The Religion You Don’t Believe In, I Don’t Believe In Either

by Bill Robinson

The Pew study has seemingly found that Jews are becoming more secular and less religious. Many have responded by declaring the end is nigh; others that we need to radically shift gears and offer them secular Jewish life and learning that better meets their values. Instead of jumping to a solution, I began to wonder what Jews mean when they respond to a survey question, as Jews “not by religion.”

When engaged in conversation with a Jewish person who would declare his or her atheism, my teacher, Zalman Schacter Shalomi, would say “I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in.” What is the religion that these Jews, especially younger Jews, are rejecting? What in their experience growing up has formed their view of Jewish religion?

It is likely that many of them grew up going to synagogue schools, preparing for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and then dropping out. They were taught to “read” Hebrew, to pronounce and (in the best schools) understand the prayers, and to glean Jewish values from Torah study. They reviewed Jewish history (with an emphasis on the Holocaust and modern Israel), explored our cultural rituals (life-cycle and calendrical), and learned about everyday Jewish practices (such as those dealing with kashrut and gemilut hasadim). At best, they were given a deep appreciation of our Jewish religious culture.

Obviously, without more research we don’t know which aspects they valued as “cultural” and positive, and which they rejected as “religious.” Perhaps they found our “cultural” celebrations and values to resonate with them, while they were left uninspired by “religious” prayers and actual observance of mitzvot? Again, we don’t know for sure. Yet, there is one thing we can be pretty confident about – while they learned about religion, they were never taught how to be religious.

In a recent eJewish Philanthropy piece, Art Green hit this difference on the proverbial head:

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 you to do?”

In the midst of the last century, the Jewish community in North America faced a crossroads, represented in part by two giants of Jewish thought: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan. Synagogue education, whether it was Reform, Conservative or even Reconstructionist, while preserving the learning of the prayer service, ended up following the path of laid out by Kaplan. Adhering to Kaplan’s educational vision (see Judaism as a Civilization), they aimed to impart to the learner the knowledge, inclination, and creative impulse to actively participate in the life of the Jewish community. Prayer (instead of being an encounter with the divine calling) became an element – arguably a core element – of our historical, communal culture. Following Emile Durkheim, Kaplan (and our synagogue schools) made religious worship into what Jews do.

In contrast, for Heschel (see God in Search of Man), offered a very different understanding of religion, which for him began with an experience of the sublime.

The sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves. It is that which all things ultimately stand for; “the inveterate silence of the world that remains immune to curiosity and inquisitiveness like distant foliage in the dusk.”

At the root of this experience, is the recognition that we are being called upon to respond.

Wonder is the sense of being asked. … What gives birth to religion is not intellectual curiosity but the fact and experience of begin asked.

How then should we respond to this divine calling? Judaism contains a set of regularized practices – our mitzvot – as our people’s communal response to the divine calling. As non-Orthodox Jews, we assert that we have a choice in how we respond to that calling.

We reserve the individual’s right to choose this mitzvot or that one. But, when one experiences that calling, there is no choice but to respond in some public way through a life of committed deed. (That many people don’t live such a life, doesn’t deny the existence of that calling or our obligation to respond.)

So, I then ask: How much time in our synagogue schools has been spent on helping students cultivate their sense of the sublime? How much time has been spent providing an immersive and reflective experience of different mitzvot as possible responses? How much time has been spent on coaching them in the performance of those regularized practices so that they become a normative aspect of their life? To take an example from outside Judaism, when Jews are serious about undertaking yoga or Bhuddist meditation, they don’t learn about it. They take it on as a discipline that must be practiced regularly with a teacher that can help them develop their ability to perform properly.

I haven’t done a survey; but I’ve spent almost 20 years in Jewish education, of which four years were as a synagogue educational director. I am confident in saying that our synagogue schools, from Heschel’s perspective, barely offer a religious education. When they do, they neither commit the time nor the talent needed to do it well. On the other side, Kaplan would be pretty satisfied with the nature of current synagogue education (if not necessarily its overall quality, especially in regard to the teaching of Hebrew). For decades, our synagogues have been offering primarily an education in Kaplanian cultural Judaism.
Which brings me back to the beginning. I don’t believe in the religion that these Pew study Jews learned about and rejected. Perhaps I was lucky. I went to a synagogue school, though all the way through high school. I also went to Israel as a teen. But, most importantly, in college I got to learn from Zalman Schachter Shalomi and I got to pray with Lawrence Kushner. Through them and others, I received a religious education.

