The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today

The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today

by Jack Wertheimer

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Winner of the National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studiesan engaging firsthand portrait of American Judaism today

American Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. Like other religions in the United States, it has witnessed a decline in the number of participants over the past forty years, and many who remain active struggle to reconcile their hallowed traditions with new perspectives—from feminism and the LGBTQ movement to "do-it-yourself religion" and personally defined spirituality. Taking a fresh look at American Judaism today, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. Which observances still resonate, and which ones have been given new meaning? What options are available for seekers or those dissatisfied with conventional forms of Judaism? And how are synagogues responding? Offering new and often-surprising answers to these questions, Wertheimer reveals an American Jewish landscape that combines rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691181295
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/28/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 219,359
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape.

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At a time when powerful social forces are eroding many aspects of American Jewish life, over four million adults by their own reckoning continue to identify with Judaism. To be sure, they vary considerably in their religious beliefs and practices. Some are minimalists, allowing religious activities into their lives only on rare and carefully circumscribed occasions; others are maximalists, regular participants in public worship who observe many traditional religious rituals and some new ones; and then there are those who fall somewhere in between — practicing some customs faithfully but ignoring many others.

Were we to rely solely on survey research about these Jews, the major emphasis would be on how little they believe and observe. Take the findings of the Pew Research Center for example. Here is a quick compendium:

• "Jews exhibit lower levels of religious commitment than the U.S. general public, among whom 56% say religion is very important in their lives and an additional 23% say it is somewhat important." The comparative figures for Jews are 26 percent (very important) and 29 percent (somewhat important.)

• "Belief in God is much more common among the general public than among Jews. Even among Jews by religion, belief in God is less common than among members of other major U.S. religious groups."

• "Jews report attending religious services at much lower rates than do other religious groups. Six-in-ten Christians (62%) say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month (compared with 29% of Jews by religion)."

• A few traditional religious rituals are widely observed, such as attendance at a Passover Seder and fasting on Yom Kippur, but smaller percentages are performing these rituals than in the past.

• "Within all three denominational movements, most of the switching is in the direction of less traditional Judaism."

Aside from the unremitting negative news of these findings, it is striking how little survey data tell us about the texture of American Jewish religious life. And how can it be otherwise given the omnibus approach of survey research about Jews? Most such studies collect data on demography and also seek information about a range of additional themes — connections to the Jewish people, philanthropy, volunteering, cultural pursuits, both positive and negative interactions with non-Jews, and attitudes regarding American and Israeli policies, among other topics. Understandably, with such a broad purview, it's impossible for surveys to probe more deeply about religious beliefs and practices among American Jews.

As a consequence, we are left with many questions begging to be answered. The Pew study, for example, found smaller proportions of Jews, as compared to other Americans, who are convinced about the existence of God. The obvious question is, why is that so? And though there probably are a range of possible reasons, there is yet another question to be posed: Why do Jews who are either atheists or agnostics participate in some synagogue worship services? Synagogue attendance rates also are a bit of a mystery: Why do fewer than 10 percent of Reform Jews who pay membership dues to synagogues and 21 percent of those affiliated with a Conservative congregation attend services weekly, yet the rest continue to pay dues to support congregations they rarely, if ever, attend? As to religious practices, surveys generally inquire about the observance of a handful of rituals. What do we know about how the rest of Judaism's "613 commandments" are observed? Why are some rituals observed fairly widely and yet others seem to be falling by the wayside? And, most difficult to answer, what does the observance of religious rituals mean to average Jews?

As I address these questions, I distinguish between Jews who identify with the range of religiously liberal movements — Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Conservative Judaism and also the so-called "Nones" who do not identify as Jewish by religion — and Orthodox Jews. The lines of division, as we shall see, are not necessarily as sharply etched as some would imagine, but Orthodox Jews are on the whole considerably different in their patterns of Jewish religious participation. Accordingly, this chapter and the next will focus on the non-Orthodox population, and then chapter 3 will examine the Orthodox.

God and Ultimate Questions

To gather information on the texture of Jewish religious life that surveys cannot capture, I interviewed close observers of Jewish religious behavior — rabbis and others who come into contact with many "ordinary" Jews — to reflect on which aspects of Judaism seem to resonate with non-Orthodox Jews today and which do not. As an icebreaker, I opened most interviews with the same query: What kinds of religious questions are you asked? In most cases, non-Orthodox rabbis responded that their congregants are more likely to pose questions about Israel and the Middle East or personal matters than specifically religious issues. Conservative rabbis noted inquiries they receive about the proper observance of certain holidays, especially Passover with its very complicated rules about foodstuffs that may not be brought into a Jewish house during the weeklong holiday. Both Conservative and Reform rabbis reported receiving many "What does Judaism say about ...?" kinds of questions — for example, about the immortality of the soul, when life begins, and how the universe was created. Most commonly, rabbis field questions from people facing life crises — how to cope when a marriage comes to an end, a child is in trouble, criminal charges are filed, or agonizing end-of-life medical decisions must be made. Often, rabbis say, congregants are less interested in answers than in being reassured that they are doing the right thing. Younger congregants often ask for advice on how to explain illness and death to their children, or how to pass along Jewish traditions to the next generation.

