Can Jewish life flourish if God is on the sidelines

The growing number of Jews who identify as cultural rather than religious poses a challenge for synagogues

By Simon Rocker, June 2, 2013
Arguing the case for secular Jewish culture: Fania Oz-Salzberger and her father Amos Oz

Arguing the case for secular Jewish culture: Fania Oz-Salzberger and her father Amos Oz

I once heard a rabbi say in his Shabbat morning sermon : “Without God, Judaism falls down like a pack of cards.” There was a time when such a comment would seem so self-evident that you would wonder why anyone would make it.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, a succession of Jewish movements have challenged the notion that religious belief is central to Jewish existence: Jewish socialism, for example, or secular Zionism, or secular-humanistic Judaism.

Although we may be living in a less ideological time, a strong current of secularism continues to run through contemporary Jewry. You could find no livelier manifesto for Jewish secular culture than Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger’s recent book Jewish Words.

In his book, This Is Not The Way, published last year, Rabbi David Goldberg called for accepting the reality that most Jews today are “cultural”, rather than religious. Even those who claimed belief in God, he argued, were vague about the definition — “a sense of wonder at Nature, the ‘still, small voice’ of conscience, the divinely inspired music of Mozart, a universe too intricately intermeshed not to have had a guiding hand behind it”. What had largely gone was the concept of a personal God who intervened in history and gave the commandments.

Research lends statistical weight to the argument. The 1992 Kalms report found that only two out of five United Synagogue members disputed the idea that “belief in God is not central to being a good Jew”. More than half of British Jews thought that the Torah was written by man, according to the 1995 Institute for Jewish Policy Research survey. And nearly 60 per cent of London Jews identified as “secular” or “somewhat secular”, in another JPR survey in 2002.

I was reminded of this when I read a more recent report into “community vitality”, commissioned by the Jewish Leadership Council. “Vitality” seems the new buzzword after the preoccupation with “continuity” in the 1990s. In a nutshell, the report asks what constitutes a flourishing Jewish community and what does it take to sustain one. It was based on 14 focus groups with 140 activists from UK Jewish organisations.

What struck me most was something that the author Dr Keith Kahn-Harris found conspicuously absent in his conversations. Talk of belief in God or observance of mitzvot rarely cropped up and only one out of 14 groups discussed “Jewish values” at length.

It could be, he suggested, that participants simply thought the vitality agenda was about the practicalities of running community organisations — and not about deeper questions of motivation and belief. Alternatively, they may have avoided religion and ideology because they saw these as “divisive issues” which threaten communal cohesion.

But other interpretations, which he did not venture, are possible: that the lack of discussion about religion itself reflects a weak state of belief. Or that people are reticent about grappling with it. Or they do not see it as a problem.

Nonetheless, the report recognises that, for most, synagogues remain a key institution within British Jewry, “an essential space for mobilising participation and activism”. As one participant said, “I think that synagogues do need to be central to what we do because I think the religion is actually the core thing that keeps us together.”

This still begs the question: what did the speaker mean by “religion” — faith in the fullest sense of word or the practice of traditions? For people may take part in religious ritual for all sorts of reasons without believing in its divine origins.

Ritual has a tribal aspect, binding us to our fellow Jews and to the memory of our ancestors. It has an ethical aspect, consecrating the values we hold dear: the eating of matzah, for example, is accompanied by the exhortation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”. It can aid psychological wellbeing, too: sitting shivah and saying Kaddish may help us deal with grief. And it can also have a spiritual dimension, even for those do not hold conventional religious beliefs — a sense of reaching beyond the everyday self to a deeper core of being.

The JLC report wants to see synagogues used as “wider communal resources”, venues for all sorts of activity. They need not be “boring old places”, remarked one focus group member.

Many synagogues, it should be said, already have a busy weekly calendar, hosting a variety of clubs and classes from toddler groups to lunch talks for senior citizens, from bridge to Zumba. But it would be a mistake to measure the vitality of a synagogue only by its recreational or social use.

Synagogues are there to articulate Jewish values for our times and to provide a source of meaning and purpose for Jewish living. They should also be places of spiritual exploration where people can encounter different approaches to text and tradition. In this they could be bolder. Established prayer formats don’t do it for everybody and alternative minyans often aren’t all that alternative. They could try more experimental services, using song, dance, poetry, meditation and study.

For if a sense of spiritual quest is not at the heart of synagogue life, where will it be?

Last updated: 5:45pm, June 2 2013