November 4, 2013
How do we measure being Jewish? Or how the Jewish people are doing? We have the old question, “Is it good for the Jews?” that our parents or grandparents would ask at cultural bellwether moments – when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, when Bob Dylan went electric, when the second Gulf War happened.
You may have read about the Pew study that came out a few months ago. The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years found a significant rise in those who are not religious, those who were marrying outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish, and rapid assimilation that seems to be sweeping through every branch of Judaism except Orthodoxy. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.
There has been much hand wringing, if not downright panic among first-responders to the numbers. And as the dust has settled a bit, we’ve also been exposed to different hermeneutics – different ways of reading and interpreting the numbers. Indeed, the Pew study has become a bit of a rorshach test for North American Jews. Who are we becoming? What would we like to become?
Rabbis Irwin Kula and Tzvi Blanchard from Rabbis Without Borders have suggested that the dominant interpretive metaphor does not need to be “erosion” – that we could talk about this time as a time of “churning.”
They point out other numbers in the Pew survey. Such as, despite the drop in religious identity and participation, an overwhelming majority of American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Jews who checked the “not-religious” box also checked the boxes that said they believe in G-d, and think of themselves as spiritual. What does this tell us?
My father, a retired professor of psychology, once expressed his dissatisfaction with the academic world by saying, they know how to take things apart really well – but it seems there is little interest in putting it back together.
The real question is how do we put this – institutional Jewish life – back together in a new way, in a way that is reflective of the Jewish people we serve, in a way that works?
We talk about “Judaism” sometimes as if it were a monster in the woods, something apart from us, that we can’t control. Yet it is us! So if forms as we are used to experiencing them in the organized Jewish world – belief, synagogue, family make-up – are churning, then perhaps in this time of churning, where we’re checking boxes differently – we can be part of the envisioning and rearticulating.
There are numbers in the survey that no matter how you slice it, are cause for concern and real soul-searching. But despite the fear we may feel in the face of so much change, there is real excitement and possibility in who the Jewish people are continuing to become. As we come into the season of Hanukah (which literally means, ‘dedication’), may we dedicate and re-dedicate ourselves to the work of building committed, meaningful Jewish communal life.