Many rabbis also report they receive quasi-theological questions from congregants at times of travail: Why does God allow good people to suffer? What does Judaism have to say about the afterlife? And how am I to believe when facing either my own or a loved one's terminal illness? These, of course, are among the most fundamental of all existential questions. But what is clear from the rabbis' responses is how questions about God arise for most synagogue-affiliated Jews primarily in the face of life-altering circumstances. Here lies a paradox: When we consider how central public worship is to the mission of synagogues, why do questions of belief arise so infrequently? After all, worship services are replete with references to God, whether the prayers express thanksgiving, petition, exaltation, or pleas for forgiveness. In most non-Orthodox synagogues (and many Orthodox ones too), though, there is little discussion about God.

That said, rabbis are well aware their congregants struggle to believe in a God Who hears and answers prayers and is actively involved in the fate of individual humans. To be sure, rabbis in non-Orthodox settings say some of their congregants hold fairly traditional theological beliefs, often reporting to their rabbis on material they have read on websites of various Orthodox outreach organizations. At the other end of the spectrum, rabbis report about congregants who seek spiritual uplift unconnected to God, perhaps some sense of oneness with nature or something transcendent. And then in the middle are those congregants who would rather not give the matter too much thought or struggle to imagine a deity unlike what they learned about in religious school.

When asked, Reform rabbis are the most direct about the problem God poses for many of their congregants. A Silicon Valley rabbi quotes an oft-voiced plea she hears: "I am a rational person and God does not make sense to me. Don't talk to me about that." Younger members especially are unlikely to find meaning in talk about God, she notes. This rabbi traces her congregants' skepticism to their surroundings, a high-tech environment that attracts many people with an advanced education and a scientific bent. Yet the same issues preoccupy Reform congregants in other regions of the country. The rabbi of a Mid-Atlantic congregation recalled her amazement upon hearing her synagogue president describe herself as an openly avowed atheist. The same rabbi asked members to jot down their concept of God during an adult education class. Many were inarticulate, and a surprising number confided their lack of belief. In still another region of the country, the rabbi of a Midwestern congregation flatly states: "God is very distracting to most Reform Jews. ... Most people are not certain about their relationship to God or Judaism."

It's not only references to the Deity but also the language of prayers that creates what one Reform rabbi candidly describes as a "roadblock." For one thing, most Reform congregants and quite a few Conservative ones cannot read the Hebrew words of prayer, let alone understand what they mean. Hence the new Reform prayer book, Mishkan Tefilla, has been published in an edition including transliterations of every prayer. Quite a few Reform temples compile their own liturgical compendia, heavily laced with transliterations, to help congregants pronounce the words in Hebrew — or keep them to a minimum. For their part, Conservative rabbis report a significant decline over time in their congregants' ability to decode the Hebrew and to make sense of the worship service. A West Coast Conservative rabbi contrasts his current congregants with those of twenty years ago: in the past "there still were reflexive Jews who knew how to daven [pray], but they're dying out. The current population does not have the vocabulary or Hebrew and holiday literacy." As a consequence, worship services seem inscrutable, and certainly alien, to high percentages of those who do attend often, let alone to the infrequent attenders.

And then there are questions of meaning. When an individual engages in public worship just a few days each year, what sense does the entire exercise make? Public prayer is a discipline, requiring training and practice; it does not work as a sometime thing. One can imagine how awkward an infrequent worshipper might feel mouthing unfamiliar words. Worse still, often the English translations fail to mediate the dissonance between traditional Jewish theology and what the average synagogue-attender personally believes. At a time when a therapeutic worldview pervades every aspect of their lives, what are synagogue-goers to make of a liturgy that refers explicitly to sin, a category that is anathema to the mental health profession? Or for that matter, as a Reform rabbi observed, "People don't know how to deal with the prayers claiming that 'God alone is our help.' And what about physicians? People wonder whether they have to believe that." Some Bnai Mitzvah families, he reports, "ask for God-lite service" in order to sidestep the implications of many awkward prayers. But the more effort goes into eliminating dissonant concepts, the more confusion people feel about the purpose of the enterprise. Reporting on an odd conversation, a Reform rabbi describes the perplexity expressed by a congregant who asked him whether it is wrong of her to feel during prayer that she is speaking to God. "Is that contrary to Judaism because Reform de-emphasizes the supernatural?" she asked.

