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Does American religion have a prayer?

Religion is in trouble. Emphasize memory, rather than belief.

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.

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