Culture, not faith, is the key to continuity

A leading Liberal rabbi disputes the suggestion that British Jews are growing more religious

By Rabbi David Goldberg, February 6, 2014

The Story of the Jews, David J. Goldberg, Andre Deutsch, £35

Capital culture at the new JW3 centre in London (Blake Ezra)

Capital culture at the new JW3 centre in London (Blake Ezra)

Last week, the JC summarised the findings of the largest-ever survey of UK Jewry. The results broadly confirm my own amateur observations, based on over 40 years in the Progressive rabbinate.

In the concluding chapter of my new book, The Story of the Jews (an unfortunate title choice by my publishers 18 months ago, since when Simon Schama has made it his own with his brilliant TV series), I write that: “the most noticeable change of all since the French Revolution ushered Jews into the modern world, has been the decline in religious belief. Jews today are overwhelmingly secular. Despite the missionary zeal of Chasidic sects and the fecund birth-rates of ultra-Orthodox groups, they represent only 10 to 15 per cent of Jewry in Israel and the diaspora.

“For the other 85 per cent, the Jewish religion is no longer the all-embracing amalgam of faith, practice and conduct that it used to be. It is now a matter of pick ‘n’ mix selection… from the broad spectrum of traditions, customs, shared folk memories, rituals of collective memory and family observances that make up being Jewish… Nowadays, the practice of Judaism is subsumed under Jewish Culture, just one aspect of it; you don’t have to believe to be Jewish.”

That is why I query the suggestion in the report of the survey from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research that under-40s are frummer than older generations. Certainly, they practise more customs and sport identity markers like kippot and Chai medallions in public. But that is behaviourism, not faith; when a core belief like the great, mighty all-seeing and all-knowing God of the Torah and prayer book is no longer meaningful for the vast majority of modern Jews, they resort instead to ritualism and gesture – displacement activities.

Even that 52 per cent of the survey’s respondents who claimed that belief in God is “very” or “fairly” important, take refuge in woolly imprecision – a sense of wonder at Nature, the still, small voice of conscience, the divinely inspired genius of Mozart, a universe too intricately intermeshed not to have a guiding force behind it – when pressed to define why they believe.

The same collective conformity is at work in my own branch of Liberal Judaism, formerly austerely intellectual, with ritual kept to a minimum. In a typical Liberal synagogue today, there is so much bobbing and bowing before the Ark and hugging and kissing of the Sefer Torah to happy-clappy guitar accompaniment, that a casual visitor might imagine that he had wandered into a transplanted Polish shtiebl from 200 years ago.

There are two conclusions of long-term significance from the JPR survey. Firstly, Jews under 40 rate commitment to social justice above support for Israel. That is hardly surprising when Israeli retention and colonisation of the West Bank sits uneasily alongside ideals of tolerance, equality and multiculturalism imbibed from childhood by every Western-educated Jew. A similar disenchantment has been noted among young American Jews. Automatic Israel-right-or-wrong loyalty cannot be taken for granted in the next generation, which feels greater responsibility to behaving morally and remembering the Holocaust.

Secondly, whereas the Charedi/Orthodox grouping has increased in numbers (with all those children per family they would, wouldn’t they?), the category of UK Jews who classify themselves as cultural/secular has risen steeply from 15 to 24 per cent.

As the report says, we are witnessing a “shake-out of the middle ground”. The religiously affiliated, whether belonging to the United Synagogue, Reform, Liberal or Masorti, are being squeezed by fundamentalism on the one side and secularism on the other.

To my mind, the current prominence of ultra-Orthodoxy is a passing phenomenon. If ever the light of modernity were allowed to shine on its self-imposed, self-perpetuating medieval world, followers would defect in droves, as they did after European emancipation and it would revert to being a quaintly atavistic sect, like the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The message for non-fundamentalist branches of Judaism is clear. Cultural Judaism is the key to Jewish continuity. Already, it is only a bar-mitzvah that brings worshippers to Shabbat services in any numbers; attendances on second and last days of festivals are derisory. Unless mainstream synagogues learn to accept and incorporate into their activities all manifestations of Jewish culture in its infinite variety, both religious and secular – rather than parroting empty prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that few Jews any longer believe in, or insisting on arcane definitions of who is a Jew when nowadays being classified as Jewish is a matter of voluntary self-identification - then the next major survey of UK Jewry will be asking: ‘Where have all our synagogues gone?’

Rabbi Goldberg will be discussing the book with Professor Geoffrey Alderman at the Jewish Museum, London, this Sunday, February 9 at 2.30pm

Last updated: 5:19pm, February 6 2014