Tuesday, July 07, 2009

It's All About Me, and Perhaps A Bit About Thee

Researcher George Barna’s new book, The Seven Faith Tribes, offers an interesting if not exactly surprising portrait of American Jews. Here are his main findings, and some quick reactions of my own. After reading this post your comments: Does this sound like Jews you know? Does this help you understand Jews better? If you are a Jew, does this sound like you? If you are not a Jew and this sounds like you, do you want to become a Jew?

1. Being Jewish is more about belonging to a community than adhering to a faith (p. 56). Our motto is, “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” We would never have lasted these past 4000 years if we had to agree about things. Family trumps faith almost every time (Orthodox Jews sometimes excepted).

2. Jews view themselves as tough, relish a good argument, enjoy verbal jousting (p. 61), and are more comfortable with argument than any other tribe. (p. 57) I appreciate a serious argument over issues, and find that I learn more from such discussions than from simply affirming or rejecting fixed ideas—even my own. We even delight in helping our opponents strengthen their arguments to provide us with a greater challenge. We love seeing all sides of an issue, as long as that issue has nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians, in which case we are often blind as bats.

3. Jews score lowest of all tribes regarding happiness, joy, and feeling at peace. (p. 57) Happiness is overrated. I worry about people who are or want to be happy or joyous all the time; they seem cut off from the suffering of the world. I follow Ecclesiastes; there is a time to be happy and a time to be miserable.

4. Jews embrace education more than any other tribe. (p. 58) Education, and by this I mean critical thinking, free inquiry, and a trust in reason and logic, is far more important to me than accepting the tenets of Judaism. In fact, any religion that resists such honest inquiry is suspect in my eyes.

5. Jews are more willing to take risks than any other tribe. (p. 58). Intellectually this is true of me, but not in any other way.

6. Jews’ dominant desires are health, good education, close family and friends, personal integrity, and to be knowledgeable about the world. (p. 59) Add being able to fit into size 34 Levi’s Silvertab jeans, and I’m in.

7. Few Jews care about having a close relationship with God, (p. 59) which is why only 2% rate faith as a high priority. (p. 60) Jews are more likely to trust science, reason, and logic than ancient sacred documents or teachings based on faith. (p. 63) That’s me, for sure. Though the more I know about science I don’t trust that either. As far as God goes, it depends on how you define “God.” For me God is reality and you can’t get much closer to God than that.

8. 80% of American Jews doubt the existence of moral absolutes. (p. 60) Sure, absolutes of any kind shut down free inquiry. Of course free inquiry can become an absolute, so be careful.

9. Jews are less inclined to watch violent television or films than other tribes. (p. 60) While I am proud to belong to a people who oppose violence rather than sex in popular culture, it doesn’t fit me at all. I rate movies as good or bad based on the number of exploding space ships per minute. I want big and frequent bangs for my buck. For me, sex on the screen is just a distraction between battle scenes.

10. Jews are “notoriously liberal” in their politics, (p. 62) more likely than most Americans to be “riled up about injustice,” (p.61) and resist government policies limiting personal behavior and legislating morality. (p. 62) This finding makes me very proud to be a Jew.

11. Most Jews “perceive the Bible with suspicion.” (p. 64) Of course! We wrote it! The Bible is a human document, and all human documents should be greeted with suspicion.

12. Only 36% of Jews imagine God in ways consistent with the Torah, and most Jews do not believe God is involved in people’s lives. (p. 65) Thank God! That Guy is a Crazy Person!

13. Only 20% believe there is a satanic force in the world. (p. 66) Here I side with the minority. I do believe in evil. And while I do not believe in a separate satanic force outside of the human psyche, the evil within it is scary enough.

14. Only 25% of Jews say Judaism has been a transformative force in their lives. (p. 67) As a Jew who grew up in the synagogue I get this, and as a rabbi I am partly responsible for it. That 75% of Jews find Judaism less than life transforming says to me that we have to reinvent the rabbinate. Too bad the 25% who like things the way they are run the rabbinic institutions.


Ashi and Rami's Ima said...

Hi Rami,
Thanks for the summary of Barna's new book. A few thoughts:

4. Judaism commitment to inquiry, critical thinking, and the openness to argumentation is what I love most about Judaism, being a Jew, and engaging other Jews in learning. In my opinion, it is the reason we've lasted as long as we have - it has given us the ability to flex and adapt to changes in society while remaining within an identifying framework.

7. I don't see how I could agree or disagree with this - how do I know another Jew's connection with the divine? I think that "connection with G-d" has taken on a largely Christian flavor in America. I think plenty of Jews care about connection with G-d, just in a different way than "faith is a priority of mine" might define. What if they care deeply about their ability to argue with G-d? That's a connection too.

8. Of course we do. Doubting moral absolutes is part of what it means to be Jewish.

9. I can't stand violence, graphic sex, or language in my TV. Which is why HBO doesn't get my money. But most Jews call me a prude.

10. Yep. Makes me proud to be a Jew too.

13. I have to disagree with you here. Yotzer Or uvorei et ha ra.

14. Indeed, this means we have to reinvent the rabbinate. That's why we do what we do.

Rabbi Rami said...

Just a comment on #13 and your reference to Isaiah 45 where God says he fashions light and creates evil. I agree that good and evil are both from God. I just meant that each operates as a distinct element within creation. Evil is real, but still a part of God.

Immanuel said...

Dear RavRam

Thank you for your persistence. Here is my response to your latest posting

The house is empty
the fridge whirrs
tears of peace
pour down my face

In the small silence
I glimpse the great silence
that Solomon spoke of:
“ki azah kamavet haahavah
mayim rabim lo yuchlu lechabotah
uneharot lo yishtefuhah...
for love is as strong
as death, a flame
blazing vast floods
cannot extinguish
nor rivers down.”
I take off my body
and stay at home

Immanuel Suttner