MARCH 11, 2002
Meaningful Judaism, Meaningful Challenges
-- Martin E. Marty
Judaism is not all and only about war in Israel, controversy over the Nixon-Graham conversations, and other headline items. Serious Jews ponder the fate of Judaism in "ordinary life." So the February 22 issue of Forward excerpts a speech by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew University. He points to trends that lessen the odds for the survival of meaningful Judaism. Some are familiar, though he adds fresh documentation. Intermarriage, of course, challenges "historical familism," which is akin to "Jewish peoplehood." Geography represents a problem, as Jews leave thick enclaves for thinned out suburban life. This is big: more Jews have fewer Jewish friends. In Cohen's study, sixty percent of the 55-64 year olds have mainly Jewish friends, but only thirty-four percent of the 35-44 year olds do. And there is less "ethnic immersion" in fraternal, Zionist, and related organizations.
There are also positive signs. Despite the four trends mentioned, "levels of ritual practice and synagogue attendance remain stable." There are growth areas, such as in day schools pre-schools, etc. Jews have attained most of their declared political goals. The Jews who do bond and affiliate represent some kinds of gains in quality of commitment. Then follows what interests us most:
Cohen, with Arnold Eisen, in their book The Jew Within have coined the concept of the "Sovereign Self." Translated, this means Jewish involvement on a "pick and choose" basis, with a "strong dose of personalism." How American! "Personalism refers to the readiness to make the search for personal meaning the central arbiter of individual observance and communal involvement." Yes, being Jewish is inalienable, if marginal. Voluntarism and autonomy reign. Anti-judgmentalism is supreme. Shades of Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart findings for other American groups.
What do they conclude about contemporary understandings of God? "Belief in God is nearly universal among Conservative and Reform synagogue members. With this said, even many synagogue-goers hardly share in the view of God held by many leading Jewish theologians. They say God has no special relationship to Jews, provides no particular providence over Jews, and promises no messiah to Jews. "All is universal and personal. So, few Jews go to synagogue looking for God, and few find God there. Like other Americans, few Jewish worshippers take the content of prayers very seriously, even among those who 'pray' with fervor. Rather they seek tradition, familiarity, comfort and community, and if luck they find them."
Thereby they provide a focused challenge for Jewish theological leadership. They will certainly find sympathy and company among leaders in other faith communities.