Opening Wide the Tzohar – October 4, 2013 Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz – There were moments this summer when many of us felt that the rains were of biblical proportions.  Certainly the massive storms that have pummeled the east coast and the tsunamis that hit the Far East, made us think twice about building an Ark.

As a matter of fact, this week NPR broadcast the story of several Arks that have been built or are in construction now…not for life-saving purposes, of course, but to serve as public attractions and educational sites.

Since this is the Shabbat of Par’shat Noach, it is altogether fitting that we contemplate the Ark, and certainly we will speak more of it in Torah Study tomorrow, but this evening, I’d like to have us think of ourselves as in our own Ark.

In the instructions of the building of the biblical Ark, Noach is told to build a “tzohar.”  Tzohar is commonly translated as roof, but it’s more likely to have been a window, perhaps a skylight-type….but one that was to be kept slightly open.  What is the purpose of this tzohar, or any window for that matter?  It is a device to allow us to see outside our own Ark.

This week, with the New York Times publication of a survey taken last February by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project report, we opened our Tzohar and got an opportunity to take a good stiff look at the Jewish world out there, to see who is and who is not in our Ark…and to see those who have absolutely no intention or desire to come on board.

As an entry-way to the findings of the survey, allow me to share two stories with you:  There is the one about the Rabbi who only knew how to give  one sermon, and that was about Noah’s Ark.  He used any excuse to give his sermon.  On Rosh HaShanah, he came to the Bimah, promptly nudged the glass of water that was on the stand, and as it spilled over the podium he said “Speaking of water….let me tell you about Noah’s Ark.”

And, of course, there’s the one about the man who had been an atheist for as long as he could remember.  As he got older, as sometimes happens, he not only came to accept the existence of G-d, but decided to become more devout as well.  At the age of 75, determined to return to the faith of his ancestors, he joined the shul.  Shortly after Simchat Torah, he heard that the following week the rabbi was going to be delivering a sermon about the great and terrible biblical flood that destroyed almost all life in the world, except for Noah, his family and the occupants of his Ark.  Well, knowing that he was going to be out of town for that service, he approached the rabbi and offered his apologies.  “But don’t worry, Rabbi,” said the elderly man as he dipped into his pocket, “put me down for $18 to aid the flood victims.”

Why did I drop a little levity into this sermon?  Well, besides the fact that I like a joke, good or bad, as much as the next person, the Pew Report said that 42% of the American Jews surveyed said that having a good sense of humor is part and parcel, or, more correctly, essential to their Jewish identity.

The rest of the results of the survey, however, aren’t so funny.  Several of you e-mailed me your concern about the survey; some are so alarmed that they refer to the statistics as a “modern day flood of epic proportions for the American Jewish community,” and that is why I’m speaking of it this evening.

So let’s lift open the tzohar a bit wider and review some of the statistics:

In 1970, the inter-marriage rate was 17%, now it is 58%; if we exclude the Orthodox, that rate is actually 71%.  That statistic on its own is not conclusive, as it doesn’t reflect how many of those blended families are raising their children Jewishly and how many are observant as a family.   So, I make no value judgment from that.

The additional statistics are a bit more concerning, however:

Two-thirds of Jews are not affiliated with a synagogue; one-fourth consider themselves atheists; two-thirds say it’s not necessary to believe in G-d to be Jewish; one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year; and a little more than one-third of those born after 1980 say they are Jews but have no religion but identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.  I don’t recall if there was a category for those who consider themselves gastronomic Jews, but, considering oneself Jewish by choice of bagels and lox or Jewish by virtue of having a sense of humor, is not really funny, in my book.

Of the “Jews of no religion” who have children at home, two-thirds are not raising their children Jewish in any way. This is in contrast to the “Jews with religion,” of whom 93 percent said they are raising their children to have a Jewish identity.

70% participate in a Passover Seder and 53% fast on Yom Kippur; and that may not be so surprising, but can you guess how many respondents said that they are strongly attached to Israel? Jews who considered themselves Jews by religion responded that only 69% of them were either strongly or even somewhat attached to Israel.  Jews by religion!   And, if that didn’t surprise you, how about 34% of the overall respondents who said that you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

Frankly, though, that was the only surprising statistic for me from the entire report.  We’ve been aware of the trends for some time.  We’re also aware that there is a great sense of pride in being Jewish and a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  And that was borne out by the Pew Report, in that 94% of American Jews (including 83% of no religion) felt they were proud to be Jewish!

And what does “to be Jewish” mean?  Some 73% felt that being Jewish means to remember the Holocaust.  69% felt that being Jewish means to lead an ethical life.  56% felt being Jewish means working for justice and equality.  43% said that it means that caring about Israel is the essence of being a Jew; and just 19% of those surveyed, interestingly, said that observing halacha (Jewish law) was essential to what being Jewish means to them.

While there are many more numbers and statistics, let’s try to understand what the report is telling us.   The trend, it appears, is to an increasingly large number of Jews having notions of Jewish identity that are based on the kinds of values that are unlikely to promote future generations of Jewish life in America.  One need not be Jewish to lead a moral or ethical life, to work for justice and equality, or to remember the Holocaust.  All of these are good qualities of a decent human being, but necessarily nor exclusively a Jew.  And certainly living a bagels-and-lox, social events, social justice projects life doesn’t add up to authentic Judaism.  As, my guess is that none of us were involved in the Pew survey, I invite you to think about what being Jewish means to you…and, if you so desire, let me know….

And what about those who checked of “none of the aboves”….or the “nones,” as we call them?  Religious observances?  Nope!  Belonging to a synagogue?  Not that either.

While the statistics are really not new, it is as if the water has been rising and the Ark is drifting.  The preponderant Judaism of America certainly seems to be less a religion and more a culture….and one that is more and more peculiarly American at that, complete with our nostalgic “Fiddler on the Roof”, delicatessens, museums, and Judaica.  But where are the Jews?  The statistics show more and more to be less and less Jewish. And, just as a flower is doomed once it is severed from its roots, how long can we expect Judaism to last if it is severed from its roots in the Jewish religion?

We’ve opened the window and we see a world view that is challenging and puzzling.  What are we going to do with this view from the Tzohar on our Ark?

You can be sure that Rabbis and lay leaders are already wrestling with the findings.  We actually have been for some time.  Sid Schwartz’s book Megatrends and Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism are among several that have been addressing the trends.  And I, as some of you know, continue to address the concerns, Yiddle by Yiddle, trying to meet the needs of our little microcosm of Judaism, personally, one by one.

I do not believe it is realistic to think that authentic Judaism must remain static.  Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan did not believe that Judaism is only a religion, but more a civilization.  History, culture, religion, philosophy…we have it all; but how much of it are we accessing?

We do not live in our parents’ world, so our Judaism will be ours…but it need not be watered down, it can, in fact, be deepened.  It is up to us to see to it that we educate ourselves, engage ourselves, and enrich ourselves.  We are uniquely free to choose how our Judaism will be for our lives and the lives of the generation to come.  And now that we all see what the outside world looks like, now that we are armed with statistics, it is up to us to decide how, with G-d’s help, we work together to build the kind of American Jewish community that will help it withstand the storms and assure us of a future .   The Tzohar, the window, is not closed, nor need it be closing.  But the Ark has set sail…..pass the Dramamine, please.
Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

October 4, 2013