The latest research from Pew notes an alarming statistic. Fully 32 percent of millennial American Jews identify as having no religion! In other words, they see themselves as Jewish by ethnicity or ancestry and not faith or religion. In contrast, 93 percent of Jews who are part of the "Greatest Generation" identify as Jewish by religion. What explains this startling difference?
One might say Jews today feel more at home in America, and thus identify more fully as Americans. Others might say it is the failure of synagogues to inculcate a sense of faith. Others might simply see this change in Jewish identification as part of the larger secularizing trends in American society.
Any and all of these explanations may be true. Yet, clearly, clergy and communal leaders are failing the world's oldest religion if we do not regain a sense of faith. Judaism was born with Abraham's vision of one God in heaven and earth. How can we recover that ancient fervor?
1. Talk about God with intellectual depth rather than belittling literalism:
Does God have a body? Does God breath? I don't know. 1000 years ago a great medieval rabbi said, "If I knew God, I would be God." God's nature is a mystery. We talk about God as a person because we are persons. If elephants talked to and about God, they would probably picture God as an elephant. Our language is our best approximation of reality. It is not reality itself. Just because we cannot take a picture of God does not mean God is not real.
Sigmund Freud knew this, and this is why he saw God's abstraction as Judaism's greatest gift to humanity. Freud talked about the ego, superego, and the id. Could we take an x-ray machine and say "Okay, there's the ego." Of course not. But it is real nonetheless.
When we ask God to comfort the mourners of those murdered by the hideous violence in Syria, when we say a prayer asking God to bring them healing, we are not asking God to wave a magic wand and reach down, touch and heal those who are ill. Rather, we are acknowledging our own pain and expressing our hope that they will survive their own. We are recognizing our common humanity. We are asking ourselves to do what we can.
God not a cosmic doctor or principal. God is like the air we breath.
2. Stop seeing religion and science as opposing world views:
Even the world's greatest scientist believed our faith, our prayers addressed something greater than ourselves. In 1936 a sixth grader wrote a letter to Albert Einstein asking if scientists pray. Five days after receiving the letter, Einstein wrote back. While he did not answer the question directly, he revealed a profound insight.
"Scientists believe," he wrote, "that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature...
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.
Einstein knew something many of us forget. We need God. We need God to make sense of the universe. "There are more things in Heaven and Earth," Hamlet said, "than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
3. Be Humble:
God is not an objective fact we can prove or deduct from the universe. I cannot tell or mandate what you should believe. I can only speak about what I believe... And I believe we can go through life just fine without God.
We can also go through life without hearing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, without falling in love, without touching the hands of a newborn infant. The God I believe in brings a richness and depth to life. The God I believe in makes it possible for us to be fully human. To rise from despair to hope; to transform bitterness into love; to move the world as it is a little closer to the world as it ought to be.