For another perspective on this debate, read Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s post here.
Aside from the bigamy laws, I mean. (JK)
Recently, a rabbi was appointed to lead a Unitarian congregation. In a discussion about this appointment, I had mentioned that I could not lead a Unitarian congregation, or any other non-Jewish group, any more than I could officiate at the marriage of two non-Jews. I was surprised by the (small) flurry of questions about why, if there was no intermarriage, I would refrain from officiating at such a wedding.
I have many friends who are not Jews. I have attended – and even participated- and rejoiced at their weddings, as well as occasionally been asked for (and given) counsel, or attended other life events, as a friend. When I celebrate at a non-Jewish friend’s wedding, I am a guest experiencing their tradition (or lack thereof). Even if I offer a private blessing, it is the blessing of a friend, but from outside.
A rabbi, even by the broadest definition, is one who is a rav, a master, of Jewish tradition, whose role is to teach Jewish tradition, and model a Jewish life. I am expected to be a kli kodesh – a holy vessel, at least to the best of my ability, and to do so means to have a particular way of being in the world. My permission to teach and to lead comes from being invested in that tradition, it comes from the people of Israel, and from the Torah of Israel. Even though I share some, and often many, values with people in other traditions, we each have different ways of expressing those values, and of understanding them – and they are not interchangeable.
When I officiate at a wedding, I do so as one who has a particular view of what it means to get married, what the marriage means in terms of future Jewish life and aspirations, of particular spiritual valences as part of a whole Jewish life, joined to a Jewish community that is both horizontal – with other currently living Jews, vertical – with Jews who have passed on and have yet to be born, and of course, in a particular relationship with God.
When I officiate at the wedding of two Jews, I am seeing that they are joining themselves to one another according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Since the laws of Moses and Israel do not apply to non-Jews, I am unqualified to officiate.
In the Polish schools of Hassidut, several of the rebbes teach that to reach God, each individual has a personal spiritual task that they must complete. This is true for religions as well as individuals. There are many values in the world, and in different traditions, we are called to serve and fulfill a mission. And it is not the same mission. That mission is not for ourselves, but for God and for the world. If we don’t immerse ourselves deeply in our own tradition – and each of these traditions are deep in their own way- then we are not really going to be able to understand them, their goals, their values, their expressions. And we will not be able to carry out our purpose.
I can’t marry Christians (or Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims, etc) to one another, because to do so would be to assert that marriage means the same thing in all of our traditions – and it does not, and should not.
I’ve done everything “right”: given my children Jewish education, sent them to Jewish camps, spent time with them in Israel and modeled engaged Jewish living. But with the celebration of my second child becoming a bat mitzvah and officially beginning her journey as a Jewish adult, I can now say with certainty that my children will not be Jews like me.
That this was ever a consideration is on many levels absurd. Happily, from the moment a child first rolls over on its own, children work mightily to dispel the arrogance of parents who misguidedly assume their offspring exist to replicate their values and approach to life. They refuse to eat reasonably, they sleep on their own schedule, they make their own friends, choose their own clothes, challenging us at each step until we understand that while they absorb much from us, children will make their own way in the world.
And yet, when it comes to Judaism (and sports or alma matter affiliation which are like religions to many- but that is another article) people somehow expect continuity and are surprised and frightened by change. In no small part, I believe that this comes from a vision of what religious tradition is or is meant to be. As Jewish tradition teaches, God gave Moses the Torah as Sinai and Moses passed it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, the same words the same Torah passed down generation to generation. We change and religion remains eternal.
As a historian, I know this was never true. Judaism has survived in no small part because of its ability to adapt and change. I will cede that in the past change was less possible, because of external limitations, and slower to occur because of the limitations of technology. But with the emancipation of the Jews and the industrial revolution, change has become the reality. If we presume that our children should replicate our vision for the Jewish future, we will be disappointed.
Absurd then. It should not even be a consideration. And yet. And yet, what is the point of investing in Jewish education if they will not guarantee continuity? And yet, how can we not feel like we have failed? I hear these questions frequently from parents who have done all that they thought “right’ “are now launching children who are “walking off the path” and making different Jewish choices than their parents would envision for them. Some are becoming less religious, others more so. Some are more left wing, others lean more to the right.
