Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fire and Knives: Reflections on the Pew Research Center's Recent Survey of American Jews

So already, Tuesday, October 1 was no regular Tuesday.  On that day, my father successfully underwent surgery, I celebrated my fifty-eighth birthday, -- and the New York Times reported the results of the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project's survey of American Jews. As the first sentence of Laurie Goodstein's article summarizes, "The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children as Jewish -- resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox."

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.  

So I find myself thinking of knives.  We all know that knives can cause injury:  they become lethal weapons under some circumstances on the street and in the air, and almost all of us have had the kitchen experience of cutting ourselves while chopping, slicing, or dicing.  And still we need and keep knives, and we keep them sharp. We take responsibility for our knives because we know their power:  we wash them, dry them, and store the with care.  We teach our children to respect and eventually to use these tools, and our kitchens would be poorer places without them. And we marvel at and express gratitude for their contributions to our cooking.  Given that we need to eat to live, we can't imagine our lives without knives.

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.


  1. Part 1

    Hi Joan!

    Really cool images of the prayer book and candlesticks - those candlesticks are treasure.
    I like how you discuss this resonant topic. My sense is the form cultural expression of Judaism takes is produced by generally unique influences by time period overlaid on a few axiomatic forces of identity. Like a synthesis, a dynamic reaction, in the zone between the changing form/expression of strict orthodoxy and the cultural norms of wider society - as they both impact the meaning/question of Jewish identity. So while sharing some basic principles, cultural Judaism in the zone between the influences of Hellenism and the orthodox service in the Jerusalem temple vs. cultural Judaism between the influences of European shtetl life and the forces of enlightenment vs. cultural Judaism between the influences of orthodoxy in America and the 21st century progressive vibe I would think are all unique forms. My sense is the characteristics of Jewish cultural expression do not develop in a linear fashion because they are derivatives of these forces (orthodoxy, society) that also don't necessarily develop their characteristics in a linear fashion. I would venture that the development of Jewish orthodoxy has more linear traits while the norms of wider society are more cyclical. While the Pew study I think is very relevant to how these forces are meeting now, extrapolating that to the future is a much tougher business.
    I remember watching movies as a kid with my dad and he would point out to me the Jewish actors or the Jewish names in the credits (Tuco: Eli Wallach!). I felt the strong cultural pride and joy in total ignorance with how strange it might be. Although I have to admit while I still find myself celebrating such things from time to time (Jewish Nobel prize/Oscar/Politician/Philanthropist/Genius!) it does not resonate as it once did. Not just because fame, achievement and prosperity comes and goes but more so because the odds of translating that Jewish fame, achievement and prosperity into a support for/addition to Jewish longevity, individual or communal, is far from a given.
    Interestingly, this tribal pride seems randomly dispersed at different degrees among my Jewish peers both religious and secular, some have it – some do not identify overtly with it at all. Yet – I have seen some peers with no overt cultural Jewish identity respond to a request to lay Teffilin with enthusiasm and deep meditation. It all affirms my sense that longevity and the ‘deep meaning’ lie beyond the cultural adornments.
    I think the state of Israel functions in similar ways. On the trading floor a non-religious Israeli stood next to me. We became close friends. When a Jewish settler was killed hiking, he had no sympathy. I was surprised and upset – I mean, as a Jew, no matter what your politics is when another Jew is murdered how can that not be a hurt – how can you not identify with his cause in some fashion? Then I understood. The pathos for progressive morality trumps cultural Judaism right now, to the extent that narratives, histories and facts can be bent to serve it.

  2. Part 2
    I was discussing Iran’s nuclear program with my brother in law, early 20’s. I found myself having to explain, justify that as a Jew I can’t be dismissive of the threat. If a state that sponsors Hezbolla achieves nuclear capability it becomes a relatively invincible mortal threat to Israel. So I am against rolling the dice on more negotiations that lighten sanctions, even if as an American a softer policy may make sense. This was sincerely news to him that as a Jew Israel should influence my opinion, (corroborating the Pew study).
    I don’t mean to be dismissive of cultural Judaism, especially the American version. I think there are layers of it that can be the springboard into deep Jewish meaning and longevity. The Rebbe was known to have discussed the great value of fusing the American entrepreneurial spirit and drive for achievement into the body of religious observance itself. Any expression of Judaism today I see as a plus. Finding the right shul – community - is a challenge, even within, as they say you really need s’yata d’shma’ya (assistance of heaven).

