Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jewish Nones

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.


Michael Getty said...

I found a few interesting bits inside the full report:

What we're really talking about is a net loss of about 460,000 Jews over 18 years. Also:

p. 6: The Jewish religious population is in slow decline due mainly to a movement towards the Nones among young ethnic Jews.

p. 14: Baptists and Jews have the highest proportions of adherents over 70 years of age.

p. 18: Judaism is attracting and retaining more college-educated people than it did in 1990, by about 7%.

As someone who's moved in the opposite direction than the Nones over the past five or six years, I can attest to the generational forces at work. Even though I'm about to exit my thirties, I'm still a good deal younger than most of the people I worship with.

Somehow, a self-reinforcing cycle got kicked off. The average age in formal congregations ticked up just enough that younger people stopped seeing themselves reflected in the faces around them. They stopped coming, pushing the average age up a little more, and so on ...

I've heard that Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles has built a vibrant congregation made up mostly of people in their twenties and thirties. They seem to put music at the center of things, and they have this great quote from Heschel:

Music is more than just expressiveness. It is rather a reaching out toward a realm that lies beyond the reach of verbal propositions. Verbal expression is in danger of being taken literally and of serving as a substitute for insight. Words become slogans, slogans become idols. But music is a refutation of human finality. Music is an antidote to higher idolatry. While other forces in society combine to dull our mind, music endows us with moments in which the sense of the ineffable becomes alive.

roy said...

As a Baptist... my tradition has many of the same issues which is reflected in similar changes in statistics. We too need a reinvention or maybe just a reaffirmation of a tradition that was once fluid and open.

thanks for the quote Michael. It is wonderful.

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks Michael and Roy for the comments. I really appreciate Michael's information. I hope people come to the comments page and get a chance to read it.

Peter Schogol said...
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Peter Schogol said...

If, as you say, rabbis invented rabbis and have spent the past two millennia renewing the patent, why should we look to a new breed of rabbi, however Kaplan-ish, to bring us back to the seder?

I for one don't believe that rabbis are to blame for Jews abdicating their peoplehood. Jews qua Jews are to blame (if blame is the word). Whether one is frum or frei, a lot goes into being a Jew in this world, and many of us are ambivalent about committing to such an obligation. No rabbi, however cool or hip, is going to minimize the gravitas of Jewish identity in the face of massive assimilation and recrudescent anti-semitism.

Eighteen months ago we buried my older brother. From all appearances he had successfully walked away from his Jewishness and become a Presbyterian deacon. He was a rarity -- in my experience it's difficult to stay away. Like Kafka, many of us try only to find some melody, some scent, which churns the nostalgia.

The future of the Jewish people rests with heartbroken Jews, those who haven't been willing or able to transfuse their DNA with goyishkeit. If there are to continue to be rabbis, they will need to focus not on how to make Judaism once again relevant, but on what Judaism is for those who can't make it relevant.

Rabbi Rami said...

You've got my attention, Peter. So what is Judaism to Jews who can't make it relevant? Some of my colleagues say we should abandon them and focus on the few who are serious, whether frum or not. I some tjmes think we should just let it die a natural death: if the Jews don't care why should the rabbis?

eashtov said...

Shalom All,

Peter wrote:

"The future of the Jewish people rests with heartbroken Jews, those who haven't been willing or able to transfuse their DNA with goyishkeit."

About what are these Jews heartbroken? Peter continued;

"If there are to continue to be rabbis, they will need to focus not on how to make Judaism once again relevant,"

I disagree. The problem is relevance, specifically the lack thereof. Most Jews have voted with their feet that the synagogue and/or Judaism is/are irrelevant. Judaism/Synagogues have to re-earn their place in the life of most who identify as Jews. To do this, synagogues need to deliver a Judaism which is relevant, practical, challenging and life application oriented, showing that Judaism actually speaks to life as it is lived and experienced in the 21rst century, ie., teach and talk about what Judaism has to say about our physical, financial, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being.

As Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church as well as the author of “A Purpose Driven Life,” has said: “clergy need to 'say something on Sunday that people can use on Monday.'” Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman who wrote “Rethinking Synagogues” calls this: sermons that emphasize where “Torah meets life.” So….. “on one foot” rabbi’s (and I‘ve heard many from the pews over the years) need to become/be made more aware that the content of their bimah teaching always be about answering the question, “why think/do Jewish?” Peter continued:

"but on what Judaism is for those who can't make it relevant."

I don't understand what you mean?!? All that's left
of "Judaism" for most who identify as Jews is the trivial to nearly meaningless "Jewishness," that manifests as lifecycle "fixes" (b'not/b'nei mitzva births weddings and funerals), the occasional perceived need for a worship service e.g., high holidays (yet another "guilt fix" for ever fewer Jews), the Holocaust/anti semitism, and let's not forget an occasional trip to the Jewish deli/ restuarant.
This residual Jewishness will go the way of borscht
belt humor and the Catskills. As the older generations pass, nostalgia (nose pain) will have less and less of a pull. It's already quite evident among busters and millenials.