What if we had offered all these young Jews a truly religious education instead? Of course, this may all be part of a general social trend, but social trends don’t appear out of nowhere. They are the result of common experiences shared by many people, such as the synagogue education with which most of us non-Orthodox Jews grew up.

The good thing to remember: if we did indeed created this situation, then we can change it. We are again at a crossroads, and we have a choice before us as to which path to take. Do we continue along the path of cultural Jewish education? Or do we take a new path toward a serious religious education?

Bill Robinson, PhD, is Chief Strategy Officer at The Jewish Education Project.

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  1. Jake says

    I have received a religious and Jewish education and learnt ‘Humash Dinim and Pirke Avoth and have not kept what I had in fact not : faith and belief in God… BUT less I was practicing (I did it…as the Tradition teaches us TO DO and not necessarily To believe…) more I became Jewish….(After J.C. Grumberg’s pieces and Novels : is a Jew, who doesn’t hide he is one…!!!!)
    I think that this secularism concept of atheistic Jew seems unattainable for most US people, whatever Jews or not; as USA are the near only one 98% Believeng in God population of the world, just after Primitive tribes still submitted to their closed traditions.

  2. Concerned says

    Although not exactly addressing the author’s point, I think it is important to understand the flaw in the Pew question about whether people consider themselves “religious.”
    I know many Conservative and Reform Jews who will tell you they “aren’t religious” despite leading a very Judaic centered life. They define “religious” as Orthodox… If they don’t keep strictly kosher, then they say they aren’t religious. I think this affects how we should understand the Pew statistic about whether people consider themselves “religious.”

  3. says

    Paragraph 3 starts with “It is likely that…”. Paragraph 4 begins with “Obviously, without more research we don’t know…”. The third paragraph near the end starts with “I haven’t done a survey; but…” yet continues with “I am confident in saying that…” The honesty is refreshing, but I am not sure how an admission that one does not know the reason for a problem is the grounds on which to definitively provide a solution. The question comes to mind: Would you have written anything different without having the Pew Survey? If so, you are not responding with a policy choice based on specific data points, but are, rather arguing in ideological position. This is of course fine. One should just be clear about what one is doing.

  4. Marc says

    From my own perspective, the Kaplan Religious School model failed me…I dropped out after my Bar Mitzah…Heschel reminds me of the immersive experience of Jewish Camps where young minds a free to wander and learn to think about the sublime, to connect with nature and put their ‘formal’ education to the test and place it in proper context to their lives. Taking care of animals or planting gardens give meaning to the texts and mitzvot…a toilet paper roll palm tree every year loses meaning…Lawrence Hoffman spoke about our Pediatric Synagogues over 20 years ago…was anyone listening? Why can’t we develop a cadre of teachers who get the sublime and can inspire young minds. Is it any wonder that Reform leaders like Rick Jacobs, Dan Freelander, Aaron Panken and Jonah Pesner were summer campers…but if you ask them, I’ll bet none would tell you they saw themselves then where they are today…their immersive experiences and opportunity to explore the sublime opened doors that allow them to connect their Judaism to the world. Without connection to the sublime, prayers, history and holidays are just rote learning in a sterile environment…take it outside the box, learn to feel it, touch it and absorb it and you have a whole different paradigm…it’s what’s been missing from most of our ‘schools’…we have to live our Judaism…it’s not just learn the words.

  5. Linda Rich says

    While Kaplan did away with the notion of God as a supernatural being who intervenes in human affairs, he affirmed religion’s goal of seeking after and connect with the divine or transcendent. Yes, some of his followers adopted a dry, overly intellectual approach, as did others who were not influenced by him. Yet anti-intellectual, “sloppy agape” spirituality is not the answer. We need a Judaism that activates both head and the heart, urging us to grow to be a once theologian, mystic, prophet/activist and loving devotee.

  6. Bill Robinson says

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. A few words in response:
    – What people mean when they answer these questions (while not a point I initially raised) is important to consider. Otherwise, we tend to write our own interpretations into the data.
    – As a trained researcher, I go out of my way to convey how I know something and whether or not it really comes from objective data; perhaps I went overboard in my caveats. However, to Aryeh Cohen’s comment, I never spent that much time thinking about the relationship of people’s current self-identity as Jews to the type of Jewish education they were given – specifically, in regard to the differences between Heschel and Kaplan on what constitutes religion. Thus, I would never have written this if I didn’t care to spend time making sense of the Pew data by going back to re-read Heschel and Kaplan.
    – I agree with Linda Rich when she says we need a Judaism that activates the head and the heart, or both a relation to the divine and a relation to the Jewish people. I have previously written about Jewish Peoplehood education. In this piece, I am trying to adjust what I see as an imbalance between the two; we need more focus on serious Heschel-defined “religious” education but not to the elimination of a cultural approach.