As a rabbi, I understand where they are coming from. On the day I was ordained, a rabbi I respect greatly, placed his hands on my shoulders and entrusted me to pass on the tradition to the next generation. But even as I gladly took on this challenge, I was keenly aware that my children’s Judaism could not be my own –for in an era of change each generation will have to find its own.
There is loss and uncertainty that comes with letting go. Some of the institutions and customs, which I have long benefited from and loved, are loosing relevance and others will undoubtedly disappear. And it can be painful and scary. The fluidity of religious life in America means that experimenting is inevitable. Some of the experiments will be ones that will disappoint me and others in my generation personally and collectively.
Over thirty years ago, my parents pushed the envelope of what was Jewishly possible by finding a synagogue that would allow me (albeit under my father’s blessing) to read from the Torah. It was a move that must have both puzzled and bothered their parents and one that ultimately opened the door for me to become much more religious than they ever imagined.
I am not alone. It is hard to imagine a more committed and creative group of rabbis than the ones who populated my community of Rabbis Without Borders. Going around the table with the first cohort, it turned out to our surprise that only a small fraction of the rabbis represented same denomination of Judaism as in which they grew up. Commitment yes, continuity yes, but also real and meaningful change.
Today, there is a Jewish creative cultural renaissance that is showcasing Jewish themes and values in every aspect of artistic endeavor. There is a renewal of Jewish learning that is taking new forms. A sense of global Jewish life is being renewed with the help of technology and travel. As a community, we are more inclusive and diverse than we have been in decades. Some of this I could and did imagine, other aspects were beyond my own envisioning. Without a willingness to change and challenge the received Jewish wisdom, none of this would have been possible.
Launching children onto the path of adulthood is bittersweet. As they make their own path, children will make their own choices many of which will not be your own. But there is also tremendous hope and possibility that comes from allowing the next generation to imagine and then create their own truth and reality. Both as a parent and as a rabbi, I look forward to seeing how the next generation takes the tradition they receive to create Judaism that will in time be passed down and transformed.
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Much of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. is ensconced in a ferocious cold spell today and tomorrow. Known as the “polar vortex,” a blast of air from the arctic is producing temperatures colder than the South Pole in some parts of the country. This got me thinking: 120 years ago, where would poor, marginalized Jews (i.e. most Jews) go to escape the cold? To Jewish relief organizations such as Jewish hospitals, Jewish soup kitchens. In the era before FDR, before a government social safety net, Jewish communities across the country were responsible for talking care of one another. Mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) provided this critical source of support, ensuring not only the well-being of poor Jewish immigrants but also creating community connections.
70 years ago, where would Jews go to escape the cold? To synagogue-centers and JCCs. Emerging into the middle-class, “second generation” Jews were eager to flee their urban areas of settlement for the expansiveness of the suburbs. They frequently found, however, that secular American society still harbored a good deal of anti-Semitism, so Jews created new hubs for social interaction. The notion of the “shul with a pool” was born, with traditional synagogues expanded to include social, educational, and even athletic programming.
Today, where do we go to escape the “polar vortex?” Starbucks. The public library. The local gym. Or we just stay at home and tweet about how cold we are. The rise of the welfare state (I mean that as a descriptive, not a perjorative, term), combined with the rapid erosion of institutional anti-Semitism in America, has rendered obsolete much of the social architecture of American Jewry. Jewish Family Services, perhaps the closest vestige to the traditional Jewish welfare organizations throughout the country, often serve more non-Jews than Jews! The same is true with Jewish hospitals and even JCCs. While we are truly blessed to live in a society as open to Jews as 21st century America, that blessing comes with a cost: no longer having a need to come together, our Jewish connective tissue is atrophying. As the recent Pew Study illustrates, only 28 percent of those polled believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to Jewish identity. Continue reading
In her series about the wizard Ged, one of the grand masters of speculative fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin, writes about a young man who must go from being an ignorant boy who seeks power to a man who faces himself, his fears, and his flaws—and ultimately his loss of power and death. (There’s a reason she’s a master of the genre!)
