From Pew Will Come Forth Torah

by Arthur Green

Judaism is in trouble in America. Almost a third of young Jewish adults consider themselves to be people of no religion. Yes, they still identify as Jews, even expressing some pride in that heritage. But they call themselves non-believers or secularists, Jews by descent or identification, but not by faith.

The numbers are a slap in the face to a Jewish community that is largely organized around religious institutions. The secular alternatives that once offered strong competition to religion seemed to die off rather quickly in the early post-war decades. Yiddishism almost disappeared as the old immigrant generation passed on and it became clear that the vast Yiddish-speaking population of Eastern Europe had been murdered. Jewish Socialism lost popularity due to the Cold War and the “us versus them” view of capitalism and communism that seemed to be demanded by loyalty to America. When the left re-emerged after the late sixties, it was appropriately universalistic in character, leaving no room for secular Jewish separatism. Zionism as an ideology demanded aliyah of those who took it most seriously, contributing a significant trickle of American Jews to the Israeli intelligentsia, but leaving our own community without their intense dedication. I for one would love to see a strong culture-based secular Jewish life re-emerge in this country, but I believe it’s an uphill struggle. American society is so defined by its struggle with race that ethnic identities not visible on the skin have little place in this society. We are not seen as “ethnics” by the emerging consensus here. We are accepted (the good news and the bad news) as white; that means we are to check “Other (Caucasian)” on that census form question about ethnicity.

So we are left with religion. But what does that mean for most American Jews, those living outside the ultra-Orthodox ghetto? A few Jewish religious practices remain widely popular. We enjoy a family seder on Passover, lighting Hanukkah candles, apples and honey for the New Year, and maybe even fasting on Yom Kippur. But where is the faith that holds these – and so much more – together? Jewish belief in God, already deeply challenged by modernity and our embrace of Western education, was shattered by the Holocaust, a memory still at the top of Pew’s list of Jewish identity markers. If being a Jew means remembering the terrible events of the Holocaust years, it at the same moment challenges our faith in a God who rules history with a special concern for His beloved people. The Biblical Job’s classic question of faith in the face of unjust suffering is magnified six million-fold for the Jew living after 1945. Jews love to ask questions; we take pride in not being passive followers of our religion. But where are we left? Can a religion survive at the knifepoint of unanswered questions?

The Holocaust challenge is joined by the results of two other great battles that traditional religion fought and lost across the twentieth century. One was the struggle against “Darwin,” or the entire scientific narrative of earth’s origins and the evolution of humanity. The other was the ongoing debate over Biblical authorship and the triumph of a critical perspective showing that religion itself, including its most sacred texts, was a product of an evolving history. Is it any wonder that a third of young Jews see themselves as “without religion?” Perhaps our eyes of wonder should be turned in the other direction. “What a marvel that two-thirds of Jewry still see themselves as religious, as maintaining their faith in the face of all that! How rich and profound that faith must be!” Would that this were true. But I fear that for many of those still on the “Jewish by religion” side of the divide in Pew’s questionaire, the definer is loyalty or nostalgia rather than deep faith. Their children as well, I fear, will soon fall into the other camp.

Some eighty years ago Mordecai Kaplan took up the challenge of articulating a Judaism for the newly educated children of immigrants who had lost their traditional faith. His Reconstructionism, while only marginally successful as a distinct religious movement, is widely thought to be the faith position of a great many American Jews. Kaplan built his Jewish theology on the foundations of American pragmatism, where such concepts as the chosen people and God’s rule of history had no place. “God” came to represent the highest values and aspirations of the Jewish people and our tradition. In the post-Holocaust years, however, Kaplan’s optimistic rationalism seemed rather pale. The times called forth a different level of inner quest, leading Jewish seekers by the thousands away from Judaism altogether and toward a meditation-based spirituality that was not about facing and answering challenges, but about achieving inner tranquility and a sense of personal balance. Here it was Eastern, mainly Buddhist, teachings that spoke most powerfully, and religions of Western origin were seen to be either shallow or irrelevant to the inward quest.

