Making the Case for Jewish Ritual

We need to remember that the same culture many Jews still claim to love, and in which they continue to take great pride, is steeped in the practice of Jewish ritual.
September 1, 2022
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At this time of the year, the portions we read from the Torah center on the uniqueness of the Israelites by emphasizing God’s hopes for them and reiterating the specific practices they have been commanded to follow in their new land. But these readings also underscore the role of ethics, morality and social justice, values that are now seen as universally relevant,

Many modern American Jews embrace these universalized values as the essence of their Jewish identity.  For these Jews, being a “mensch,” and embracing worthy, though largely secular, causes substitute for observing particular Jewish traditions. This reality requires us to think deeply about whether Jewish identity can be successfully transmitted with universalized values at the center rather than the unique rituals that are the hallmarks of Judaism. 

Mark Twain once asked, “What is the secret of the immortality of the Jews?” The best answer was supplied by another writer who lived around the same time, Ahad Ha’am, the founder of the Cultural Zionist movement. Although Ha’am was by no means a religious Jew, his famous insight is something American Jews need to contemplate more today: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” 

Within certain sectors of the American Jewish community, there have been numerous discussions lamenting the low levels of observance among most Jews aside from those living according to Jewish law (Halakha). But we also see an emerging counter-narrative in many Jewish institutional and academic circles, reflected in some media outlets, refuting the need for concern. This position suggests that American Jews are just fine because Judaism is thriving here in new and unexpected ways as more people define Judaism for themselves. Proponents of this view emphasize that Jewish identity and pride remain strong, and the children of the growing number of intermarried parents still largely identify as Jews.  

I want to offer both a reality check on this optimism and thoughts on a future direction. On my last trip to Israel, now over three years ago, Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner asked me if I was optimistic about American Judaism. Without hesitation, I quipped, “Definitely yes,” emphasizing that I am a “glass half full” type of person. But I am having an increasingly harder time remaining positive about the current trends. 

I have spent the past few years speaking at close to 150 synagogues across the country spanning the religiously liberal denominations. My talks have focused on how non-Orthodox individuals and families can deepen their connection to Jewish tradition and find more meaning in it by practicing a selection of Jewish rituals with greater consistency, intentionality and joy. My typical synagogue audience consists of religiously liberal Jews in their fifties or older. Many are involved grandparents who want to see their grandchildren raised with Judaism, including those grandchildren whose parents are intermarried. 

My audiences vary geographically but not so much from a Jewish standpoint. Mostly they represent a self-selecting group of affiliated, mature Jews who care enough about Jewish ritual to attend my talk. Nearly everyone expresses concern about the current direction. But most people express positive feelings about their own synagogues and clergy. When their rabbis attend, they are largely optimistic at least in terms of their own corners of the world.

Despite the warm receptions I receive, the data and other substantial anecdotal evidence show that Jewish ritual is not high on the radar screen for the majority of American Jews. Many religiously liberal Jews are largely focused on causes and debates other than the state of American Judaism. Others are simply trying to get through their days, with or despite a lingering pandemic, inflation, culture wars and a growing trend of antisemitism.

Those of us who wish to see strong, vibrant communities of religiously liberal Judaism have cause for concern. In decades past, American Jews could sustain their continuity based on pride and other cultural factors. But as cultures in this country continue to blend, it will no longer be so easy to sustain Jewish identity through what many Jews regard as purely cultural elements and ancestry.

If non-Orthodox Judaism is to have a future in the United States, we must put Jewish ritual, namely the norms and practices particular to the Jewish people, at the forefront of our lives.     

If non-Orthodox Judaism is to have a future in the United States, we must put Jewish ritual, namely the norms and practices particular to the Jewish people, at the forefront of our lives. Otherwise, for this group of Jews, there will be no real Judaism to transmit to future generations. Identity and pride, absent substantive Jewish content, can no longer supply the basis for Jewish continuity among the majority of American Jews. 

What Do the Data Show?

In recent years, concerns about Jewish continuity in the United States have been fueled by data, especially the 2020 Pew Study of the American Jewish community and its 2013 predecessor. Both studies divide American Jewish adults into the two main categories of Jews by religion (JBR) and Jews of no religion (JNR). The 2020 report shows that roughly 4.2 million JBR claim that their present religion is Jewish whereas the 1.5 JNR consider themselves Jewish in a cultural or ethnic sense, or through ancestry or upbringing. 