There is hope and it is in learning the lessons of successful megachurches, a segment of organized religious life that continues to grow in contradistinction to the remainder of denominations that are in decline. One of those lessons is found above in the paragraph that begins
"I disagree." Others can be found in two books on this very topic. "The Spirituality of Welcoming," by Dr. Ron Wolfson, c. 2006 Jewish Lights and "Rethinking Synagogues," by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, c. 2006 Jewish Lights. Both of these books draw heavily on the authors' experiences and explorations of the megachurch; specifically Saddleback Church whose Senior Pastor is Rick Warren.

Shabbat Shalom/Shavu'a Tov to all of us,


eashtov said...
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eashtov said...

Shalom All,

Rabbi Rami wrote,

"Even my beloved Jewish Renewal movement has failed to stem the rising numbers of Jewish Nones."

If it offends, please forgive the following characterization. My experience with Jewish Renewal (though not necessarily the teachings of its founders) is that it's little more than a mix of Jewish kumbaya and left wing "progressive," politics. It seems/seemed to elevate/legitimize feeling and emotion over actual Jewish literacy. It's failure "to stem the rising numbers of Jewish Nones," is because it's too superficially Jewish (kumbaya emotionalism) or exclusionary in its politics.
Why do you believe it's "failed to stem the rising numbers of Jewish Nones."
Rabbi Rami continued:

" ...(what's necessary is ) the far more painful work of tikkun hanefesh (soul repair) for which the growing number of Jewish nones so desperately hunger."

I agree with Rabbi Rami here. And the beginning of an answer is in my previous response to Peter.

Shabbat Shalom/Shavu'a Tov to all of us


11:38 AM

Peter Schogol said...
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Peter Schogol said...

It may be that those professionals who are charged with the nurturing and furthering of Judaism (however defined) feel that Judaism should be the whole of one's identity. In fact, for many of us our Jewishness is a complex of circuits rather than the whole mother board.

I am a cultural Jew who is also a naturalistic theist who practices a contemporary form of Shinto. It's taken me years to realize that what makes a pie of all the pieces is me, not an expectation or definition of me by others.

So is it really the case that Judaism (however defined) or Jewry is dying, or is it a case that for Jews for whom Jewishness has any meaning at all, being a Jew is part of a more comprehensive identity?

Mano said...

I became a rabbi
watching a woman
on a killer whale
I became a rabbi
in brothels and massage parlours
I became a rabbi
in yeshivat ohr somayach
I became a rabbi
reading Tolstoy all night
I became a rabbi
hearing howling Al Ginsberg
singing Shalom Achshav
at Kikar Hamalka
I became a rabbi
when I rescued a cat
in Maalot Dafna
I became a rabbi
in Addis Abbaba
I became a rabbi
in an ashram in Lucknow
I became a rabbi
when I pushed out a fart
before being pushed out a plane above palmachim beach
I became a rabbi
when I stood to one side
in Gibalia as my unit
beat a man to death
I became a rabbi
between her legs
each pubic hair
black fire on white
I became a rabbi
in holy Tzefat
where I ran down the hill
like the Ariz"l
I became a rabbi
on the rocks of eyn gedi
where I leaped like a goat
in my tzanchanim boots
I became a rabbi
fighting back the tears
at the end of movies
I became a rabbi
translating Alcharizi
and Amichai
I became a rabbi
with my charitable acts
with each love song I wrote
when I held my new borns
and blessed them with peace

Mano said...

PS Great debate....sooo important...and yet not important at all...the unexpected is bound to happen, and the law of unintended cosequences will keep on functioning with endles creativity, as my rebbe, Sri Nisarghadattha Maharaj, never fails to point out

Bivracha and may your keppels keep on spinning out more thoughts...would that we could knit them all into a garment to keep us al warm at night, or something that would pay the bills....

Peter Schogol said...

What makes Jews wander? If you can answer that question you might get some clue as to why so many of us have hyphenated identities.

I say blame it on the Haskalah. After all, we've seen Paree. Do we now go back to Vilne?

The Jewish Enlightenment can't be undone, nor -- apparently -- stopped arbitrarily. Maybe some critical point in space or time will be reached and a countermovement will set out in search of New Vilne. Until such time, however, the force is still with us.

Anonymous said...

What's difficult for me is talking about what "I" personally want from the Jewish tradition and what others might want. Personally, I want a small intimate community of people I can connect to who also participate in the Jewish tradition. That's why I joined a chavurah.

Ultimately, I support the widest diversity of Jewish approaches, in which people who like certain options follow them. Trying to invent a magic bullet to make people care who don't care, in my opinion is fruitless.

I'm all for natural selection in terms of religion. If no one cares, it ceases to exist. Since I do care, I'll do what I can to help Judaism survive. I would do the same about other options I support like earth-based spirituality, a general community of spiritual but not religious people, etc.

Michael Getty said...

I found this extended

Michael Getty said...

I found this extended interview between Krista Tippett and Rabbi Sharon Brous that says *so* much about what I think Jewish Nones might be going through.

She talks about growing up feeling numbed by the tradition growing up, let down by mainstream communities as a young adult, then walking into B'nai Jeshurun in NYC and being blown away:

Here it is. I found it totally revelatory.