A Judaism that will speak to the emerging twenty-first century generations is only beginning to emerge. In contrast to Kaplan’s era, its point of departure will be the Jewish mystical rather than the rationalist tradition. A radical spiritualization of Judaism’s truth, begun within Hasidism some two hundred years ago, needs to be updated and universalized to appeal to today’s Jewish seeker. It offers the possibility of a religious language that will address contemporary concerns while calling for a deep faith-based attachment to the essential forms and tropes of Jewish piety. Mystical religion by its very nature shifts the focus of attention away from the positive/historical and inward toward the devotional/experiential. The question is not: “Do you believe that God created the world, and when?” but rather “Do you encounter a divine presence in the natural world around you?” and “What does that encounter call upon you to do?” We are not concerned with “Did Israel hear God’s word at Sinai, and how much of the Torah was given there?” but rather “Can you feel yourself standing before the mountain as you hear the words of Torah?” The “events” of Israel’s sacred narrative are read here as myth rather than history, but their voice is made more powerful rather than less as they call forth deep personal engagement and commitment. The God of this religion is not the commanding Other who rules over history, but rather the still, small voice from within that calls upon us to open our hearts and turn our lives toward goodness, even in the face of terrible human evil and the inexplicable reality of nature’s indifference to our individual human plight. This sort of new mystical or Neo-Hasidic piety turns toward the natural world as a source of inspiration, seeing existence itself as an object of wonder and devotion. It finds the miraculous in daily life and tends to focus its religious energy on the building and celebration of human community.

Such a renewed mystical Jewish faith can come in many forms regarding the degree of traditional observance it calls forth. It may serve as a theology that underlies a full “orthopraxy,” a richly detailed observance of Jewish law, as it surely does for some of its most devoted adherents. It may also call forth and justify new forms of religious expression, as it has in Jewish environmentalist circles, among others. These variations in practice will have much to do with the personal needs and backgrounds of those drawn to it, but there seems to be a strong attraction toward fuller forms of observance, as was the case with original Hasidism. This is a religion that is all about cultivating spiritual intensity, awakening the heart. Such a faith, especially in the context of Judaism, seeks expression in traditional forms. But while doing so, it also remains wide open to creative and original readings of the classical sources, always ready to hear the renewed Torah that emerges from within the contemporary community. It understands that observance is never to be seen as an end in itself, but as a means of arousing the heart and as an expression of that heart’s fullness and desire to give, both within and beyond the Jewish community.

It is also obvious to the more clear-minded followers of this approach that it exists in a post-modern rather than pre-modern context. As we seek to re-engage with the wisdom of spiritual traditions in this age, we need to abandon the zero-sum game that characterized all of our religions in earlier times. “If mine is true, yours must be false.” We need to be sobered and humbled by the realities with which we live: the ongoing hatreds by which humanity is still riven, the nuclear age in which we live, and, above all, the threat of collective human self-destruction by disregard for the precious soil, water, and air that sustain our planet as a fit habitation for our species and others. We all need to learn from one another, appreciate both the wisdom and piety to be found throughout the human community, and be willing to work together for the good of all humanity. We understand that the diversity of human religious forms is itself a blessing, that each sacred tradition has much to learn and to teach in our encounter with one another.

Will such an approach to Judaism bring back all of those young Jews who checked the “none” box when it came to religion? Of course not. Many, perhaps most, will remain hopelessly indifferent. Perhaps renewed secular forms of Jewish identity will once again find their place. But this is America, a nation of seekers, where the longing to believe has deep roots and many branches. There are Jews – and more than a few – who have looked elsewhere for spiritual satisfaction but might well find themselves drawn to the sort of Judaism described here. And in this age of free choice of identities, there will be many non-Jewish seekers attracted by such an open-minded yet powerfully spiritual Judaism. They should be seen as a most welcome addition to the body of the Jewish people as it is re-shaped at this entrance point to an uncertain but exciting new era in our people’s history.