    Thanks for posting Joan, please keep em coming!



  3. Hi, Eli --

    I so enjoyed your comments above. Frankly, they really comforted me. Sometimes when I post about something like this news story that elicits such a strong response from me -- a response that's so strong that I'm a bit baffled by its intensity -- I feel that anyone reading what I wrote could easily dismiss me as judgmental. But I've spent a lot of my life softening my positions out of fear of being labeled as judgmental, and I suspect that hasn't always been for the best. The great thing about blogs themselves is that they invite discussion and deeper understanding via discussion. Already various respondents have told me to lighten up when they thought I should, so they'll tell me that again if they think I need to hear it. Sometimes, I'm too good at worst case scenarios.

    I really appreciate the way you lay out in Part 1 the various forces that may be shaping this set of survey responses. I'm also completely intrigued by the Rebbe's thoughts about the "Jewish potential" of entrepreneurial spirit and the drive for achievement. Would love to know more about how he thought this might work.

    Mostly, I am glad that you view cultural Judaism (I didn't think you were being dismissive of it, though I did think you were offering some thoughts about how it developed) as having the potential to lead people into deeper Jewishness. I'm actually relieved by your opinion. It's funny: right now my students are working on personal essays that could easily become college essays, and it's interesting to watch so many of them go through the process of figuring out why the something they're choosing to write about really matters to them. It's like they're standing in a field, and they instinctively know exactly where they need to dig, but they don't know exactly what's compelling them to dig or what they're expecting to find. I can easily imagine some people's inquiring into the significance of their Jewish cultural identification, and having that inquiry lead to a "new world," or at least a new sphere or level.

    I so appreciate your thoughts on these topics!
    Take care, JSS

  4. Glad to hear your Dad had a successful surgery. Hope he feels better soon.

    Happy birthday! (And we can agree not to dwell on the number, for common reasons.)

    I think you are going over the high side, Joan.

    You believe in God? Or you don't?

    You believe everything that you are SUPPOSED TO believe about God? Or you don't?

    There are lots of romantic waffles about believing in God and still retaining the power of reason, but they don't add up.

    Either there is only one true God. Or not.

    Either God (Christian version) is all powerful, all knowing, and he will throw you in a pit of fire for eternity if you do not follow orders -- or not.

    And how do you know?

    The nicest person I ever knew was truly religious. Believed with all her heart, and acted piously every day. Probably religion inspired her -- though I am pretty sure she would have been pretty darn nice anyway.

    And religious organizations sometimes do good things.

    But, at its heart, belief in God is insanity. A rejection of reason. An acceptance that something beyond reason must be obeyed.

    If God is good, that sounds like an ok gig. And it would be.

    But the trick is that someone gets to be God's messenger or God's servant. And guess what? They have often figured out that God wants them to kill people. War, slavery, etc. All in God's name.

    It goes on today.

    Not YOUR God, Joan. Not the God of the Jewish Traditions that you like. Instead, the mistaken interpretations of God that someone else has dreamed up.

    But that's the trick about God, isn't it?

    We only like the God who fits our desires.

    That can work for you, Joan, because you are nice. Like it works for many other nice people.

    But do not pine for more fierce and true zealotry beneath our traditions.

    Common sense and kindness are worth more.

    Your harassing buddy,

  5. You ARE a harassing buddy! So a couple of things.

    I can't speak with any kind of authority about the Christian version of God, though it's hard for anyone not to know something about him -- in fact, a range of different things about him, given the diversity of Christianity.

    Where I must disagree with you is your notion that I'm yearning for "fierce and true zealotry"; I do, however, see great value in people's wondering about the origins of the culture they cherish. I think even just that wondering might enrich their sense of Jewish belonging, regardless of the certainties and uncertainties to which it leads. Respectful curiosity, in my book, is its own form of important Jewish connection -- and that could hardly be called zealotry. At the very least, it does pay attention to the powerful experiences of others who directly experience, or experienced, the divine.

