Cultural Judaism without Torah isn’t working

The latest Pew study is an urgent wake-up call to return to our texts and discover a Judaism that transcends mere cultural identity.

Matzah ball soup and "The Maccabee" sandwich with a  potato knish at Maccabee’s Kosher Deli in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Jackson Richman/JNS.
Matzah ball soup and "The Maccabee" sandwich with a potato knish at Maccabee’s Kosher Deli in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Jackson Richman/JNS.
Rabbi Elliot Mathias and Jamie Geller

The Pew Research Center’s report on “Jewish Americans in 2020,” which was released in mid-May, tells one consistent story: The younger the generation, the less likely its members are to be affiliated with Judaism, marry someone Jewish, attend synagogue, keep traditions or raise their children as Jews.

Among young Jewish adults, the survey finds, “two sharply divergent expressions of Jewishness appear to be gaining ground—one involving religion deeply enmeshed in every aspect of life [i.e. the Orthodox], and the other involving little or no religion at all [i.e. the unaffiliated].”

The collective Jewish community in the United States—and Israel—addresses these worrying and ongoing trends of assimilation with time, money, organizations, meetings and programming. But, according to the data, none of it is fixing the problem.

The report states that 40 percent of Jewish adults under 30 do not identify their religion as Judaism, but as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” This is compared to 27 percent of all Jewish adults.

Of the overall 27 percent who identify as “Jews of no religion,” only 30 percent attended a Passover seder, and less than 1 percent went to synagogue once a month. Just 4 percent think it is important that their grandchildren be Jewish. Only at the two ends of the spectrum do we see the numbers go up.

There is and has been discussion for many years about lack of involvement and interest. But how can we accept or reject–embrace or abandon—something that we know nothing about? Sadly, there’s a fundamental disconnect between the amount of Jewish culture/media/entertainment/community activities available in the world and exposure to Jewish knowledge.

The Jewish community in the United States has spent the past two decades deeply concerned about assimilation, with the leadership creating an astounding number of organizations, programs, training, curricula and trips to Israel—an investment with a staggering price tag. But one item has been largely missing: Judaism. There’s been a lack of willingness to dive into our texts and explore firsthand ancient Jewish wisdom anew. And the few creative initiatives that do exist simply aren’t enough.

The emphasis has been primarily on Jewish culture—which is woefully inadequate for nurturing continuity and serious engagement–not the relevant wisdom that has guided the Jewish people (and the world) for millennia.

The Pew data shows that the younger generation, the primary beneficiaries of this programming direction, feel culturally Jewish—and that’s the beginning and end of their Jewishness.

Can we instill Jewish pride and ignite curiosity without injecting religion or God into the mix? According to the Pew study, the answer is clearly no. This disconnect is at the root of the stagnant numbers.

So, how do we fix it?

How, as a people, do we use this critical data to innovate and adapt and respond accordingly, to bring about the desired outcome—namely, the survival, growth and improvement of the Jewish people?

The answer is knowledge: knowing who you are and what you come from; understanding what Judaism has to say about the world, and what Torah contributes to the world of ideas and values; what makes Judaism unique, and why being, and staying, Jewish matters; why Judaism is not only a culture, but a religion that conveys compelling, timeless and meaningful values and ideas.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg founded Aish HaTorah 45 years ago. He devoted his life with a passion to save every Jew from external threats that he viewed as very real. When he established Aish in 1974, the threat of assimilation was apparent. Jews were leaving the fold not because they hated Judaism, but because there was a dearth of Jewish knowledge. You can’t love what you don’t know.

While reporting that “religion” is not important to the majority of younger Jews, the Pew study shows that 72 percent consider living a “moral and ethical life” essential to being Jewish, while 59 percent say it’s about working for justice and equality in society.

In addition, 50 percent of Jews say that they believe in “some higher power/spiritual force,” and 26 percent believe in the “God of the Bible.” This means that 75 percent of Jews connect to the core Jewish spiritual idea of a higher power bringing deep and meaningful purpose into our lives.

The study is an urgent wake-up call to bring Torah wisdom back into the conversation, to return to our texts and discover a Judaism that transcends mere cultural identity. This demands enormous creativity and innovative thinking. Our precious legacy has the power to re-energize an entire generation of young Jews. Let’s get to work.

Rabbi Elliot Mathias is Chief Operating Officer of Aish Global.

Jamie Geller is Chief Media and Marketing Officer of Aish Global.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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