When it comes to religion, Jews have trouble believing things. The American population as a whole still widely believes in religious realities: 93% believe in God or a Higher Power; 86% believe in heaven; 73% believe in hell. There are rarely enough Jews in these polls to be sure just what the Jewish parallel would be, but it surely isn’t anywhere near these figures. When it comes to God, 93% may be high – the question included belief in a “higher power” which skews the results upward — but another poll that limits the question just to “God” shows that 90% of Protestants, 79% of Roman Catholics but only 47% of Jews believe in God.
Another way of looking at it is to compare percentages of believers across countries, including Israel, where the majority is Jewish, When asked to affirm the proposition, “I know God exists and I have no doubt about it – as strong a statement as one can imagine (I mean, no doubts at all??) 62.8% of Americans answered yes. Israelis scored 43%. Even that seems like a lot, but somewhere around 19% of Israel’s population is Orthodox. Discount that 19% and you get a whole lot fewer Jews who believe in God! Orthodox Jews everywhere are likely to be believers; it goes with the Orthodox territory. The belief gap (a bad term, as we shall see, but usable for now) affects non-Orthodox Jews, specifically.
But why is that? Why do non-Orthodox Jews register so low on religious belief scales? In part it is all about “territory,” not geographical but social. It is not the case that we believe something and then learn to say it; we start by saying it, and then get so used to the sentences coming out of our mouths, that we profess to believe it, even though we may not be absolutely clear on what it is that we have said we believe.
What determines our ability to make belief statements is the territory, the people we hang around with. If they regularly say they believe this or that, the odds are we will too; and whether they say they believe or not (in the first place) depends on the institutions that hold them (and us) together. Even relatively lapsed Christians who nonetheless attend church on occasion (for social reasons, perhaps, or even out of nostalgia or habit) get used to making statements of belief, which, as I say, go with the territory. In conversation afterward, they may hedge their statements so as not to sound too literal (“I do believe in God, but what I mean by that is…”) but they are apt to have little trouble making the statements, without which, they would have to forego association with the church they still attend.
The same is true of Orthodox Jews. To be sure, people who believe strongly in God are likely to belong to synagogues where other people believe as well – belief sometimes does come first – so more believers come to Orthodox synagogues in the first place. But lots of people join Orthodoxy for reasons having nothing to do with God. They then get used to hearing (and making) sentences about God. Orthodox Jews are not more naïve, less educated, or less critical as thinkers. They just belong to language communities that take God seriously. Non orthodox Jews do not.
Belief is socially constructed. The organizations we frequent generate certain kinds of conversations, which, in turn, generate certain sentences that we get used to hearing – and then saying. Jewish organizations are good at making sentences about Israel, anti-Semitism, the state of the world, other Jews, and charitable causes (to name but a few things). But not God. Even if you are on a synagogue board, you can go for years without hearing anyone say a sentence about God.
When I consult with synagogues, I find that people have great difficulty wrapping their heads around a sentence with God in it. It is not so much that they do not believe in God, however, as it is that they do not think of themselves as people who talk about God. God-language embarrasses them. They yearn to believe in something, but they don’t know how to go about figuring out what it is.
More on this is a later posting. Suffice it to say that we suffer less from lack of belief than from inadequate language to express the beliefs we might have. The way toward belief lies in broaching conversations that are out of our comfort zone; listening to what we say; and then trying to determine what we might have meant when we said it.
The Jewish “failure to believe” is a misnomer. What is at stake is not a belief gap but a conversation gap, and for reasons I will get to later, it is time we changed the conversation.