It’s Theism, Not Intermarriage, Driving American Jews from Judaism
When did I become “lost” to the Jewish community?
[Edited version originally published in the New York Jewish Week]
During nearly two decades working on issues of Jewish intermarriage, I’d sometimes hear the lament that Jews who marry non-Jews are “lost to the Jewish people.” A few years back the Israel study program Masa aired a television commercial — roundly-criticized and thankfully yanked — showing lost-and-found posters for “missing” intermarried Jews.
I always thought it was an odd suggestion, that I was lost because I intermarried. It was odd not only because I’m still here, working in the organized Jewish community, but because if the Jewish community lost me at all, it wasn’t when I finally married at age 36. It was a full quarter-century earlier when — at Jewish summer camp of all places — I realized I’m an atheist.
By 11, the liturgy about a God who punishes the wicked and rewards the good had become unbearable, primarily because I knew my grandmother. I knew what she experienced during the Holocaust, that she lost her parents, her siblings, her children. I knew she couldn’t possibly have done anything wicked enough to deserve such suffering. And certainly, nothing her infants could’ve done merited their own divine retribution.
I’m aware of the nuance in the Jewish understanding of reward and punishment; the writers of the Bible themselves struggled with it. It’s part of a wonderful 3,000-year-old conversation that continues to this day and provides meaning to those who want to grapple with it on deep philosophical levels, myself included.
Nevertheless, synagogues represent the largest segment of the organized Jewish community. And what almost all synagogues ask of us is to come together and read statements we know to be untrue, aloud, as a group, with little to no acknowledgement that most of us simply don’t buy it.
Yes, most of us don’t buy it. The Pew Survey of American Jewry in 2013 found that 66% of Jews do not believe in God with “absolutely certainty,” compared to only 32% of our fellow Americans. Almost a quarter of Jews surveyed were willing to declare they do not believe in God at all, compared to only 7% of Americans in general.
This is a crisis of faith. It’s been happening for decades. Why isn’t it on the Jewish communal agenda?
Instead, intermarriage is the bogeyman. Fear of the 52% intermarriage rate identified by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) launched a billion dollars of “continuity crisis” initiatives. Most of that programming hoped to encourage young Jews to meet and marry other Jews. But after a decade of frenzied activity, the 2001 NJPS showed nary a dent in the intermarriage rate.
By 2013, the Pew survey found many more intermarried than in-married households in the United States. My estimate based on Pew percentages is 1,166,000 intermarried households to 742,000 in-married households, with the gap widening ever-faster.
There’s no question that the way Jews participate in Jewish life is changing. The mistake is to blame intermarriage itself as a cause for the change. Intermarriage is a result — a result of the same sweeping societal forces that are affecting many other aspects of American life, including secularization; multiculturalism; increased school/work/neighborhood options; and, for American Jews, acceptance, equality, and admiration. (It wasn’t Jewish piety that kept intermarriage rates so low until the 1960s; widespread anti-Semitism helped.)
Nevertheless, segments of the organized Jewish community today continue to base their approach on a dishonest sociology that claims an intermarriage cause-and-effect, promulgated by a handful of academicians who’ve been at it for decades — most recently last month, courtesy of Israeli taxpayer shekels. Shmuel Rosner, a reporter who contributed to this latest effort, displays this confusion when he writes, “interfaith marriage leads to eventual assimilation.”
Such purposeful oversimplification is not sociology, it’s smear. “Assimilation” is not the story we’ve seen for huge swaths of intermarried households. Intermarried Jews are involved in all Jewish denominations and most organizations. There are literally hundreds of thousands of exceptions to the supposed rule.
So why do the naysayers still have a platform? Marginalizing the intermarried while simultaneously blaming them for not participating is certainly easier than looking inward at how effective our communal responses have been to the actual underlying trends.
As with all difficult challenges facing the Jewish community, the answers can be found with television star Mayim Bialik.
