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.