The data also reveal that outside of Orthodox Jews, most JBR are far from religious in the sense of observing Jews laws and rituals. Nearly 40% of this group say that religion is not “too or at all” important to them. Still, being Jewish remains very important to this group. But a careful study of all the Pew data leaves one with little understanding of exactly why being Jewish is so important or what Jewish identity entails for most American Jews.

Equally troubling are the findings regarding the youngest cohort Pew studied. The 2020 Pew Study found that among young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 29, “two sharply divergent expressions of Jewishness” are emerging. One involves Jewish practice dictating every aspect of life and the other involves “little or no religion at all.” About 30% of Jews under 30 feel it is not “at all” important for their future grandchildren to be Jewish and this group also has the weakest sense of belonging to the Jewish people. 

A particularly telling Pew data point is that those Jews who are most religiously engaged are also the strongest consumers of cultural activities involving Jewish food, film and literature. Given that Jewish law and culture intersect and reinforce one another, this finding should come as no surprise.

The discussion we desperately need to have now — while we still have enough Jews in the middle space between Orthodoxy and the JNR — is how to elevate Jewish ritual to a prominent place in our busy lives. Implementing this change requires thoughtful contemplation of difficult questions such as: What is so different about our era that requires a greater focus on Jewish ritual? How do we more effectively engage Jewish individuals and families in this enterprise? Why should Jewish institutions buy into this change and how can they participate in creating a more ritually-centered culture?

Why is Today Different?

One Shabbat this past winter, I spent an entire afternoon reading three volumes of the proceedings of the Conservative Movement’s law committee. I came across a paragraph that, though written in 1949, could have been written today. The conversation was about how most Conservative Jews were not observing Shabbat or kashrut, the dietary laws. I was stunned by the contemporary flavor of this discussion.

This experience prompted me to wonder (and not for the first time) whether there is anything new about the lack of observance among American Jews today. If Conservative rabbis worried about the observance levels of their congregants in earlier decades, maybe all the concern today is unwarranted. We have managed to survive and thrive for decades, so why assume that this would not be true going forward? Are the trends we see evidenced in the data and elsewhere really all that unprecedented?

One obvious answer is that unlike today, in the middle of the 20th century over 70% of non-Orthodox Jews were not marrying out. But my sense is that the current escalating rate of intermarriage is more a symptom of a deeper set of problems unique to our times rather than a stand-alone explanation for difference.

I think a more plausible explanation begins with changes in the greater American culture concerning religion. For much of the prior century, religion was seen as a positive social force. But today, many Americans view religion more negatively, and this is particularly true among younger adults. In 2019, a study by the American Enterprise Institute showed how participation in religious activities across the board is falling in the United States. Only slightly more than half of young adults agree that raising children in a religious tradition is important, compared to two-thirds of Americans generally. Gen Z experts have also noted that this cohort, born between 1995 and 2010, largely self-identifies as spiritual but not religious. 

There are also general parenting trends common among millennials and younger Gen Xers that present obstacles to transmission of religion generally, but particularly for minority religions. I hear so many young parents, including those who are raising their children as JBR, say that academics, sports and other activities must take priority so their children do not “fall behind.” In a world where this mind-set prevails, religious education will never get top billing. Plus, since we live in a country where Christianity represents the majority religious culture, American Jews generally do not live according to the Jewish calendar. It takes more effort for parents to locate and carve out time for Jewish choices while our friends and neighbors make other choices and invite us to participate with them. 

Another significant reason for our unique situation today is that sectors of the larger American society are far more liberal on social issues than in prior decades. This trend prompts a disconnect between the tenets of some traditional religions and the beliefs of politically liberal communities. These tensions feed the current climate of polarization, and because most religiously liberal Jews are also politically liberal, they impact the majority of American Jews.

Today, polarization among American Jews also is exacerbated by certain topics related to Israeli politics such as the settlements and gender-related practices pertaining to the Kotel. These issues cause increasing strife among American Jews, resulting in further alienating some Jews from the traditions and rituals practiced by more observant Jews. It is telling that the most recent Pew Study demonstrated that many Orthodox and Reform Jews feel they have little in common with one another. 

