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In September 2008, Synagogue 3000, an organization focused on revitalizing synagogue life, commissioned a survey to measure Jewish spirituality among American Jews. The fact that they couldn’t define “spirituality” didn’t seem to faze them. What they found was that Jews are less spiritually inclined than the general population. Not surprisingly, the survey also found that Jews don’t talk much about God, and don’t find prayer all that important. Did we actually need a survey to tell us this?


But wait? What about all those Jews rushing to other religions like Buddhism and Sufism? Aren’t they spiritual? Could be, but the survey didn’t count them because they didn’t find their spirituality within Judaism. In other words this was a survey of Jewish spirituality that excluded those Jews (perhaps 20 percent of the Jewish population, according to the survey) that might be the most spiritual.


Given the population studied, the survey came to the following conclusions:


  1. Orthodox Jews, who make up only 8 percent of American Jewry, are the most spiritual Jews.


  1. Jews with one Jewish parent or Jews by choice (converts) with no Jewish parents are the second most spiritual Jews.


  1. And Jews with two Jewish parents are the least spiritual and the least religious.


You have to love this! After decades of fighting against intermarriage, it turns out that the biggest danger to Jewish survival is Jews marrying Jews.


How are we to understand these results? It isn’t too difficult. Orthodox Jews are more spiritual because they actually believe in Judaism. Non-Orthodox Jews with one Jewish parent or no Jewish parents are more spiritual because their non-Jewish parent or parents exposed them to other religions that, unlike Judaism, place a high value on spirituality. Non-Orthodox Jews raised in an exclusively Jewish household with two Jewish parents are the least religious and spiritual because no one really believed in the Judaism they were taught in the first place; they were secular humanists who found spirituality far too woo-woo for their tastes.


The survey also found that younger Jews are more spiritual than older Jews, and that younger Gentiles are less spiritual than older Gentiles. This shows, I guess, that younger Jews are becoming older Gentiles.


While this may sound confusing, the survey attributes the rise in spirituality among younger Jews to the fact that younger Jews tend to have one Gentile parent, and that parent brought the spiritual element into their child’s life. Why are younger Gentiles less spiritual than older Gentiles? I don’t know; commission another survey.


The Synagogue 3000 survey was designed to help synagogues plan for the future, so the following numbers seem to matter:


  • 76 percent of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about God.
  • 52 percent of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about the afterlife.
  • 73 percent of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about ultimate meaning.
  • 78 percent of the people surveyed wanted their rabbis to talk about spiritual issues.


Houston, we have a problem. First, most non-Orthodox rabbis don’t believe in God as the Torah and siddur picture God. If they did, they would be Orthodox rabbis. If they believe in God at all, most are probably pantheists equating God with nature.


Second, most non-Orthodox rabbis don’t believe in a soul that survives death. Because rabbinic Judaism insists on such a soul and the possibility of heaven and hell, what are we to do with rabbinic Judaism?

You see the problem. If rabbis are honest, rabbinic Judaism is dead.


When it comes to “ultimate meaning” and “spiritual issues,” I would hope rabbis are on surer ground, especially because no one can define these terms precisely. I suspect people are asking that synagogues become places where they can explore the meaning of life rather than simply get instruction as to how to live as 17th century Polish Jews did.


What difference will this survey make? I doubt it will make any at all. What difference should it make? It should lead to the wholesale re-evaluation of what Judaism is and synagogues are for. If Judaism is simply a matter of ancestor worship, then synagogues may be doing the best they can to train people for life in the middle ages. If Judaism is supposed to be an ongoing exploration of life and meaning, then the synagogue has got to come up with better prayers, better theologies, better language and a radically different way of engaging people. But since, as Einstein said, you cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it, nothing will change. It can’t.


Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He blogs at Toto.

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