Last night I participated in a program for a local Reform temple’s youth group called “Sumo Wrestling with God.” I will alway have a fondness for this congregation because I grew up there. I was, nonetheless, a little flabbergasted that they invited me to sit on the panel. I was also greatly impressed.
In the tradition of all gargantuan suburban Reform temples worthy of the name, this one boasts four or five rabbis. Three of them were there.
Let me just say that all three of these rabbis are delightful people. They are smart and, from what I could see, they’re good teachers who care deeply about all things Jewish. I’m not just saying this because they are part of my community. I’m not THAT nice.
We met very briefly before the program and after niceties and chit-chat we started in on the Big Guy. There was some talk of Kaplan, Buber, psychology, etc. I made a comment about the program notes’ use of “G-d.” By and large, I detected a dearth of theistic conviction on their parts; certainly nothing that would lead to raised tones, much less a Sumo match.
Based on this and their subsequent presentations, I can report that the state of serious theistic commitment in the Reform movement is right where I would have pegged it: low to non-existent. Are they believers? I suppose they are, though the depth of their belief left almost no impression on me.
A couple of them described a strong feeling of being guided by the “voice” of God from within; they shared it as one would with a friend, not as a rabbi making an argument for God’s empirical existence. Another, who described herself as a very rational person with a scientific background, seemed about a hair’s breadth away from secular humanism. I joked with her that I’d check on her progress in ten years.
When I introduced myself as an atheist, no one fainted. I kept my tone light, focusing on the content of Secular Humanistic Judaism. Out of respect for the format of the program I didn’t challenge my colleagues. I’d love to be on a panel like that where we could really lay it all out on the table, but this was not that discussion.
Shortly after, I met with the the older teens. More than half self-identified as non-theistic. One young woman said she believed in God, but when she went deeper into it, some of the others (impressively!) said, “No, you’re a deist.” On issues of personal autonomy, none expressed the slightest disagreement; none felt that there was a text or entity with an authority claim on them.
Afterward I was asked by a couple of the adults and some of the kids for my website address. I hope they will check it out. It’s difficult to draw a lot of conclusions from such a brief program, but since it was a rare opportunity, I’ll give it a shot.
First of all, the invitation alone was a strong statement about where young Jews are heading. Recently I was the subject of a heated debate among some not-so-teenagey Jews about whether I should be invited to speak at their Reconstructionist synagogue. Friends report that my position received a very fair hearing (you would indeed expect that the heirs to Mordecai Kaplan could handle a little radical theology).
Secondly, I was overcome with nostalgia and a strong sense of what could have been. The latter relates to my view that Reform Judaism made the wrong move when it rejected a Secular Humanistic congregation for membership. I don’t think we would have overrun the movement, but we sure as hell would have kept it honest. We would also have gained a foothold in a highly developed institution to develop a non-theistic wing of Reform Judaism (such as is found among Unitarian-Universalists). As the saying goes, “Coulda, shoulda, woulda….” It wasn’t in the proverbial cards and it was a heck of a lot more possible back then.
Finally, it reminded me again of the opportunities awaiting the Jewish community for a real Post-Theistic Religion©. For liberal Jewish young people, the stigma of non-theism is gone and it is not inconceivable that they will seek outlets for Jewish identity that don’t conflict with their world views. To put it crassly, the Society for Humanistic Judaism needs to heavily exploit this. It’s time to give the next generation the non-theistic alternative that it deserves.