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Conversation with Mark Oppenheimer

“Every movement in Judaism has to do better at tending to the people who fall outside the paradigm of what that movement is about.”

By Cindy Mindell

Recent population surveys show that faith in God is dwindling across the American religious landscape. Yet millions of people attend houses of worship and self-identify as members of a particular religion.

How do we explain a connection to a religion – not just an ethnicity, but a religion – for those who don’t believe in its theological claims?

Mark Oppenheimer

Mark Oppenheimer

Writer Mark Oppenheimer has come up with a theory about the three ways in which most American Jews answer this question (and a fourth, involving guilt).

Oppenheimer grew up in Springfield, Mass. in what he describes as a “comfortably Jewish but not observant” home. Since earning a PhD in American religious history at Yale in 2003, he has gone on to write for several major publications, not only on religion, but also on the topics of politics, family, parenting, and society. He writes the bi-weekly New York Times “Beliefs” column and is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture (Yale University Press, 2003) and Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), and a memoir, Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate (Free Press, 2010).

Oppenheimer, who teaches at Yale, lives with his wife and four daughters in the Westville section of New Haven. He will speak in Greenwich on Wednesday, Nov. 5, hosted by Selah, Fairfield County’s Reconstructionist congregation.

He spoke with the Ledger about how many American Jews approach their religion and what that means for the Jewish community.


Q: Give us a preview of your Nov. 5 talk, “Three Reasons We Do Religion (Which Is Yours?)”

A: I have a personal theory. It’s not deeply researched, but is based on my journalistic observations and is probably not original to me. In my travels as a journalist, I’ve seen that there are three fairly distinct kinds of Jews: Jews who love God, Jews who love ritual, and Jews who love community. Sometimes there’s a fourth kind: Jews who just feel guilty. There’s some overlap among the different reasons to affiliate in some way, but surprisingly little. Jews who love ritual are often not interested in community, and those who love community are sometimes indifferent to the question of God.

It’s useful for communal leaders and laypeople to think about why we affiliate. Often, we’re tortured or confused about why we’re called to Jewish practice. For example, the person who loves davening but is not so interested in being on the kiddush-preparation committee and feels bad about it. We can clear up some of the guilt and confusion if we understand that Judaism is filling many needs and those don’t always meet in the same person.


Q: Do other religious groups experience this phenomenon?

A: It’s everywhere, but it’s especially Jewish. For a group like Evangelical Protestants, the belief in God looms much larger. They are also drawn by community and some people are moved by ritual or the worship experience, but you would find very few Southern Baptists, for example, who go to church, who say, “I’m kind of an agnostic” or “Depending on the week, I’m an atheist.” That’s a very common response among Jews, even among Orthodox Jews.

These are the three reasons people do religion generally, but there’s a specific Jewish breakdown in terms of percentages. In no other religious community would you find so many highly observant people who are also not God-fearing. You wouldn’t find deeply observant Muslims who openly say they’re unsure about the existence of Allah.


Q: The 2013 Pew study on Jewish Americans and the study on American Jewish college students find that most Jews don’t connect to Judaism as a religion, but rather as a culture. Does that make Jews different from other religious groups in that we have both a religious and a cultural or “peoplehood” aspect?

A: Culture is not specifically Jewish; there are cultural Mormons, Catholics, and Muslims. In my talk, I’m focusing on Jews who affiliate in some way, the people who choose to do different stuff within Judaism. Even in that group, one-third aren’t interested in God or ritual but in connecting. You have a whole category of Jews who say, “Judaism is my culture,” and maybe they identify with the community aspect. You don’t find that among Muslims, for example – people who show up with little interest in God or prayer but go to the mosque every week. This is why it’s a tentative claim and there are scholars who have looked at it more thoroughly than I.


Q: Is this a modern phenomenon?

