My Response to “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”
“A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the recent Pew study of American Jewish life, has grabbed the attention of many liberal rabbis, myself among them. What troubles the rabbis I’ve been talking with is that after decades of trying to create a vibrant and intrinsically compelling Judaism we find that most Jews just don’t care. While 69% of American Jews are proud to be Jews, 22% have abandoned Judaism and only 15% identify Judaism as essential to being Jewish.
We are rabbis, not Jewish Community Center directors. We uphold Judaism the religion. Not only have we failed to bring more Jews in, we may be witnessing the exodus the few Jews we have left.
The response of far too many of my colleagues seems to be a redoubling of their efforts: “doing more, and doing it better” as one rabbi told me with a weak smile, and an air of tired but practiced optimism. Hidden in such a response is the notion that our rabbis have been holding back and have not been giving us their best. This is simply not true. I visit synagogues all across the U.S., and I can attest to the devotion of our rabbis to their task. I can also attest to their frustration. They tell me:
“When I try something new, my people clamor for the old. When I give them the old they complain that it’s old.”
“Synagogues are like health clubs: 80% of the members never show up. Just belonging makes them feel more Jewish. These folks pay the bills. The key to maintaining my sanity is to celebrate joining rather than participating.”
“Look, it’s simple: I’m an employee. The people who pay me are happy with the status quo, so why would I change? Am I happy? I pretend to be happy. But…actually…I’m miserable and bored. I hate what this system has done to me, but what else can I do?”
“Here’s the problem: I’m bought and paid for by people who do little, couldn’t care less, and insist they know everything.”
“If I were honest, I’d admit to my congregation that I don’t believe a word of what I read in the siddur. If I did that a third of my people would cheer because they don’t believe it either. Another third would walk out because they do believe it. And the final third would seek to fire me not because they give a damn about beliefs, but because they’ve been trying to fire me from the day they hired me—on principle!”
“Being a liberal rabbi today is like being a baker in a community that’s gluten intolerant. You kill yourself coming up with new versions of old favorites, but it just doesn’t taste right, and nobody will eat it.”
“After reading the Pew study and its finding that American Jews value humor over religion I thought about tossing out the siddur and playing reruns of Seinfeld, Larry David, and Woody Allen instead. Then I thought better of it; it’s hard enough competing with Friday night football, let alone Netflix.”
Asking congregational rabbis to do “more, only better” when they are already doing the best they can is self-defeating and cruel. The challenge isn’t doing more or doing better, but doing different, and different is not what rabbis are trained or paid to do.
The problem with liberal Judaism is liberal Judaism, not liberal rabbis or liberal Jews. The God affirmed in our liturgy is dead. The idea that the earth was created for our sake is laughable. The insistence that God loves us and will intervene on our behalf is simply sad. The notion that the people Israel is chosen and the Land of Israel is promised is seen for what it is: an Iron Age marketing campaign. Hyping Jewish jingoism to post-ethnic and post-tribal Jews and their Gentile partners is absurd. Pretending that serious Torah study consists of asking “What does this passage mean to me today” is insulting to both Jews and Torah. And equating deep contemplative practice with clapping hands to neo-Hasidic melodies is so ridiculous that most Jews in the pews don’t even bother to try. If liberal Judaism is to have a future, we need to do different, not better.
Understanding my notion of doing different depends on understanding my use of certain key terms. Let me spell these out for you:
Existential: Following the insight of Jean-Paul Sartre that existence precedes essence, I assume that meaning is constructed from and not intrinsic to existence. Life has no meaning unless and until nature evolves making meaning animals. We humans are among those animals.
Meaning refers to the ideas we construct from the fact of our existence that allow us to navigate life without falling into nihilism and despair. Meaning isn’t true or false, but rather effective or ineffective with regard to imbuing life with purpose, direction, and hope.
Spirituality is the process by which we, both alone and in community, make meaning out of the fact of our existence. The tools of spirituality are cognitive, devotional, contemplative, and ecstatic.
Religiosity is our innate and even unconscious human drive to perpetuate the meaning we make by creating memes to carry it. The unconscious nature of religiosity often gives our memes the gloss of revelation when in fact they are the product of human creation.
Religion at its best is a liberatory institution supporting the memes we invent to perpetuate the meaning we make. The primary tools of religion are narrative and ritual. Narrative allows us to weave ourselves into a bigger story of belonging that supports our memes and meaning making. Ritual allows us to embody our narrative and incarnate its meaning in and through our own lives. At its worst, religion mistakes story for history, and ritual for magic. When this happens, religion becomes a force for tyranny rather than liberation.
Judaism as we encounter it today is a millennia-old rabbinic exercise in the deliberate and creative misreading of biblical narrative for the purpose of meaning making, and the imposition/promotion of mitzvot and halachot (commandments and laws) derived from that misreading and invented to support and perpetuate the meaning rabbis make.
Jews are individuals who use the cultural construct of Judaism as their primary, though not necessarily exclusive, vehicle for articulating meaning.
With these terms in mind, let me unfold what doing Judaism different might entail. I offer these remarks not to persuade or convince, but to invite further conversation. The point here is not to argue with my vision of Judaism but to share your own.
Tevya Is Dead. Long Live Tevya
The central message of the “Portrait of American Jews” is that the meaning at the heart of rabbinic Judaism—the idea that there is a benevolent Creator God in charge of the universe and covenanted with Jews in a quid pro quo system of “do good, get good” where “good” is defined as whatever rabbis value—is dead. Regardless of denominational emendation, despite the tweaking of philosophers and footnotes in our prayer books warning the reader not to take our prayers at their word, this is still the message imparted to our people through our liturgies, and it just doesn’t fly.
While Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and Zionism challenged rabbinic Judaism in the not too distant past, it was the Shoah (Holocaust) that shattered it. The murder of six million mostly good-doing Jews overwhelmed the rabbinic narrative. This is why it is easier to build a Holocaust Memorial today than a Jewish library. This is why Never Forget rather than Shema Yisrael is now the true “watchword” of the Jewish people.
What most Jews know, and what most rabbis have yet to publically admit, is that rabbinic Judaism is dead, and with nothing compelling to replace it Jews have turned to ancestor worship instead, making a fetish of highly romanticized and fictionalized pre-Holocaust Judaism personified by Tevya in the movie Fiddler on the Roof.
For decades our rabbis have struggled to repackage the old narrative and tinker with its rituals, while we Jews looked elsewhere for meaning: to Zionism, communism, science, psychoanalysis, humanism, and Buddhism to name but a few of the alternative narratives to which American Jews have flocked.
The Jews portrayed in the Pew study are in existential free-fall. The old story is dead and with it the meaning it once carried. Doing more of the same only better is simply propping up of the dead to fool the living, and reduces Judaism to a parody of Weekend at Bernie’s. We must do different; we must make new meaning; and to do that we must return to the raw facts of existence:
1. Living and dying are conditions over which we have little control.
2. Life isn’t fair. Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people.
3. There is no surety, certainty, permanence, or security in life.
4. All human truths are constructed, reflecting the biases and limitations of their creators.
5. Free will is largely limited to choosing among bio-psycho-socio-economic options presented to us rather than infinite possibilities invented by us.
6. We have the capacity to make meaning from the raw facts of our existence.
7. Right meaning-making gives us a sense of belonging to something purposeful and greater than ourselves, and helps us cultivate love, gratitude, compassion, community, friendship, justice, peace, purpose, and unity with and obligation toward all life.
8. Living well requires us to embrace difference, diffidence, paradox, irony, critical thinking, passionate argument, awe, wonder, love, sorrow, joy, ecstasy, and doubt.
If Judaism is to once again be an intrinsically compelling system of meaning making it will have to grapple with these facts of existence. This is a big “if,” and any predictions as to what this next Judaism may be are terribly premature. Yet, with all that, let me sketch a my vision of Judaism Next, and invite you to do the same:
• Our God will be the panentheistic God of Spinoza and Einstein what we might call Ain Sof manifesting as Shekhinah, the Mother of all being and becoming;
• Our Torah will be the insights of Chochmah/Lady Wisdom preserved in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon, teaching us how to make meaning of, and find wonder and love in the stark realities of life;
• Our Talmud will be the tales of Bialik, Agnon, Buber, Jabes, Kafka, and others;
• Our Shabbat will be a reclaiming of face and friendship à la Emmanuel Levinas;
• Our worship will cultivate reverence, awe, compassion, and justice for person and planet, and invite us into both contemplative silence and transcendent ecstasy;
• Our primary holy day will be Sukkot, celebrating the fecundity and promise of life in the midst of the fragility and insecurity of living;
• Our culture will teach us to be tzadikim nistarim, hidden saints healing and hallowing the world wherever and however we meet it;
• Our pedagogy will be learning to live with doubt, skepticism, paradox, irony, and uncertainty;
• Our teachers will be Rabbonim sharpening our questions rather than answering them, Baalei Shem, mystics and healers teaching us how to hallow space and time, and navigate dreamscape even as we honor landscape, Darshanim, masters of story and parable passing on the old while training us to create the new, and Morei Derekh, way-pointers empowering us to live virtuously and even joyously with impermanence and not-knowing;
• Our synagogues will be houses of deep conversation and even deeper play where Jews and Gentiles gather to partake of Wisdom’s Feast (Proverbs 9:1-6), and over food and drink share our questions and test our answers, dancing with one another’s joys, and weeping with one another’s sorrows;
• Our funders and philanthropists will be adventure capitalists investing in an avalanche of new, wild, and even anarchic experiments in Jewish meaning making and living, knowing that failure is the norm and yet trusting that success, when it happens, will secure our future for yet another age.
What about Israel?
Modern Zionism, both secular and religious, is rooted in the memes of Chosen People and Promised Land. Today both memes are being emptied of meaning (only 40% of American Jews say the current State of Israel was given to Jews by God). Nevertheless 69% of American Jews still feel connected to the State of Israel. The future of this connection will depend largely on Israel herself. To the extent Israel chooses to become the center of Jewish creativity fuelled by Hebrew literacy and subsequent literary, artistic, and religious innovation, and to export that creativity (if not, sadly, Hebrew literacy) to American Jewry, connection to Israel will thrive in Judaism Next. To the extent Israel chooses to become an embattled theocracy, a Jewish Iran, or a living museum of eighteenth-century Jewish life rather than a living experiment in twenty-first-century Jewish living, it will become increasingly irrelevant to the vast majority of American Jews.
Moving toward Judaism Next
Sadly, Judaism Next is not something our seminaries, federations, or funders seem willing to entertain, let alone actually embrace. Don’t rely on them, and please don’t ask your rabbis to do more or to do better.
If synagogue is irrelevant to you, quit and start something different.
If the liturgy is meaningless to you, stop reciting it and write something different.
If Jewish education is vapid and inane, stop enrolling and learn something different.
Refuse to be silenced, and speak up for yourself. If you are afraid to do this alone, find others with whom to do it. And if there are no others, then accept the end of Judaism with grace. We’ve been around for 4,000 years, maybe that’s long enough.
I’m not yet ready to quit, however. I hope you aren’t either. Judaism Next will happen only if we reinvent Judaism now. What have you got?