Out of touch or on the cusp? Theologians debate the role of modern Judaism

June 9, 2012

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Jewish scholar Rachel Adler has a cartoon taped to the door of her office. In it, one man says to another, “I’m in the market for an easier religion.”

“Good luck,” is Adler’s response to the cartoon.  “If a religion has any authenticity to it, it won’t be easy.”

Is this search for an easy answer the problem for American Jews? Adler, a professor of Jewish religious thought and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College in L.A., addressed this question at a panel in Chicago recently. The discussion was designed to address increasing secularism, decreasing synagogue membership and the general disaffiliation of American Jews, especially among Jews in their 20s and 30s. A friend of mine who used to work for B’nai B’rith’s youth group once called these the “gap years,” those years after we’ve left college and Hillel, but before we’ve married and returned to the temple.

Only, what if people aren’t coming back?

Adler attributes some of the decline in temple membership to sociological reasons. “We’re all over-programmed and exhausted,” she says, leaving no time for learning, prayer, reflection or even rest, which is crucial to the Jewish practice of keeping the Sabbath. Adler jokes that a friend of hers plans to offer religious classes and tutoring sessions in a Laundromat, ideal for people who want to multi-task. “She calls it a Beit mid-wash!” Adler says with a laugh. (Beit midrash is Hebrew for “house of learning.”)

In addition to the myriad social and personal reasons that prompt Americans of all faiths to distance themselves from their traditional religious roots, there’s this to consider: Are some Jews disenchanted because the religion hasn’t provided them with a compelling enough theological vision? Adler argues “yes and no.”

On the one hand, she says, recent developments in Judaism may have provided what some people are looking for in terms of a modern religious experience. One such development is Reconstructionist Judaism, a progressive branch of the religion which considers traditional Jewish laws as folkways more than edicts and deemphasizes the role of God. Another, Adler says, is feminist and queer theologies that ask how “all Jews can be included in Judaism as the people they really are” and allow LGBT Jews to “talk their way into a conversation on Jewishness that has always excluded them.”

But Adler argues that if people, like the man in the cartoon on her door, are looking for a simple spiritual experience that avoids the rigor that has traditionally come with Jewish practice and study, they're missing the point. Adler says certain modern beliefs about the nature of religion and what we each expect from it may conflict with some of Judaism’s core principals. You can hear her expound on this in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Rachel Adler spoke at an event presented by the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in March. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.