Why I Am a Jewish None (or a None-ish Jew) and Why You Should Care
I’d like to share a recent self- revelation: deep down inside, my soul is the soul of a None. No, I didn't spell that wrong. I’m not referring to a Catholic nun of course! Let me explain. A "None" is the name given to a “member” of the fastest growing religious group in our country - a seemingly new religious denomination named by the Pew Forum and other religion demographers as those who will not identify with any singular religious grouping, category or denomination. The Nones have grown from 15% to 20% of the US population in the last 5 years alone, and they’re projected to increase even more over the next decade.
It seems like a pretty sad indicator for the face of organized religion at first. But don't get too distressed. Here's something interesting: Although atheists and agnostics are included in the "Nones" category, their specific populations have remained a steady, flat 6% for a quite a while now. So who are the other now 14% of our population of those not identifying in one singular religious category but yet not atheist or agnostic, and why on earth would I consider myself to be like them?
Well, 37% of them say they are spiritual. Check. 68 % of these Nones say they believe in God. Check. 58 % say they have a deep connection with nature and earth. Check. 1 in 5 say they pray daily. Check.[i] The Nones are searchers, seekers, boundary pressers and question askers, souls unwilling and uninterested in tightly reinforced definitions and denominations. They may very well have deep spiritual encounters in a prayer service, but they will also have them in their yoga class, or walking in the Botanic Gardens. Or listening to stirring music or reading a powerful book. Check, Check. They view themselves as open vessels for the meaningful and the sacred in all experiences. Check. In many ways, they sound like they'd make great Jews!
What are the true defining characteristics of Jews anyway? Outside of not believing in more than one God, what other consistent indicator or unifier is there - in origin, in practice, in ethnicity, in language, in sexuality or in family structure? Jew by birth, Jew by choice, Jew by matrilineal or patrilineal descent? Jew by synagogue membership or not? Jew by how many days a year or lifetime they attend services? None of these offer a real limitation on what being Jewish means, only what Judaism can mean to a given individual in a given situation.
After all, who among us fits perfectly in the category of any label? We are by nature complex, amalgams of identities, experiences, histories, practices and beliefs that don't generally fit a cookie cutter definition or picture. And that, if you asked me, is a pretty wonderful thing – these combinations keep us interesting, diverse, learning and evolving! If being a None equates to a rejection of black and white, absolutist religion then the real question should be, who among us isn’t a None?
So what at first seems like a pretty ominous report of eventual religious demise instead turns out, I would suggest, to indicate an evolution in the openness of what faith based and religious communities, including Jewish ones, will someday become, if they aren't already on their way.
Here's the snag: Many Jewish organizations and Jewish population study publishers have a problem with what I just said. They want to perpetuate the emotional response from what seems to have become Judaism's historical meta-narrative: Someone, somewhere is trying to put an end to Judaism by steering us away from our long-held, steady and implied "proper" roots and traditions. Maybe it is an external demise that's predicted, maybe it’s an internal one, as the latest Chicago and New York Jewish population studies seems to suggest about all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism. We've gone astray from our tradition - strangers to our faith and the so-called "right" way to practice it. Failures of perpetuating what our ancestors throughout the ages fought and died for. And the truth is, these erosion narratives have long worked as catalysts for community solidarity and fundraising. It is one of the main myths at play when non-Orthodox Jews make financial contributions to organizations like Chabad instead of their own non-Orthodox synagogues or organizations with which they are affiliated – almost as an apologetic and acknowledgement in a sense of their self-perception as somehow a lesser or failed Jew.
But if the only justification for practicing Judaism, for identifying as “Jewish” is to react against this so-called erosion, then how can it ever be possible to really flourish? Survival mode never yields much other than stasis at best, and at worst, ironically, it causes the very same erosion it was created to fight against. I think that is what we are seeing now in the non-Orthodox world, and maybe even the Orthodox world too. The reality of most Jewish institutions for the last 6-7 decades has been one of survivalist mentality. It’s as if we, at some point, forgot that at its heart, Judaism has always, always been about a relationship between the evolving mundane and ineffable qualities of life, with Jewish traditions and laws not designed for stagnation, to serve solely as anchors of vessels never intended to take to sea, but more as wide, billowing sails, enabling us to traverse and discover more of the endlessly revealing cosmos of which we are an integral, covenantal, evolving part. Solely surviving inhibits and prohibits thriving.
One key reason the Nones are important is because they are not interested in just surviving, erosion, in anchored vessels that can’t sail; they are wholly invested in yearning, in seeking, in thriving. They seek deep rooted answers to the significant questions of existence and meaning in the universe. Their yearnings, I believe, are not unique, but are actually shared by every human being. It’s just that not everyone is comfortable or willing to articulate them in a so-called religious or Jewish context because we, as Jewish institutions, have failed to foster an environment where such questions are the norm. But these questions are ultimately what we find at the heart of life.
Our desires to know and deepen our understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, what we are here to do, ultimately our search for Truth – with a capital T – the asking of and searching for answers to these questions, I’d say prove the very purpose for which God created us in the first place. And that search is necessarily about wrestling and digging. The goal is not reaching “a single, eternal realization,” as Rabbi Irwin Kula teaches, but instead “living out the process of realizing again and again.” (From the teachings and language of Rabbi Irwin Kula in Yearnings, p.4)
Our Jewish teachings are at once plentiful and varied, ripe and evolving, rooted and ethereal. Ours is a wisdom tradition intended to be lived, wrestled with, imagined, “deconstructed, and re-imagined.” (Also from Yearnings) We must not be afraid to do just this – to activate and enliven our own yearnings and souls’ quests in this light. Not to do so surely resigns us to a life of malaise and stagnation. And that’s not just a modern psychological statement. Jewish mystics have been talking about it for centuries, originating in Jewish folklore about the Golem of all places, with poignant teachings about the Hebrew word for Truth: Emet. Rabbi Kula puts an interesting twist on it. He teaches: If you remove the first letter from Emet, you are left with a different word: “met” – which in Hebrew means death. As such, the mystics taught that if you only have one side of the story which you believe is absolute truth – with a capital T, you've essentially begun your own demise. Truth, they inherently understood from a most profound level, has always been more complicated, nuanced, evolving than that. When viewed all together, Emet – aleph, mem, tav - is comprised of the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet – as if to suggest that the very composition of the word Truth itself urges us to seek a wider, more inclusive, deeply resonating, and all-encompassing truth. (For more on that, see the last footnote here.)
Indeed, this call to seek a wider, more inclusive, deeply resonating and all-encompassing Judaism, I believe, is the call to all of us at this precise moment in our evolution as a faith.
So I’m a Jewish None, and maybe you are too. And maybe we’re all better for that.
Rabbi Wendi Geffen serves North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL.
Originally posted at Pri HaGeffen