A young Ged, in the first book of the original trilogy, has, through his own arrogance—which is really a reflection of his own sense of inferiority—let a thing of great power and evil into the world. He is rescued by the elder mages, one of whom tells Ged, “You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.”
I’ve often thought that this series is perhaps one of the most Jewish in speculative fiction. The struggle of Ged to redeem himself reminds me of the Sfat Emet‘s comments in this week’s Torah commentary, on the conflict between free will and divine knowledge pointed out by the verse that Pharoah’s heart was hardened (Ex. 10:1). He explains that Jews’ duty is to make clear in the world what God already knows—which negates choice. The reason this task falls to us is because truth is hidden in this world, and it is only in God’s realm that truth is clear. It is our efforts as Jews revealing God’s clear vision that is so important—truth depends upon human effort—because without it, the hiddenness of truth obscures necessity.
The idea that knowing all possible variables allows us to predict all events is a trope in mystical literature, as well as in philosophy of a certain era. That of course, is one way to understand the idea of omniscience. But there are others.
In LeGuin’s books, it is those who try to flail against truth that bring evil into the world, by denying death, grasping at power that does not belong to them—or by covering up truth, by telling a false story that is more attractive. And all of these people, in the end, turn out not to be our caricature of Eviiiiiil, but rather flawed people whose fears rule them. They grasp for power to try not to feel this fear. And this use of inappropriate power is harmful both for them as individuals, and for the world, as the lie that each has told himself also leads others astray. Ultimately, power allows the truth to be hidden, but truth cannot be eliminated. And hiding the truth causes evil to enter the world.
Perhaps that’s why there is so much ferment in the Jewish community over who gets to talk about Israel, and how. When our community refuses to hear anything other than that the other side is purely evil, when it labels anyone who disagrees with what has been so far labelled as “mainstream” Judaism’s views about peace with the Palestinians as a self-hater (or an anti-Semite), it is out of fear.
But as the young mage Ged ultimately learns, it is only in accepting what you fear as part of yourself, accepting all your flaws as reality, that you can be made whole. Ged ultimately faces the terrible shadow and finds that it is (spoiler alert)—a piece of him. To conquer our fears, to reveal the truth, we must be wiling to listen and to see, so that we can uncover the truth. For that reason, I’m proud of the Swarthmore HIllel, which is taking that first step.
Facing what we fear gives us the strength to take our flaws into ourselves, to accept them—and then to fix them. We need not accept anything uncritically. But anything we refuse to hear gives that thing power. And while we needn’t (and shouldn’t!) accept anyone saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, the Hillel organization has been far too ready to exclude a far wider variety of critique than —critiques which are not only true, but necessary.
I do not doubt that those who oppose hearing from speakers who are anti-ZIonist mean well. Neither do I doubt that those Hillels who have interpreted this rule as excluding organizations like Americans for Peace Now and J Street—Zionist organizations that insist upon the necessity of a two-state solution, and on facing straightforwardly the dangers presented by settlements – do. But to use the power that they have as a large Jewish organization to silence debate in the community they are meant to educate is foolish, and ultimately harmful.
Speakers that recognize that Israel’s acts towards Palestinians, towards its own non-Jewish citizens, and towards its peace process are not always in its best interests, let alone just and therefore worthy of a Jewish state, are not the enemy, even though some Hillels (and some other Jewish organizations) have treated them as such. To the contrary, until we as a community recognize that the growth of settlements is a real impediment to peace, that racism is a large and growing problem, that extremist violence is not only from one side—until we face that, we are not going to be able to make the adjustments we need to make so that we can truly be pro-Israel.
The only way to do that is to expose everything to sunlight. Look at the facts; hear all kinds of speakers; trust the Am (people) to make good decisions—and the truth is that we will anyway. The idea that there’s any way to hide the facts in the age of the internet is absurd, when anyone can go online and read a human rights report, see how many “price tags” are occurring, read (or watch) the testimonies of Israeli soldiers, or even just read Israel’s own news reporting, and we do. And indeed, the recent Pew report reflects that people have been doing just this.
