Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Has American Judaism jumped the shark?

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue received $75,000 in preservation funding to renovate a dozen of its stained glass windows. Photo by Bruce Guthrie / courtesy The Harbour Group

(RNS) — The custodians in my synagogue are still cleaning up from the High Holy Days — putting the extra chairs back into storage, putting the machzorim (the prayer books for the Days of Awe) back into their boxes, and getting our “regular,” non-white Torah covers out of the closet.

What now?

What is the real state of  American Judaism?

I turn to the new book by the prominent American Jewish sociologist, Professor Jack Wertheimer — The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today. (Full disclosure: Professor Wertheimer is a friend, which has never prevented either one of us from agreeably disagreeing with each other).

Professor Wertheimer sought to discover how American Jews practice Judaism today — as a religious expression. He looked at various surveys, especially the famous Pew survey. He conducted interviews, lasting an hour or more, with over 160 rabbis, of all types and in every region of the United States. (Again, full disclosure: I was one of them).

Wertheimer does an excellent job of taking a religious tour of modern American Judaism. How are the various American Jewish movements doing — not based on any external standard, but based on the standards that they themselves have established?

For example, he cites the Pew study:

  • “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 percent) say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month (compared with 29 percent of Jews by religion).”

No, you will protest: in our community, it is different. We have creative programming. Our services are great. We have wonderful social justice programs.

I believe you.

But, if we look at the broader picture of non-Orthodox Judaism in this country, Wertheimer concludes: Despite the best attempts of synagogues and their movements, despite creative programming and innovations in worship, American Judaism is in a recession.

Even, despite the throngs on the Days of Awe: To quote Wertheimer:

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…at a time when a therapeutic worldview, what are synagogue-goers to make of a liturgy that refers explicitly to sin, a category that is anathema to the mental health profession?

The greatest gift of Wertheimer’s book? He is a sociologist — and as such, he puts his findings into a larger American context.

American Jews have assimilated.

It is not that American Jews would rather become WASPs so that we can get into the country club.

That’s not even a thing anymore. Assimilation – as a way of fitting into America – is the eight-track stereo of Jewish ideologies. It is simply obsolete.

I mean that American culture has forced us to assimilate – to absorb – un-Jewish ways of thinking about life.

  • I am an individual. I do not need community.
  • I can buy whatever I want and whatever I need – whenever I want it. What I cannot buy, I can rent.
  • I only measure something by how good it makes me feel – at the moment.

I believe that those ideas represent the single greatest challenge to Judaism since the Enlightenment and the Emancipation from the European ghettos. They are beyond overwhelming.

Wertheimer quotes Rabbi Sharon Brous. She asks the questions that haunt me:

How does a culture of narcissism, over-entitlement and personalization become Jewish communal engagement?

How can the IPhone generation find rigorous exploration of Talmud and Jewish literature to be compelling and life-sustaining?

How do we cultivate a sense of obligation, enchantment, spiritual hunger in a generation that can log off or sign out in every other aspect of life?

What is amazing to me is how many of affiliated Jews have become cultural warriors. They have tried to create a larger, thicker American Judaism.

On Yom Kippur, Jews recited sins in alphabetical order.

I invited my congregation to hear our collective path out of sin in alphabetical order.

We need a Judaism that will embody:

  • Aspiration
  • Boldness
  • Compassion
  • Depth
  • Empathy
  • Faith
  • Generosity
  • History
  • Inspiration
  • Justice
  • Kindness to each other
  • Learning
  • Making the world whole
  • No to the wrong things
  • Opening doors to all kinds of Jews
  • Prayerfullness
  • Questing for the holy
  • Rituals with depth
  • Spirituality
  • Tikkun olam
  • Universal world view
  • Values
  • Women’s equality
  • Xpectations
  • Yes to the right things
  • Zeal for the right causes

Will those items heal the sociologist context in which we now find ourselves?

Overturn? No. Mitigate? Yes.

But — and this is a large “but” — it cannot only be the Orthodox who will step forward and create a new and renewable American Judaism. It will take a thickness of culture and of engagement.

