Spiritual but Not Religious: How Religion Lets Us Down

141_spiritualnotreligious_wideThe Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, its survey and analysis of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs, has emerged as THE topic of conversation in the Jewish world. Some celebrate the survey; some wring their hands over what it says about us Jewish Americans.

The Union for Reform Judaism released a preliminary analysis for the Reform Movement.

Jewish Religiosity or Lack Thereof

Most fascinating are questions about the religiosity or lack thereof of our Jewish brothers and sister. According to the study, only a slim majority of U.S. Jews say religion is very important (26%) or somewhat important (29%) in their lives. We might surmise that almost half of the Jews do not consider themselves religious.

In a related category, we see that Jews are not significant worship service attenders. Roughly one-third of Jews (35%) say they attend religious services a few times a year, such as for the High Holidays (including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). And four-in-ten say they seldom (19%) or never (22%) attend Jewish religious services.

Similarly, those Jewish practices defined by the study – beyond the popular Passover Seder and, for some, fasting on Yom Kippur – do not attract significant adherents. Only a quarter of Jews (23%) say they always or usually light Sabbath candles, and a similar number say they keep kosher in their home (22%).

Yes, it seems that a vast majority of U.S. Jews consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” Just what does this mean?

What’s the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Being Religious?

I think spirituality is the sense that we are all part of something greater. Spirituality can lead to behaviors and thought-processes, which connect us with a larger reality. Spirituality can but does not necessarily include a connection to a higher power or divine.

Now religion is a collection of beliefs, rituals, and prayers intended to help people retain a feeling of connection to an intensive spiritual encounter. Religion aims to connect us with our spirituality. For Jews, our Torah teaches that generations ago, our people – the children of Israel, the Jewish people – had a spiritual encounter with the Holy One that embedded within us a clear sense of who we were and how we should live forevermore.

Jewish rituals are intended to lead us back to the central experience of the Exodus from Egypt and our later spiritual encounter at Mt. Sinai. Jewish religious prayers return us to these spiritual events, as well as our arrival into the Promised Land, and our covenant with God.

Religion Sometimes Spoils Spirituality

So why do so many people say they are spiritual but not religious? Religion can be its own worst enemy. Sometimes religion just gets in the way of the spiritual quest. When the religious rituals become overly dry and ritualistic, they tend to suck life out of a potentially spiritual moment. When religious leaders become overly concerned about saying just the right prayer or about standing in exactly the right position when they pray, our traditions can strangle the spirituality right out of us.

I don’t believe that God cares how big our sukkah is or how long we sound the tekiah gedolah on the shofar. Nor does God does ask us to separate out our women, to eschew the non-Jew, or to extend our power over others for so-called holy purposes. Of course, when religious leaders – rabbis, teachers, communal leaders – speak such nonsense in God’s name, they further alienate Jews from the religious part of Judaism that could be strengthening their spirituality.

religionAndSpiritualityDiagramWhat do we do?

Rituals find meaning when they point us back to the holy, the spiritual. Rituals are significant when they inspire our spiritual core.

It becomes the responsibility of religion – and religious leaders – then, to return to Judaism’s roots, to rethink/reform/renew Judaism’s ritual components, and to embrace the holy in the midst of the rest.

How do we do that?

Let us know what you think…

Rabbi Paul Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This post originally appeared on his blog, Or Am I?

2 replies on “Spiritual but Not Religious: How Religion Lets Us Down”

Thank you, Paul, for writing this piece. In many ways it is a a thoughtful analysis. I do feel, however, that it is a bit unfair to place the primary responsibility for the breakdown between spirituality and religion upon the shoulders of the “religious leaders” (which from the context of your remarks seems to refer to the clergy). Even more than clergy becoming routinized in their conduct of rituals, I think that this malaise between spirituality and religion can find much of its source in the manner in which so many of our religious institutions – synagogues – conduct themselves administratively. For so many Jews, their synagogue experiences seem to be overshadowed by far more talk about finances than about God. Lay leadership can get so locked into the “business” of running a synagogue that they neglect, if not forget, the mission and purpose of the synagogue in the first place. The clergy can speak of Jewish values but their voices get drowned out by those who speak of business practices.

Most rabbis and cantors that I know work very hard to instill the lives of their congregations with a sense of spirituality rooted in our Jewish tradition but they cannot do this alone. Their need their lay leadership to partner with them in this quest. But when their boards spend little time discussing what they plan to do to make synagogue life more meaningful and inspiring and the vast majority of their time discussing dollars and cents, budget cuts and dues increases, that will be the tone that will be set for the congregation. It is no wonder, fewer and fewer are finding synagogue life not conducive to the spiritual quest.

All of this is not to say that budgets and finance are unimportant, for without the proper financial base the synagogue cannot continue to exist. However, to quote the film FIELD OF DREAMS, “If you build it, they will come.” If we spend more time focusing on how can our synagogues better fulfill their mission as Jewish spiritual centers, then our people will find synagogue life far more meaningful. As they find it far more meaningful, they will come to consider it far more worthy of their financial support. People are willing to support those institutions or causes which make a positive difference in their lives. Especially when it comes to the Gen X’ers and the Millennials, they have little if any patience for religious institutions which call upon their loyalty and support simply because they are Jews and it is expected of them. They choose to focus spending their time, energy, and money on those things that touch their lives and the lives of their children in positive, meaningful ways.

Tell the truth about the origin of holidays.
Take ‘Barukh ata…’ out of the prayerbook.
Directly connect Torah to contemporary issues when possible.
Scrutinize Talmud especially when it is inconsistent with Torah.

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