To be fair, there has been some recent calling for “civil discourse” in the Jewish community—requests for people to be more open in hearing one another within our community with less name-calling by one side of the other. But even should that call succeed (and I don’t see much evidence of it) it’s not enough. The discourse is not empty of content: the debate is important because lives, on both sides of the line, have been and continue to be deeply affected by decisions made, both by Israelis and by Palestinians, but also by large organizations in the Jewish community that push us to use our voices to maintain an unsustainable status quo, rather than stepping up and doing something about it, while simultaneously lamenting the lessening of the connection between us and Israel.
But that lessening is not because there are problems in Israel. It is because either we are deeply connected to our people, no matter where we are, obliging us —as our tradition insists—to rebuke one another when there is wrongdoing, or else we are not connected. It is the very act of insisting that we may not speak about what we see, that we cannot fulfill our Jewish mission when it pertains to our own people, that is one of the causes of the rift. Love doesn’t flee problems, but it does flee silence.
As the Sfat Emet says, it is our job as Jews to face and reveal the truth, even when it is disturbing. Even when it is about us. This is the lesson that Ged, too, had to learn. That within him was the capacity for terrible things, and only by acknowledging them could he heal himself and the hole he had made in the world. Once the truth is faced, our free will is restored, because we are able to see the path through and we do what we must do.
Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good. In doing so, they show faith in the Jewish future, because they understand that in staring both truth and falsehood down, we will learn from both, and “the truth will spring up from the earth.” (Ps. 85:12)
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About a year ago, someone recommended a Paulo Coelho book to me—a popular one—The Alchemist. Most people I know that have read the book loved it: they feel it’s speaking to them, encouraging them to take life by the horns, and live it to it’s fullest; to pursue their dreams. But I… I hated it.
Like many books of its type, its assumption is that when people don’t live their dreams out, it’s because they didn’t try, or they didn’t dream big enough—books like these are inspirational posters writ long. Not that I have anything against inspirational posters. If that’s your thing, feel free. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that this attitude underlies so much of what Judaism struggles with against secular culture: that adults are required to act as part of a social contract and to sometimes do boring things for the sake of others. Where is the recognition that sometimes you work hard at a crappy job to support your family? My father was a bureaucrat until his retirement, and I think he did the best job at it he could, and he did good for others in whatever way he could there. But I strongly doubt that it was the job he dreamed of as a child. But I always had enough to eat and a roof over my head. He’s still married to my mother. Did he not dream big enough? Maybe he should have lit out for the hills to pursue his dreams instead?
When I hear people saying that the only thing in the way of one’s dreams is oneself, I find myself angry for the janitors and clerks and fast food workers—did they not dream big enough? Do they not work hard enough? Do the poor of other nations simply lack imagination? And angry on behalf of people like my father, who work hard all their lives to make sure their families have enough, even if the job isn’t—in itself—meaningful or stirring. Whose lives are just not exciting. From the outside, at least. Continue reading
This past Shabbat I hosted the last in the three-part set of gatherings that had been planned, designed and implemented by our congregation’s membership committee. The goal of the gatherings was to introduce our new member families to our community, providing some orientation to many of its moving parts, and to each other. Our final gathering was purely social and it was quite evident that wonderful connections have already been made. In the space of just over a month, those families who chose to avail themselves of this opportunity probably traveled further, in terms of community connectedness, than they might otherwise have done in the space of two or three years of synagogue membership. Our next steps are looking at other groups within our congregation where we could help facilitate this kind of connectedness, whether they have joined us in recent years or been members for over 10 years.
Among the many conversations I had on Shabbat afternoon, was one where a parent thanked us for facilitating and providing the times and spaces for connections to be made beyond the walls of the synagogue and the timeframe of prayer services. With young children she said, quite honestly, that she didn’t expect to be a regular attender at Friday night services, but that they were interested in being a part of a community in other ways and at other times.