Arthur Green is Rector of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton MA., which he founded in 2003.

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  1. Joel Schindler says

    One need not look very far to find thriving secular Jewish life not organized around religious institutions – Israel! The vast majority of Israeli Jews are heloni – secular. I am not at all suggesting that the situation in Israel is comparable to that in the US Jewish community; we are all aware of the many profound and fundamental differences that define each setting. However, Israel has created a vibrant Jewish community based on cultural not religious institutions. There is cultural excellence in the arts, science, language, and media just to name a few. Perhaps the American Jewish community can turn to our Israeli brothers and sisters to discover the types of cultural institutions that have succeeded in Israel and refine them for the US.

  2. Rabbi Tsvi Bar-David says

    Reb Arthur: always a pleasure to read and be inspired by what you are thinking and writing. With regard to the quote below:

    “Did Israel hear God’s word at Sinai, and how much of the Torah was given there?” but rather “Can you feel yourself standing before the mountain as you hear the words of Torah?”

    Not either or, nor neither nor, but rather BOTH AND!
    I live in a world in which God’s loving and commanding (chesed va-din) presence manifested itself at Sinai, and continues to manifest itself every moment, should I choose to open to it.

    Reb Tsvi

  3. Dave Neil says

    The author writes at the beginning of the third paragraph of the article above:
    “So we are left with religion. But what does that mean for most American Jews, those living outside the ultra-Orthodox ghetto?”
    Does anyone else find this quote shocking! As an Orthodox Jew i found that highly offensive.
    I am waiting for an apology- here in the talk backs, that is if he has Derech Eretz he will do so.

    Do all Reform Rabbis like Arthur Green like to give the average American Jew the impression that he or she has a choice between Liberal Judaism on some level versus – as he puts it – or being part of an “ultra-Orthodox ghetto”?!
    What a slap to the face to describe all the beautiful Jewish Orthodox communities across America, whether they happen to be modern Orthodox and more Zionist, Chassidic, Litvish or consisting – as many do- of as a blend of all three- in such a negative view.
    The people who are reading this e-mail newsletter are deeply, even passionately- concerned about the Jewish future. And where would that future of American Jewry be, without the next generation of Jewish Orthodox children who today make up about 38% of all Jewish children born in America?
    Note that Reform is only the largest denomination because it is counting a large number of non-Jews as its members and it might not be the largest denomination in terms of having the most Jews. The reason Reform’s membership isn’t collapsing as Conservative membership is, is due to the fact that thousands of Jewish kids who grew up Conservative and are now intermarried today decided to belong to a Reform Temple since they feel more comfortable in that environment- especially as many are raising their children in both religions. (Also because about half of their families consist of intermarried families so the non-Jewish spouse feels more comfortable there.) But according to all population studies these types of families will not produce Jewish children since approximately 90% of the children of the intermarried marry non-Jews and at that point the grandchildren of the intermarried do not join any synagogue of any type as they will typically be Christian or totally secular.. so Reform’s membership collapse is just a generation away. Reform is thus a one generation stopping over point for many Jews of Conservative backgrounds with non-Jewish spouses who are basically on their way out of Judaism. Don’t get me wrong, Orthodox Jews (myself included) are not triumphant about the loss of millions of Jews to assimilation- we are through Chabad, Aish HaTorah and countless kiruv organizations and Kollels are doing more to save American Jewry from assimilation than anyone else. We certainly wished that Conservative movement and the Reform didn’t lead to assimilation as we don’t want to see our Jewish brothers and sisters assimilating. The Conservative Rabbis and Reform Rabbis (often called the “Spritirual leaders of their congregations”) had and have the responsibility – if they are genuine- to lead and keep the Jewish families of their congregations Jewish- if they have failed to do so, it is a loss for ALL American Jewry.
    Rector Arthur Green we are waiting for an apology.