The candor of Reform rabbis about their congregants' struggle with belief in God should not lead us to conclude that such skepticism resides only within the laity of that denomination. Conservative rabbis apparently encounter less pushback in public discussions about God — or perhaps they speak less about God — but they too report about private conversations in which congregants wrestle with the traditional conception of an omnipotent God Who intervenes in earthly matters and hears, let alone responds to, prayers. "I told a congregant struggling with the traditional concept of God that I also don't believe in that kind of God," reports a Conservative rabbi on the East Coast. A West Coast Conservative rabbi describes the beliefs of his younger congregants as follows: "The God they are not interested in is a personal God who intervenes in history and commands in discrete language. That kind of God keeps them away. Young people feel they have a soul even if they don't believe in God." Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, the former senior rabbi of a large Conservative congregation in Washington, DC, addressed the issue head-on in a High Holiday sermon he titled, "Why Jews Should NOT Believe in God." The point of his address was not to pitch atheism, but to move his congregants away from the question of what they believe to how they might live as Jews.

What these comments suggest is that today's non-Orthodox rabbis are acutely aware of serious doubts their congregants harbor about the traditional conception of God — and are willing to speak to the issue. Rather than ignore this reality, rabbis are addressing it directly in public, making the case that you don't have to be a believer to come to synagogue. Gil Steinlauf, for example, continued his sermon as follows:

There are so many Jewish people who tell me, "I just don't believe in God." They try to conjure up an image of God as depicted in our prayers and in the Torah, and in good faith, they just can't buy it. What these good and well-meaning people may not realize is that these images and concepts of God in our Torah and prayers are actually more like vessels or tools that exist as a place holder, as a container to hold our experience of life that is unnamable.

Speaking for quite a few of her colleagues, a Reform rabbi reported: "We give permission to people who come here not to believe in God." A male colleague of hers noted his preference to frame conversations with skeptical congregants by asking, "Which God don't you believe in? Turns out, the skeptics discover, that other congregants don't believe in that God either."

None of this is to suggest that most Jews are atheists or agnostics. The Pew data indicate this is not the case. But it is to observe that questions about belief are handled in a far more open and less dogmatic way than one might imagine; and though it cannot be proved because we lack the comparative data, the difficulties of believing in God, let alone varied conceptions of God, probably are more frankly discussed now than in the past. This may reflect the rabbis' own theological struggles. In all likelihood, the more important reason is that rabbis have heard enough from their congregants to know they are addressing Jews whose beliefs run the gamut from traditional conceptions of God to agnosticism or atheism, and therefore references to the Deity may elicit considerable discomfort.

To test the waters, a few of the rabbis I interviewed referred to their own efforts at administering informal questions to adult and teen congregants, asking them to characterize their conception of God. The results suggested a fair amount of confusion, embarrassment, and inarticulateness, even as some held fast to traditional beliefs. A more ambitious survey undertaken by one Reform rabbi was sent out the day after Yom Kippur a few years ago and was answered by 40 percent of the congregants. Consistent with national surveys of Jews, the majority of congregants (60 percent) affirmed their belief in God. But the survey also elicited diverse views on the nature of this God. Fewer than half (45 percent) found evidence of God's work in the universe. When asked about their agreement with a traditional conception of a God Who "rewards good people and punishes bad people," 74 percent rejected that concept and only 40 percent believed in an all-powerful deity. "And is God just?" the survey asked. Although 26 percent said yes, 30 percent indicated they do not believe God is just and 43 percent were not sure. Perhaps most telling of what impedes their belief in such a deity, "two hundred congregants expressed concerns about justice, such as: 'God, why do bad things happen to good people?'"

What, then, did the congregants affirm about God? They associated God with the capacity of humans to do good, to help the sick and needy, and to offer hope; these resonated as Godly attributes. "Most of my congregants do not construe God as a celestial figure Who acts in this world. For them," the rabbi concluded based on his survey. "God is a presence or power. For them, God is not so much 'above' us in heaven as God is 'beside' us or 'within' us. Most believe that God 'acts' when we act with God's attributes, such as love, kindness, and justice."

Of course it can be said that a survey of a single Reform congregation may not be generalizable to other synagogues in that movement, let alone to Jews attending a different kind of synagogue or none. But coupled with reports by numerous non-Orthodox rabbis about how many of their congregants struggle with or are repelled by traditional conceptions of God, the so-called "God survey" adds one further piece of evidence that theological skepticism is a factor of some importance among synagogue members. And even those who claim to be believers are far from uniform in their conceptions of God.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I The Religious Lives Of Ordinary American Jews 23

1 Finding Meaning: The Importance of Belief, Belonging, and Good Deeds 25

2 A Judaism for Peak Moments: How Non-Orthodox Jews Practice 43

3 Diversity among the Orthodox 67

Part II The Leaky Vessels Of Denominational Judaism 101

4 Is Reform Judaism Ascendant? 103

5 Conservative Judaism: A Reappraisal 121

6 The Battle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy 143

7 Who Needs Jewish Denominations? 160

Part III Where Religious Renewal Flourishes 181

8 Not Your Grandparents' Synagogue 183

9 Orthodox Outreach: Nourishing the Jewish World 211

10 Looking for Judaism in Unconventional Places 233

Conclusion: A New Remix 254

Notes 273

Bibliography 349

Index 367

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"[A] wholly enlightening and deeply fascinating book."—Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal

"An extraordinarily well-sourced view of American Judaism today with great reach."—C. Lynn Carr, Reading Religion

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