I find myself having strong feelings about what this New York Times article reports -- and I say this knowing full well, as I explained in a July blog post, that my own life makes me part of the statistics that alarm me personally: I belong to no synagogue, have married a man who isn't Jewish, and have not produced children, thus have raised no children as Jews.
So I find myself wondering how many Jews, who, like myself, belong to no synagogue, would be really upset if there were no synagogues at all. How would we feel, what would we do, if there were no synagogues that we could visit for the occasional service, head over to in search of rabbinic counsel, or choose to join? Personally speaking, I would feel really upset.
Interestingly, it's been the culture of some synagogues* that has been problematic for me: too family-oriented, too suburban, too affluent for one whose life and work are decidedly urban and cross-cultural. So the Jewish cultural belonging I have felt has been most often outside of the synagogue -- when I am with members of my family who represent all kinds of active and passive Jewish life, and when I am with Jews I know from work -- because we've all made similar choices about how to express our values, Jewish and not Jewish, in our work lives -- and often even in our home lives.
But given that synagogues respect and even cultivate Jewish cultural belonging -- the delicious, celebratory, and communal aspects of Jewish life -- I especially find myself wondering why Jewish "cultural belonging" has grown increasingly detached from Jewish "religious belonging," as I'll call it here. Are many American Jews, even some of those who are active in synagogue life, so immersed in the familiar cultural "euphoria" of the delicious, celebratory, and communal that the religious takes a back seat -- so that, for example, the celebration of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as an achievement somehow obscures its importance as the commencement of the adult phase of Jewish interior as well as communal religious life? Is the robustness of Jewish cultural practice inadvertently drawing people away from Jewish religious practice? I ask this question (it occurred to me last night that I ought to add this thought) knowing that the rabbis I've had the chance to know are always working to be sure that people experience the cultural and the religious as profoundly connected. I know that as I write this, I may be emphasizing a division between culture and religion that may not really exist -- but people's responses to the survey are suggesting that this line exists in their minds.
Personally, I wonder if Jewish culture in the absence of Jewish religion poses a threat to Judaism as a religion, as a set of practices, beliefs, values, and texts and stories that require study and interpretation. Since culture seems to me to be in a perpetual state of mutation, existing always as a combination of transmitted traditions and innovation based on circumstance and agency, I wonder at what point Jewish cultures might cease to have any resemblance to one another and -- even more importantly -- to have any traceable connection to Judaism as a religion. Will we get to a point that if anyone who's Jewish does something or believes something that other Jews as Jews adopt and pass on, that something will become a variation of "Jewish culture"?
I find myself thinking of Philip Roth's short story "The Conversion of the Jews"** as I reread Goodstein's report that "In a surprising finding, 34 percent said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah." I am trying to make sense of the fact approximately 1/3 of self-identified American Jews feel this way, while only slightly more than 1/5 of American Jews identify themselves as Jews religiously. Is there some kind of relationship between these statistics that needs exploring? Are culture and values enough to make one Jewish? Personally, I can't let go of the idea that what Jews believe matters. And frankly, I don't want to. I think Jews are different, and not just culturally different. Not better, but different. I think every religious group is different but not better. Being a Jew is definitely better for me personally, though: I think that what we've always known, unless we object to it on some important grounds, is often the best spiritual fit for us for that very reason.
That said, I find myself wondering what American Jews*** think about belief itself, specifically about what happens when one commits to belief; commits to saying, silently or out loud, maybe not even in words, "I believe"; commits to a religious tradition, not just a cultural tradition. Maybe the question is what happens next if one commits to belief and religious affiliation in the heart. I thought about this a lot when I taught "Religion and/in Literature" at the Pilot School, and I came to believe that belief, like any other kind of commitment, exacts something from people. That's why in my Teaching for Understanding planning and curriculum articulation, there was one understanding goal that remained constant across the various religion-centered units: "What does (insert the name of the religion) ask of people, and what does it offer them in return?"
