In “A Tragedy of Our Time: Why most American Jews as so irreligious and anti-religious” (Moment Magazine, December 2005) Dennis Prager offers a wise and cogent explanation for the nonJewishness of most American Jews.
I am a huge Prager fan. Even when I disagree with his conclusions, I am always enriched by the quality of his thinking. Dennis lists five reasons for the tragedy:
1. Our inability to find Orthodox Judaism compelling;
2. Our experience with religion-based anti-Semitism makes us wary of religion;
3. Our university education leads us to be skeptical of religious claims;
4. Our sense that only Orthodoxy offers an alternative to secularism (see Reason 1);
5. Our history of suffering makes us distrust God.
I have no argument with Dennis, but I would like to add a sixth reason: mainstream Judaism makes no sense. Judaism rests on three pillars: God, Torah, and Israel, and I can’t accept any of them as mainstream Judaism offers them to me.
1. I love God. I experience God daily in, with, and as all reality. But the god of mainstream Judaism— the god who blesses and curses, who rewards and punishes, who is locked into a manic-depressive cycle of creation and destruction— is alien to me.
2. I love Torah. I study Torah every day and find Her a constant source of wisdom, but I cannot imagine that God wrote Torah. People wrote it. Different people at different times with different agendas. The author of “love your neighbor as yourself” is not the author of “pick up a stick on a Saturday and you will be stoned to death.” The author of the first was in touch with godliness, the author of the second was not. If being a religious Jews means pretending that God wrote both, then I cannot be a religious Jew.
3. I love Israel, the people, the place, and the spiritual ideal of Yisra-El, God-wrestler. But I cannot accept that we are chosen, or that God chooses one people or one strip of land over the rest. Most Judaisms (Reconstructionism being the lone exception) still tout this primitive nationalism and ignore the real power and value of becoming Yisra-El. I don’t think the world needs a chosen people, but it can certainly benefit from a few more God-wrestlers.
The real reason most American Jews are irreligious is that they have outgrown mainstream Judaism. These very irreligious Jews are often deeply spiritual, with a great longing for God, Wisdom, and Community. They just can’t find it in conventional notions of God, Torah, and Israel. What American Jews need is a 21st century Judaism one that offers a nondual contemplative theology that helps us experience God in, with, and as all reality; a post-modern Torah that teaches us how to recover timeless myth and wisdom from the language of the past; and a post-tribal Israel that leads us beyond religious jingoism to real community rooted in bio-regional diversity and planetary unity.
The real tragedy of American Jewry is that we 21st century Jews are only offered an 18th century Judaism. Nothing will change until that does.