    I'm not sure that American Jewish assimilation (I really don't know what to call the phenomenon that the Pew survey is reporting) is a critique of God. For all I know, it could represent no felt need for God, or any kind of god -- just no interest. So going back to my knife analogy: there are lots of people out there who have magnificent kitchens, or even just kitchens that work really fine, but they'd still rather not cook -- or they like to cook and use those knives when they're really in a cooking mood. But basically, God may be in the kitchen and they're simply not interested in spending any or much time there.

    You're right: pining for zealotry isn't the answer, and kindness is very important. That said, I think that there's a lot of pining out there for something "bigger" or "more." I have friends who rejected religion and the idea of God a long time ago; I have friends who seldom talk about what they think and believe, as is their right; I have friends who pursue their spiritual lives with discipline and in the context of community -- and they are willing to talk about what they're doing, why they're doing it, what they're hoping.

    One more thing: I'm pretty nice most of the time, but I can be ornery, too!
    Take care! JSS

    1. Big Sox comeback. Who can sleep?

      With respect, I would offer two opinions. First, you are looking at tradition in the wrong direction. Second, it does matter if we seek spirituality without God -- and it is much, much better without God.

      On the tradition point, we need to build traditions for our youngsters. It is what we can give them in the future. It is not about any solice we can get from old traditions. Indeed, I think it is a mistake to look for answers from ideas built in different times. It is like Eskimos on ski mobiles looking for meaning in the ways before ski mobiles. Take from the past, maybe, but only as it makes sense today, and build a tradition for your kids that helps people who ride ski mobiles cope better with the new world.

      Second, God cannot be second guessed. God is always right. And someone acting in God's name can never be wrong. It is the crazy. And it is very, very dangerous.

      (Forty years ago, North Africa thought their kids should be immersed in Islam so they would be in touch with the old ways. It didn't work out. Similarly, I think the evangelical movement of the past 40 years in the States has been a disaster.)

      Humans are the only animals that are self-aware. Something about the way our brains are coiled. (So I've heard.)

      Humans want to be competent. Want to control the world around them; achieve things.

      A chaotic world is a constant source of frustration, fear and humiliation. Always. It attacks our dignity.

      In that insecurity, God is a release from responsibility. Follow the rules, and all is good. That is the attraction, for the most part.

      Also, it may relieve the fear of death. Death can be scary to think about. What if there were a way around it?

      I like nature. Maybe there is a God. If God is beyond human comprehension, why worry. There will be or there won't be. I like the idea that if there were a God, then God would want me to use what sense She gave me.

      So what does "believing" add? Avoiding hell? Or better following the Rules?

      And there we go -- the Rules. Not what I figure out; what I must obey. Or else be bad.

      Friendship is better than God. I think God would agree, if She were not so busy trying to keep everybody else in line.

      And, by the way, thanks to Her for David Ortiz.

  6. Hi again, Jim --

    We are coming at this with very different assumptions about God, particularly about "the release from responsibility" and "avoiding hell." I am wondering how much this is a reflection of the different ways we were raised religiously/spiritually -- within particular traditions, or perhaps outside of them. My interest in belief has nothing to do with fear or not using my reason or sense.

    Please remember that my initial post had two intents: (a) to wonder about the spiritual limitations of being Jewish culturally but not religiously, and (b) to talk about my own personal very assimilated but still in-process Jewish journey.

    When I've been talking about belief, I haven't been advocating "religion for all," though religion is important to me personally -- my religion is important to me. But I think I've been thinking a lot about belief in terms of commitment to something, to its cultivation and preservation. Like your strong belief in the importance of friendship.

    In terms of religion, I haven't been asking why the non-religious aren't religious -- and suggesting they should be. I have been wondering why Jewish culture is existing so separately from Jewish religion. I have to stress "wondering" here. Maybe it's for the reasons you suggest with your Eskimos on ski mobiles example; maybe not. I don't know, which is why I'm writing this.

