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Scott Perlo

Scott Perlo

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The Vanishing American Religious Male

Posted: 01/30/11 05:56 PM ET

To the endangered species of our world, let us add another: the vanishing American religious male. While he's not near extinction, he's definitely PBS-special worthy. His disappearance isn't just within Judaism -- his lack of participation extends to every religion in the American landscape. And rabbis, priests, pastors, imams, demographers and sociologists are trying to understand why.

The far-reaching Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey indicates that women outclass men in all the most important indices for religious belief and participation: affiliation, belief in God, regular prayer, and -- most tellingly -- the reported importance of religion in their lives. It is actually quite stunning how much resistance to female religious leadership still exists in America, considering how many more women than men engage in spiritual practice.

The truth is that men's disaffection from religion is not a new story in America. No less a personage than the Puritan Cotton Mather wrote in 1691 that "there were far more Godly women in the world" than "Godly men." Mather had a heavy hand in the witchcraft trials in New England, so we can assume that this comment does not come from an overtly feminist sensibility.

Whatever its history, the distance that men hold from Torah and Judaism is deeply concerning, and not from an interest stemming the flight of people from religion. Rather, what worries me is that, as Thoreau wrote, "the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." When I think of the men that I have served, what overwhelms me is their great silence on issues of religious significance: on the place of God in their lives; on their acceptance of or struggle with faith; on the spiritual journeys, whether into inspiration or despair, that they have taken.

I do not believe that this is because men have nothing say on these topics. Torah teaches us a truth about people, " ... it is not upon bread alone that a human being lives, but rather on all that which comes out of God's mouth that a human being lives." (Deuteronomy 8:3). Which is to say, we are not simply survival machines; we know that human beings have inner spiritual lives. This being the case, I worry that the spiritual lives of many men die without much expression.

Why is it that men who are not religious leaders have trouble expressing spiritual sentiment? Why is it that they seem to lack spiritual vocabulary? Somehow Torah, though designed for the purpose, is not their vessel to ascend beyond their frustrations, nor the means by which to give voice to their hopes.

Part of me believes that it is because of circumstance. Religious programming turns to face those whose time is flexible -- those whose schedules allow them to make time to attend. This, of course, traditionally excluded most men in this country. Think about it: if you work away from home until seven or eight o'clock every weeknight (including Fridays for Jews), you have just missed about 70-80 percent of a synagogue or a church's programs. Religion, more than anything else, is a language that people speak to each other -- a language that attempts to describe the experience of the God. If you're not around a lot, you simply won't learn the language.

This, however, is not a sufficient explanation. The right kind of education in childhood and adolescence, followed by a gap year or two of adult studies is more than enough to ensure a Jewish adult ready access to the Tradition whenever he or she wants it. Such education is conceivable, if it was desired, and is already a part of Modern Orthodox culture.

Another part of me believes that men are disaffected because spirituality demands emotional presence. "Rahmana liba bai," teaches the Talmud: God wants the heart. But American culture has, until recently, asked women to carry our collective emotionality. This was not the case with our ancestors in Europe and North Africa. A European Jewish man would often cry when seeing a friend absent for a long time. They held their emotionality easily; American men held it less gracefully, and therefore may have been distant from the delving into emotion that is at the heart of prayer.

But this explanation is also not enough. Our culture is changing, feminism and gender theory have had an impact, and the men of my generation were raised with much greater emotional consciousness than those who came before us. Yet these cultural changes have not changed the pattern of men's disengagement from religion.

We Jews often wonder why the most famous of our prayers, the reading of the Shma, teaches, "ve'ahavta" -- and you will love, rather than "ve'he'emanta" -- and you will believe. It is because belief is not Judaism's fulcrum, but rather closeness. The secret to living a life of Torah is holding it close, and letting it give expression to our souls. We men need to ask ourselves why it feels so far away.