Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Does American religion have a prayer?

No to all religions

Religion is in trouble.

And I wonder if even God can save it.

According to a recent study, the fastest growing denomination in America is the “nones” — people who say that they have no religion.

They now comprise 25 percent of the American population — more than Catholics (21 percent), and more than white evangelicals (16 percent).

Should we believe the data?


Let me refer you to one of the most important theological and sociological mirrors of American society — the New York Times wedding announcements.

In yesterday’s Times, 30 percent of wedding ceremonies are now being done by the instantly ordained, often a friend to the couple.

It’s not only a sign of the “do it your selfness” of American culture.

It also shows that, at the most sacred moment in a couple’s life, they don’t want a ritual that reflects a story that is older and larger than themselves.

So, why have so many people left religion?

It’s not what you might think.

It’s not because of pastoral sexual misconduct. Only 19 percent cited that as a reason.

And it’s not because they disagree with what their religion says about sexuality or politics.

Only slightly less than a third gave that as a reason for their exodus.

It is far simpler than that.

60 percent of the “nones” simply stopped believing in their childhood religion — usually before the age of 30.

Here is what most Jews probably know.

First: if you leave Christianity, you leave a faith and a theology.

Yes, Judaism is about believing.

But over the last two hundred years, it has become mostly about behaving.

We really don’t have accurate information about what Jews believe.

But, as for behaving: it is relatively easy to stop participating in the Jewish community, in synagogue life, and in the ritual life of the Jewish people.

Second: Jews have this thing called “culture” to fall back on.

Christians don’t.

For Jews, humor, food, language, attitude — those are all part of the mix.

That is why the recent Pew study on American Jews revealed that more Jews believe that having a sense of humor is important to Jewish identity — than observing Jewish law.

Christians don’t have that — though their individual ethnicities (Irish, Italian, Polish, etc.) might.

Third: what people actually believe about God — is pretty Jewish.

Check this out.

A majority of “nones” still believe in God. 22 percent say God is a “person.” 37 percent see God as “an impersonal force.”

This means that God is doing better than religion is.

Many Jews would probably say: “Well, OK….”

We are getting into the season of Jews where Jews spend a lot of time in synagogue, talking and singing to a personal God — the Days of Awe (Rosh Ha Shanah and Yom Kippur)

True: my anecdotal evidence reveals that many Jews are allergic to the idea that God is a person (the Old Guy on the Throne in Heaven).

But, those Jews might, and often do, embrace the idea of God as an “impersonal force.”

They would be in good company. This is virtually identical to what the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed.

It also matches the teachings of the iconic American Jewish thinker, Mordecai Kaplan, who understood God to be the force that makes for individual salvation.

Fourth: we Jews have to up our theology game.

If people are leaving their religions because they stopped believing by the time they turn 30, could it possibly be that they have not yet found a view of God that matches their maturity level?

It’s about diversifying God talk. It’s about helping Jews find the various options for relating to God — that are already present in the Bible, rabbinic literature, the liturgy, Jewish mysticism, Jewish poetry, etc.

We have to expose Jews to the diverse ways that Jews have thought about, and continue to think about, God.

If our belief in God seems impoverished, it is only because we have not given people legitimate options — about what to believe, and the nature of the Who in which to believe.

Fifth: who cares about belief, anyway? 

Next time you have the opportunity, thumb through the Jewish Bible — the Torah.

You will discover that there are, reportedly, 613 commandments.

And yet, not one of those biblical commandments tells you to believe in God.

There is a deeper commandment, though – and one that shows up no less than 169 times in the Torah.

It is the commandment to remember.

Memory is not the same as nostalgia. Nostalgia brings with it no positive action, other than to passively remember and to feel wistful.

But, for Jews, the act of memory means that we must engage with the Jewish past, create a Jewish present, and pray for a Jewish future.

I do not worry about Jews who do not believe.

