And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!
—Fiddler on the Roof
Is Judaism a religion? Is Jewishness a matter of culture? Are the Jews a nation? These are modern questions….
—Leorah Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion
October 1st was a funny day. I woke up to a stuffed e-mail inbox filled with messages from family, friends and colleagues, who all sent me a link to the same article in that morning’s New York Times. The Pew Research Foundation had just published the results of a major population study entitled, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, and it seemed everyone wanted to talk about it. An hour later, when I walked into a meeting at the offices of UJA in White Plains, everyone in a room filled with Jewish professionals either had their nose in the newspaper, or was waving around the front page as we wondered what it all meant.
I imagine the Jewish community will be responding to the data from this survey for quite some time, just as we did following the Jewish Population Studies undertaken by the United Jewish Communities in 1990 and 2000. But there is one major headline from this survey that I think is more interesting and complex than even the people at Pew realize: the discovery, which represents a significant increase, that 22% of American Jews describe themselves as “having no religion”. This revelation, as you might imagine, is the source of great consternation in the organized Jewish community.
But this number is not surprising to me, and, in some ways, not even troubling. I will tell you why. Often, people come into my office—especially when they are joining the synagogue—so we can begin building a meaningful relationship. We talk of families, upbringings, relationships with synagogues and much more. And a line I hear more often than not—importantly, from people who are about to join a temple!—is something along the lines of the following: “Being Jewish is really important to me, but I’m not religious.” To me, this is the same phenomenon of someone replying, “no” to the Pew poll’s question, “Are you Jewish by religion?” And to me, for years, this is a fascinating phenomenon.
I have long wondered what it means for a Jew to claim that being Jewish was vitally important at the same time they downplayed the role of religion. I used to think these people were ceding the definition of “religious” to the Orthodox, and were basically distinguishing themselves from Jews who wear black hats and earlocks, or wigs and long skirts. But soon I came to realize that something deeper was happening. As I became more and more comfortable probing the statement “I’m Jewish but not religious” with people, I began to discover (in my very unscientific sampling) that people were expressing either an ambivalence about belief in God or a disconnect from the power of prayer. Sometimes, “I’m not religious” was code for saying, “Judaism is incredibly important to me, even though I’m not sure I believe in God and don’t really feel anything significant is happening when I sit in the sanctuary for services.” To my ears, that statement translates as follows: I’m a committed Jew, but no synagogue or individual has ever helped me understand how I can consider myself fully Jewish if I have doubts or reservations about faith and prayer. And if that’s what people really mean when they say “I’m Jewish but not religious,” then it’s a miracle that only 22% of American Jews feel this way!
For as long as there has been a Jewish people, Jews have had serious questions and conflicts about faith and prayer. Pharaoh in Egypt was the first one to call us a people; the same generation he enslaved, once they were free and found themselves at Mt. Sinai meeting God, fell into such a quandary of faith forty days later that they built the Golden Calf. Before this generation, Abraham—the first Jew—questioned whether God would deliver on the divine promise for a large family, considering Abraham was 100 years old and had no son. His daughter-in-law Rebekkah, and her daughter-in-law Rachel also confronted God with fundamental, existential anguish. Our Prophets castigated our ancestors for roughly 200 years of questioning God; our biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes wonder aloud how anyone can believe in God, given the state of the world. As much as Jews have been a people of The Book for millennia, so too have we been a people of questioning and doubt, especially regarding the God we call Adonai.
But this lack of faith, or evolving faith of every individual, has done little to stem centuries of Jewish commitment to a Jewish way of life. Generations of Jews have embraced Torah—literally and figuratively—even though they didn’t necessarily embrace God or prayer at the same time. Judaism has long been much more about living a certain way of life, following a certain path, halakha, a way of walking through our world, than it has been about subscription to any sort of creed of belief or fidelity. We are obligated to mitzvot, commandments, even if we have our doubts about Who issued those commands. Agnostics and athiests light Shabbat candles, lead Passover Seders, and engage in the work of Tikkun Olam as much as do the fully faithful. Our tradition considers all these people Jews, with no distinction. They are all part of the Jewish people, regardless of belief.
Importantly, the Hebrew language has no word for “religion”. The word dat, which is Modern Hebrew for “religion” is in fact a loan word from ancient Persian that snuck itself into the book of Daniel in the mouth of a Persian politician describing our people. The Hebrew way—and thus authentically Jewish way—to talk about Judaism has nothing to do with religion: we are a people. We are called Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, or B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. We are a conglomeration of ethics, morals, rituals and practices accumulated by people willing (sometimes in the least friendly of environments) to call themselves Jews. Princeton Professor Leora Batnitzky rightly teaches us that Jews only began to consider themselves a religion (which is a European, Christian way of understanding faith) when Jews began to live in closer emancipated quarters with non-Jews in the modern age. Going back through history to Abraham, fewer than 22% of Jews in history would even know what the word religion (in any language) meant, let alone consider themselves “religious”. Instead, we would likely define ourselves as Tevye did so aptly in the great Broadway musical: we Jews are a tradition.
So I am one Rabbi, and perhaps the only Rabbi, who is not terribly concerned that many modern Jews do not define themselves by a term neither Jewish nor particularly descriptive of Jewish practice: religious. Instead, I am encouraged that so many Jews (69%) express that leading an ethical life is essential to their Jewishness, that an equal number (70%) attended or hosted a Seder last year, and that more than half (56%) say that working for justice (what we call tzedakah) is core to their Jewish identity. These Jews are all maintaining Jewish tradition and building their Jewish identity, which has been the real work of our people since the days of Abraham and Sarah.
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.