As Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz says, statistics in the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs are wide open to interpretation. And different interpretations will lead to different responses.
94% of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. Some interpreters will say that programs building Jewish identity have been successful; it is time to improve other facets of Jewish life. Others will insist we keep doing what works.
44% of married U.S. Jews have non-Jewish spouses. Some interpreters will suggest we try to reverse the trend, and focus on teaching a more exclusive sense of Jewish identity. Others will celebrate America’s multiculturalism and urge us to work in creative ways with diverse and unique families.
Really, the statistics are a kind of Rorshach test. Our responses to the statistics may tell us as much as the statistics themselves do.
Personally, I am fascinated by statistics about theism and religion. I came to these numbers with the belief that Jewish leaders need to develop more sophisticated approaches to spirituality. And I come away from them thinking that now is the time to act.
According to the Pew study, 72% of Jews say they believe in God.
What do the remaining 28% not believe in?
In a thoughtful, upbeat reflection on the study, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writes:
Countless people tell me that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Does that mean that they can’t relate to the old-man-in-the-sky image of God, especially after the Holocaust? No big surprise there. Most Jews can’t, myself included.
People tell me this, too; so many times it has become a platitude. Is this image really a deal-breaker in Jewish theism? I don’t think so. I do think that the phrase “I don’t believe in an old man in the sky” is a short, ready-to-hand, socially appropriate way to skirt a conversation about God, spirituality, or faith.
Unfortunately, we rabbis and teachers often accept these words at face value. We easily assume that many adult Jews have not moved beyond the first adolescent questions they asked about religion. So we tell them that mature Jews don’t believe in the “old man.” With kindness and warmth, we invite them to try adult Judaism as we know it.
Sometimes I think this is a self-protective move, because we are unprepared or afraid to step outside the Jewish discourse we know. Sometimes I think it is a patronizing approach, as well. Surely the life experience of these thoughtful adults has pushed them to existential reflection. Surely their challenges and yearnings have pointed them in many directions, not just towards questions about Divine authority.
Perhaps they do not feel held by a great heart of compassion, as Catholics might say.
Perhaps they do not believe that synchronicities in their life are glimpses into a prepared destiny, as depth psychologists might say.
Perhaps they have lost hope that humanity may be evolving towards greater justice and peace, as Quakers might say.
These are all components of faith, all aspects of what people imagine an effective God might provide, and all ideas that have (and have had) a place in Jewish discourse. If we see ourselves as spiritual teachers, it is our job to meet seekers where they are, not just to invite them to join us where we are. But to do so, we need a broader understanding of what faith means, and a web of threads connecting kinds of spirituality with concepts of God.
To gain this understanding, we may have to step temporarily out of our own comfort zone in Jewish religious vocabulary. Different religious and philosophical traditions emphasize different aspects of a soul’s life journey. Exploring those aspects may help us understand the hearts of the seekers who turn to us. Learning new concepts may broaden our ability to welcome diverse Jews into spiritual life.
We may find, in fact, that the question “Do you believe in God or not?” is an inadequate tool to gauge spirituality or even religious belief. Perhaps a broad spectrum of existential reaching, questioning and growing connects all 100% of Jews. And we, the so-called spiritual teachers, need to catch up with this reality.
We should not be afraid that this exploration will lead us –- or those we teach and counsel — away from Judaism. In fact, the Pew study suggests, now is a perfect moment to risk learning something new. For Jewish Americans, both multicultural comfort and Jewish pride are at an all-time high. Flexible spiritual guidance from open-minded, broadly-educated rabbis can only increase that pride.
Image: www.reflectingrunes.com. Cross-posted at www.OnSophiaStreet.com
Researchers at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have just published a new study about atheists and atheism, and interestingly, the authors argue that non-belief in God is just as variegated as belief in God. At least initially, they have identified six types of non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA), Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA), Seeker Agnostics (SA), Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA).
The way these different groups defined themselves show how many different ways there are to think about God, even if people don’t believe in God — the Antitheists actively try to convince people that religion is harmful; the Activists pursue social justice work (such as environmentalism or LGBT rights); and the Intellectuals tend to love to study science, philosophy, sociology and politics.
One group, however, seemed to encapsulate a large segment of the Jewish community: the Ritual Atheist / Agnostics. As Christopher Silver, co-author of the study, notes:
Ritual Atheist/Agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual. For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions. Such participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g. Jewish) or the perceived utility of such practices in making the individual a better person.
Ritual Atheists / Agnostics, in other words, are less interested in whether or not religion is “true” than whether it “works.” Considering that Judaism is religion much more about action than about faith, perhaps it is not surprising that so many Jews would fall under this category.
Yet I have one major problem with this study. While the authors articulate distinctions among many types of non-believers, they lump together atheists and agnostics. In fact, atheism and agnosticism are almost totally independent of each other — and in fact, many Jews (myself included) would likely self-identify as “agnostic theists.”
