Beliefs Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Why religious people are winning the battle

Orthodox children, studying and praying. Credit: A katz. Shutterstock.com
Orthodox children, studying and praying. Credit: A katz. Shutterstock.com

Orthodox children, studying and praying.
Credit: A katz. Shutterstock.com

Which Jews behave the most like Christians?

Assimilated Jews, right?

Actually, it’s Orthodox Jews — in at least one significant way.

Like evangelical Christians, they tend to be conservative in their politics (57 percent vote Republican) and social views, on such subjects as gay rights and the size of government.

Here are some other interesting takeaways from the recent Pew survey on Orthodox Jews in America.

  • They are fertile. Orthodox Jews are much younger and tend to have more children than other Jews – an average of 4.1 children.
  • They stay Orthodox. There is very little dropout.
  • They are educated. The modern Orthodox are more educated than the more traditional, socially insulated hareidim.
  • Observing Jewish law is important to them. No surprise here, but…
  • They don’t do “everything.” There is far less consistency in religious practice than you might think. There is a lot of nonconformity — sort of like “cafeteria Catholics,” who accept some religious doctrines and rituals, but reject others.
  • There is almost no intermarriage. 
  • They are far more attached to Israel than other Jews. It is not only because of their religious traditionalism. It is because many young Orthodox Jews spend significant time in Israel.

If historian Arnold Toynbee imagined that the Jews were “fossils,” then Jews themselves might have once imagined that Orthodox Jews were on their way to becoming “fossils of fossils.”

Toynbee was wrong, and so were non-Orthodox Jews.

Two hundred years ago, modernizing Jews believed that if they shortened the service by and updated the music, more Jews would flock to services.

So, why are Orthodox synagogues — with the longest services and the most traditional music — jammed on Shabbat and on festivals — far more than the synagogues of other movements? It’s counter-intuitive.

Or is it?

In 1972, Dean Kelley wrote Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion. Kelley argued that the churches that are growing, and would continue to grow, are those that:

  • Bear active witness to faith
  • Stress the primacy of worship
  • Make religious instruction primary.

So, what are Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity doing right?

  • They bear active witness to faith. Both Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians say that religion is very important in their lives (83% and 86% respectively), as opposed to only one fifth of other US Jews.
  • They stress the primacy of worship. Three quarters of both groups reported attending religious services at least once a month.
  • They make religious instruction primary. Hence, the growth of Christian educational institutions and the fact that most Orthodox Jews put a high premium on Jewish education for their children.

Therefore, if non-Orthodox Judaism intends to grow, it will have to engage in several transformative actions — actions that it could easily crib from their Orthodox cousins.

  • Talk about God. It’s not about preaching or teaching a Jewish catechism of what Jews “should” believe. It’s about starting the conversation about what Jews can believe. Every prayer in Jewish liturgy is a theological and historical gem. People are curious about those prayers, and what they might say to their lives. Let people ask questions during the prayer service. Deal with their struggles. Teach them what Jews have believed, and continue to believe.
  • Encourage a culture where entire families go to synagogue together. I have consistently noticed this happening, both in Christian churches and in Orthodox synagogues. I have seen parents in synagogue with tallitot (prayer shawls) wrapped around their kids. If that sounds corny, so be it. Perhaps it’s the kind of “corny” that we need.
  • Encourage Jewish day school education — community schools, Schechter schools, Reform day schools. It turns out that there is actually an uptick in the number of Jewish families who are choosing day schools.
  • Encourage adult Jewish literacy. For liberal Judaism, which prides itself on its intellectualism, this is perhaps the lowest of all low hanging fruit. It turns out that Jews actually love learning about Judaism and Jewish texts. Make knowledge of those texts something to strive for.
  • Talk about Jewish responsibilities — even and especially from a non-Orthodox point of view. Have serious conversations about Shabbat, Jewish ways of sacred eating, and tzedakah (sacred giving).

And, if we want to develop strong, lifetime connections to Israel, let’s imitate what the Orthodox do:

  • Make an Israel experience an accepted part of every young Jew’s Jewish life. More than Birthright. Imagine if it was simply a matter of course that American Jewish kids spent a year in Israel — either after high school, studying or doing volunteer service, or during college itself. You say it cannot happen? It’s only because of our reticence. There are many such programs, and they deserve our support.

But, there’s more.

In “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” the sociologist Laurence R. Ianaccone noticed that since strict religions require more, they tend to weed out “free riders” with low commitment. Those who are still there become more frequent worshipers. They are “into” the worship experience. Their enthusiasm becomes contagious. They inspire their fellow worshipers. In that way, worship becomes better for everyone.

Can liberal religions achieve the successes of their more conservative theological brothers and sisters?

Yes — but, with a caveat. It might actually take a changed communal and individual mindset, in which people take religious obligations upon themselves.

Yes — even, and especially, those Jews who are not Orthodox.

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.

6 Comments

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  • I’m not sure it quite works out that way in practice. Despite the higher birth rates of the fervent believers, people still tend to drop out, or at least move to less conservative congregations. This is particularly true of “cafeteria Catholics” and their equivalents in other religious traditions.

    Meanwhile, the other fast growing section of the community is that of the unbelievers. Once again, they are growing at the expense of the nominal adherents of the various faith traditions. In all, the religious minority and the largely secular majority are drawing apart.

    In a generation or two we might well see society divided into an increasingly secular mainstream and several fervent fundamentalist traditions. This could produce some interesting tensions between the various groups.

  • Jeff,

    As usual you erudition is evident and your points right on the money. But as I read your article and the things we ought to do – we are. God, Education, Family, Israel, responsibility – it is the core of my synagogue and many others. The biggest difference, as I see it, is that Christians and Orthodox offer something we don’t – they can save your soul. For Christians, if you believe in Jesus, you will be saved. If you are Jewish, obey the mitzvot you will be saved and have eternal life. I don’t mean it pejoratively at all – rather, I think it is wonderful, but it just isn’t what “liberal, non-fundamentalist” religions do. “Saving of souls” sells to put it bluntly. Why are their no mega-synagogue? I would argue the same answer.

  • ““Saving of souls”” sells, to put it bluntly.”
    Objective reality is harsh (survival of the fittest).
    Naturally, a kinder, gentler, alternative reality draws converts. Sadly, that changes reality not at all! Death (non existence) awaits the just and the unjust.

  • As always, an interesting read. But I think there’s an item missing – probably from both the Evangelical Christian side and the Jewish side.

    Where is ‘community’ in all this? I think the sense of community in such active places is a very big draw in our time. Many people have difficulty finding a live, physical community and these congregations serve that purpose extremely well.

    Also, the first comments point to the issue of salvation. I might choose to express it slightly differently. I think it is the issue of certainty. Liberal religious denominations offer a lot of shades of grey but not much black and white.

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