Admired as an Emmy-nominated actress, neuroscience Ph.D., and a self-described “aspiring Modern Orthodox” Jew, Bialik has spoken and written extensively about her Jewish observance. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when she spoke on video last year about her actual belief in God:
“I don’t believe God is an old man with a beard in the sky who grants you magic fairy wishes if you recite the right words or feel guilty enough. I don’t believe that God can grant you a parking space if you pray hard enough. And I don’t believe that God set up some ‘code of behavior’ and if I don’t live by it I won’t be granted my place in heaven among the angels…. The God I believe in is the force in the universe that drives all of the phenomena that we experience as human beings. God is gravity and God is centrifugal force, and God is the answer to why everything is the way it is in the natural world….”
I appreciate Bialik’s bravery for putting this out there, because it certainly doesn’t describe the God of most of organized Judaism. If anything, it nails how I’ve been describing the approach to God of folks within my movement, Secular Humanistic Judaism, as either, “Not believing in God or not believing in a God that answers personal prayers.”
Perhaps her description finally gets at what it means when so many Jews, particularly young people, claim they are “spiritual not religious.” Where’s the sociological survey on what that means? That study would certainly be a better use of communal resources than the repetitive obsessing about intermarriage.
If Bialik doesn’t believe that the Jewish “code of behavior” was dictated from on high, why does she still keep kosher or observe Shabbat? What benefits does she derive? How does Judaism make the world a better place? The Jewish community should take note of the thoughtful reasons she gives in her video. Because providing more explicit answers to “Why be Jewish” or “Why do Jewish” is the way forward — as is being more open and honest about what Jews actually believe.
Secular Humanistic Judaism dropped the God liturgy 50 years ago, so as not to have to say what we don’t believe. We replaced lyrics to some traditional songs and added human-centered poetry and inspirational quotes, and we continued our connection to Jewish history, wisdom, and celebrations of Jewish holidays and lifecycle events. I’ve seen hints of organizations in other movements addressing the God barrier as well. A liberal congregation in Brooklyn describes itself as a place “where doubt can be an act of faith,” and one in Manhattan claims it is “God-optional.” Still, all denominations must do a better job explaining the value of ritual and community, so more people might experience its benefits.
And ultimately, the way for liberal Judaism to accommodate rising secularization is by undoing the marginalization of atheists in the Jewish community. And by “atheists” I mean everyone who doesn’t believe in God the way we’re “supposed to,” the way much of the organized Jewish community pretends Jews still do when we really don’t.
As with most marginalization, those who are privileged don’t notice it and those who are marginalized are usually long gone. In so many ways, our community is geared toward the 34% who believe “with certainty,” who would reply to an atheist asking for inclusion or acknowledgement with the all-too-regular accusation, “How can you be Jewish if you don’t believe in God?!”
Those in leadership might also claim that because there are so many non-theistic Jews already participating in organized life, we don’t need to better accommodate them. Sure, to be included many atheist Jews sit through discomforting moment of religiosity, the same way intermarried couples accept second-class citizenry in many synagogues, LGBTQ Jews push through the heteronormality, and Jews of color endure white Jewish racism. But most Jews in all those categories affiliate less often.
That Judaism is so much more than a religion is not enough of a compelling pull back into organized Jewish life when the main alternative expression is ethno-nationalism. Most of us who’ve move past a because-God-is-watching rationale for Jewish activities have also moved toward a universalism of mankind that is post-ethnic and post-tribal. When there’s no magical “Jewish gene” to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?
I was never “lost” to the Jewish community because I still derived meaning from being connected and involved, despite not believing and despite not hearing that it was okay for me not to believe. But for every one of me, there are three or more who walked away. We’re not going to get those folks back — or keep those still in our midst — until we can better address the real trends affecting American life, including increased secularization, and be more honest about who we are as a community.
Paul Golin is executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (www.SHJ.org).