  4. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Dave,

    I hope I’m proved wrong, and don’t hold your breath re an apology. Or, for that matter actual engagement by those who post in here. I really hope that Rabbi/Dr. Green proves me wrong on both counts.


  5. says

    Thank you for this. Without question I think that some of the great successes in Jewish life come from the beauty and richness of experiencing the divine through ritual – broadly defined. At Mayyim Hayyim, the community mikveh and education center in Boston, we capture not only the reasons people come to immerse, but their reactions. I invite any and all of you to find inspiration, energy, compassion and sensitivity in the personal stories of our fellow Jews – and those becoming Jewish – who are seeking, and thank God, finding meaning.

  6. says

    Art Green has provided an excellent historical analysis of the forces that have sculpted North American Jewry in the 20th century. He cogently describes how we have come to the point at which about two thirds of Jews see themselves as Jews by religion and another third understand themselves as Jews in some other way.
    Green correctly points out that almost one hundred years ago Reconstructionist Judaism created new ideological assumptions for diaspora Jews. Its emphasis on peoplehood, culture (civilization), egalitarianism, flexible theology and creative partnership between the diaspora and Israel does indeed represent – to use Green’s term – the “faith position” of most of the two thirds of American Jews who identify as Jews by religion. In addition, Reconstructionist Judaism may well represent the identity position (as opposed to faith position) of the other one third who may reject the majoritarian Christian template of American religiosity while still embracing their Jewish identity.
    Though Green is most interested in his own vision of mystical Judaism as a guide for the Jewish future, the truth is that a pluralistic peoplehood approach that includes mysticism as one of many uniting forces for Jews is more successful. As the Reconstructionist movement enters its second century, the 21st century, its focus on inclusivity and optimism are hardly “pale” as Green suggests. Both ideologically and organizationally Reconstructionism embraces the future while retaining a reverence for tradition. The innovative curriculum of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College educates its rabbis to serve both its growing number of congregations (now the most in its history) and in the many communities where Jews who identify by religion as well as Jews who identify through other aspects of Jewish civilization and their families come together to affirm contemporary Jewish life.

  7. Jeff Eyges says

    No apology on Rabbi Green’s part is required. You Orthodox need to get over yourselves.

    And for the record, R. Green is largely correct; the two main choices are Liberal Judaism on the one hand, and a Haredi-commandeered Orthodoxy on the other. There is a left wing Modern Orthodox minority caught in the middle, but it’s exhausted itself after decades of hopping back and forth over the divide, trying to placate those on either side.

  8. says

    Yes, many Jews are secular or cultural, and are not seeking spiritual connections …

    … but, as a rabbi who helps Jews who long for meaningful Jewish tradition and community, and haven’t yet been able to find it, I’ve met many secular or cultural Jews who identify this way because they haven’t had a chance to learn about a sophisticated, adult Judaism that speaks to their real lives.

    So, yes to neo-Hasidism, and yes, also, to Jewish learning and guidance that meets Jews where they are.

    “You don’t believe in the God you learned about in Hebrew school, Bible stories, and the movies? You lost your faith when your parent died young? You don’t find spiritual connection in synagogue services?”

    “That makes so much sense! Let’s explore the riches of Jewish tradition — mystical and otherwise — and see what resonates for you.”

    Given this offer, I have seen many Jews who’d never call themselves religious breathe a sigh of relief, dig in and learn, become passionate about what they discover, and create meaningful Jewish paths for themselves and their families.

    Let us develop more ways for adult Jews to access this richness, in pluralistic environments, where there’s no agenda — just the desire to open the many strands of the tradition to them, not to “make” them Jewish, but to help them on their religious and spiritual paths.

