Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Replacement for Judaism

The Jewish religion is dying:
  • The birth rate among Jews is well below the replacement rate.
  • More than half of Jews intermarry.
  • 2/3 of those interrmarried couples raise their children not-Jewish.
  • Anti-Israel sentiment and fear of antisemitism are deterring ever more Jews from self-identifying as Jewish.
  • Jewish religious services are incompatible with most modern Jews' desires. Typically, services are two to three hours long, much in Hebrew. Not surprisingly most Jews today, in both the U.S. and Israel, are non-observant, except perhaps attending Rosh Hashanah and/or Yom Kippur services and/or attending a Passover seder.
  • Most Jews are agnostic or, like me, atheist: not interested in praying to an "almighty God" who would allow earthquakes that kill thousands, Holocausts that kill millions, and horrifically painful cancers that kill billions, including infants.
I believe Judaism needs to be converted from a religion to a cultural affinity group, what I call Secular Judaism. Most Jews, if they're honest, prefer the company of other Jews, just as other cultural, racial, and ethnic groups prefer people from similar backgrounds. People may publicly claim to celebrate diversity but look at their choices of friends and it's clear that, more often than not, birds of a feather flock together.

Most Jews, for example, like that Jews, on average, are intelligent, expressive, and committed to making a difference, whether in science, non-profits, business, or the arts. Most Jews' spiritual needs get largely or completely met through secular humanism.

So I believe the traditional hub of Jewish life, the synagogue, needs to be replaced with secular alternatives, for example, Jewish community centers such as the one in San Francisco and informal meeting places such as those that can be created and managed online at MeetUps.

Tools like Facebook and Twitter can create live and virtual secular Jewish events and conversations. I also think that entities such as JDate could broaden their mission from dating to friends to chavera (a sort of substitute family) to mentor/protege matching.

Most groups need leaders but I believe the traditional Jewish leader, the rabbi, need be replaced by secular leaders, for example, the defacto leaders that would emerge from a regularly meeting group, or someone who took the initiative to start a group on meetup.com.

Another concept I believe is worth exploring is a hybrid religious/secular Sabbath service. Even most secular Jews doesn't mind listening to and maybe may even enjoy a few familiar prayers. The problem is that a service is two hours of prayers many in Hebrew and repetitions of praise to "Almighty God." It may be worth trying a service with a few of the most familiar, nostalgia-inducing prayers punctuating a Town Hall meeting-like weekly event around some topic of particular interest to Jews such as Israel/Palestine, intermarriage, or even a secular Tikkum Olam (heal the earth) topic such as capitalism versus socialism?

What do you think?


Rabbi Rami said...

I support any effort to revive Jewish culture, but I think there has to be something more binding than "Jews like to hang out with other Jews." This sounds more like a boomer mindset than that of today's Jewish youth. If we really liked to hang with Jews we wouldn't have such a high intermarriage rate. What we like is to hang with other like minded--secular, liberal, postmodern--people.

As for the JCC as our model, JCCs are struggling for members. If not for the gym and preschools most Js would fold.

So I'm with Marty: we need to think outside the box. But I'm not sure this is outside enough.

Shawn said...

On the topic of ethnic affinity:

“We have never met before, but I instantly know him. One look, one phrase, and I know where he grew up, how he grew up, where he got his drive and his sense of humor. He is New York. He is Jewish. He looks like my uncle Louis, his voice is my uncle Sam. I feel we’ve been together at countless weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. I know his genetic structure. I’m certain that within the last five hundred years—perhaps even more recently—we shared the same ancestor.”

--- Robert Reich, Clinton administration Secretary of Labor, on his first face-to-face meeting with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan

Most people truly do prefer to be around people who are similar to themselves.

Mary, do you agree with me that private companies should be able to discriminate as they see fit? I suppose there is a case for quotas in realms of government though.

Marty Nemko said...

Shawn, despite the advantages of people of similar backgrounds working together, for a variety of reasons, I do not favor discrimination of the type you imply: e.g., you're Black, therefore I won't hire you. However, I oppose laws, policies, that press toward quotas -e-g.., reverse discrimination, the disparate impact legal theory, etc . I am a meritocrat. The gray area is when the ease-of-getting along with the other person (a la the Robert Reich quote) because of familiarity of culture is enough to make him or her a better overall candidate in terms of getting the job done well, when s/he would otherwise not be the best candidate.

