D’var Torah: March and Transition

Shalom. March is this wonderful month of transition. From winter to spring.

Pew Religion in American Life logo

Within recent weeks, the Pew Foundation released a major finding on religion in American life. The survey’s results show the transition process of American religious life is in full force. The following is a small reflection that I submit for your consideration.

Rabbi Richard AddressThe Pew and the Jews

The recently released report by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life gives added texture, substance and validity to many of the trends now evident within our community.

Rather than seeing gloom in these findings of shifting affiliation and spiritual patterns, let me suggest that we see in these trends a reason to celebrate the development of a distinct “American” Judaism. This may well be the most dynamic, creative and innovative moment in the three hundred fifty plus years of Jewish life in America. Our challenges are great, but they are challenges brought about by an emerging American Judaism, and are reflective of all of Jewish history which has seen our people survive by accepting the need to adapt to new situations and, when the need arose, to innovate new forms of Jewish life. It is just such a stage that we are in now. This is an age of transition and our anxiety is driven by the fact that we are in the midst of this new creative spurt and we do not know exactly where it will lead.

This American Judaism has been nurtured by the reality that the overwhelming majority of our community is native born. The bar/bat mitzvah generation of this Shabbat are most likely several generation American born. To their parents, even grandparents, the “old country” is probably the Bronx, or South Philadelphia rather than Minsk or Odessa. To these young people, their older siblings, and to a large degree, their parents, the events of World War II are historical facts, memories of a rapidly dwindling war time generation (which must be preserved) whose truths are all too often now images on TV or the movies. To the Millenial generation (the children of the baby boomers) even Viet Nam and the 60’s have become just pages in their history books or clouded memories and stories from their parents. Israel has always existed, usually as a victor and not as a victim, and the impact of American culture has become pervasive.

The Pew study is also reflective of the new forms of families that are present within our community, the emerging power and demands of the aging baby boomers and the de-centralized pattern of affiliation and identity that has characterized the boomers and which is now  being passed on to their children’s generation.

Over a decade ago, Wade Clarke Roof noted the changes in affiliation patterns among baby boomers. The rise of the “spiritual marketplace” has now been confirmed. This free market (how American!) concept has also been noted by other observers of contemporary American religious life. In the most recent Atlantic , Alan Wolfe of Boston College echoed the Pew findings when he said that the most important religious phenomenon in the United States is the trend to “the creation and spread of a free religious marketplace, which partly (though by no means completely) revives religious devotion wherever it reaches, but also tends to moderate the religions offered within it.” (“And The Winner Is…”. Alan Wolfe. The Atlantic. March 2008. p. 60)

The fluidity of affiliation to denominational patterns, the acceptance of inter-faith marriages and the welcoming of those people into the majority of our families and communities, the rise of more personal expressions of religious life and spirituality and the fact that it is now impossible for anyone to define what a “typical” Jewish family is; all combine to make this age of transition a time of great challenge, wonderful possibility and lingering anxiety. The “fence” around the Torah seems to be moving. Robert Wuthnow, in his recent “After the Baby Boomers” writes of the spiritual transitions of today’s young adults. He notes that the changes, demands and stresses of society along with the trend to older that has delayed life stages has expanded young adulthood to include people from their twenties thru their early forties. Echoing the Pew report he also notes the growing reality of this cohort’s comfort with a more personalized religious expression. Arnold Eisen and Steve Cohen, almost a decade ago, reported on these trends emerging within the Jewish community. In their “The Jew Within”, they wrote of the baby boomer generation, then in their thirties, forties and fifties, whose Jewish life was becoming more “individualistic and less collectivist”. Belief and practice were becoming more “idiosyncratic and diverse, less uniform and consensual”. The autonomy of choice was becoming a characteristic of the Jewish community.

Increasingly, Jewish and non Jewish scholars of religious life have pointed to the changing patterns of religious life. The marketplace is in full bloom and it is producing for us, the most active, mobile, spiritually challenging multi-generational cohorts that has ever existed. These generations are creating a distinct American Judaism, one that may not be exportable to any other land; but one that works for this culture. I believe we need to acknowledge this new creation, celebrate it and work with it to see in what way new expressions of Jewish life can be nurtured and supported. We need to see in this age of transition, new opportunities for education, communal participation and a revisioning of religious and spiritual expression. To fail to embrace this excitement and dynamism is to court irrelevancy.

Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min

Director: Department of Jewish Family Concerns

Union for Reform Judaism

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