More than this, going back to the late Fred Rogers: it will take an American Judaism that functions like a neighborhood, in which we feel a sense of obligation and connection to each other.

Wertheimer would want that. So would I.

And so, I suspect, would you.





About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • If the bad news is Judaism doesn’t embody these twenty six things, the good news is, there are Jewish men and women who identify with Judaism, and care that it doesn’t. By representing those values I consider them an open group of people within a closed identity. As a Christian I do not identify with Judaism, but I have a desire to associate with people who have those twenty six values that were listed. So I see a difference between association and identification. Drill down into either of those two religions and that is what engagement will look like within them. Respect the identity and value the association.

  • Isn’t this just what naturally happens when you define the religion, the race, and the nationality as the same thing? Perhaps Jews aren’t religious because Judaism has redefined itself under much larger categories that don’t traditionally regard religion in their description. This invites what you are complaining about: people you unilaterally categorize as Jews because of their genetic composition who don’t consider themselves of the Jewish religion.

  • As a pastor I’ve cried the same lament. America’s sense of community is failing. We feel it most in the bitter divisions and winner take all attitude we now see all around us. It feels as if we are tearing our country apart.

    Heard a sociologist recently say it was all a matter of infrastructure. America’s roads and bridges are crumbling, to say nothing of water and waste treatment plants. All so we can reduce taxes; the individual knows best how to spend his money, we say. He points out that the same thing has been happening to our social infrastructure. It has been neglected and for pretty much the same reason; “it doesn’t fit my individual needs right now so why should I support it with my time and treasure”. Schools, libraries, and religious institutions are among a host of community builders that America has been neglecting for 50 years. Those structures that used to build community have been weakened to the point where we can now see them failing.

    I like the laments that end on a note of hope. He said that as we slip more and more into privatization, we are becoming aware of what we have given up. He said there is a growing yearning for community. Those institutions that built America can build it up again. I believe it is true.

  • Jews are a collective people, not a specific race or one religious philosophy. Many are atheists, but they know their collective histories and support Israel for the most part. Most educated Jews have learned to separate the fantasy and fiction of religion from the ritual holidays that help bind a community. Like Christmas, which has nothing to do with Jesus, nor is it Jesus’ birthday, as far as historical encyclopedias can determine. God is just a concept. Every religion claims to have the true spoke words of God. You probably believe that you have the truth spoke words of Jesus as well, if you have allowed the mythical Jesus to overpower your logical mind. Jesus would have spoken to his people, the Jewish people, in a semitic language. Nothing was ever written about Jesus in a semitic language, nor did Jesus write anything in his life time, as far as we know. He lived 30 years in a small town with his earthly father as a carpenter. He never got married or had children, and then began running around with a bunch of young men telling everyone to love each other. Being a homosexual was not an issue for the Romans and Greeks who wrote the story of Jesus in Greek. The Gospels were written in Greek, and they gave Jesus all the attributes of former Greek Gods in Greek mythology.

    The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion….. It was written because when the Church ruled Europe it was called the dark ages well into the middle ages for a reason. The Church stifled free thinking and science.

    New York Times–ROME, Oct. 30, 1992— More than 350 years after the Roman Catholic Church condemned Galileo, Pope John Paul II is poised to rectify one of the Church’s most infamous wrongs — the persecution of the Italian astronomer and physicist for proving the Earth moves around the Sun, contrary to Church teachings.

  • Among the social infrastructures that used to hold this country together was the common belief found in our motto and taught in schools, scouts, service clubs, and churches, that “out of many” could rise “one” nation. We knew that not everyone agreed on everything, but it was OK; we could still work together to build the common good. That was the point. Peepsqueek, you can safely assume that you and I don’t agree about some things. But you don’t really know what they are. The social infrastructure that used to apply insured that you would wait to learn something about the other before you jumped to conclusions and started an argument. The comments regularly found on RNS prove my point–our social infrastructures are breaking down, and this nation is weaker for it.

  • It was much more broken-down when I was young with Jim Crow laws, the sexual revelation, the Vietnam war, the great division at home with constant civil rights marches and protests against the war in every major city and on university campuses, and drugs were rampant. My grandkids today have it all together by comparison, but they still have their challenges.