In the immortal words of the rock group, REM: “That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion.”
Well, not me personally.
But, America in general, and many Jews in particular.
If you were in synagogue over the past few days, or in any other house of worship — congratulations. You are in the minority.
Here is why:
- Over the past twenty five years, 40 million Americans have stopped attending religious services. That’s 12 percent of the population.
- When sociologists ask Americans: “How often do you attend religious services?” the most common answer was “never.”
- More than half of Americans say they are either not religious or not very religious.
- Between 6,000 and 10,000 churches are closing every year.
Among Jews, the statistics are equally troublesome. According to the Pew report of 2020, Jews who say that they have no religion now account for a third of the American Jewish population.
Let us go deeper: Why? What are the smoking pistols that have demolished the faith of Americans? Why is there a national crisis of faith?
Some people would say:
- It must be the various scandals that have rocked religious institutions. It’s about pastors behaving badly.
- It must be because some religions are too involved in politics.
- It must be because Americans have become secular — that science and technology and humanism contain all our answers for us.
But, there is another story about how we have lost our religion – and in some ways, it is simultaneously more troubling, and more tantalizing, than we could have imagined.
The answer is simply this: It is about how American life works today.
A recent book, “The Great Dechurching,” suggests that contemporary American life is actually antithetical to religious values. Contemporary American life does not promote mutuality, care, the common life, or the common good.
Rather, what is the focus of American life? Radical individualism. Consumerism. Buying and owning what it is that makes you feel good. The promotion of individual accomplishment — professional and financial success.
If it doesn’t contribute to your professional life; if it doesn’t contribute to your financial success; if it doesn’t contribute to your personal happiness or fulfillment; if it doesn’t contribute to your children’s academic or professional prospects – the sad truth is that we have precious little time or energy for it.
Many Americans have adopted a way of life that has left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.
In a world where we can believe anything – or where we can believe nothing — can Judaism compete in the marketplace of ideas?
Yes. There is something that Judaism can offer America. It is a basic Jewish idea, and it is a modern Jewish idea – and this year, it happened to have celebrated its one hundredth anniversary.
Martin Buber was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers, and one of the greatest activists, of the past century. One hundred years ago, he wrote a short book, with short sentences, and with no chapter. It would become his most important book.
The book is “I and Thou.”
“I and Thou” put forth the following idea – one of the greatest ideas to emerge over the past century.
Buber believed that there are two kinds of relationships.
First, there is the I-It relationship. In the I-It relationship, you are involved in analyzing things. It is a relationship in which we use things and use people. It is therefore a relationship of control.
This is what you know about I-it relationships.
- The boss who cares nothing about the real, outside-the-office lives of their employees.
- The CEO who will fire you without a second thought about how this will affect you and your family.
- The colonizer who views the colonized dispassionately.
- The scientist who can only evaluate and quantify.
- The divorce lawyer who sees their client as just billable hours and cannot respond to the pain that is going on in the client’s life.
- The doctor who only sees you as a diagnosis and a prognosis, but not as a human being.
- People who simply use each other in relationships – for whatever purpose.
But, Buber said, this is not the best way to relate – at least not to people. A person is not an object. People should seek to be fully present for each other, without evaluating, without judging — in ways that may change over time, but in ways that are profound.
With people, Buber said, we should strive to attain the I-Thou relationship. Buber wrote that such a relationship can come about if I have both will and grace – which – trivia point here — was the inspiration for the title of the television show “Will and Grace.”
An I-Thou relationship does not serve a particular purpose. It simply is.
As Buber wrote:
I truly become a person only when I am ready to say Thou to you.
I truly become a person when I acknowledge your personhood, even as I claim my own personhood.
And you, in turn, become a person by responding favorably to my address to you as Thou and addressing me also as Thou.
All real living is meeting.
Whenever the I-Thou relationship happens, Buber said, God is present as well.
As it turns out, this is precisely how God relates to the Jewish people – at the moment of the covenant at Mount Sinai — as an I relates to a Thou.
As it turns out, this is precisely how we relate to God through prayer – as an I relates to a Thou.
Now, you are asking: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have nothing but I-thou relationships?
But we know that this is not the way the world works.
Is there anything evil about the I-it relationship? Not necessarily.
No, the great paradox is that we cannot live without I-It relationships. The relationship of an employer to an employee; of a mechanic to the owner of a sick Volvo; to the worker who pumps the gas; a surgeon to a patient: these are all necessary I-It relationships.
But, if without I-It relationships we cannot live… then without I-Thou relationships we are not truly alive.
Blessed are those moments that transform the I-It relationship into an I-Thou relationship. You know that moment.
The moment when:
- Your doctor sees you not as biology, and you see the physician not as a service provider, but you can both go deeper.
- When the employer lets his or her soul be open to the needs of the employee.
- When the intellectual and spiritual boundary between teacher and student disappears, and both learn from the other.
- When we stop seeing each other as customers or competitors but as compatriots in life.
- When, in any relationship but certainly in our most intimate relationships, we can see each other for who we truly are.
“The Thou does not help to sustain you in life,” Buber says. “The Thou only helps you to glimpse eternity.” When we look for a definition of that ubiquitous word “spirituality,” I can offer nothing less than this: It is the moment when the I-It becomes the I-Thou.
In 1923, “I and Thou” was a radical idea.
In 2023, it still is.
How do we save Judaism in America? American Judaism must be about I-Thou relationships: with God; with each other; and with every Jew who is alive today, and who has ever lived, and who will ever live. It is an I-thou moment out of time.
To be present for someone is the great mitzvah. To be present for life is the great mitzvah. To be present for God is the great mitzvah.
That is the wisdom that Judaism brings to the present conversation about religion and faith in American life today.
Less I-It; more I-thou.