But the Jews who do not remember…(and these are all biblical “remember” commandments)

  • who do not remember Shabbat
  • who do not remember the going out of Egypt, which leads to historical connection and ethical action
  • who do not remember the desert raider Amalek, who struck down the weak and the stragglers as we left Egypt — reminding us to remember the human capacity for wanton cruelty

Judaism is a memory palace.

As this new year approaches, good luck in building that palace for yourself.

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.


Click here to post a comment

  • “Second: Jews have this thing called “culture” to fall back on. Christians don’t.”

    Not a Christian… but what twisted mindset must a person have to believe they are the only ones with a culture?? Everyone has a culture.

  • “It’s not because of pastoral sexual misconduct. Only 19 percent cited that as a reason.”

    Only? I don’t know that nearly one in five of any group can be discounted as insubstantial. Unless we’re to entertain the notion that the clergy is relieved that “only” that many congregants are fleeing their pious perverts protectionist racket…

    I do like the line about: it should not be about believing, it should be about behaving. I’ll think I’ll co opt that one. Of course this could include behaving badly according to doctrine as well, but I’ll pretend it does not. Also, food, humor, attitude is an interesting compare/contrast point. I have found it interesting to hear intelligent secular and culturally Jewish leaders give their unique perspective, as those perspectives can have a much different and more reasonable flavor that Judaism 2.0 and Judaism 3.0 in which they can not talk so openly about a lack of belief. If you don’t believe in Judaism 2.0, or Judaism 3.0, you are out of the club, or for 3.0, possibly out of life (with no option for a bonus life) — it seems.
    I don’t know where I heard it, but I like the line about how Judaism got the world into the three Abrahamic religion mess, and now with a high percentage of secular and cultural Jews, it is almost like they are slowly trying to fix a past mistake. Maybe that is the subconscious reason for the stereotypical Jewish guilt. 🙂

  • Um, “remember” something that didn’t actually happen? It’s been known for some time that the Exodus story didn’t actually happen. Even reformed Jews have publicly recognized this (google “new torah for modern minds”). It’s as mythological as the vicious, barbaric murder by flood of millions of people – including women and children. I don’t think suggesting people read the Torah is going to help. I’ve done so, and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a more vicious, evil, sadistic, petty, narcissistic, and demented god than the one described in the Torah.

  • Agreed Atheist. And a full third are sickened enough by LBTG hatred to leave. So the majority of people who leave church do so because of LBTG hatred and clergy pervs. Wow.

  • The links you’re referring to actually are to an edition of the Torah (with weekly readings from the prophets plus extensive critical on-page and essay commentary) put out by Conservative Judaism, not Reform [and not *Reformed*] Judaism.

  • You have never read the Midrash, Torah commentaries or the Talmud. My rabbi has said that if you are reading the Bible by yourself, you should be arguing with yourself. So you really don’t have the knowledge to comment on the TANACH. No, studying the TANACH is nothing like drugs.

  • It was a military army that would have been affected by the flood, not women and children. It is true that there is no archeological evidence of the Exodus. However the message of the Exodus is freedom and the ability to worships as one pleases. just because it is mythical does not mean it its meaningful. I don’t know what Bible you have read, but many are bad translations. The Hebrew word almah means a woman of marriageable age not virgin. Nor have you read any commentary so you don’t have the knowledge to comment.

  • “60 percent of the “nones” simply stopped believing in their childhood religion — usually before the age of 30.” We need to study our religion as an adult before we make up our minds.

  • I know someone who has very Conservative form of Christianity who threw their son out when they found out he was Gay. He now belongs to my synagogue where are a Gay couple just celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of the son and no one objected.

  • A great many members of the Enlightened were antisemitic. Hatred is not limited to the religious.

  • The mythical flood described in Gen 6-9 drowned all people on the mythical flat earth except the 8 on the mythical ark. You can read whatever translation you want, and the deity described is vicious, evil, sadistic (heck, just read Job for that), petty narcissistic and demented – regardless of how “almah” is translated. Of course I’ve read commentary too, and it doesn’t change anything.