The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that one cannot step into the same river twice, since the river keeps changing and you keep changing. His insight applies today to American Judaism, which evolves in its own way just as American society undergoes transformation.
Generational changes in America are apparent in many ways, including diminishing national engagement with organized religion.
According to Pew, 35 percent of Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) are religiously unaffiliated today, compared with 17 percent of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and 11 percent of the Greatest Generation (born before 1928). Eleven percent of Millennial adults are mainline Protestants, compared to 26 percent of the Greatest Generation and 22 percent of the Silent Generation (those born 1928-1945). Over the past decade, the number of American adults who describe themselves as Christians declined by 12 percentage points, to 65 percent.
America’s nearly six million Jews are a special case because of their historical experiences and memories, the broad spectrum of their theological beliefs and ritual observance, their diverse demographics and their complex emotional bonds to Israel. Among the Jewish young, 94 percent tell pollsters they are “proud of being Jewish.” However, over half have no formal identification with Jewish institutions. Well over half choose non-Jewish spouses and over half describe themselves as Jews by culture rather than by religious belief.
The challenge for the American Jewish community is to deal constructively with this broad spectrum of belief and observance, ranging from traditional believers called “tribalists” to modernists known as “covenantors.”
Tribalists see Judaism in theological, ethnic and political terms, considering Jews a Chosen People following rules of conduct derived from the Torah or Talmud. They are explicit in denominational loyalty and religious practice and are concerned with Jewish communal continuity and survival. Identification with Israel and Holocaust memorialization are important to them.
Covenantors, on the other hand, regard Judaism in ethical and moral terms, as a spiritual legacy with a humanistic culture reflecting social justice, without necessary reference to a Supreme Being or personal deity. They respect the Bible as wisdom literature, and holidays and life-cycle ceremonies are seen as symbolic expressions of spirituality and wisdom. And they respond to the exhortation in the Book of Micah 6:8, “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”
A healthy, pluralistic American Jewish community must make room for all its members (10 percent of whom are Orthodox, 18 percent Conservative, 35 percent Reform, 6 percent Reconstructionist and other, 30 percent of no denomination). In a period of declining attendance and membership in synagogues and temples, of diminishing financial contributions to Jewish federations and of weakening Jewish institutions, an increasing number of young Jews feed their spiritual hunger at yoga centers and ashrams, with personal gurus and meditation training, and through public non-religious social welfare activities.
The implications for the future of Jewish life in America are varied. Tribalists believe the organized Jewish community should continue its present course: Orthodox and most Conservative rabbis oppose intermarriage. Denominational differences are highlighted. And too many leaders turn a blind eye to the Israeli government’s open disparagement of non-Orthodox Judaism (which increasingly alienates young Americans).
A more realistic response is that of the covenantors, who acknowledge the broad range of Jewish belief and encourage self-identifying Jews to raise their children as knowledgeable and involved members of the Jewish community, proud of its past and enthusiastic about its future. Jews by culture see themselves not as a “Chosen People” but as “choosing people” who identify with Judaism through volition, not just by maternal descent or formal conversion.
Whether Jewish by theology or culture, all can find the soul-searching and introspection of the High Holy Days life-enhancing; they can delight in the joyous celebration of freedom of the Passover seder, and revel in the weekly Sabbath dinner’s expression of gratitude for all those good things in our lives that are not of our own doing.
Jews-by-culture generally list several life-enhancing convictions that all Jews share:
♦ All Jews relate in some ways to other Jews. The individual is not considered in isolation but in a context of home, family, community and society. Observant Jews pray in a minyan, but all can celebrate the Sabbath dinner with family and friends, celebrate the Passover seder at home (when possible) with a multi-generational gathering including strangers, the needy and non-Jewish friends;
♦ Lifelong learning and endless questioning are important values;
♦ Philanthropy is not seen as charity (based on “caritas” or love) but as “tzedakah” (based on justice and righteousness);
♦ All religions acknowledge the world’s Creator. Only Judaism, in the doctrine of “tikkun olam,” maintains that the world was deliberately left incomplete so that each of us, in our own way, can help repair or finish it;
♦ Finally, Jews-by-culture feel that Judaism, while not a proselytizing faith, should be open to all who choose to be affiliated.
In this view, intermarried non-Jewish spouses, their children and their families should be welcome at Sabbath dinners, Passover Seders and Purim balls. Continuing efforts should be made to increase the knowledge and understanding of Judaism of all Jews, whether of maternal descent or not. Interdenominational entities like Hillel and the Jewish Community Center Association play an important role in maintaining constructive relationships among members of the broad spectrum of Jewish belief and observance.
America’s Jewish communities of the future can be vibrant and flourishing, but they will differ in form and content from the past. Not bloodlines, but intellectual and spiritual concerns will bind the members; not tribal loyalties, but shared values; not narrow observance of religious rituals, but performance of life-enhancing and socially constructive activities. And the new covenant will be open to all who wish to join.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “On all matters that affect us as Jews we work together regardless of our religious differences; on all things that touch on our religious differences we agree to differ, but with respect.”
As the Book of Proverbs says, “A good doctrine has been given unto you. Forsake it not.”
Real estate developer and philanthropist Daniel Rose is the author of “Making a Living, Making a Life” and “The Examined Life” (Half Moon Press).