The recent New York Times article, America Is Losing Religious Faith (Nicholas Kristoff, August 23, 2023), paints a distressing picture of America’s current religious landscape. Despite a widespread view that America is far more religious as a country than anywhere else in the Western world, recent research shows that “Americans are becoming significantly less religious… they are drifting away from churches, they are praying less, and they are less likely to say religion is very important in their lives.”
As a religious leader deeply rooted in Jewish traditions, I find this decline in religious affiliation and faith deeply worrying. It is a gut-wrenching shift that should concern all of us, not only those of faith – for the core values of the modern world remain deeply rooted in religious scripture, and wholesale detachment from the foundation of morality and justice is not something we can afford to ignore.
The heart of religion is not merely about regular attendance at places of worship but, more fundamentally, about grounding our lives in a transcendental reality that offers meaning, purpose, and an ethical compass. Which makes the growing disillusionment with faith and religion all the more worrying. Although, the blame cannot be placed only at the doors of secular leadership. The fact that faith is in decline means that religious leaders and faith communities must introspect deeply, and ask tough questions.
If faith institutions have become alienating for many, to what extent have we, the religious leadership, played a role in this? Perhaps the blatant misuse of religious platforms for political agenda-setting, as seen in the actions of figures like Rev. Falwell, who “dismissed AIDS as God’s lethal judgment on promiscuity,” and Rev. Robertson, who “suggested that the Sept. 11 terror attacks were God’s punishment for the behavior of feminists, gay people and secularists,” serves as a stark reminder that religious authenticity can be overshadowed by political ambitions and alienating agendas.
Such deviations from core religious teachings of love, compassion, and humility not only tarnish the image of religious institutions but more grievously, they push seekers away. In the Jewish tradition, there is a concept called “Teshuva,” often translated as “repentance,” but which more accurately means to “return.” It calls on individuals, and by extension communities, to self-reflect, acknowledge mistakes, and make genuine efforts to return to God, and to find their faith again. For synagogues and churches and mosques, and indeed all religious institutions, this may be a moment of Teshuva. It’s time to revisit the core teachings, to re-embrace the essence of our faiths, and to re-establish trust with the disillusioned.
Both of my grandfathers endured the unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Nazis before and during the Second World War. Both of them lost their parents and many family members at the merciless hands of the genocidal Nazi death machine, and faced unthinkable adversity – and yet, their faith remained unwavering. I grew up on their stories of miraculous survival in the face of certain death, and superhuman strength in the face of insurmountable adversity.
But their stories weren’t just about physical endurance, they were also about spiritual resilience. Amidst the darkest moments in human history, their firm belief in a higher power and in the value of their Jewish heritage never waned. They chose to pass down not just memories of hardship, but also powerful lessons of hope, faith, and perseverance. Their legacy is a testament to the power of belief, and it is this inherited conviction that resonates with me, especially in the face of the current “dechurching” trend.
The Shema prayer is the cornerstone prayer of Jewish faith. In it we state, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” These powerful words, uttered by the faithful twice each day, emphasize the foundational role faith plays in our lives, with the presence of God offering meaning, structure, and an ethical compass in a world that often seems at odds with the existence of a higher power.
The Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, is replete with stories of self-introspection and growth. One such narrative involving Rabbi Eliezer refusing to concede a point of Jewish law to his colleagues, who ultimately prevail, reminds us of the dangers of over-confidence among the faithful, and underscores the significance of community over individualism. In an era where minority beliefs sometimes overshadow communal cohesion, the ancient tales of the Talmud could hold the key to many of our modern dilemmas.
So, what can religious leaders and faith communities learn from such ancient wisdom to address the modern drift?
Firstly, we must embrace the essence. The Torah highlights the value of love, compassion, justice, and humility, as opposed to arrogance, power, and the need to always be right. By reverting to these core teachings and rejecting the human weakness for “might is right,” religious institutions can once again become magnets for souls yearning for spiritual solace.
Secondly, we must engage in dialogue. The Talmud is a series of dialogues between rabbis who disagreed with each other, but who were steeped in mutual respect. In our age, interfaith and intra-faith dialogues can dismantle misconceptions and foster unity. We have far more in common than keeps us apart. Let’s find those commonalities and cherish them to the utmost.
Thirdly, we must acknowledge and rectify. The Jewish tradition teaches us to acknowledge our shortcomings and to make amends. This is the time for religious institutions to openly discuss past errors and pave the way for healing. Let everyone who wants to explore faith feel welcome in our faith homes. Let our home become their home too.
Finally, we must engage the youth. The passing of Jewish leadership from Moses to Joshua at the end of the Torah secured the Jewish faith’s continuity. We must hand over our faith to the next generation, so that they can become the faith leaders of the future. Our youth, with their concerns and aspirations, need dedicated platforms to express and explore their spiritual journeys – and we must encourage them in any way we can.
During the upcoming High Holidays, Jews worldwide will recite the “Vidui,” a prayer of confession and regret. Through it, we collectively recognize our individual actions’ collective impacts on the community’s spiritual integrity. Given the “dechurching” trend, this might be an opportune moment for religious communities across America to partake in a collective “Vidui,” acknowledging where we’ve fallen short and charting a renewed path of spiritual awakening.
I’m inspired by my grandfathers’ unyielding faith to believe that while the flame of faith may momentarily flicker, with dedication, understanding, and genuine outreach, it can burn brightly once again. The resilience they exhibited in the face of unparalleled adversity is a testament to the human spirit and to the enduring power of faith. It’s up to us to ensure that this flame continues to illuminate the way for future generations.