Opinion | Jewish Education for Ambivalent People

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By Arielle Levites

The fastest growing religious group among American adults today is “Religious Nones.” Yet, at the same time that Americans increasingly describe themselves as having “no religion,” they also increasingly describe themselves as “spiritual.”

How can we make sense of this apparent paradox? What might it mean for American Jews, the American Jewish community and the field of Jewish education to engage with Jews who do not describe themselves as religious, yet seek sacred meaning and connection?

To start, it’s important to understand that people of “no religion” are not without religious beliefs, feelings or interests. They are people who do not affiliate with a particular religion, church or denomination. Having “no religion” is primarily a claim about formal membership. Thus, “Religious Nones” may still have religious beliefs or engage in religious activities like prayer. Interestingly, among American Jews of no religion, the 2013 Pew study found that almost half (46%) believe in God or a higher power.

Further, while research in American religion often classifies people into distinct boxes of “religious” and “secular,” sometimes human beings are more complicated than these dichotomous categories allow. Increasingly scholars are marking the ways in which individuals may be ambivalent, ambiguous and changeable.

In a recent study, sociologist Michael Hout found that many Americans are what he calls religious “liminals,” that is, moving between the categories of religious and not religious. As far back as 1994, the sociologist of religion José Cassanova argued “that the majority of Americans tend to be humanists, who are simultaneously religious and secular.”

We are not always consistent in our approach to the world. Different events and challenges require different strategies for action. As an example, consider receiving a difficult medical diagnosis. One might choose to seek a second opinion from a top medical specialist, experiment with a New Age wellness practice or pray to God. It’s certainly not hard to imagine all three of these activities within the repertoire of response of one person.

In my own studies of American Jewish education, which has been primarily of educational programs that foreground spirituality and alternative communities of meaning outside of synagogue and other traditional Jewish institutions, I have come to appreciate how people seek different forms of connection and expression at different points in their lives, often while still wanting to maintain an overarching self-concept of being “Jewish.”

Among the many and varied orientations, one may foreground religious ritual, spiritual practices, intellectual understandings, cultural production, politics or ethnic ties. Some may emphasize just one element or a combination of a few, and we may see different expressions ebb and flow over the lifespan.

In particular, in a recently completed study of American Jewish teens, I was struck by how teens wanted to explain that they can be both secular and religious, and sometimes have spiritual experiences and feelings. What is true for teens may be true for older generations as well. American Jews can be secular and religious and spiritual, sometimes all in the same day.

The primary lens through which they want to orient to the world often depends on life stage, social networks, relationships, institutional settings and transient circumstances. People are complex and flexible, and different needs and concerns may come to the fore in the different contexts in which they find themselves.

Fortunately, the corpus of the Jewish imagination is vast and diverse. There is virtually no feature of human experience or orientation to the natural and supernatural universe, that Jews, past and present, have not tried to make sense of and connect to.

As a result, one challenge for Jewish educators today is to ensure that our learners gain some sense of the scope of the universe of Jewish ideas and communities of practice that are available as sources of meaning and connection. Educators will have their own preferred ideologies and practices that they (rightfully) want to emphasize and promote. At the same time, educators must hold in the front of their minds that at various junctures in life people may seek new on-ramps to Jewish living and diverging paths of exploration. But these will be difficult to find if they don’t know they exist.

There is a famous Chasidic story, attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, in which we learn of a “master key” that opens every chamber in the Divine Palace. I recently read a poem on the subway that brought that story to mind. In “Notes on Longing,” the poet Tina Chang writes, “On the corner, there is a shop / that makes keys, keys that open / human doors, doors that lead / to rooms that hold families.”

I love this image of the shop that is occupied all day with making keys and how these keys lead ultimately to people and human connection. There can be so many barriers to participation in Jewish life. While we always yearn for the possibility of one key, a silver bullet, no one perfect method that unlocks the heart of every learner has yet been identified in Jewish education.

Perhaps, as we await the discovery of the master key, we can provide learners with not just one key to open one familiar door, but multiple keys that open multiple doors.

Those who work with children and teens — even as they promote their own preferred ideologies and practice, facilitating entry to one particular door — may want to consider whether the curriculum they offer gestures toward alternative visions of Jewishness and multiple entry points.

Given that American Jews may be ambivalent, ambiguous and changeable in terms of how they connect to being Jewish, let’s consider how Jewish education, rather than trying to find just one key, can be like that little key shop on the corner, making many keys, that open many doors, leading to many connections and possibilities.

Arielle Levites is the Golda Och Postdoctoral Fellow at Jewish Theological Seminary. She is working on a book about contemporary American Jewish spirituality. This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the JTS.

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