I was a college freshman, and I was in a psychology class. The subject of religion came up, and I publicly admitted that I believed in God and was a committed Jew.
The professor grew pale. I will never forget what he said to me. “This makes me very sad. I am hoping that as you become more educated, you will, at the very least, question your faith.”
I had not thought of that professor (who was Jewish) and that experience for several decades – until this week with the release of a Pew study on the correlation between religious attachment and educational levels.
More than half of Jews who have not completed college say they believe in God with absolute certainty.
But, only about thirty percent Jewish college graduates would say the same.
39% of Jews who have not completed college say religion is very important in their lives.
Only 25% of Jewish college graduates say religion is very important to them.
Now, why is this?
It is not only about the lack of religiosity among the highly educated.
It is also about the lack of education among the very religious. Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to attend college less than less observant Jews.
In fact, there are internal splits among Orthodox Jews. 93 percent of Orthodox Jews who have not graduated from college believe in God, while 82 percent of Orthodox college graduates do.
How did we get here? And can we do anything about it?
The process of disconnecting serious Judaism from serious secular education started in the late 1700s, with the Enlightenment and Emancipation (and, in some places, before that).
Quick definitions. The Enlightenment was the period of European and Jewish history when people started taking non-Jewish learning and culture seriously.
The Emancipation was the period of Jewish history — around 1800 — when Jews were liberated from the ghettos of western and central Europe.
Once Jews left the confines of the ghettos, many of them began to realize something: if you want to get ahead in this world, then you had better pay more attention to what the secular world thought about things than what Judaism thought.
That meant distancing yourself from your tradition.
The rule: the more “enlightened” you wanted to seem, the “less Jewish” you wanted to appear.
Decades ago, a prominent university invited a noted Jewish literary figure to give a major lecture.
The lecturer included references to Jewish mysticism in the talk – and then went on to deliberately mispronounce the Hebrew terms.
This, despite that the lecturer was famously literate in Judaism and in Hebrew.
Nevertheless, he thought it would be more sophisticated to feign ignorance.
Think about what often happens on college campuses. When Jews first started attending the university — as early as the 1500s in Italy, and mostly for medical training — the university was, by its very nature, a Christian environment.
The same was once true of American elite universities.
Not anymore. For most universities, the default culture is religious skepticism.
It doesn’t help that popular culture tends to portray religious people as backwards and ignorant.
Here is the good news. We can make Judaism attractive to people who are well-educated.
Today’s Jews are the most educated Jews in history.
But when it comes to Judaism, for most of them, their education ended right around puberty.
They feel cheated. They now want a Judaism that is as smart as they are. That is why adult study is exploding all over the contemporary Jewish world.
Take my Shabbat morning Torah study program at Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, for example.
Every Shabbat morning at 9:15 am, about twenty people gather around a table in the library for serious Torah study – with ancient and modern commentaries.
Here is the amazing thing about that group: its level of secular education.
Doctors, lawyers, medical researchers, local politicians, psychologists, teachers.
In fact, four of the regular students are Harvard graduates – and they figured out that they all lived in the same dorm, albeit in different decades.
The first task is to remind Jews of how much they are missing. It is to remind Jews that Judaism requires sophistication, literacy, subtlety, nuance.
That doesn’t only go for the serious study of texts. It also goes for the serious study of God and theology.
If smart people are repelled by the idea of God, perhaps it is because they have never encountered serious God ideas that take their doubts and struggles into account, and which call them to something deeper.
What is the project for contemporary Jews? It is a partial rolling back of the Enlightenment scam – the pretense that said that if you want to be a sophisticated member of “polite” society, you have to give up your faith.
This doesn’t mean returning to the ghetto, either physically or mentally.
It means that we need to keep exposing smart Jews to smart Judaism. It sells itself.
It really is that simple.