judaism for our time. We need a new theology, a new liturgy, a new understanding of Torah, a new reason for kashrut, Shabbat, and Shemini Atzeret. Calling on Jews to return to tradition is like asking us to abandon our cars for horse drawn carriages. It works for the Amish but not for the Jewish. We love our zippers and need a religion that speaks to people who are post-tribal, post-national, post-personal-God, and who have a hard time celebrating the murder of thousands of first-born Egyptians at Passover. Even my beloved Jewish Renewal movement has failed to stem the rising numbers of Jewish Nones.
The ARIS should be a call to rabbis to radically challenge the status quo we are paid to uphold. Few will. Even those of us who entered the rabbinate promising progressive change have been co=opted by a system that insists rearview mirrors are in fact windows open on the future. Rather we will see in the survey a call to return to tradition, a call to read more Hebrew so people won’t know they are spouting things they don’t believe, and a further emphasis on tikkun olam (world repair) rather than the far more painful work of tikkun hanefesh (soul repair) for which the growing number of Jewish nones so desperately hunger.