So, if I were to have a heart to heart with my very own Jew, Yisroel, it would go something like this.
Yisroel, my Reb Yid, I am a secular American Jew. That is, I have a warm kinship for other Jews, but I do not practice the faith, and the religion itself remains a mystery to me. Although I was a Bar Mitzvah, when I was called back to temple a year later, I told the rabbi that I had become a Buddhist. I did not marry into the faith. I eat cheeseburgers.
It seems I’m not alone. According to the National Jewish Population Study (for which the last data are from 2000-2001), ten years ago Jews represented less than two percent of the American population. Of those, more than half married outside the faith. And, of those, only 20 to 30 percent raised their children as Jewish.
This is puzzling. The Jews that I know all feel a strong connection to Judaism, at least as an ethnic group. Jews are a vibrant and successful part of our country’s culture and economy. (Outdoors life and sports, not so much). So, why do we treat the religion so indifferently?
Here’s what I think.
There is not a lot of what the Internet marketers would call “stickiness” to the Jewish religion. Among other reasons (and putting aside monotheistic ethics and the community of Jews), the core of the religion seems to be obedience and tribalism, neither of which is attractive to many modern Jews.
As for obedience, a “righteous Jew” is one who obeys the mitzvot (commandments), of which there are 613 (though most of them do not apply to modern American Jews). Unlike the commandments of most other religions, the reasons for these mitzvot do not seem immediately logical or emotionally powerful: From the most well-known (the kosher laws, which despite later rationalizations, did not derive from ancient health codes) to the most obscure (mitzvah #491, you must break the neck of a calf by the river if there is an unsolved murder), many of the commandments seem arbitrary and illogical. Even more confounding, the mitzvot have been analyzed to death for two millenia by yeshiva bochers and rabbis, who have created a massive oral tradition of even more prolix and granular sub-rules (one example being, you can create an “eruv” area that is exempt from certain commandments by running a wire from trees and telephone poles).
Thus, the day-to-day practice of Judaism is one of obeying a host of laws, which often are divorced from any obvious logic or emotional power. My guess is that this religion of obedience does not sit well with modern Jews, who come from a culture of independence and skepticism.
As for tribalism, let’s face it: Our religion is a tribal religion that was born from tribal conflicts. Philistines, Babylonians, Romans, Egyptians – we fought ‘em all. King Josiah assembled the Torah in about 600 B.C.E. as a political screed, which presented the history of the Jews as the history of the Kingdom of Judah (and its historic king, David) rather than the Kingdom of Israel.
Whether because of this tribal heritage or because Jews have often been under attack for the two millenia since, Judaism is now an us-vs-them religion. Orthodox Jews are exceedingly insular…don’t try to buy a Hamentaschen in a Crown Heights bakery if you’re not wearing payes. Jewish philanthropists focus their largesse on helping the Jews. Jewish mothers pray for their kinder to marry other Jews. My guess here is that this “is it good for the Jews?” tribalism also is not particularly appealing to modern, assimilation-minded, liberal-thinking American Jews.
Obviously a secular Jew is still a Jew. For example, Albert Einstein was not an observant Jew, but he referred to his “Jewish soul” and believed in a non-personal God-force present throughout nature. As to the more orthodox part of Judaism, he made clear that he had “no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion.” If Judaism is to survive, maybe it needs to survive more as a set of values, an instinctive feeling of Jewish soul (nefesh), and a supportive community, and less as a set of commandments and an insular tribe.
So, Yisroel, I won’t be putting on the tefillin. But, you’ve made me think. For that, I thank you.