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.

Doing Different

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.

Judaism Next

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?


4 thoughts on “My Response to “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”

  1. Dear Rami – I agree with most of your analysis, as you know. You probably already have seen my own response to Pew on ejewish philanthropy. As to the vision, here’s my re-write or response to yours.

    Peace and blessings – Art

    Our God will be conceived in panentheistic terms, identical to the natural universe but seen through the eyes of wonder and infused with mystery, thus transcendent. We personify the force of nature in order to love it, to be in committed relationship with it, even to both rail against it and to worshipfully submit to its ultimate power. In doing this we give it the greatest gift we have, that of our own personhood, as we remake it in our own image.

    Our tradition has great wisdom about the matter of personhood, if examined historically and then re-appropriated in the post-critical context. So we understand that all our images of God are human projections, and we revel in them. We also know a lot about how to celebrate life and about human responsibility, both to one another and to the cosmos. Judaism does both celebration and responsibility extremely well.

    Devotion and humility remain virtues to which we are deeply committed. We pray not because we hope someone is listening “on the other end of the line,” but in order to be fully present, with all our limitations, needs, and concerns, as we stand before the great project of existence and say: “Here I am; send me.” Yes, more silence and fewer words would be a good idea.

    Building community in an age of depersonalization, commercialization, and electronic surrogates for face-to-face communication is among the greatest gifts that religious affiliation has to offer in our day. Whether in Havurah, Bet Midrash learning, around the Shabbat table, or in small groups within synagogues, such contexts will have an essential role in preserving values we hold most dear, including our most basic faith in tselem elohim, the image of God, the equally true converse of the first point I made, in an age that is not kind to such values.

    The best bridge I know between our tradition and these contemporary needs is the teachings of the early Hasidic masters, as discovered by Martin Buber, Hillel Zeitlin, and others a full century ago. The urge to build this bridge is now more urgent than ever, both because of the challenges to those values and because a Judaism based on tribal and ancestral loyalty, much of it tied to the romanticized memory of “the old country,” has already slipped away. Other strategies for the creative survival of Judaism have not taken us very far.

    Why Hasidism? Because it learned to use the tradition – both its myth and its ritual – (halakhah and aggadah, if you prefer) for the purpose of self-transcendence and attachment to God or to the oneness of all being. The traditional forms are retooled to serve a psychological function of stirring and embodying the two great religious emotions of love and awe. These combined, raised to a high degree, give birth to a sense of the holy, the ultimate meaning-making tool.

    Whether it is the tales of the patriarchs or the detailed Talmudic discussion of some festival observance, they are all made to teach Hasidism’s great lesson: that the divine may be discovered and served in every place and every moment. Human life is saved from blandness and absurdity, lifted out of the ordinary, by this unending quest.

    This focusing of religious life on devotion, transferring its primary locus of interest from the metaphysical and the legalistic to the spiritual/psychological, makes it ripe for application in an era when our primary interest in religion is in its effect on the human psyche, including the influence it has on our actions and interactions with one another. In an age when the very greatest task of all religion will be that of convincing humans to transform the quality of our relationship to the natural world, we have much to learn and to teach from the Hasidic preachers’ search for the miraculous within the ordinary, the sacred spark within the seemingly profane. The ability to appreciate phenomena that are “simply natural” as “Your miracles that are with us daily” is a gift that the Hasidic reading of both life and Torah trains us to see.

  2. Right now, I think that Jews should put a major focus on trying to figure out a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, both in terms of delineating the type(s) of arrangement would be best for all concerned; and, also, the steps that are necessary to get there. PACO (Political Approaches to COexistence), founded in 2013, is one effort in that direction.

  3. How is it possible to live “spiritually” while telling other people how they should live, or what they should value? This is a question posed in the abstract, not a response to any specific statement in this article or on the subject in general – there is a notion in U.S. culture that in a conflict between individual desires and community desires, the individual should come first. Hence, when we have any organization designed to instruct others in the art or science of living, who is going to listen when we can simply retreat to our own private abodes and do whatever we want? I wonder if there is such a thing as an optional community – or a constructed community. You either have it or you don’t? And it has to be real, with a joint mission or purpose that has real consequences and real value in the way people experience themselves and each other, which won’t happen once a week at an impersonal ritual gathering.

    How do you have “spirituality” when no one believes in God (or agrees about what God is)? What does it mean to be “spiritual” if life has no intrinsic meaning? Why bother to invent meaning where none is present, and how do you find the strength to do that despite all evidence to the contrary? What’s the point?

    So in answering the question of what Judaism brings to the present era or what it can bring to the future…I think there is a great deal of interpersonal wisdom in it, and an admirable value system, including appreciation of the cycles of nature, and that is fine.

    What is worship other than the awareness that we’re here despite the fact that we didn’t choose to be and may as well make the most of it? Does such an awareness require a special language? Does it need ritual? How do we clarify for ourselves the difference between right and wrong and find a way to make those choices meaningful if meaning is arbitrary?

    The value of Judaism lies in its value system. When you have the values, do you need the system or are the values enough? Or is the system simply a means of transmitting and affirming those values? They are choices, yeah? To make a statement about the values on which we base our interactions in the world.

    These are questions. I don’t have answers.

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