Back in the mid-1990s, I had a short first career, before deciding to retrain for the rabbinate. I did my PhD at University College London, in Cultural Geography. My thesis was examining the world of environmental education – so often aimed at youth with the hope that the next generation will be inspired to do more than their parents’ generation to alter behaviors that will enable us to live more sustainably on the planet. In my cultural/sociological research into the lives of some of these children, my research pointed out that, so often, the claims made by educators and the assumptions made about the effectiveness of such education were made in a vacuum. Content or Program alone could not tell you how effective the efforts of environmental educators would be. Children, just like the rest of us, live their lives in connection to others. Why, I might ask them, did they join the Scouts/Guides? Why did they get interested in a particular hobby? What kinds of experiences had they had in different kinds of natural environments? Over and over again it was members of their family who provided one primary set of influences, and their friends – their social connections – that drove the vast majority of what they did or didn’t do. Not so surprising a conclusion, but nevertheless so many people who are passionate about the environment focus solely on the educational content and program and continue to ignore the social context in which all of our everyday behaviors and choices are embedded. The former may be easier to create and form than the latter—it is more concrete and tangible—but that doesn’t make it the most effective way to go about doing things.
I share this, because that background and research has guided much of my thinking about religious education and religious communities too. We Jewish professionals tend to overly focus on the prayer service, the program, and the educational course without spending enough time focusing on the social context. To be successful, we need to know who are congregants are and the lives they are leading. Because of the particular demographics of the community where I am based, those dynamics can be quite different to those of another community in another geographical location. What I am learning is that, by emphasizing how gathering opportunities will facilitate community connection, and then being more intentional to make sure that the timing and the nature of the gathering will truly lend itself to these goals, all of the other Jewish content can be shared too. But we start with the connections. Last Shabbat we shared a beautiful Havdalah ritual together, and I was able to teach something about this ritual that many of the children present (and plenty of the adults too) were seeing for the first time. But we didn’t invite them to a Havdalah gathering; given the lack of context for that for some of them, that would have been a meaningless label to describe the nature and purpose of the invitation.
This, of course, is the whole rationale of what Ron Wolfson has termed ‘Relational Judaism‘ and many congregations are turning their attention toward how they can do a better job of being relationship-based communities. Today I fly to San Diego for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference. Always vibrant and energetic gatherings, this one is bound to be no exception. And, while there will be many useful sessions designed for information and idea sharing on all kinds of topics that will enable communities to reach toward greater excellence on many fronts, these conferences are, ultimately, all about relationship-building themselves. I almost always get more from the individual conversations I have with old friends, with strangers sitting next to me, and with colleagues, re-invigorating me in my work and inspiring me with the things they’ve already thought of and tried in their communities. Understanding this, the conference organizers this year have provided times and places—forums—simply to meet with others who show up around a common area of interest to share ideas and learn from each other, in addition to the more formally organized workshops.
We used to hear a lot of “build it and they will come.” Today, perhaps the more appropriate adage should be “connect, and together we will create.”
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A number of recent essays have been swimming their way across the blogosphere and seem to have serendipitously swirled together. The Conservative movement, even at its largest and healthiest, has always been, like the Jewish people itself, overly worried about its imminent destruction, so when a young woman asks why men raised in an egalitarian setting, who like her, care about halakha, leave for Orthodoxy, when she cannot do so, when the Pew report seems to indicate shrinkage in the stable Jewish middle, when the once-dean of a Conservative rabbinical seminary writes the movement’s obituary, and when the smirky response to the woman asking how her friends could abandon her is responded to with the claim that it’s her own fault for daring to be equal, cause ya know, men can’t stand to have anyone be equal to them, it makes them expendable, one might expect a flurry of worry from the most worried of all Jewish movements. And there were.
Of course, there were also some very interesting discussions spawned from these articles ( by which, yes, I do mean to imply that I found most—except for the first of these—exercises silly). The one that I found myself most interested in was a discussion of when we lost the idea of obligation, and how important it is to get it back. Not simply for the idea of halakha—but also in terms of obligations to one another, and to our communities, and to God—rather than the pursuit of happiness, that goal that seems to take up so much of Americans’ time, and yet be so fleeting.
And so I invited those people who, like me, are Conservative because we care about halakha, deeply and passionately, and we care about the idea of obligation, in all those ways, to have a conversation about how to revive it: To revive a sense of seriousness about halakha, about egalitarianism, and about obligation, together.