  7. Daniel Brenner says

    Oy – this is all such a superficial read of Kaplan that I don’t know where to begin. For example, if you think that Jewish summer camp is great, thank Kaplan. Take a brief look at the history of Jewish summer camping in the U.S. and you will learn about the role that Camp Cejwin – Central Jewish Institute of NYC – played in informing nearly everything we now see as wonderful immersive Jewish education. Who was a key pioneer at Cejwin? Kaplan. That’s where he was many summers. In fact, Kaplan was, ideologically speaking, the founder of immersive Jewish education – think JCC – the concept of civilizational Judaism – that’s Kaplan. Jewish music, art, poetry, literature as holy and part of Jewish learning? Kaplan. Kaplan would have detested the current model of after school education that have become the norm in so many communities – models that stress liturgy first. Yes, Heschel is a wonderful poetic voice and spirituality is compelling to a certain segment of Jewish folks. But Kaplan had a vision for all of Jewish education – for him it included the symphony, theater, literary salon – as well as the arenas of political debate. Kaplan’s “cultural” Judaism included spirituality and religious life as part of that culture. Rather than create false dichotomies, let us celebrate two great voices that continue to speak to our modern era.

  8. Ari says

    This seems to be debating between two failing models (according to Pew data). There is no discussion of models or founders of movements where numbers are improving. So I guess if you want to drive the numbers of engaged Jews down with maximum speed, the author suggests Kaplan, and Brenner suggests Heschel.

  9. says

    Thank you, Daniel, for crediting Kaplan with Cejwin. My experience at Cejwin as a teen in the ’70’s shaped who I am today as an observant Jew. I was just a girl from a typical Reform Jewish home who experienced Shabbos and kashrus for the first time at camp. When I returned from Cejwin I asked my mom about kashrus and Shabbos observance and she said, “When you grow up and have your own home.” And I grew up, married Jewish, had kids, sent them to yeshiva and Jewish summer camps, and made a beautiful, Torah-observant home.

  10. Jake says

    All that is a queestion of Character and Temperament; and Education seems mostly inefficient and very chancy anyway. I was educated and practicing just a bit after BatMitzvah as I was deeply an Atheistic Holocaust survivor….God couldn’t be such as He is decried in the Texts and Comments…All false…and anthropomorphism at the lowest level.So, I quit and marry out. but remained a Jew convinced since that time (1957) that Jewishness Yiddsihkeit was a Civilization not a Faith like our catholic neighbors…Kaplan wasn’t perfectly right but his idea seems the nearest from mine and I learnt about him a few years ago only (in France I may be the one of Five who know him!!!!????)
    About very Frummer Yidden I had a school friend who was very orthodox and I spent all Sbbos at his home for Oneg Schabbes with his family and Rabbi…He finally quit and married out and broke with the family. He wasn’t a girl boy at all..very astonishing story. I was… and no one was surpassed I marry a beauty i kept untill right now, so 52 years marriage.
    No one has THE solution! It depends on ones’ Maturity and strength of Character. But this is not politically correct and doesn’t please to “neo marxist” messianic religious Jews’ Milieu…..(it doesn’t please to a lot of Milieux” neither….

  11. Bill Robinson says

    My colleague Daniel Brenner rightly elevates the influence and achievements of Kaplan. I certainly did not mean to diminish Kaplan in any way. And, he rightly corrects me that Kaplan would have found the synagogue emphasis on liturgy to be detestable. Also, Heschel would have likely objected to the way liturgy has been typically taught there. It is the rest of synagogue education that I believe Kaplan would have been more comfortable with than Heschel.

    My point was not to argue for one over the other. Rather to point out, in light of the Pew study, by contrasting Kaplan and Heschel – two major thinkers who have influenced non-Orthodox Jewish thought – that there are different ways of understanding religious education. From Heschel’s perspective, synagogue education is not truly religious education.

    I am glad that my brief (and overly simple) presentation has stimulated such response. Perhaps what we need is also an in person forum where we can reflect seriously on the major 20th century influences in Jewish education in order to envision our 21st century future. What do you all think?