Finally, there is an increasing tendency for the discourse in religiously liberal Jewish communities to be dominated by issues that, while important, are not uniquely Jewish. At the top of this list are topics such as the environment, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion and, of course, social justice. Synagogues and other organizations often dedicate a disproportionate amount of programming to these topics as tikkun olam initiatives in the hope they will attract new members and reinvigorate existing ones.

The current way many Jews regard tikkun olam is a recent development in Jewish history, largely characteristic of the United States beginning in the last decades of the 20th century. 

But the current way many Jews regard tikkun olam is a recent development in Jewish history, largely characteristic of the United States beginning in the last decades of the 20th century. As mentioned earlier, many religiously liberal Jews believe these universalized acts of tikkun olam can substitute for the particularities of Jewish practice.  

Establishing Personal and Family Norms of Jewish Ritual

As Ahad Ha’am recognized, the stability of a religious tradition with meaningful content can form the backbone of an enduring Jewish presence. When children grow up in a home that celebrates Jewish ritual in an accessible, joyful, meaningful and consistently observed manner, they are more likely to replicate these experiences for their own families. Both Pew studies demonstrate that JBR still overwhelmingly raise their children as JBR whereas the opposite is true for JNR. 

We need to remember that the same culture many Jews still claim to love, and in which they continue to take great pride, is steeped in the practice of Jewish ritual. When it comes to transmission, there simply is no substitute for the observance of Jewish practices that are unique to the tradition. These practices must continue to be part of the equation for religiously liberal Jews, although the way they practice Judaism will, of course, differ from Jews who live within a halakhic framework. 

Religiously liberal Jews by and large do not function based on a sense of being commanded to observe, and they place a high value upon maintaining their autonomy. But many also value authenticity of tradition, as demonstrated by the popularity of groups such as Chabad among these Jews. For religiously liberal Judaism to thrive, the narrative of Jewish ritual must be moved to the center of the discourse but in a way that strikes a balance between these prized qualities of authenticity and autonomy.

We need to have more conversations about how personal and family Jewish norms can be thoughtfully developed and implemented. Initially, this entails sufficient knowledge acquisition so that people can exercise their autonomy by selecting from our rich Jewish tradition meaningful practices that can be consistently performed. Realistically, these norms should be centered on Shabbat and holidays, as well as the dietary traditions. These pillars of Judaism are still perceived even by non-Orthodox Jews as the most authentic and foundational elements of the tradition. 

I once read a narrative by a young teacher working in New Orleans who was raised in the Midwest in a Reform family. Every week she hosted Shabbat dinners for her friends that included many shellfish specialties popular in that part of the country. The more I thought about this young woman, the more I understood that her desire to mark Shabbat in this way is hugely significant, even though she was serving blatantly non-kosher food. She was exercising autonomy as to what she was observing but she was also making authentic Jewish choices. Plus, her own family served as her inspiration because she grew up in a home where her family enjoyed a huge Shabbat dinner every Friday night, with a recitation of the traditional blessings. 

Despite the myriad differences among Jews in beliefs and practices, a core degree of Jewish particularity is found in Shabbat and the other holidays. Think how different the Pew data would look if every Jewish (or partially Jewish) family in the United States carved out just one hour on Friday night for a technology-free Shabbat dinner, preceded by the blessings for the candles, wine and challah. Even better if the meal concluded with at least the first paragraph of birkat ha’mazon (grace after meals), which is tailored made for being chanted in a fun-filled way that is appealing to both children and adults. 

The key to fighting extinction of Jewish tradition in religiously liberal communities is an emphasis by individuals and families on the proactive performance of more ritually-centered Jewish norms. Realistically, these norms will not involve strict observance of Shabbat, the holidays and the dietary laws, but they still must be steeped in the authenticity of Jewish tradition and observed consistently. The key is developing a mindful Jewish ritual practice that is imbued with meaning and filled with joy. 

The Role of Synagogues and Jewish Organizations

Jewish institutions and organizations also play a fundamental role in the successful transmission of Jewish tradition and it is in their best interests to promote observance of Jewish ritual more proactively. After all, the bulk of professionals and lay leaders involved in Jewish organizations such as the Federation system are religiously liberal Jews. Given the current trends, we cannot assume that future generations of religiously liberal Jews will opt for Jewish organizational work rather than other options.

