On Erev Rosh Hashana, we opened our pulpit to listen to the emerging Jewish voices of the next generation. As they spoke, we listened, and we learned. We learned of the continued importance of inclusion and embrace of newcomers within the Jewish tent. We were reminded of the need not only for inclusion within our synagogue, but also, of the care and concern for those in need already within the walls of our congregation. And we were encouraged to remember the centrality and the significance of the security and survival of the Jewish homeland, the State of Israel, despite its conflicts and complications.
We heard each of their messages to us. Yet there is one important caveat: They are already members of a congregation, of this Congregation; they have all joined our larger Temple family. They have already expressed their commitment to the continuity of their faith community. But what of those members of the next generation who have not yet chosen to affiliate with any religious tradition, let alone that of their own faith?
A recent opinion piece in the New York Times offers an explanation in its first three paragraphs:
Since 1988, the General Social Survey has been asking Americans of different ages what they believe about God. For decades, the answer did not change much. Around seventy percent of the Silent Generation said that they “know God exists” and “have no doubts about it.” That same sentiment was shared by about sixty three percent of baby boomers and Generation Xers.
But in 2018, millennial expressed a lot less certainty. Only 44 percent had no doubts about the existence of God. Even more doubtful were members of Generation Z — just one-third claimed a certain belief in God.
Today, scholars are finding that by almost any metric they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents. In responses to survey questions, over 40% of the youngest Americans claim no religious affiliation, and just a quarter say they attend services weekly or more. (NYT, 8/29/21)
The following, then, is an open letter to those young Jews, and their families, who are still hesitant, about engaging themselves more fully in Jewish life, in immersing themselves more completely in the life of the synagogue and the Jewish community:
Do you need to believe in God, to be a good Jew? It certainly doesn’t hurt.
As one who believes in a higher power, I could ask the question in a more direct, perhaps more faith affirming way:
Do you believe in God? It really doesn’t matter all that much:
No matter what you believe about God, God will always believe in you.
Does it matter whether you care about God all that much, or all that often? Not really. What matters most is that God cares about you, about every single one of us, without limit, without end.
They say there are no atheists to be found in fox holes. I would add that there are few atheists to be found in hospital beds, or among those surrounding those patients’ bedsides, or in delivery rooms, among those experiencing the miracle of childbirth, or on the sidelines of our children’s sporting events, when one of them lies momentarily lifeless on the playing field. I’ve had those moments, too, in the life of my own family.Those moments are often the times when we offer up our most fervent of prayers, no matter what our belief, nor what, or whom, we believe in. They are often the most somber of moments, when life itself, or the emerging new life, or the lives of those we love, all hang in the balance.
As I once heard it remarked upon by a reverently religious scholar, that “I don’t have the required nor sufficient faith, to be an atheist.” That is, the scholar acknowledges and accepts that he does not possess the required faith necessary, to reject the possibility of faith.
A believer is confident in his or her lack of ability to know for certain, all the mysteries of life, and the secrets of the universe, of why we are here, upon this earth, and what our purpose should be.It is precisely that exploration, that search for meaning, that possibility of something larger, something beyond our finite ability to fully comprehend, that pries open our minds, our hearts and our souls, to the possibilities of belief. It is the belief that the Architect of the Universe may exist, despite our lack of ability to fully grasp, nor understand, the mysteries that lie beyond the full capacity of our minds.
There are also few Jewish agnostics: In the wisdom of our tradition, to question, to doubt, and to challenge the essence of the Divine, is not only acceptable in our tradition, but also welcomed and encouraged. It is neither blasphemous nor heretical: In the eyes of Judaism, it is a sacred act.
My faith grounds me. It centers me and calms me. it encourages me and inspires me to be better, to do more in the service of others. What does, our Jewish faith do for you?
I don’t believe one needs faith to be a good person; but I do believe religion can help us all in becoming better persons, better human beings, better reflections of the Divine image implanted within us, with each of us, in turn, listening closely, to “the Still, Small Voice” within each of us, and all of us.
Can you be a good Jew without practicing Judaism? Sure.
But can you be a better Jew by following Jewish practice, customs and beliefs?
Absolutely. Without a doubt.
Can you strengthen the Jewish community by being a more faithful Jew? Absolutely. Without a doubt.
Can it make you a more caring person, in tangible and meaningful ways?
Absolutely. Without a doubt.
Can it make you a more humble, more grateful, more caring, more compassionate human soul?
Absolutely. Without a doubt.
Can it make you more aware of a Source of strength, of courage, true awe and wonder, of something, some force, higher than yourself? Can it motivate you to service, to serve others beyond your own self?
Absolutely. Without a doubt.
It is not that the Jewish faith is better nor worse than any other faith tradition. But Judaism is unique among other religious beliefs; therefore, its values, ethics and ideals are each uniquely ours to treasure, to embrace, to secure, and to preserve. It encompasses both our history as well as our heritage. It is upon us alone, to sustain its viability, and to protect and prolong its continuity and continuance, lest the chain of thousands of years of that sacred tradition, and sacred trust, end with us.
Ours is neither a perfect faith nor a flawless system of belief. But done right, Judaism offers comfort to the challenged, and challenges those who are comfortable. Judaism, or any faith, that only offers harsh judgement or severe decree, is not the Judaism that speaks for most of us, or to most of us.
To this day, we gather in our most sacred spaces, to teach our children about our traditions, to continue our own lifelong learning, to celebrate and commemorate life’s most sacred moments, and where we gather to remember our past and set the vision for our future. The synagogue is where we remind ourselves of our sacred calling; it is where we reflect on the prophetic call for the creation of a better world, built upon the bedrock of justice, with a cornerstone set upon extending mercy to the weak and the vulnerable.
Here’s the point: While we continue to be strong and resilient, think of how much stronger we would be, with your active involvement, with your full participation in guiding us forward, with your assistance in building our future, and with your tangible commitment to the welfare and well-being of our people and our community.
In one instance, the Talmud teaches us that “Kol Yisrael Aravim zeh leh zeh.” — That all jews are responsible for one another.
Yet in another, the latter text is slightly, but significantly different from the former iteration: “Kol Yisrael Aravim zeh le zeh”— that is, each and every individual Jew is charged with the responsibility of caring for the welfare and well-being of every other individual Jew.
In other words, we are responsible for one another, for each other, just as they are duty-bound to watch over us. And together, it takes all of us and each of us, to care for our people, preserving its past, protecting its traditions, promoting its eternal ethics, ideals and values, and promising to continue the chain of our continuity.
May it be so. Amen
Rabbi Mark Schiftan is Senior Rabbi at The Temple. This column is an excerpt from his sermon on Rosh Hashanah.