Most Jews consider themselves Jewish for reasons that have nothing to dowith mitzvot--the religious duties of Judaism--and everything to do with thedemographics and culture of secularized American Jewry. Jews define themselvesas Jewish because they are scholarly and intelligent. Because they "look Jewish," and everyone regards them as Jewish. Because they spend big-time on interior decoration.Because they love Seinfeld and use Yiddish words. As one former board member ofThe Anti-Defamation league told me: "I'm a bagel-and-cream-cheese Jew."
None of these definitions is a religious one, and the Jewish community isnow struggling with this question: How Jewish are Jews who have given up allreligiosity? Even the Reform branch of Judaism, which has long disdainedritualistic observance of the Jewish law, has lately been singing a differenttune. "With the absence of the commitment to religious life the Jewish peopledoes not survive. You can't have one without the other, and we need a renewedemphasis on the religious dimensions," Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of theReform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, recently told theJewish Telegraphic Agency. He was commenting on Gallup poll results in Octoberindicating that religious observance among Jews is far lower than for any othermajor faith. Jews are one of the "least religious groups," the poll said, notingthat only 30 percent of Jewish respondents said their religion was "veryimportant" to their daily live, as compared with 60 percent of Americansoverall.
Yes, it's everyone's problem, but it is distinctly a Jewish problem, too.There are qualities to admire in people who have a religious understanding.The awareness of mystery, of the irrational, of the larger-than-self. WhenMichael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys was seriously injured in a recentfootball game, his teammates gathered in the center of the field and said aprayer. My friend Steve Friedman told me of a Christian colleague of his in New York who on learning that a friend was sick went over to St. Patrick's Cathedral to light a candle. "I told her the first thing I'd do is look up the best doctors in the city," Friedman said laughing. "Though I'd probably pray for them at home, in my own little way."
Because lighting a candle is voodoo. But while I am highly secularizedmyself, still I respect the humility of the religious, the sense that thereare larger forces than rational human endeavor. When Jews call religiousChristians yahoos or nuts, they are actually attacking their own religion,which has similar proscriptions and commands. Secularization has even put indanger the Jewish legacy of social justice. Where was any expression ofconcern in the Jewish community over the Government's role in the destructionof 80-some members of a longtime religious community in Waco, Tex.? You mightcounter that the values I'm extolling--humility, not taking yourself tooseriously, respect for poverty--are elements of the Jewish ethical tradition.
Does it ever strike you that the great ideas of secularism that have nowcarried the boomers to age 50--from the sexual revolution to free expressionin Hollywood to the current New Age/North Face/Stanley Kaplan SAT cram coursesfor your kids/yoga zone--are limited models for existence, and that all arecommercialized?
Of course, everyone wants to be spiritual these days. But ethical principlesare not just plucked from the air; they are encoded and developed throughstudy and instruction and practice, as the halakah, or Jewish "way," hasbeen. Even great works of humanist art, from Melville to Camus, deal with thestruggle between an individual's freedom and a religious understanding. Yetin our culture now only Republicans talk about God, and when they do they arefrequently called yahoos.
I'm not saying Jews should eat kosher. Jewish law, when I think about it,strikes me as too outmoded and narrow to contain my American ambition. Butwhen do I even think about it? What I'm talking about is the utter loss ofreligious outlook among Jews. Over lunch, Steve Friedman told me about some ofthe Jewish religious duties I didn't know about. Don't ask the price of something if you know you're not going to buy it, lest you give the shopkeeper false hope. Don't treat anyone like an object. Feed your animals before you feed yourself. Try at whatever cost to maintain peace in the household. Soulful rules. And we've replaced them witha nihilistic materialism.