An editorial in the FORWARD newspaper cites Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, on the need for raising levels of observance among Conservative Jews—“too many Conservative Jews can’t read Hebrew, don’t keep the Sabbath and other central Jewish observances, and don’t find synagogue prayer meaningful or attractive.”
I doubt this is a problem unique to Conservative Judaism. Most Jews don’t read Hebrew for the same reason most Jews don’t read French—they don’t need it. The reason most Jews fail to observe Shabbat or keep kosher is that these traditions no longer speak to them. The reason they don’t find synagogue services meaningful or attractive is that 1) the liturgy reflects a medieval worldview that most 8-year olds have outgrown, and 2) because we have become used to theatrical production values that synagogue services cannot match.
What most Jews want—what most postmodern, postindustrial first worlders want—isn’t more tradition but more meaning and authentic encounters with reality. We live in a world of contrived meanings faux reality fed to us by advertisers and reality television. Even real disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are turned into soap operas by the infotainment media. Synagogue is just another faux reality where Jews are asked to believe in a god and worldview that most do not take seriously.
Liberal Judaisms as a whole rarely offer their members anything truly deep, challenging, existentially compelling, or spiritually transformative. But most Jews wouldn’t get involved even if they did.
Why? Because deeply transformative spiritual work is, well, work. And most people aren’t interested. This is true in any religion. The truly devout are always a minority. If liberal Jews wanted to be more observant they would be more observant. No one is stopping them; they just don’t want to.
So let’s focus on making our respective forms of Judaism as powerful as we can. Let’s make our ideas and our institutions as affordable and as available and as welcoming as we can. And then let’s let the people do what they want. That is what they are going to do anyway.
Trying to get Jews to do what they don’t want to do is like trying to herd katz.