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"Are You Jewish?": Judaism and the Future of Faith

05/05/2015 11:02 am ET | Updated May 05, 2016
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This is part of "Future of Faith," a series curated by Paul Raushenbush.

On my way to visit my student pulpit in Ohio several years ago, I helped a man dressed in traditional Hasidic garb with his luggage. After thanking me politely, he turned to me and asked, "Are you Jewish?" It seemed like an odd question for an airport and like the kind of discussion I might not want to have with a perfect stranger. But I replied in the affirmative, feeling as though I owed my fellow person (and presumptive Jew) an honest answer. He then asked if I had prayed that day. I responded, perhaps in a more quintessentially Jewish way than I realized: "It depends what you mean by prayer."

He asked if I wanted to join him in prayer -- which I did. But when he asked me to keep in touch, I did not. I felt an implied pressure to conform to traditions that I did not think were binding legally or socially within a community that spans a wide spectra of people with highly varied beliefs, identities, mother tongues, and histories. This year, highly divergent practices still allowed two Jews in an airport to connect person to person. In the future, I fear that the growing distinction between traditional and progressive streams of Judaism might keep us from connecting at all. Such is the specter of more serious division that might be on the horizon for the Jewish future.

Our tradition, in one form or another, has been around since before the Bronze Age. Our Temples have been destroyed and our tradition revolutionized repeatedly. But the next 50 years could prove as transformational as any that have come before it. In my mind, the Jewish tradition, people, and faith have three possible paths ahead: fracture, unity, or plurality. The path we choose will determine our future for generations to come. These possibilities are driven by realities that we never thought possible, either in Israel or the Diaspora.

First, Israel. You can love it, critique it, or find a nuanced way to do both. But it exists as an autonomous, majority-Jewish state for the first time in two millennia. Only in the messianic hopes of our sages could a homeland have been re-birthed. That it now is home to the largest Jewish community in the world, of over six million people, is nothing short of breathtaking. Whether viewed politically, theologically, or demographically, Israel's very existence (much less growth in so many arenas) exerts tremendous pull on the Jewish world. It appears able to thrive, even in a hostile region, and is central to any vision of a Jewish future.

Yet this miraculous state that Jews can call home is also shifting demographically. The percentage of Israelis identifying as ultra-Orthodox Jews is set to rise to nearly 20 percent in the next fifteen years. Counting Modern Orthodox (and Religious Nationalist) cohorts, Israel could morph socially and politically in ways that distance it from other Jewish communities.

Second, the Diaspora. In many parts of the world, Jews still experience persecution and prejudice. But the United States, home to the second largest population of Jews in the world, harbors unprecedented positive feelings towards Jews. In 2014, the Pew Forum surveyed thousands of Americans, using a "feeling thermometer" to see how warmly they felt about different religious traditions. Jews were viewed more positively than any other religious group. This corroborates data from earlier studies indicating a genuine appreciation of American Jews. To our amazement, we are a minority that is integrated and perhaps even integral to American society.

A result of this American embrace has been both assimilation on the part of many Jews and also a growing number of individuals who see Judaism as a source of spiritual inspiration. Approximately 1.2 million Americans have what the Pew Forum has termed "Jewish affinity." While some of these individuals are Christians seeking knowledge of their faith in its earliest moments, many others feel authentically linked to Judaism. When added to the modest number of individuals who convert to Judaism each year, the American Diaspora is rife with the potential for growth. Depending on how one calculates who is a Jew or has "Jewish affinity," there could be more than six million, and perhaps even more than nine million Americans connected to our tradition.

There are murmurings within progressive movements about active outreach out to individuals with Jewish interest or connections. While this would need to come in tandem with rejuvenated Jewish communities, which meaningfully engage individuals born as Jews in a way that many presently do not, progressive Judaism in America could well shift course and begin growing once again through outreach. The still-small American Orthodox population would likewise grow due to higher birth rates, but never become a dominant presence.

If progressive Judaism renews itself in America, as I suspect it will out of an existential need and the generative push of the Millennial generation, communities in Israel and the United States could find themselves wrangling. New Jews, asking big important questions and spurring the continued evolution of Jewish belief and practice in America would be at loggerheads with Orthodox Israeli Jews who feel connected as much by bloodline as belief and seek to revert to ostensibly ancient practices. As we have already seen in Israel, the latter could well proclaim the former "un-Jewish."

A second possibility would be for American Judaism to continue its demographic decline, unable to reverse itself and engage spiritual seekers and the Jewishly inclined. If so, Israel would become still more central to Jewish life around the world, with Orthodoxy becoming a norm and squabbles focusing on issues of traditional Jewish customs and authority.

A third, distant possibility, would be the affirmation of a broader spectrum of Jewish practice. This hopeful reality could emerge as Orthodox Jewish groups (and political parties) are forced to learn how to govern in Israel and progressive Jewish groups feel empowered to further affirm personal choice in America, including the choice to be Orthodox.

The Jewish People is presently living through an extraordinarily vital and transformational period. How its different constituencies make use of renewed empowerment in Israel and the Diaspora -- or find their agency diminished by new sociopolitical realities -- will determine our tradition's path for centuries to come. The enduring question will remain, "Are you Jewish?"