I know that such a question opens the door for those who strongly dislike religion to jump in. I know a number of them personally, and I know their argument, proven so often, is that religion leads to war, terror, and death. Personally, I'm not comfortable blaming religion for the actions of those who abuse it, but I also don't know how to document religion's life-preserving contributions -- although I did find myself really grateful for the prayers that so many people, Jewish and not Jewish, were offering on behalf of my father last Tuesday.
I also know that my understanding goal question, and in fact my whole "Religion and/in Literature" course, leaves out the experience of those who feel no need for organized, institutional religion, and often for God. To those who list for me the countless places where and ways that they experience the divine, without needing God or affiliation with a religion, I think I can understand: I see what they're looking at in the art museum or in the forest, I hear the music they're hearing that advertises divine inspiration. As a Jew, I feel lucky that so many aspects of our lives and the phenomena we encounter are acknowledged and appreciated as a matter of Jewish practice. Back when I was a student at the Hebrew school at Temple Emeth, I received a prayerbook that has ten pages dedicated to "everyday blessings" -- prayers to be recited on the occasion, for example, of "smelling fragrant woods or barks," "putting on a new garment," "eating any fruit for the first time in season," "witnessing lighting, or beholding falling stars, lofty mountains, or vast deserts," or "seeing the rainbow." I love that Judaism sanctifies and thanks God those phenomena that I believe we often experience as divine.
Interestingly, the prayer book ends with "The Star Spangled Banner" -- so I guess religious life at Temple Emeth was not separate from American life. Which reminds me of another strange aspect of this prayerbook: it was given to me in 5725 -- forty-nine years ago -- for "Excellence in Studies." Does this mean the kids who were less excellent in their studies were not given prayer books, were provided with fewer tools for reaching out to God? If so, maybe we've come upon another reason that culture is triumphing over religion in 21st-century America!!
Which brings me back to my Sabbath candles. For a long time, I lit them weekly for reasons of culture and family tradition: my candlesticks belonged to my maternal grandmother, and my own candle-lighting habit derives from my mother's faithful Friday night lighting. I have also been perpetually inspired by my paternal grandmother's faithful celebration of all Jewish occasions: I remember visiting her in December when she was ninety-one years old and realizing that she was lighting her menorah nightly, as she had done as a Jew her whole life. I've been lighting Sabbath candles much of my adult life, but it's only been since my "spiritual efforts" of this past summer that I've been lighting them more out of belief than tradition. I am still feeling very much at the beginning of my "personal" relationship with God, so I use candle-lighting as my weekly opportunity to connect, to be in relationship with Him. It still feels quite strange at times, but it does feel real. And I still don't know how I really got here. It has me wondering where "belief" will and must lead me next.
By the way, I love that as an American Jew, I can light and keep my candles on my dining room windowsill: no need to conceal my Jewish practice (as the Crypto-Jews did) from the state; no need to fear my neighbors' retaliation in the Wollaston section of Quincy.
So the flames of those candles bring me weekly right back to Moses and the burning bush. Some scholars say that that bush was always burning -- whatever that might mean -- but it wasn't until Moses was "ready" that he could actually see it. I know that Billy Joel wasn't writing about this when he said, "We didn't start the fire/ It was always burning/ Since the world's been turning," but I worry that Jewish culture divorced from its religious roots might make it more difficult for people to see those burning bushes that are yearning for us to see them.
* Please note: I haven't looked all that hard for the "right synagogue," so my critique should in no way be generalized. I'm hoping to have more time for synagogue shopping in my retirement, especially given my most recent spiritual developments.
** In this story, Ozzie Freedman asks the rabbi at his religious school why God, who enacted so many miracles in the Bible, would not have been able to produce a virgin birth in the Gospels.
*** I could just as easily be asking this of other American religious groups; I have many friends and acquaintances, for example, who identify more as cultural Christians than as believers.