    Happy Red Sox! JSS

  7. Hi, Everyone -- posting here, posting and messaging me on Facebook, just old-fashioned talking to me --

    Over the last week of conversation and exchange, you've managed to alleviate my concerns about the disconnect between culture and religion, especially in conjunction with the Pew survey. You haven't taken them away completely, but you've given me much to think about in terms of priority, identity, and possibility -- who knows when way will lead to way, regardless of the various debates we could have about what's more important than what. I'm fearing Jewish erosion less -- but I'm still fearing it some. And Jewish erosion is probably not the worst thing that can happen. Still, I worry about it.

    That brings me back to the nun I met when I went with my ex-boyfriend's priest as part of an all-Catholic tour group (except me) to Israel in the mid-nineties. This very old nun ran an orphanage on the West Bank: all Muslim kids, many of whom were not orphans, but whose parents' finances made it impossible for them to care for their kids all of the time; so the children went in and out of the orphanage, returning to their parents when financial realities allowed that. One member of our tour group asked the nun, "Sister, when do you tell the them [the children] about Jesus?" The nun replied, "We don't tell them about Jesus. We just love them."

    I've been thinking a lot also about Christians -- cultural and religious -- who take communion -- about what taking communion means in their different denominations, and what it means to each of them personally to take communion. Based on what I've heard, so much diversity of meaning and motivation. Many take communion because "that's what we do as a community"; others take it in conjunction with their beliefs about Jesus and God. When is taking communion cultural? When is it religious? Or am I again allowing the Pew survey to emphasize a line here that's much more porous?

    This September, because of some study I'd been doing on my own, I had a very different experience of attending High Holy Day services because I understood things about the liturgy -- and about Jewish notions of repentance and covenant that I'd never understood before. As a result, the whole worship experience was more meaningful to me than it ever had been before. I found myself thinking others might enjoy this feeling of connection, of belonging not only to the community but to the worship.

    Judaism puts a lot of emphasis on study -- and there's so much that one can study. I am realizing many Jews are students of Jewish culture itself, of many things Jewish. Perhaps that study will lead some people to the religion itself -- and even to God. That said, my conversations of the last week have been filled with many different ideas about God and God's importance. I do appreciate different people's attitudes toward and conceptions of God and the emotions, reasons, and experiences that underlie them.

    So thanks to all -- for your willingness to share, your convictions, your questions. JSS

  8. A friend of mine who uses the name "debeve" when blogging has given me permission to post for her, since she had trouble doing so. Thanks, debeve!

    Hi Joan - glad you continue to write about this. I do not have anything long and scholarly to say . . . just want to share the feeling I have that "cultural Judaism" becomes meaningless when it is disconnected from spirituality - that the generating force of what makes Jews Jews is a particular relationship with God and one another through that paradigm - which I will not try to define. I think that it is not a single kind of relationship - in fact, the only characteristic that I can define is that it IS a relationship. And without that relationship, I don't think that Jews will survive as Jews - because it just isn't enough to like certain foods, share certain styles of thinking, enjoy the same kind of humor - I mean, this has great value, but it doesn't seem enough. It is not coherent enough, not passionate enough. But I don't think you have to "believe" to participate in this relationship with God. Simply doing the rituals with respect and love is enough to connect. Doubt has always been part of Judaism. But skipping the religion and going for the bagels won't keep Judaism going through the generations. It takes passion to keep a culture alive.
    I am not sure how much I actually care about keeping Judaism alive. I do see religion as a divisive force in the world, one that has fomented more wars than any other. It may be that, in order to have peace, a radically different paradigm will emerge. I would not miss religion if it were nowhere on earth. It would be enough for me to walk in nature, to interact with people, to be in relationship with spirit.
    But in the world we have, religion provides a house for spirit, a place to pray, a way to be in community, a mode in which people have more of a chance to be their best selves. I don't much like belief, though; it gives people something to argue about and the minute we believe something, we stop noticing what actually is. We begin to live a story instead of our lives.
    It is good to be Jewish. But to say you are Jewish is to say that you have a relationship with God because the very culture of Jewishness derives from this relationship. Saying that you are a cultural Jew only and do not experience a higher power is to be blind to what you are invoking. It is like walking through the night with your eyes closed. The stars are still there, all around you.