I'm sure many of you have heard or read about the recent Pew statistics on American Jewry and the depressing findings. Approximately 22 percent of Jewish Americans don't identify with any religion and in responding to the Pew poll categorized themselves as Jews of No Religion. This number is even higher amongst Millennials (people born after 1980) of which 32 percent described themselves as Jews of No Religion. A large number of those who do consider Judaism to be their religion, don't necessary deem the belief in G-d to be an integral part of being Jewish. The percentage of those who considered humor as a main part of Jewish culture ranked higher than belief in G-d. Go figure. Surveying marriages from 2000 and onward the intermarriage rate climbed to a whopping 58 percent, ouch!
What do these numbers tell us about the future of Judaism? Have the people of the book lost their edge?
Some pundits claim that the poll was entirely skewed and the numbers were misread, wrongly interpreted and everything is fine and dandy. There are some who claim that the method of polling using categories of reform, conservative and orthodox as the various affiliations within Judaism is an outdated model. The poll overlooked the largest and fastest growing organization within Judaism which is Chabad (stands for Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge -- the three intellectual faculties of the soul, adheres to traditional orthodoxy, however very warm and welcoming with deeply rooted kabbalistic and mystical theology). Reform has the largest demographics of American Jews according to the Pew poll. However, there are more Chabad centers in America than reform synagogues and Chabad affiliation wasn't even an option in the Pew survey. As a Chabad Rabbi I certainly believe that the poll was off in this regard. However, does this mean that we should ignore the rest of the downward trend? Absolutely not!
The questions I ask myself are: What is the solution and how can we reverse these numbers?
Here's my take on the matter and please share with me your thoughts.
Let me first report a finding of my own. As a rabbi who teaches in N.Y. and has visited many other Jewish communities around the world, I am astonished by how many people tell me that religion is not for them. However, when it comes to spirituality and affinity towards the divine these same people consider themselves to be very spiritual.
In other words, I am discovering another statistic. The majority of people that I meet who don't affiliate with religion, nonetheless have an interest in spirituality. Furthermore, I would venture to say that a large part of the 22 percent of Jews who did not identify with any religion in the Pew poll, if asked about their spiritual inclinations would admit to being spiritual.
This spiritual statistic does not surprise me. According to Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah and Chabad philosophy), the human being is actually more spiritual than physical. Externally we are physical with bodies of flesh and blood. However, aside from one's actual body everything about a person, including one's intellect, emotions, talents, characteristics and the very force of life so beautifully meshed throughout one's existence -- are not physical entities, rather products of the metaphysical soul.
It is no wonder that many people who have a disdain for religion are nonetheless spiritual. Our very psyche and existence are expressions of the divine.
If at the core of our consciousness is a reservoir of G-dliness, why do so many people have an aversion to religion?
The answer, I believe lies in the fact that religious ritual is seen as arcane, restrictive and irrelevant to one's day to day life.
As a student of Chabad Chassidus -- Kabbalistic theology I definitely know that that's not the case. Every Mitzvah or ritual in Judaism has layers and layers of deep spiritual meaning enough to touch the core of even the most ardent Jew of No Religion.
The challenge lies in the fact that many Jewish leaders today are not necessarily aware of this deeper dimension of Judaism. If exponents of Judaism are unaware of the spiritual underpinnings of the ritual and tradition, how can we expect a generation like the Millennials to be spirituality inspired by religion?
In order to diminish the numbers of Jews of No Religion we need to expand the numbers of Jews of deep spiritual Judaic experience. In my point of view this can only be done by lifting the veil of Jewish mysticism, particularly Chabad Chassidus (a deep Kabbalistic theology) and market it in a way that is accessible to all. This will enable all people of the book religious or not to quench the thirst of their equally restless souls. Who knows, maybe with educating people about a more spiritual Judaism, the next Pew survey on American Jewry in a decade from now will reflect an upward trend in Jews embracing a Judaism that touches them to the core.
Rabbi Berel Lerman is director of Spirituality For All and Chabad North Haven in the Hamptons