In that situation, in an ideal world, from a cosmic justice standpoint, I believe it's probably wisest to hire that most, net, meritorious candidate but in the U.S. today, there are powerful vectors leading a company or government not to.

Shawn said...

Mary, thanks for your explanation of your opinion in response to my inquiry.

Just as an FYI, my point in bringing up the Robert Reich quote wasn't so much about highlighting ethnic affinity amongst Jews in particular; I just thought he elucidated it so well. For example I have a certain ethnic affinity toward other Scandinavian-Americans, much like two Indians meeting one another in, say, Sydney would, or like how any Americans meeting one another in a foreign land would.

Rabbi Rami, I have heard a couple Jewish leaders say that they prefer a small amount of anti-Semitism amongst Gentiles because to love them too much perpetuates intermarriage (sometimes referred to the "silent holocaust" by the Orthodox). What do you think?

Marty Nemko said...

I think it's absurd that people should be precluded by any entity from divorce. Of course, the media always picks opportunities to criticize Jews--in this case, an extremist Orthodox Jew--only the tiniest fraction of Jews would be like that.

Dan said...

Rabbi Rami says, "What we like is to hang with other like minded--secular, liberal, postmodern--people." So he's saying all Jews are Democrats. Great. And he's a rabbi. I would hate to be that one guy in his synagogue who is secretly conservative, traditional, and has no time for artsy-fartsy labels like "postmodern."

Anonymous said...

A similar phenomenon is taking place in the Roman Catholic faith for the same reasons as Judaism and others, such as:

1. The poor handling by the Church of incidents of sexual abuse by clergy members.
2. Not allowing priests to marry, which keeps many men who would do a good job away. In fact, the whole thing about the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are a hard sell.
3. Not allowing women to be priests.
4. Numerous incidents of non-sexual abuse, mistreatment, or neglect by clergy, ranging from nuns smacking kids with rulers to priests telling people God would deny them heaven for even slight transgressions to religious orders so focused on heaven that they're oblivious to real suffering going on around them.
5. The decline of Catholic schools and other Catholic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus. As Catholic school tuition goes up, some parents don't think it makes sense to pay tuition on top of taxes for schools they don't use.

Most of the Church's current growth in the US is driven by Hispanic, Filipino, and Vietnamese immigrants and their families.

Were it not for these groups, Catholicism would be in serious decline. Their practice of Catholicism, however, is very different than what we think of as Catholic worship, which is mostly Irish, Italian, and Polish.

Shawn said...

Unfortunately there is a cabal of liberal, guilty White Jews in the elite media, along with a decently sized White Gentile cabal. These self-haters are also too common amongst the wealthy, in general.

Marty Nemko said...

Shawn, a core value among the Jewish intelligensia is to show how much they care about the have-nots. To be, for example, anti-Israel demonstrates that they'll champion the have-nots even to their own detriment.

Shawn said...

Good point about caring for the have-nots. I agree and I think a lot of it also has to do with status-striving -- which is (of course) common place amongst the successful in general.

Sometimes I wish I were Jewish or at least I think I think "Jewishly' -- my mind is geared a little more toward the qualitative versus quantitative. Some studies have shown European derived Jews have verbal IQ scores around 117.

Norway & Sweden hasn't had to defend itself against aggressors in recent times, like Israel. That's aside the point though; the Scandinavian countries have succumbed to the multiculturalism BS which is ruining them. Israel will follow the same path unfortunately, and is in fact well along that path. I just haven't seen any signs of hope. Finland has been sensible although technically it is not Scandinavian.

For what it's worth, if you go visit Norway or Sweden most of the people say they are Christian but it is more cultural than anything. From what I have heard they do not evangelize. Lutheranism is basically interchangeable with ethnicity in the same way Jew can be. 99% of people are the religion they are born with.

Shawn said...

Norway & Sweden hasn't had to defend itself against aggressors in recent times, like Israel.

I meant to write unlike Israel.

Lita Perna said...