First, the question of God’s existence is ultimately an unanswerable one. After all, different people think of, talk about and experience God in different ways, so the word “God” means different things to different people. Since we don’t all agree on what God is, we can’t accurately talk about whether or not God exists, because depending on how we define “God,” the answer to that question will be “yes” for some people and “no” for others.
Secondly, if we have any supernatural elements in our definition of God, we can’t use natural means to answer the question of God’s existence — by definition, such questions would be outside the realm of scientific knowledge. Indeed, even some of today’s greatest scientists and philosophers who call themselves “Antithesists,” such as Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have all said that they cannot say definitively whether or not God exists.
So because we can’t know the answer to God’s existence with certainty, the only intellectually honest answer to the question about whether God exists is “I don’t know.” And so that makes me an agnostic.
But even though we can’t know about God, we can certainly create our beliefs about God. We can decide how we use our religious outlook in our every day lives. And for me, theism is the language I want to use. When I meet a person for the first time, and believe that they are “created in the image of God,” it impacts the way I will treat them. When I experience the awe and majesty of nature, I can say that I “feel God’s presence.” And when I do social justice work, I can say that I am “partnering with God to make our world more whole,” which adds a level of spirituality to my actions.
Indeed, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu recently wrote in her piece “Where Does God Fit In?“: “We do not talk about God in the liberal Jewish community. We talk about the importance of community itself, showing up for services, and giving charity.” So perhaps if we focused less on the question “Does God exist?” and more on the question “How do my beliefs about God impact my life and our world?”, we could begin to have deeper and more meaningful conversations about God in a Jewish setting.
As the Yiddish saying goes, “If I knew God, I’d be God.” So even as we don’t know about God’s existence, we can still explore what we want our relationship with the Divine to look like.
And if we look at God in this way, we are “agnostic theists” — which I have found to be the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying way to look at the world.
A great conversation starter, isn’t it?
These days, in public debate, it seems to be a great conversation stopper.
Perhaps you are now thinking, “Yes, there is a creator, lawgiver, compassionate friend, and universal energy holding us!” Perhaps you know exactly who God is and how God operates. You’ve read the texts and you’ve experienced the faith. The fundamentals are real for you.
Or perhaps you are thinking, “Ridiculous! There is no invisible supreme being.” You know that this entity does not exist independent of anyone’s hopeful imagination.
In today’s North American public debate about religion, no middle ground between these views seems to exist.
Usually a theist will describe God as creator, moral legislator, wish-granter, and redeemer.
Then an atheist will explain why one of those descriptors is false. For example: Species change through evolution, so God is not a creator. Human beings can figure out morality through social learning, so we don’t need divine command. My prayers to end war and cure cancer were not answered, so no God is listening. Despite promises of redemption the world is as messed up as ever. So the whole concept is silly, naïve and self-serving.
Liberal religious people who are not fundamentalists must find this stalled debate rather frustrating. I do; I often find myself wanting leap up and offer an educated Jewish perspective. Judaism – even the religious part – doesn’t require people to hold a specific view of God.
This week I get to do leap up! Today I’m on my way to teach a course called “Who is God?” at the ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal Kallah.
The course description says: We speak of finding the Divine within. But who or what are we looking for — energy, witness, conscience, inner parent, or higher mind? Jewish tradition does not require us to choose only one. Torah, Jewish philosophy, and Kabbalah all make multiple faces of God available to us. Our task is to find the faces that call to us.
We’ll begin the first class by asking ourselves a simple question: “What do we expect from God?” Perhaps we expect God to measure up to the fundamentalist description; perhaps we will be deeply disappointed if God does not. We would not be the first Jews to have high expectations; our Biblical ancestor Jacob set the tone. Even after a mind-blowing numinous dream of a ladder stretching up to heaven, and a personal introduction from a God-figure, Jacob says, “If you feed me, clothe me, and bring me home safely, I’ll believe that you are God.”
At the second class, we’ll learn that Jacob’s view of God the provider isn’t the only classical view. The five books of Torah offer five different portraits of God. In Genesis, God has simple, easy relationships with people. In Exodus, God self-reveals with great ambivalence. In Leviticus, God is an impersonal force that must be tended. In Numbers, God is a highly emotional being. In Deuteronomy, God is a universal force, personally accessible to all human beings.
At the third class, with great philosophers as our teachers, we will talk about experiences through which people claim to perceive God. Maimonides reaches for God by pushing his intellect to the limits of what he can conceive. Emmanual Levinas finds traces of God in the faces of people. Franz Rosenzweig finds God in love.
At the fourth and final class, we will look at spiritual practice. If you know the experience that makes God seem real for you, how do you reach for it in spiritual practice? Would you use music, social action, prayer, meditation, or intellectual reflection? We’ll explore our personal answers by responding to a few short Hassidic texts. Finally we’ll ask each other, “How have these explorations helped you find a definition of God you can work with?”
When I peeked at my class list, I recognized a few names; I saw diehard atheists, spiritual seekers, and committed theists, all ready to start a badly needed conversation.