The idea that God is a “person with whom people can have a relationship” seems right out of Evangelical Christianity.
Yet a new study of religion in America finds that a full quarter of Jews believe in such a personal relationship.
Is that figure high or low, and is it good for the Jews?
It’s lower than the percentage of such believers in the country’s other major faith groups, according to a major survey of religious beliefs released this week. But it’s probably on the rise, and it’s good if Jews with such a personal belief become active in synagogues and other Jewish organizations, says a spokesman for a prominent outreach organization.
It may be bad, however, if personal piety comes at the expense of connections with the wider Jewish community, says a representative for another national Jewish organization.
The release of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life holds few surprises about American Jewry, showing the American Jewish community on the liberal — nearly secular — end of the spectrum on such issues as the importance of religion in one’s life, frequency of attending religious services and divine authorship of Scripture. (Pew interviewed some 36,000 people nationwide during the spring and summer of 2007. The Jewish sample was 682.)
But the question about God as a “person” with whom believers can have a personal relationship — as opposed to “an impersonal force” — raises new questions.
Twenty-five percent of Jews in the Pew study said they believe in a personal God; 50 percent said God is “an impersonal force.” The Protestant figure for a personal God was 72 percent; Catholic, 60; Muslim, 41.
The Jewish figure is probably higher than in recent decades, says Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department.
“Personalism is definitely on the rise. The concept of personal spirituality is all the rage among young people,” Bayme says. “As American Jews have become more American, the pervasive Christian culture” — which stresses a personal relationship with God — “has an influence,” he says.
People who develop a sense of personal spirituality, in any faith, often tend to disassociate from communal life, Bayme says, adding that he has observed a “declining … sense of [Jewish] peoplehood … over the last few decades.
“We need to wed the quest for personal meaning with a broader connectedness of the Jewish people,” he says. “That’s the challenge of Jewish organizations.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, says he does not share Bayme’s fears. “I don’t think the broader Jewish community will suffer if Jews develop a personal relationship with God. It brings them closer — they need a community.”
And, the rabbi says, the concept of a personal relationship with God has roots in the Torah. “It was a Jewish idea before it was a Christian idea. We believe that every Jew prays directly to God.”