  9. Minna Scherlinder Morse says

    Very thoughtful, forward thinking piece. Two clarifications, in the order they appear in the text: (1) in discussing race in America, and among Jews, the language here is hardly accurate. It would have been accurate to say “The vast majority of us are accepted… as white.” Jews in America, and worldwide, are a mixed multitude race-wise, as I know you know; (2) as a member of the movement inspired by Mordecai Kaplan’s work and thought, I’m happy to note that Reconstructionism has become a place where both rationalists and mystics have found their spiritual home, sometimes even within one Reconstructionist Jewish household 😉

  10. Len Moskowitz says

    Judaism ultimately is about holiness (k’doosha) – holiness of the individual, the nation of Israel, time, place, and ultimately the world. Holiness is achieved only by doing God’s will, fulfilling the eternal covenant that God gave the Jewish people at Sinai. Holiness allows us to approach God and for God to dwell among us. As the third paragraph of the Shma states, holiness comes from performing the Torah’s commandments.

    Holiness through observing the Torah’s commandments is what Orthodoxy is about. If the Pew survey teaches us anything, it’s that without observance the center won’t hold. Nothing will remain, not even the potential for arousal of the heart.

  11. Rabbi Eric M. Lankin, DMin says

    My teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, presents a powerful and moving case for a Jewish spiritual connection that will not only bring meaning to our lives but help make the case for a “value-added” reason to define yourself as a connected Jew. The Jewish people are rich with spiritual texts from the Hasidic tradition because like all peoples with a long history, we have faced this spiritual crisis before.

    However, permit me to share that unless whatever spiritual practice one adopts, there is still the challenge of connection because a spiritual quest is often solitary. What will draw Jews together, love and take responsibility for each other has to be an important measure leading to connection to Jewish life and Judaism. Spiritual practice is surely one answer but Mordechai Kaplan was right-belonging comes first before believing and behaving. Therefore we need to be together, that is critical. What is going to insure that we “belong to the Jewish people?”

    The alternative is “Sheilaism” (from Wikipedia: the term derives from a woman named Sheila Larson, who is quoted by Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen in their book Habits of the Heart as following her own “little voice” in a faith she calls “Sheilaism”) meaning that everyone will do their own thing and there will be little to unite us.

  12. Robert K says

    This article is so sprawling that a full analysis would have to explore a number of basically unrelated issues. Since I don’t feel like doing that, I’ll choose just two key issues.

    The first is the attempt to pry apart Judaism’s mysticism from its rationalism. Green wants to encourage more mysticism, basically because he believes that this approach will have broader appeal to American Jews. My response is that Jewish mysticism and rationalism are as completely bound up together as are Jewish religion and nationality. Any attempt to pry the two apart and emphasize just one aspect necessarily leads to something un-Jewish and un-authentic, and most people, American or otherwise, usually sense the lacuna created by the artificial division.

    The second and more crucial issue to my mind is the very attempt to appeal to American Jews at all. Judaism is not a commodity, and it needs no marketing per se. But more importantly, it should not be marketed as a matter of principle. I say this because the basic premise of marketing is that a commodity is something that should be adapted to the needs of the consumer, but the basic premise of religion is that humans need to adapt themselves to the divine will. The minute you start trying to dress up religion, it isn’t religion. Needless to say, you’re never going to get more Jews identifying with Judaism as a religion if you don’t treat it as a religion. But I’m sure Green can successfully find his niche market with Jews seeking personal, mystical, neo-chasidic experiences.

  13. Lynne Shapiro says

    I respect Rabbi Green and his Hebrew College colleagues tremendously. However, as a career marketing researcher, the article’s premise is based up survey responses from One-Third of young Jews, not a majority of them but a minority, a third, that so many articles are focusing upon. I’d like to see other such articles about other segments of young Jews or Jews of all ages (we Jews are as segmented as breakfast cereal consumers) who are religious and spiritual such as those I’ve seen on YouTube–why are they and how do they live their lives in a Jewish meaningful way.