I think it’s a splendid idea. I’ve thought about this a lot. I’d welcome a new and comfortable compromise. I am half breed that never fit in. With a gentile father and a Jewish mother, I am gentile when I’m with gentiles; Jewish when I’m with Jews, and would have been a Mischling if I’d lived in Nazi Germany. I grew up eating kosher chicken and bacon. Sometimes in the same day. I had Easter baskets and attended Seders. I decorated Christmas trees, and lit menorah candles. I made up guttural words that sounded like Jewish prayers.
When I want to “Jewish it up” I nod my head slowly, shrug my shoulders, say “Oy” a lot and sigh.
I’m neither here or there and totally meshugeh so I guess I’m culturally Jewish. Sign me up already.

Rabbi Rami said...

To Shawn’s issue of anti-Semitism being a boon to Jewish cohesion: I have heard that said many times. The implication is that there is nothing intrinsic to Judaism that would keep Jews Jewish, and that it is only the hatred of Jews by nonJews that keep Jews together as a community.

While it is true that communities may bond more tightly when they see themselves under attack (this is true of any group: racial, ethnic, religious, and political), and some leaders of these groups will highlight and even event attacks (War on Christmas, for example) to promote the fear they believe is necessary for group solidarity, it is also true that a community built solely on fear is not going to last all that long. I hope there is something of value in being Jewish besides banding together against anti-Semitism.

To the issue of Jews as Democrats. Obviously a touched a nerve with Dan. First who said all Democrats are secular, liberal and postmodern? They aren’t; especially in the South where I live. Second who said Republicans can’t be liberal, and Conservatives and Republicans can’t be secular and postmodern? Third, why is being educated and knowing how to use words appropriately artsy fartsy? Jews pride ourselves on our support for education. We have had public education (at least for boys) for thousands of years. It is the fear of education and intellectuals that is a major threat to the well-being of the United States. And fourth, what does “and he’s a rabbi” mean? Are rabbis supposed to be neutral? Can Orthodox rabbis not be liberal? Can Reform rabbis not be politically conservative? And any rabbi who leads a community where differing voices have to be kept secret is doing a poor job. Judaism thrives on differing opinions. Our faith is rooted in debate—thousands of years of debate—if you belong to a shul where debate isn’t fostered, quit.

In my synagogue of 20 years (I am retired from congregational life) I made it a point to speak my mind from the pulpit, and then invite others to respond and speak theirs as part of the service. I learned more from those who challenged my ideas than I did from those who merely agreed with me.

Anonymous said...

"I think it's absurd that people should be precluded by any entity from divorce. Of course, the media always picks opportunities to criticize Jews--in this case, an extremist Orthodox Jew--only the tiniest fraction of Jews would be like that."

What does that mean? Your column said nothing about divorce, nor any of the other comments.

Marty Nemko said...


I do believe it's facile to argue that if a congregant doesn't like a rabbi's leftist sermons, s/he can quit. People attend services and watch the media to be exposed to the full range of benevolently derived ideas. If clerics and the news media feel license to let their personal bias dictate their messages, the citizenry is forced into a Catch 22: choose one place of worship or media outlet and thereby be derived of one of the linchpins of true education--hearing multiple perspectives, or being forced to take the time to go from church to church or media outlet to media outlet to get fair exposure to multiple positions. And such people would also thereby, for example, be denied the benefits from being part of an ongoing spiritual community, much like the gypsy professor, who goes from university to university teaching one course at a time is not really part of any one university.

Marty Nemko said...


I dunno. I can only guess that somehow, a glitch in the Blogger software or somewhere in the bits-and-bites universe, it got deleted.

The commenter dug up an article, I believe it was in the Washington Post, as an example of how Jews will go to any lengths to preserve itself. Absurd, a ridiculous cherry-picked example of some extremist orthodox Jewish rabbi. That was what I was commenting about.

Dan said...

Rabbi Rami writes, "To the issue of Jews as Democrats. Obviously a[sic] touched a nerve with Dan. First who said all Democrats are secular, liberal and postmodern?"

Answer: Rabbi Rami did. He said, "What we like is to hang with other like minded--secular, liberal, postmodern--people." Who else does he mean by "we"?

In my book someone who is a secularist (as opposed to a traditionalist) and who is liberal (as opposed to conservative) is the classic definition of a Democrat. And that this like-minded person is also postmodern actually makes no sense. A painting can be painted in a postmodern style, a novel can be written in a postmodern style, but a postmodern person? It's like saying I'm an Art Deco person or a Post Impressionism person. It doesn't make sense.