But since synagogues and other organizations do not have unlimited resources, they need to direct their efforts toward individuals who are likely to be the most receptive to their message. This audience represents the “low-hanging Jewish fruit.” 

Exactly who is this audience? To use Pew terminology, they are JBR representing Gen X, millennials and even Gen Z. By and large, they were raised in homes with strong religious norms, even if not with strict observance. Most are not currently observant but many have baby boomer parents who were more fully observant or still are. Although some attended Jewish day schools, many more received part-time Jewish education through a synagogue program.  

Virtually all of this group come from families who were, and often still are, affiliated and for whom it was important their kids celebrate b’nai mitzvah. Many attended Jewish preschool as well as summer camp (or other types of Jewish teen summer programs) and still maintain a close network of friends from these connections. Many belonged to Jewish fraternities and sororities in college. Many are now married and having children of their own. They are often, though not always, in-married. Some identify as LGBTQ+ and some as Jews of Color.  

The Jewish organizational world should prioritize programming that reinforces and supports observance of Jewish tradition in ways that can work for these Jews because they are the most likely to respond to these efforts given their upbringing. Jewish ritual is not quite as hard a sell to this group given their familiarity with the tradition. Even as adults, most of these people have made at least some significant Jewish choices.

The one-hour technology-free Shabbat dinner should become the hallmark initiative for all religiously liberal synagogues.   

Especially for synagogues, it is vital to prioritize strategies for how these JBR can deepen their connection to Jewish tradition. The one-hour technology-free Shabbat dinner discussed above should become the hallmark initiative for all religiously liberal synagogues (just as Chabad’s hallmark is donning tefillin for men and lighting candles for women). Saying havdalah is another Shabbat-centered ritual loaded with the potential for meaningful family time. Synagogues and other Jewish organizations can play a role in encouraging members to perform these rituals regularly and can also provide necessary educational materials. 

The pandemic and the proliferation of Zoom programming is another current challenge that merits discussion for the organizational world. Jewish home rituals are critical but so is a community base. An overwhelming number of religiously liberal synagogues transitioned to technology for services and programming during COVID (if not before), and we now find ourselves in a world where this has become the norm for gatherings, including minyanim.

Intentionality and mindfulness are critical elements of ritual, and these are the very qualities that are most undermined when prayer is conducted in an online format.

But when it comes to communal prayer, technology is a poor substitute for an in-person experience. Intentionality and mindfulness are critical elements of ritual, and these are the very qualities that are most undermined when prayer is conducted in an online format. Although mind wandering is not uncommon in synagogue, online services encourage distraction and multitasking on a much larger scale.  

Plus, Jewish community is based on the very concept of just showing up. Online services are no substitute for putting on your Shabbat or holiday best and making the physical effort to get to your synagogue, whether it is by walking or driving. 

Of course synagogues should continue to provide some type of alternatives for those who simply cannot attend a service in person, especially grandparents and other relatives of b’nai mitzvah. Limiting online options to these groups will require some difficult conversations and choices, but when it comes to modeling the richness of Jewish tradition, returning to an in-person norm is far superior to technology substitutes.

The point is not to create Orthodox Jews but rather to create more Jews who are committed to the practice of vibrant religiously liberal Judaism.

Finally, the clergy of religiously liberal Jewish synagogues and other institutions should not be afraid to articulate and advocate for thicker norms of Jewish practice. The point is not to create Orthodox Jews but rather to create more Jews who are committed to the practice of vibrant religiously liberal Judaism. 

It may be the case that in the long run, an increasing number of Jews will not be persuaded that Judaism is worth their time. But we cannot afford to make this assumption now. Instead, we should focus on bolstering the quality of religiously liberal Judaism, defined as a stronger attachment to the particularities of Jewish ritual. The realization of this goal can provide a foundation for the basis of a transmissible tradition l’dvor v’dor.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of “Remix Judaism: Transmitting Tradition in a Diverse World” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020, 2022), “The Myth of the Cultural Jew” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and “The Soul of Creativity” (Stanford University Press, 2010).

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