NEW YORK (JTA) — As of 2012, one in 20 Americans is identifying themselves as an atheist, agnostic or unbeliever. According to the research done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released last year, nearly 33 million Americans list themselves with no religious affiliation. While it’s not specified in the Pew study how many Jews are among the ranks of the nonbelievers, doubtless the cultural landscape of Judaism is also impacted by these larger trends in Western culture.
Part of the reason for this shift is the co-opting of what is perceived to be “religious” by the most conservative forces in our society. As increasingly narrow definitions of what it means to be a “believer” prevail, people with progressive social values or who openly doubt a life lived within the boundaries of strict religious practice find themselves at increasing distances from a life defined by a religious identity. Although I am a proud and active Jew, I count myself among those who find this definition of religiosity too constrictive.
It seems the pendulum between doubters and believers is swinging further and further apart. Those who live in belief become more extreme in their views and less tolerant of any deviation from their definitions, while those who are more expansive in their views simply drop out rather than stay and fight for the legitimacy of their views.
This binary approach does not move us forward. The question we must ask if we are to give serious consideration to the Jewish future is why are the narrowest definitions winning the fight over defining Judaism?
At 83, I’m unusual for my generation in my open doubting. Generally the younger the age group, the less religious they are. Millennials, specifically those born between 1990 and 1994, the youngest group of adults polled, logged in with 34 percent religiously unaffiliated.
This fits in to trends that Jewish sociologists have seen emerging throughout the late 20th century within American Judaism, where intermarriage, lack of affiliation with institutions and general alienation from Jewish life expands amid increasing assimilation.
I refer to this generation as “doubters”: young Jews who openly question the meaning and worth of a traditional Jewish life. The existence of these doubters, with their hard questions about the relevancy of Judaism to their lives and removal from the community, usually is met with alarmist cries of fear about the existence of the Jewish future that I see as unfounded. What frightens me about this information is different.
It strikes me as a loss on two levels. First, the doubter allows the narrowest definition of what constitutes a religious life to dominate. Second, it is the young people self-imposing their own exile from the Jewish people.
While I feel sadness knowing our young people do not always embrace the wealth of heritage that is theirs, I also understand them. That is not to say I agree. I know what it means, however, to look at the Jewish landscape and feel that the existing options offer no home. If one needs to see that in action, look at the religious forces in Israel, where the rabbinate has stifling control over a religious life defined by haredi Orthodox definitions that limit the civil rights of secular citizens. It is a blessing then — of the non-religious variety — that here in America we live in a society that allows so many avenues of religious expression. (This is emerging in Israel, too, but it is far more complicated, although inroads are being made.)
In my youth and young adulthood, there were unifying causes of the Jewish people — something we all stood behind jointly because we knew in our hearts it was right. We stood together against the Holocaust, for the State of Israel and to free Soviet Jewry. Such a single uniting principle allowed even those who did not see themselves inside of religion to still feel a place among our people.
In modern times, however, this central cause is lost to us. The threat of anti-Semitism is not as vital as it once was for many of us — especially here in America — and the threats to Jewish lives and well-being become more and more theoretical and remote for younger Jews, especially those who distance themselves from Israel.
So what are the communal experiences that will guide us to a better Jewish future? There is a triple response here: education, positive communal experiences and unifying causes of social justice.
Jews are now secure enough, especially in America, to focus their activities on the betterment of all humanity, not just the Jewish people. Coupled with that is the need for even doubting Jews to educate themselves about their heritage and traditions. Those practices need not be limited by the most religious interpretations.
Acknowledging a Judaism that embraces doubt, and that such a practice is backed by hundreds of years of Jewish thinking, is one way in which we, like our forefather Abraham, can expand our tent. It is time to be realistic about the future of the religious and cultural heritages of Judaism.
In abandoning the doubters and their tough questions, we are abandoning the hope that the legacy of our meaningful texts, beautiful rituals and unique view of the world will live on — not because we didn’t embrace religion, but because we didn’t embrace doubt.
(Edgar M. Bronfman is the president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the former president of the World Jewish Congress. He is the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd..)