The Conservative movement is my home because these are all things that I cannot do without, and I’m ready to find that core of people—whom I know are there, because I’ve met them and davenned with them, and eaten with them—so that the Conservative movement knows they’re there, too.And I invite you too. If you’re interested, leave a message for me and let’s start talking.
There has been a tremendous amount of ink spilled and keys pressed discussing the finer details of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Why has Conservative Judaism experienced such a sharp decline in the past 20 years? Why did so many Jews raised Orthodox 65 and older leave Orthodoxy (22%) while so many 30 and under remain Orthodox (83%)? Perhaps the most perplexing question: Who are the 1% of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that had a Christmas tree in their home last year?
These questions and so many more have been debated and argued about extensively in the weeks that have followed since the publication of the survey. The survey shows a Jewish community that is increasingly becoming more divided between those who affiliate and those who do not and between those who are on the liberal spectrum and those on the Orthodox spectrum. However, sometimes when examining the macro situation it is worthwhile to zoom in on the micro as the micro can be helpful in understanding the larger picture. After all, a large picture is only but a collection of many smaller pictures sitting together on the same canvas.
This week we welcomed our second son into the covenant of the Jewish people at his brit milah ceremony. It was a beautiful and joyous event that we were blessed to share with members of our synagogue community. It was also an incredible display of broad Jewish community and Jewish affiliation. In the room there were Jews who affiliated with synagogues of every denomination and Jews who affiliated with no synagogue. In contrast to the picture that is painted by surveys of the American Jewish landscape, the ceremony for our son was an example of what is happening on the ground in so many places, including our city of Denver.
Above is a picture of many of the rabbis of Denver who I have been blessed to call my friends and colleagues who joined us at the brit milah of our son, Moshe Aharon.
I present this as just one small illustration of all the cross-denominational community building and friendships that are formed throughout the contemporary American Jewish story. It is time we focused less on the results of surveys and more on the work of community collaboration and building bridges, which is at the heart of what can be an even more vibrant American Jewish story.
Like everyone else I know who is active in the Jewish community, my Facebook page and email inbox have been inundated with articles about the Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews that was released at the beginning of October. With varying degrees of hand-wringing, they say it seems that the Jewish community is shrinking, and in another hundred years or so there will be no more Jews in the U.S. except a small number of Orthodox Jews. The message: We have to do everything possible to get people to stay Jewish and raise Jewish kids, or there won’t be any more Jews.
As I led Torah study at my synagogue in Brooklyn on Shabbat morning last week, these articles were on my mind while we discussed the story of the Tower of Babel in Parashat Noach. The story struck a chord for me this year. I realized that I sometimes feel like the Jewish community is saying, “If we could just build a big enough tower, we could get people to keep being Jewish!” and “We need to make a tower that 20-somethings will think is really cool, and then we’ll be OK!”
Of course this is a flipped-over Tower of Babel. Instead of a tower project enabled by everyone speaking the same language and having the same words, this tower is about trying to get everyone to speak the same language and have the same words. Nevertheless, both towers are about control—let’s make a name for ourselves, let’s control where the community is going.
The Jewish community is changing. I’m not sure what everything in the Pew survey means, though I do know it’s a snapshot in time, and that people’s spiritual needs change over time. I also know that I am a part of a rich and wonderful tradition that has a lot to offer. I trust that tradition. I believe we need to innovate and change. I believe we need to help Jews find a way to live their Judaism that is relevant and spiritually fulfilling. But I want that innovation and that outreach to be based on joy and love for our tradition, not on fear for its future. That positive attitude is what will make us stronger; not an attitude of desperation.
My synagogue is a small community—right now we have just over 100 families and individuals as members. At that Torah study last week there were 25-30 adults who were engaged and excited to wrestle with our Torah. They ranged in age from parents of young children to retirees. Some did not grow up with Judaism. Some weren’t interested in Judaism when they were in their 20s and 30s but became engaged later—through children, or spouses, or an awakening of interest in spirituality or their heritage. They don’t like everything they find in our tradition, but they find a lot that speaks to them where they are in their lives. Torah study allows us to get deeper than the superficialities of everyday life; it gives us a space to talk about the big issues and questions.
