In September 2008 Synagogue 3000 commissioned a survey to measure Jewish spirituality among American Jews. The fact that they couldn’t define “spirituality” didn’t seem to faze them. What they found was that Jews are less spiritually inclined than the general population. Not surprisingly, the survey also found that Jews don’t talk much about God, and don’t find prayer all that important. Did we actually need a survey to tell us this?
But wait, what about all those Jews rushing to other religions like Buddhism and Sufism? Aren’t they spiritual? Could be, but the survey didn’t count them because they didn’t find their spirituality within Judaism. In other words this was a survey of Jewish spirituality that excluded those Jews (perhaps 20% of the Jewish population according to the survey) that might be the most spiritual.
Given the population studied, the survey came to the following conclusions: (1) Orthodox Jews, who make up only 8% of America Jewry, are the most spiritual Jews; (2) Jews with one Jewish parent or Jews By Choice (converts) with no Jewish parents are the second most spiritual Jews, and (3) Jews with two Jewish parents are the least spiritual and the least religious.
You have to love this! After decades of fighting against intermarriage it turns out that the biggest danger to Jewish survival is Jews marrying Jews!
How are we to understand these results? It isn’t too difficult. Orthodox Jews are more spiritual because they actually believe in Judaism. NonOrthodox Jews with one or less Jewish parent are more spiritual because their non-Jewish parent exposed them to other religions that, unlike Judaism, place a high value on spirituality. NonOrthodox Jews raised in an exclusively Jewish household with two Jewish parents are the least religious and spiritual because no one really believed in the Judaism they were taught in the first place, and they were secular humanists who found spirituality far too woo-woo for their tastes.
I speak in synagogues all over the United States and I can attest, at least anecdotally, to the validity of these findings. The vast majority of Jews I meet are bored to death by the Judaism they are asked to practice. They simply do not believe in God as presented to them in the siddur and Torah (prayer book and Bible), and cannot pretend that this God they do not believe in wants them to engage in religious rituals they cannot relate to. What little involvement they have is due almost exclusively to Zionism, anti-Semitism, and ancestor worship. They love Israel (or at least their idea of Isreal), they fear Gentiles (or at least those Gentiles they don’t know personally), and they honor their mothers and their fathers. If they want God, spirituality, or even a meaningful outlook on life they look elsewhere.
This helps explain two other findings in the survey. First, those nonOrthodox Jews who are spiritually inclined do not talk with their rabbis about their interests. Why would they? I suspect that rabbis are less spiritual then their congregants. Many if not most rabbis I know are atheists when it comes to the image of God promoted by Torah and siddur. They didn’t become rabbis for spiritual reasons, and they have no spiritual foundation from which to help those Jews who are looking for Jewish spirituality.
Second, the survey found that younger Jews are more spiritual than older Jews, and that younger Gentiles are less spiritual that older Gentiles. Which shows, I guess, that younger Jews are becoming older Gentiles.
While this may sound confusing, the survey attributes the rise in spirituality among younger Jews to the fact that younger Jews tend to have one Gentile parent, and that parent brought the spiritual element into their child’s life. Why are younger Gentiles less spiritual than older Gentiles? I don’t know; commission another survey.
The Synagogue 3000 survey was designed to help synagogues plan for the future, so the following numbers seem to matter:
76% of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about God;
52% of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about the afterlife;
73% of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about ultimate meaning; and
78% of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about spiritual issues.
Houston, we have a problem. First of all most nonOrthodox rabbis don’t believe in God as the Torah and siddur picture God. If they did they would be Orthodox rabbis. If they believe in God at all, most are probably pantheists equating God with nature. If these rabbis tell the truth, what are they going to do with Torah and liturgy? We spend weeks every year reading in the Torah about how God wants us to kill animals as part of a remedy for skin diseases that a bit of antibiotic cream would cure in a day. Can it be that our all-knowing God didn’t know about tetracycline?
Second, most nonOrthodox rabbis don’t believe in a soul that survives death. Since rabbinic Judaism insists on such a soul and the possibility of heaven and hell, what are we to do with rabbinic Judaism?
You see the problem. If rabbis are honest, rabbinic Judaism is dead.
When it comes to “ultimate meaning” and “spiritual issues” I would hope rabbis are on surer ground, especially since no one can define these terms precisely. I suspect people are asking that synagogues become places where they can explore the meaning of life rather than simply get instruction as to how to live as 17th century Polish Jews did.
What difference will this survey make? I doubt it will make any at all. What difference should it make? It should lead to the wholesale re-evaluation of what Judaism is and synagogues are for. If Judaism is simply a matter of ancestor worship then synagogues may be doing the best they can to train people for life in the middle ages. If Judaism is supposed to be an on-going exploration of life and meaning then the synagogue has got to come up with better prayers, better theologies, better language, and a radically different way of engaging people. But since, as Einstein said, you cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it, nothing will change. It can’t.