A: No. We know, for example, that in Eastern Europe, Jewish literacy was not universally high and the same was true for synagogue attendance. It’s a different question if you’re talking about all-Jewish neighborhoods or villages, or Israel, where you don’t have to go to synagogue to feel part of a Jewish community; in that case, you’d be going for a very specific reason. But for something like chesed – visiting the sick or making meals for a family in mourning – that’s something your synagogue community would do for you, not your neighborhood, and there are a lot of Jews who connect with Judaism for that reason.


Q: Do you think that it’s therefore easier for Jews to connect or not connect to the religion because we can still be Jewish without being observant?

A: It makes it easier both to connect and to leave. It’s more psychologically confusing because Jews will beat themselves up about their lack of knowledge, for example, or for not enjoying davening. But that’s just not the kind of Jew you are, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. What’s more, there are lots of other Jews like you. The leadership has to recognize that, Jews have to recognize that, and we have to stop worrying about it. Every movement in Judaism has to do better at tending to the people who fall outside the paradigm of what that movement is about. Orthodox rabbis will talk way too much about tefilah and sometimes not enough about community or about how to think about God or atheism. Similarly, Reform rabbis don’t think nearly enough about God; they tend to exist much more on the community pole of things. In general, rabbis tend to be interested in all these things but their communities tend to focus on one at the expense of the others. There are a lot of conspiracies of silence: we know, for example, that a certain percentage of Orthodox Jews are atheist.


Q: Where does this guilt come from?

A: As Jews, we don’t have a hierarchy, a pope, or a catechism, so there are no external markers of what we’re supposed to be doing. Every synagogue, rabbi, and family has its own version of Judaism. Even in communities who pride themselves on their homogeneity, there are as many different versions of Judaism as there are families and that’s guilt-inducing.

Most people have a version of Judaism that comes from Grandma or from their childhood congregation. They think that anything more observant is fanatical and anything less observant is pointless, that they’re supposed to hit the mark of some version of Judaism that they were raised with and they beat themselves up when they don’t.

The lack of clear guidelines means that Judaism is welcoming: nobody doubts you’re a Jew or yanks your membership card, so that’s nice. But on the other hand, nobody tells you you’re doing it right. A Southern Baptist with born-again experience, who is a reasonably regular member of a church and serves on a committee or two is doing alright. Nobody’s telling them, “You should do more,” like they’re the Baptist version of a Conservative Jew moving up the ladder to Orthodox: “When you really get serious, we have another congregation for you.” Jews feel that there’s more “real” Judaism somewhere else.

It’s integral to the diffuse nature of Judaism, to the fact that there are always different schools of thought, different rabbis and teaching traditions. It’s also that laypeople are expected to reach an ideal of maximal education. So, you can be an orthodontist from Teaneck, N.J. and the expectation is that if you had the time, you would be learning as much as a lifelong Torah scholar.

The reality is that somebody will always know more than you. You don’t have that in the Christian or Islamic community: there’s no expectation that every person can be a theologian, or that piety is equated with the number of hours spent at theological work. The demands are much simpler. Add in the fact that “good” Jews these days have to know three languages if you want to be learned at the highest level – your native tongue, Biblical Hebrew, and Yiddish if you want to learn in a yeshiva. Most Jews aren’t even close.

Today, thank goodness, there’s women’s activism in Judaism – but that means we’re saying to women, “All of you, in an ideal world, would be spending all your time in study, prayer, and keeping all the Jewish holidays.” In Catholicism, the demands have to do with the sacraments and they’re specific and finite and you do them and when you mess up, you confess. In Judaism, the demands are diffuse and unnamed and endless.


Q: What are some of the things you’ve learned from writing about religion?

A: Most people can’t articulate their own beliefs. But that doesn’t really matter. Most people are not theological; they’re not learned or even interested in the core teachings of their tradition. They go on instinct or a little bit of Sunday school or a sermon that stuck with them, but not on the well-thought-through questions that ministers study in seminary.


“Three Reasons We Do Religion (Which Is Yours?)” with Mark Oppenheimer: Wednesday, Nov. 5, 7-9 p.m., Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich. For tickets and information: selahfairfieldcounty.org / (203) 541-0959.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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