The Conspiracy

In defense of organized religion

There’s a stereotype that engagement programs for Jewish young adults are geared solely at producing the next generation of Jewish children. Many stereotypes exist for a reason — and this one is no exception.

This is what most Jewish youth engagement programs are aiming for.

Many efforts to engage youth make a desire to produce the next generation of engaged Jewish youth explicit — and that’s no accident. Especially given the perceived demographic crisis that Jews may or may not be in at any given moment, many engagement efforts revolve solely around the production of Jewish babies.

This narrative of Jewish young adult engagement contrasts starkly with another narrative, which is that younger Jews (such as those of us who write for New Voices) are disengaged from organized Jewish life, both religious and institutional. A recent study carried out by the Jewish Education Project confirms that a similar trend is happening in younger groups, including what is (I hope not) being dubbed “Generation Z.”

The findings of the study both complicate and confirm much of what we already know about younger Jews: We are moving away from “traditional” forms of Jewish engagement, and toward our own ways of fashioning identities as Jews. What works for older generations doesn’t work for the rest of us, and we see through engagement efforts for what they are: institutional efforts at self-perpetuation. But engagement solely for the purposes of keeping an institution alive isn’t engagement at all — it’s an attempt to save a model of Jewish life that just doesn’t work anymore.

So many young Jews have turned to other ways of conceiving of their Jewish identities in ways that those before us might have not — like turning away from the specifically religious overtones of Jewish life, and choosing to see Jewishness as something more fundamentally broad than just religion.

There’s certainly much to be gained by conceiving of Jewishness are more broad than just a religious community: by seeing ourselves as a culture, a social group, and a civilization, we broaden what it means to be part of a Jewish community and to be Jewishly engaged. At the same time, however, turning away from cultural religiosity means we’re leaving something behind.

When we broaden our understandings of what it means to be engaged with one’s Jewishness, ritual is no longer just a commandment or the result of a legal tradition which we were handed down, but something much larger: It makes us part of a community. We should welcome these added levels of complexity. Through them, we might even be able to better locate ourselves in the larger sociopolitical changes we’re experiencing in the United States today.

But if we constantly seek new ways to look at ourselves as Jews and work only to innovate and create new ways of connection to Jewishness, we must be be aware of what we have to lose. There is plenty to critique about today’s tradition — but there’s also value in continuing to reevaluate and return to the religious heritage which we were given.

We can’t just stop our religious tradition and allow it to freeze in time, but we also have to be cognizant of the fact that with every new way of being Jewish that we embrace, we might also be giving a part of our tradition up in the process. We might decide that we can give it up, and that’s fine — but we need to give these decisions the courtesy of critical thought.  And we need to make sure that when we are trying to broaden what it means to be Jewish, when we are thinking of engagement, we are doing so in an effort to balance the tradition that we have been given with the need to innovate.

There is still value to organized Jewish religious life. What Judaism as a religion is doesn’t rest just in one person or community’s hand — it belongs to all of us. We shouldn’t be scared to assert ourselves against those who seek to define what religion is or how we ought to express it as Jews. Judaism doesn’t just exist amongst the rabbis or among those who consider themselves to be however they define “religiously devout.” That religious tradition belongs to all of us, and it remains everyone’s responsibility to continue to define and refine it.

And because of that, it remains our responsibility to ensure that Judaism survives — and it will. Not just as a social group, ethnicity, or civilization, but as a religion. All of these ways of being Jewish can, and should, be interwoven. It remains up to us to figure out how.

 

Amram Altzman is a student at List College.

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