So I wouldn't say using "postmodern" to describe a person is an educated way to use the word.

But, anyway, I agree with Rabbi Rami on one point. I only hang with like-minded people who have the "correct" opinions, too. If a person doesn't like mac and cheese, that's not a person I want to be seen with.

Jeff Jones said...

I am an atheist, Marty. So I'm not a member of any organized religion.

Yet it often seems that the social benefits of being part of a religious community are so valuable that I have no doubt many non-believers join and just keep quiet about their own beliefs.

I have tried joining a few secular and atheist groups over the years, and they just never seem to have the sense of community that religious groups do -- I'm sure many secularists, humanists, and atheists would disagree with me.

So I've been fascinated at the number of secular Jews I've heard about. Honestly, I would consider joining such a group -- even though I'm not Jewish and neither is my family -- if it were mostly free from religious dogma. Because I've always had a great impression of Jews over the years... the majority I've known are hard-working, smart, and kind people. It's definitely a group I wouldn't mind being associated with.

The question always comes up though... Is the religious part necessary for the community to exist? If not, why haven't secular groups traditionally been as powerful or successful in America? Is having "a tradition" enough?

Marty Nemko said...

Good question, Jeff. I'm guessing that the religious (defined as irrational) aspect is something people DO feel embarrassed about believing in and thus feel a special bond to fellow religionists just as cult members, and even social clubs with weird rituals like the Shriners or Masons feel a special bond with each other.

Anonymous said...

Shalom Marty,

Thank you for all the work you are doing for the Men's Movement. I too am getting increasing active.

It interesting that young Jewish males are quickly vanishing after their Bar Mitzvah from the Reform branch. Adult Jewish men are also leaving Reform in large numbers. The Hassidic Movement especially Chabad are often ending up with many secular non-aligned Jews going to there to study, pray, and socialize.

It is sad yet somewhat amusing how lost Reform is to explain why males are disappearing. Until recently there was a large number of Reform programs for women/girls and I believe none just for males. Consider the young males: 1) their Jewish mother is probably fits the liberal, ego-driven, feminist profile 2) his secular teachers are most likely female feminists 3) good chance his rabbi is female. Those young Jewish males must be ready to puke. No wonder they are leaving.

What is really mind boggling is when I have read comments by leaders of the reform to explain it or rationalize it away as for the greater good in the name of equality. One leader was quoted as saying that they did a massive long study nationwide and were shocked to learn that teen males enjoy socializing with each other...so now Reform is looking to create a social program for young males. They still don't get it. Reform has feminized and most males are hard-wired not to feel comfortable with such a spiritual setup.

Today, the Shabbos, I am going to enjoy spending this Saturday at the local Chabad Center. Many of us secular raised Jews do enjoy and appreciate Chabad with providing us a nice anchor. I also study somewhat with them and determine to what extent I am going to apply their spiritual teachings to my life.

Marty Nemko said...

Anonymous, indeed men are viewed today as irrelevant, disposable. Sad you must turn to extremist Chabad.

Anonymous said...

Reconstructionist Judaism is not quite secular, but puts more emphasis on Judaism-as-a-culture than other branches.

As to purely secular Jewish organizations, there are a plethora of them, although they seem to play a less prominent role than they did 50 years ago (the JCC, Zionist organizations, various political groups...).

Anonymous said...

Marty what you wrote about Chabad is true. It can be extreme as can Reform, Conservative, etc. I'd like to respond here with a bit more moderation perhaps than my initial post.

Simply because a group or an organization is liberal does not make it less extreme, and more open minded and tolerant. Liberal San Francisco can be quite an extreme place and even religious in its fervor in blindly supporting political correctness and feminism while at the same time being oppressive and intolerant of other opinions.

Who knows where I will end up in embracing my Jewish Heritage? I might move towards a light semi-observant affiliation with the standard modern orthodox community.

Ideally, I would like to find a group of Jews who I could celebrate Shabbos with weekly that includes people with some leaning traditional and others more modern and yet avoids the extremists. For now, I can tolerate a few hours of direct association with Chabbad each week. After living previously in California for many years I want nothing to do with progressives and feminists.