I’m less concerned with the Jews in the Pew survey and more concerned with the Jews in my pews. If, as a rabbi, I can facilitate exploration of Judaism and open the door to the joy and richness of Judaism for the people I meet at my synagogue and elsewhere, then perhaps they will choose to increase their involvement with Judaism in one way or another. Or maybe they won’t. I don’t control that. So I’m not going to wring my hands over it; I’m just going to keep trying to help people in their spiritual searches, and not try to build a Tower of Babel that will get them to be the Jews I think they should be.
It’s probably one of the first things that I learned from my time as a social science researcher – the short research and academic career that I had before deciding to turn to the Rabbinate … correlation does not always mean causation. Statistics are very good at demonstrating the former but, by themselves, cannot determine the latter without further investigation.
So, for example, a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level. Most of us would recognize that there is a third factor – age – that accounts for both.
Then there’s the joke about the lunatic who wants to demonstrate to his doctor that he can control spiders. He speaks to the spider ‘Go left!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the left. Then he calls out ‘Go right!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the right. Then he says to the doctor, ‘but that’s nothing – watch this!’ He proceeds to pull the legs off the spider. When he calls out ‘Go left!’ and ‘Go right!’ again, the spider doesn’t move. ‘See!’ says the lunatic, ‘If you pull a spider’s legs off he’ll go deaf!’
In the past 24 hours there have been multiple reports and responses to the Pew Portrait of Jewish American life in major newspapers, blogs, and conversations on Facebook pages. It has sparked many interesting and reflective responses, all containing good observations. But there is also the tendency to misread the data, jump to assumptions about causation when only correlation has been determined, and to focus in on some of the data while ignoring other parts. I have found conversations about what part of the data has been most shocking/surprising/unexpected particularly interesting. Some are shocked by the statistic that 34% said that you could still be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the Messiah, for example. Many are concerned that, of those who identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish, 2/3rds of them are not raising their children Jewish in any way.
One of the things that I learned as a social scientist is that there are many ways of seeing, based not so much on what lies before us, but rather on who is doing the seeing. The artist, the developer, and the farmer can all look out at exactly the same field and see completely different things. So it is that those of us who work within institutional Jewish organizations, especially synagogues, look at this data with one set of concerns, whereas those who have created new Jewish cultural projects that seek to engage Jews outside of those traditional institutions would look at the data quite differently.
The full Pew study is over 200 pages long. I have not had the time in the last 24 hours to read and digest it. So it is not my intention to add my own layer of analysis to those that are already out there at this time. Rather, to caution us to think about our framing, how we are approaching and responding to the data that has been collected, and to be careful about jumping to conclusions. For example, if I add my own voice to those that have highlighted what is most interesting to them, I would draw attention to something that is mentioned but which hasn’t received a great deal of comment in the analysis so far. On the Pew Forum’s own summary page of the report, with regard to the youngest generation of Jews surveyed who show an increasingly ethnic but not religious sense of identification, they state:
This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).
This piece of data should immediately alert us to the likelihood that there are a combination of factors that are shifting the culture of American society in general, to which we in the Jewish community are not immune. Does that mean that we who are Jewish professionals throw up our hands and give up on our attempts to keep Jews Jewish, help interfaith families make Jewish choices, and demonstrate the meaningful connections to our faith and heritage that we wish to share with younger generations? Of course not! But it does mean that we cannot jump to conclusions about what does and doesn’t work, what can and can’t be achieved, and what our expectations are, without reference to the larger cultural context in which we are living and working. And perhaps most of all, an awareness of the trends in this larger cultural context can help us keep our emotions in check. Instead of the hand-wringing and angst that sometimes drives a narrative that can sound a little too desperate as we mourn the ‘ever-dying Jewish people‘, if we acknowledge and even embrace the reality that we live and work in today we can more joyfully reach out and share what we have to offer, and are probably more likely to connect with Jews who identify differently to us because we are more present to who they are and will be less likely to try and make them fit inside our pre-existing structures.
I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.