New Study: Jews More “Spiritual” Less Ancestral

A study released last week indicates that the current generation of young Jews is more “spiritual” than its elders. Though the study’s authors aren’t entirely certain what “spirituality” means, they do believe, rightly, that this finding has significant implications for the future of Jewish life in America.  

American Jews have a penchant for quantifying themselves such as hasn’t been seen in the Jewish world since the first pages of the book of Numbers. And the reasons are similar. After the harrowing experiences of genocide and immigration, we find ourselves straggling through a new wilderness; anxious to know whether or not our demographics portend survival.  

But for the metaphor to be complete, we would have to imagine Moses, Aaron, and the elders, sitting under God’s cloud in the tent of meeting, asking each other what kinds of programs they should create for the former slaves, based on the latest survey data. And the wilderness wouldn’t be made out of desert sand and sagebrush, but of Yoga studios, rock clubs, and intermarriage: all of the temptations of the American cultural marketplace. The leaders, on some level, would have long ago realized that they had to lead by following, or be left behind.  

If nothing else, this “spirituality” survey indicates that Jews are, now more than ever, Americans. The authors do spend some time interrogating the term “spirituality” itself, and conclude that it has something to do with a sense of transcendence—awareness of a power greater than one’s self—and an intimation of holistic meaning and values. They also point out that until quite recently Jews were uncomfortable with the word “spirituality.” Like “grace,” “theology,” and “Wonder Bread,” it once sounded very goyish. But the increased fluency of younger Jews in the language of spirituality indicates a sociological shift toward a broader American parlance.  

It’s a shift away from two other terms: “ethnicity” and “religion.” As Jews increasingly seek generalized spiritual satisfaction, they seem less likely to identify genealogically with other Jews, and not necessarily more inclined to participate in time-honored Jewish rituals. This raises the possibility of another definition of “spirituality”: the euphoria one feels when unbound from ancestral obligations.   

Until demography is recognized as an Olympic sport, we’ll have to assume that people don’t do it for health or recreation, but because they are trying to have an impact on policy. This survey is no exception. “Continuity”—insuring that Jewish life persists in critical mass—is still the name of the game. The authors understandably suggest that since the spiritual is of such concern to contemporary American Jews, the synagogues, and the rabbis who inhabit them, must endeavor to offer more in the way of “spirituality” in order to fill the seats.  

It reminds me of a famous story, told in the name of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, the great Hasidic master, who purported to have cured a prince who thought himself to be a turkey by getting down on the floor with him, and scratching for corn kernels in the dirt. Slowly but surely, he taught the prince that a turkey could sit at a table, and eat his food with a knife and fork. But for the rest of his life, Rebbe Nahman could never be certain if he was a rabbi who had pretended to be a turkey, or a turkey pretending to be a rabbi.  

After all, maybe God wants turkeys. It’s difficult to say.