Liberal Judaism pioneered the notion that Judaism was a religion. The idea came from Napoleon who let it be known that only as a religion did Judaism have a place in the modern nation state. Ever since then, Jews have been trying to figure out what a religion actually is and, depending on their answer, whether we really are one.
For Jews in Christian countries, religion was a system of belief that was operationalized in worship: exactly what Reform Judaism became in the nineteenth century. But Napoleon never got as far as eastern Europe, and when eastern European Jews came here, they found Reform Judaism’s version of religion baffling.
America was fully Protestantized, however, and by the 1950s, President Eisenhower was trumpeting religious affiliation as the civic and moral responsibility of all Americans. So eastern European Jews too became officially religious. They built synagogues, and claimed a set of Jewish beliefs, usually as Conservative Jews, however, not Reform. By now, Reform Judaism too has been thoroughly colonized by the eastern European ethos.
But here’s the problem: Eastern European Jews never did take religious belief very seriously. Protestants had some doctrinal “truths” about Jesus and salvation. We had no such deep religious truths in which we believed. We weren’t even sure we believed in God.
But if we had few (if any) transcendent truths to offer, what then did we have?
One option would have been halakhah, but that has largely failed within liberal circles. Through guides to Jewish conduct, Reform Jews have tried resurrecting it on occasion, but as much as Reform Judaism values rabbinic literature, and despite the fact that it issues responsa, it is simply not a halachic movement. The same is true of Reconstructionism. Within the ranks of progressive Jews, Conservative Judaism alone has made a genuine attempt to remain halachic — but with limited success. Unless you are Orthodox, the plausibility of living one’s life according to a halachic mandate has become harder and harder to champion.
For some time, we have been able to draw on the external agenda of anti-Semitism and support of Israel. But there isn’t much anti-Semitism in America, and even though Israel is still embattled, its right-wing government confounds us, its right-wing religion attacks us, and the coming generation sees Israel as Goliath rather than David.
A more recent fallback position has been “family.” Self-evidently, American Jews come to Judaism for family rites of passage. These are not what they claim to be: rites of passage of individuals from birth to bar/bat mitzvah to marriage and the grave. They are successful celebrations of family unity across generations. In the face of divorce and family fallout, they demonstrate that family ties still bind. But these are relatively rare events, expensive in terms of synagogue dues, and demanding no communal Jewish commitment in between. So our numbers remain static as generations of bar/bat mitzvah parents come and go.
The fact that liberal synagogues have become life-cycle factories is no new insight. What I am offering is an explanation of it. Lacking faith in anything very deep, and unable (Conservative) and unwilling (Reform and Reconstructionist) to galvanize a liberal halachic option with much traction, we have claimed family dysfunction as our mission. It works, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough,
A second fallback position has been the claim that we provide community. Here too, we are responding to family dysfunction, this time by addressing loneliness and vulnerability. In another era, intact families might have provided support for people in crisis. Now people need options. We provide one – or, at least, we claim to; hence, the popularity of healing and the emphasis on caring communities. There are other forces at work as well: baby boomers living longer and becoming the sandwich generation caring for their own parents and also for their children but having no one to care for them.
But whatever the reason, we sell religion as community, and insofar as we provide it, we may succeed at holding our own and even growing. The evidence, however, is against our being able to do this very well. Except for synagogue clergy, professionals, and the “regulars” (the self-selected “insiders” for whom synagogue really is community), most synagogues are not seen as communities that care, nurture, and provide whatever it is that beleaguered boomers want. At least life-cycle celebration is something we are good at. Community, apparently, is not. And the next generation, the boomers’ children may not even want it.
So we have experimented with a third strategy. Religion, we say, provides personal meaning. I think we have a long way to go to make this claim convincing, but at least we are on the right path. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that this is where spirituality comes in. Liberal religion will offer spirituality, or it will fail.