It’s official: Judaism isn’t a religion. Or, it isn’t only a religion.
That’s the argument of some leading Jewish educators, who say American Jews need to look hard at their beliefs and practices and embrace their reality. Which is that Jews strongly identify as Jewish, but that identity is in many ways a non-religious one.
Getting Jews to take seriously this non-religious religious thing is the new goal of groups like the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, which on Sunday will put on the Washington area’s largest annual Jewish educational event. As many as 800 people are expected to come for a whirlwind of classes on Jewish life, including those on comedy, cooking, the environment, Israeli politics and medical ethics, among dozens of others. (Full disclosure: I’m presenting one of the classes, on religion and journalism).
Sure, lots of people think of Judaism and already think non-religion — “Seinfeld,” lox and bagels, you know the deal. But Partnership CEO James Hyman says Americans “trivialize” non-religious aspects of religion. We talk about it, but we don’t take it seriously.
The argument of Jewish leaders like Hyman is that non-religious aspects of religion are important and deep. Things like Jewish drumming or Jewish genetics can help people form strong connections to one another and offer important avenues into Jewish values.
A program like this reflects the Jewish community’s knowledge that many American Jews are slipping from its organized aspects. Jews are likely to hold tightly to their identity as members of the Jewish community, but when compared with almost every other faith group, they rank near the bottom on most measures of religiousness: belief in God, importance of religion in one’s life, attendance of religious services, frequency of prayer.
But there is a new generation of Jewish leaders such as Hyman who are working to embrace the people they call “free-range Jews.” Such people, they say, don’t want to join anything or commit to specific beliefs, but they very much want to be Jewish and explore what that means.
“We have a very broad definition of what it means to be Jewish,” Hyman said.
I’m looking forward to meeting some of these free-range Jews on Sunday and will report back!