Does Judaism have a future?

The Jewish community today finds itself in a dire state. With only 10% of the Jewish Community attending any sort of services on a regular basis, many scholars are asking if Judaism (at least in its American context) has failed, and whether or not Judaism even has a future.

A recent article in The Forward discusses the specific future of Conservative Judaism.

At one time, Conservative Judaism boasted being the largest denomination in America. During the post-war era, nearly 40% of all Jews identified as being Conservative. Decades later, the movement has found itself with dwindling membership, a change in its senior leadership, and increasing division within its ranks – as part of the movement steers toward a more traditional approach, while others drift toward a more Reform, or less traditional approach to Jewish life.

Some of Conservative Judaism’s greatest leaders and thinkers have been discussing this growing problem for several years. And the problem is not just within Conservative Judaism. Reform Judaism may now boast the title of the largest Jewish denomination, but they, along with all other denominations are finding less people in their pews. Especially the critical ‘babies and bellies’ we have harped on before.

The recent Forward article reports a call by three prominent Conservative rabbis for their movement to rethink its purpose and mission.

One of the panelists, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York hit the nail on the head! He argued that the separate denominations of American Judaism are losing their relevance among younger Jews. “Denominations are changing,” Cosgrove said. “Lines aren’t black and white. These lines are very slippery.”

In the early years of Conservative Judaism a century ago, according to Cosgrove, “Americans were seeking to make sense of their lives as immigrants.” Now, “This story is over. We’ve arrived. We’re here.” The question Jews ask today, he said, is not “how to arrive in a secular culture, but how to cross back over to tradition.”

According to Rabbi Wayne Dosick, in his book Dancing with G-d:

Despite all of Judaism’s outward manifestations of success in America, the vast majority of Jews are ‘voting with their feet’ … The contemporary Judaism we have created does not speak sufficiently to searching Jewish hearts and does not sufficiently nourish hungering Jewish souls; it has become, for far too many, stale, hollow, and irrelevant.

If Judaism is to survive into the future it will need to reinvent itself. Guided by the past, it must find a way to provide a spiritually meaningful path for the next generation. It will need to overcome the modern obstacles of intermarriage, over-institutionalization, and find a way to include numbers of non-Jews (especially those intermarried into the Jewish community). Messianic Judaism is not the only movement wrestling with these issues.

We must learn from one another, and those communities that are enjoying success with the next generation.  The Judaism of the future will not necessarily reflect the Judaism of today, but if we do not begin striving for it now there may not be a Judaism for tomorrow.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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8 Responses to Does Judaism have a future?

  1. alaina says:

    Great post! It is definitely the time to look at the trends and to take the statistics reinvent ourselves so that Judaism can survive in the future.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Alaina-Thanks for your comment!

  3. Gene Shlomovich says:

    It's very difficult to live as a Jew in isolation from other Jews in our DAY TO DAY lives (and not just on Shabbats or holidays). I believe that this is the primary reason for the breakdown of non-Orthodox Jewish community life in the U.S. today. Unlike our great-grandparents or grandparents, and practically all of our ancestors before them, we no longer live in Jewish majority neighborhoods. Our children no longer have Jewish playmates and classmates to grow up with (as was common in Jewish neighborhood). I think that any solution need not involve any reinvention of Judaism (Messianic or not) as a religion (since our ancestors didn't have a problem remaining committed Jews with the Judaism that they had – and that is why we are still around today), but rather it must specifically address the issue of the Jewish community and our everyday Jewish communal life and interaction between Jews.

  4. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-I agree with you on the communal aspect. Judaism only exists in a community. And this is indeed key to the future of Jewish life.However, I am not swayed by your "just give me that old time religion" assumption. Religion (like all aspects of society) changes over time. The Judaism of today is NOT the Judaism of our grandparents. Just as the Judaism of our grandparents in not the Judaism of the Middle Ages, etc.Judaism as it evolves is always GUIDED BY THE PAST, WHILE WRESTLING WITH THE PRESANT. If we lose sight of the fact that Judaism and Halachah are meant to be wrestled with in every age, than it ceases to be relevant.

  5. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "However, I am not swayed by your "just give me that old time religion" assumption. "Joshua…My WHOLE point was is that our current problem is NOT about religion, the halackha, the ritual, or scholars wrestling with some deep theological issues. Merely putzing around with those elements won't solve a thing. It will not solve our intermarriage problems (liberal Judaism already offers easy conversions – with few takers), or other forms of disfranchisement. It should instead be more about us being a nation, a family of Israel – being loyal to our own people. And to accomplish this particular goal, modeling some exciting and entertaining mega-church growth methods to make Judaism more attractive is a totally wrong approach, IMHO.

  6. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-Who said anything about watering anything down? That is always your assumption to anything you disagree with. I still hold to the position that if Judaism as it currently stands is so wonderful and perfect, than why are there so many disenfranchised Jews? I'm not sure if you've noticed, but most synagogues are hardly bustling with energy, life, and spirituality. Again, you can take "old time religion." I will not settle for anything less than vibrant synagogues full of Jews.

  7. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Joshua…OK, now that we discussed the problems, let's hear some practical solutions to energize our synagogues and draw Jews back into the fold.

  8. judeoxian says:

    This crisis is striking similar to the breakdown in mainline/liberal Christian denominations. Reform, and to some extent, Conservative, Judaism in America were essentially founded upon the same enlightenment, modernist worldview as mainline Protestantism. As modernism goes, go dies those religious institutions. Phyllis Tickle discusses these issues (both in Christianity and briefly concerning American Judaism) in her book "The Great Emergence." Just as Christianity has an "emerging" movement from within, that Tickle believes will benefit both the new movement, and the churches from which it comes, so too does Judaism need to grapple with the "Great Emergence" taking place in society today. We stand on the brink of a large cultural revolution. May God give us the wisdom needed to encounter these changes.

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